What’s it like for you to receive in your prayer?
This has become one of my favorite questions. It invites curiosity about our vulnerability versus our guardedness in the invitation to intimacy. It is possible to pray dutifully and pray often, and yet not really open up and receive!
My approach to prayer changed significantly six years ago as Mother Mary accompanied me on my unexpected journey of healing and recovery. I had, thankfully, already been consistent in “showing up” for prayer. I dutifully prayed the Divine Office; I went on retreat annually; I spent 30 minutes daily in meditative prayer. God managed to penetrate my armor at times – particularly on retreats. But overall, I was approaching prayer as a “should.” I was doing it because it’s what good Christians and good priests are supposed do. And because I would be worse if I didn’t. Notice the shame lurking and whispering in the shadows!
As I began receiving care in my heartache, the spiritual ground beneath me began shifting, beginning with some smaller tremors. I would realize that I was feeling a big reaction to something and would allow myself time to phone a friend or to pause and pray. I remember weeping once in my office moments before Sunday Mass. No time to make a phone call; just thirty seconds to turn to the Lord and weep. What would people think, I wondered, if they realized how I really felt just now? Little did I realize how normal it would become for me to have tears come and go. I had much grieving to do, and much promised comfort to receive from the Lord (cf. Mt 5:4).
Those initial rumblings were followed by a full earthquake, which forever changed the landscape of my prayer life. I will never forget my experience that August, on the vigil of the Assumption. My devotion to Mary had become more important than ever on my new journey. I began to realize how much I ached for nurture, for noticing, for understanding, and for and for strong and safe protecting. I had been growing in self-awareness and in the habit of reaching out (rather than isolating) when I felt bigger reactions in myself. Well, that day I really got triggered! An unexpected encounter stirred up an old and familiar sense of being totally alone and unprotected. I was with others at the moment, and held it together on the outside while feeling terrified and upset on the inside. I had learned from a young age to hide my feelings and to appear strong and calm on the outside. But this time I said to myself, “As soon as I get home, I’m taking this to prayer!”
That night, I entered the dim church and drew near to the statue of Our Lady. I followed the instincts of my body and went into the fetal position on the pew. I sobbed; I shook; I panted for air. I felt Mary’s tender comfort and safe protection. I received for about five minutes, feeling a gentle peace amidst the turmoil.
I grabbed the pew in front of me and began to kneel. “I should get to my prayer,” I dutifully thought. But then I felt the gentle words of Mother Mary inviting me: “This IS prayer.” And I erupted into more sobs and tears! Accepting the invitation of my heavenly mother, I allowed myself to continue receiving divine comfort and care under the protection of her mantle.
That became the first of many moments of allowing my body to feel what it is feeling and then choosing to open up and receive – particularly where I feel the most intense need. Mary, as a fierce and tender mother, provided the spiritual and emotional space to do so and feel safe (or safe enough). Heeding the words of Saint Paul that my body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, I often welcomed the anointing of the Holy Spirit as a healing balm. Having exposed wounds anointed is intensely painful and incredibly soothing. With each successive anointing, they become more healed.
I appreciate the words of Debbie Laaser, in the book she co-authored with her husband Mark: Seven Desires. She prefers the word “anointings” to the word “triggers.” We all get triggered. That is to say, we all experience $100 reactions to $10 problems. Our body remembers. Old wounds get exposed, and our nervous system mobilizes with lightning speed to protect us against the threat. But when we are aware, we can let go of the reaction and instead open up and receive the anointing of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete.
This was especially important to me as I thawed out from my emotional numbness. I had learned to dissociate, to stay numb from what my body was actually feeling – a marvelous skill when I had no other recourse. But it also kept me from receiving and from experiencing intimacy in relationships! I resonate with Sister Miriam James Heidland, who uses the analogy of frostbite to describe her own journey of healing. Coming in from the cold is vital if we have frostbite. And feeling once again really, really hurts!
I wonder how many of us who have said “yes” to the call of celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom have attempted to live out our gift of celibacy in a numb or disembodied way? In other words, how often is our goal simply to “not do anything stupid”? How often do we attempt that goal by avoiding feeling our feelings and by staying largely disengaged from vulnerable relationships and from our five senses? The Catechism, meanwhile, teaches us that our sexuality mainly concerns affectivity, and that chastity requires becoming fully integrated as a human person (CCC nn. 2332, 2337). Otherwise, we will not be able to make a free and wholehearted gift of self.
I make this point with kindness. Most of us bypass our affectivity, and there are reasons why we do it! Each of us has far more heartache in our story that we want to admit. During the moments in which we are the most threatened, the most powerless, or the most abandoned, our logical brain goes offline. We retain fragmented images, feelings, and sensations. We learn to slam the lid shut on those storage bins in our brain, and instinctively keep our distance. We don’t want to be like Pandora, opening her box and unleashing the chaos that lies within. Nor should we do so, unless we have sufficient resources and support for the effort.
But few seem to remember the ending of the Pandora story, and the hope that she finds at the bottom of the box! As long as we stick with our spiritual bypassing of heartache, our capacity for authentic Hope is greatly diminished.
When I am living most authentically in my vocation, I become a prophet of Hope. Others feel inspired that they don’t have to keep bypassing the scary places in their heart. They begin to dream bigger and desire more deeply. Mary, the Mother of Good Hope, makes all this possible for me. She keeps reminding me that I can be receptive in prayer, imitating her. She never falters in Hope, always believing in God’s promises, even when it is not at all clear how anything will be okay. With that kind of Hope, it is then no longer necessary to bypass Calvary, nor the dead places in my heart. I can open up and receive. It may feel like death, but I can pass through death into the Resurrection.
What’s it like for you to receive in your prayer?
Are there any rooms in your inner abode that you keep off limits? Any boxes you avoid opening? What would you need to feel safe enough and willing enough to go there?