Douglas P. McManaman
April 29, 2020
Reproduced with Permission

I've said it many times: this life is about learning how to pray. This life is not about passing all your exams, it's not about getting a job, getting married, having kids, etc. This life is about learning how to pray. It is about learning to depend upon God. Of course, life includes those things I just mentioned, i.e., passing your exams, getting married, especially if God is calling you to get married, etc. But all these things are temporary; they will pass. But eternal life is eternal, and this life here is not eternal life. This life is about preparing for eternity. And the first step to preparing for eternity is prayer. Communication with God.

If you do not have a prayer life, if you do not pray regularly, then you are missing out on too much that can be had from this life of ours. St. Augustine said it long ago, "Oh Lord, you created us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you". The human heart is restless. No matter what you believe will bring rest to your restless heart, you will learn as you go along in life that nothing succeeds in bringing about that rest. It may for a time, for a period of about a week or more, but very soon your heart begins to get restless again. Whatever you received and whatever you achieved simply doesn't do it, except in the short run. The human heart is looking for what will bring it rest, and St. Augustine makes it clear: the human heart was made for the vision of God. The human heart was created by God and for God. He created you for Himself. And you and I will be restless until we rest in the vision and possession of God.

This life is either a road to heaven, towards God, or it is a road away from God, to an eternal existence without Him. That's what hell is: an eternal and restless state of absence from God. This life is about returning to God. If you are on the road to heaven, you will begin to experience fragments of the joy of heaven here; and if you are on the road that leads away from God, you will begin to experience fragments of that despair, darkness, and emptiness that is hell, no matter how convenient and opulent your life is at the time. Life will be dark and ultimately insufficient for you.

But the way to get on the road to heaven is to begin to pray. And when you do, you begin to acquire a different consciousness, a deeper consciousness, that is, you become aware of a presence within you, in the deepest regions of your soul. That presence is God Himself. You begin to experience His attention to you; that is, you experience that you are known, and that you are loved. And that knowledge or awareness of His presence within you awakens in you a greater love for God. You begin to relate to God.

Religion is relationship. It isn't a body of doctrine; much less is it a set of rules you follow. Unfortunately, for many people, it is just that. Rather, genuine religion is relationship with the One Being Who alone matters, the One Being who is eternal, and who brought you into existence for Himself, to be united to Himself, as if you are the only one that exists. This life is about coming to a greater awareness of that. When you do, you experience something different. You experience joy.

Joy is not the same thing as enjoyment, nor is it the same as contentment. Joy is very different. Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, once said: "Never seek rest in pleasure, for you were not created for pleasure; you were created for joy; and if you do not know the difference between pleasure and joy, you have not yet begun to live". Most people do not know the difference between pleasure and joy; thus, most people have not begun to live. They just know enjoyment, but the enjoyment of pleasures is temporary. Joy is something very different. You have to experience it. It is deeper, like an ocean floor. There are so many things that can disturb our enjoyment, such as a cloudy and rainy day perhaps, loss of a job, a break-up, an illness. But joy is something that is deep within and which cannot be disturbed and dissipated by external circumstances, not even illness. You can be in a lot of pain, but still be in joy. Prayer will bring you into relationship with God, and the deeper that relationship, the deeper your joy.

Many people will ask: Why are you religious? Often, they expect you to provide reasoned arguments to explain your religious orientation. But to ask that question to someone who is genuinely prayerful is like asking: Why are you married to this person. You don't provide a rational account that calculates the expected value of your decision to marry, or a collection of evidence that corroborates a hypothesis about the person you married. You are in a loving relationship with a person you have chosen to love. That's it. Similarly, a prayerful person's religion is not a rational account that supports a hypothesis about the ultimate meaning of human life; rather, it is a relationship.

Religion is relationship. Those who don't develop that relationship eventually fall away. They drift from the Church, they stop praying, they don't receive the Eucharist, or they receive it twice a year. And that's when their relationship with their neighbor begins to suffer. The reason is that through prayer, we enter into the heart of God. Once there, we discover our neighbor, for all things came to be through the Word, who was with God, and who was God (Jn 1, 1ff). We begin to see our neighbor in a new light, that is, in God. Our neighbor cannot be properly understood outside of God, only within God. And because our neighbor matters to God, who alone matters, our neighbor begins to matter to us. Our ascent to God in prayer will, if it is authentic, return us to the earth to love and serve God in the love and service of our neighbor. Prayer spawns the love and desire for justice.

Sometimes the only thing that will bring back one who has drifted and fallen away, the only thing that will wake a person up to what this life is ultimately about, is a tragedy of some kind, a serious illness, or a death of someone close, that is, something that brings a person to an awareness that life is fragile and that independence is an illusion. Such circumstances help us acquire a deeper sense of our own dependence, and so we call out to God in the darkness. Then God responds; and we discover God in the depths of our soul. And then we regret that we wasted half our life chasing phantoms. Best to discover this while you are young. The way to this discovery is prayer. You just have to begin to pray, to speak to God in the very depths of your own soul. But you have to make your way to that deepest region, and that can take years. St. Theresa of Avila speaks of the interior castle of the soul in which there are rooms, and the deeper you go into the castle, you discover rooms that lead to other rooms, until you get to the final room, where you are alone with God Himself.