The author, a mother of eight, works as a psychotherapist and is doing research on the Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac. She has had a number of articles published on prayer and related subjects, and is a contributor to How I Pray, a selection of articles published by The Tablet. In this inspiring article, she goes to the heart of prayer – letting ourselves be loved as we gaze inward at God who dwells within us, God who is love itself, whose love is unconditional, a parent’s embrace, a companion who wants our good and who abides with us so we are never alone.
(This article was first published in Mount Carmel, vol. 65/4, Otober 2017. Posted on this wesbite by kind permission)
Being Loved: A Reflection on Prayer
by Tessa Sheaf
Why is it that prayer is at the heart of all major religions? Furthermore, what do we understand by the word ‘prayer’ in the Christian faith? When we pray as Christians, our prayer is in communion with that of Jesus who is constantly interceding with the Father on our behalf. Essentially, prayer is letting ourselves be loved by a God who is passionately in love with us. It is snuggling into God’s embrace and being drawn into the very depths of this totally unconditional, abiding love. Jesus is the revelation of this love, and it is this Jesus who invites us constantly to communion with him.
So, what is our part in prayer? A turning inward to the Lord who is already present in our hearts.
This may feel like a tentative look on our part into the gaze of Love itself. A possible image of this could be that of the unabashed daisy looking fearlessly at the sun that sustains its existence. A Scriptural example would be that of Peter furtively looking at the loving gaze of Jesus whom he had just denied, knowing and realising that nothing he had done or said had affected that unconditional love.
Does allowing ourselves to be loved unconditionally for who we are feel like a huge risk? Maybe. If so, is this the result of childhood experiences in which we might have believed there was a conditional element to being loved? Whatever those earlier formative experiences might have been that fuelled our fear of being loved, these can be the wounds we bring to prayer – like a child crying in a parent’s lap, battle-scarred and tearful. Fortunately the God we encounter in prayer is a gentle, patient Lover – not unlike an attentive parent healing an injured child who may then be sent back to the challenges of life, secure in the knowledge that it is not alone but is accompanied by a loving companion.
Is there any way we can dispose ourselves for prayer? Just as significant human relationships may be characterised by a desire for communion and dialogue with the loved one, so too in prayer desire plays a key part. Nevertheless, when we follow our deepest desire for God in prayer, we find to our amazement that God’s desire for us is infinitely greater than our unidentified yearnings. Our part is to surrender to the embrace, but this is not easy for it is a silent embrace. We may indeed have a powerful desire for God, only to discover that God’s supremely powerful desire for us leads to silence.
Prayer is deeply disconcerting. It may lead us away from our safe, familiar worlds into terrain we would rather not enter.
As Christians we know that love is costly. It leads to crucifixion and this is what can happen to us in prayer. Karl Rahner draws our attention to this when he writes: ‘Prayer can be like a slow interior bleeding, in which grief and sorrow make the heart’s-blood of the inner man trickle away silently into his own unfathomed depths.’ Prayer enlarges our capacity for life and love. A possible image of this from daily life could be that of a child growing up in a home where he or she felt loved and secure but later became aware of another love drawing him or her away from the safe, secure love of a limited family life into a place where the new love might have led to the establishing of a new family – whether natural, religious or lovingly serving a people one has come to see and love as one’s own. The movement from such an early family life into a wider community may indeed have its painful aspects but it is likely that one’s capacity for love and life may be expanded. This resonates with these words from Isaiah: ‘Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; hold not back, lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes’ (Is 54:2). Our prayer is united to that of Christ, and so it includes the whole of humanity, all loved and created by God and for whose love Christ thirsts.
Disturbing as prayer may be, it also inevitably becomes something we cannot live without. It is our life. We cannot renounce it, even if at times we might want to. In this way, it echoes for me the end of chapter 6 of John’s Gospel. Many of Jesus’ disciples had got exasperated by him. His teaching on the Eucharist appeared to them to be outrageous and they felt they had no alternative but to leave him. Jesus not only let them go but also asked the twelve: ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ (Jn 6:67). Who has not had a prayer time without an overwhelming desire to just walk away?
Which of us has never felt a sense of exasperation while trying to pray and been haunted by the question: ‘What is all this about? Surely I am wasting my time?’
Leaving a life of prayer can seem for us, like the nonplussed disciples, the more attractive alternative. And yet we can’t. Why not? Once again it is Simon Peter who provides the answer: ‘Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God’ (Jn 6:68-69). Somehow, as the daily fidelity to regular times of simply being with the Lord becomes truly indispensable – like breathing – we know we just have to stay with it, despite its arid periods. We come to realise we are held in a love that just will not let us go. Paradoxically, our freedom is enhanced by this regular discipline of time resting in the Lord’s presence.
Prayer is unnerving as it is a place of truth. Which of us really wants to face up to the truth of ourselves? What is this truth of ourselves? We are creatures, totally dependent at all times on our Creator. Not an easy reality to face. That is why we approach prayer as beggars – empty-handed, sore, hurting, confused, and one endless longing. Like all beggars, we know we are totally dependent on another. We just have to wait. Who said that waiting was easy? Yet it becomes our way of life – waiting on the Lord. When we stop to consider who it is we are waiting for in prayer, we can comfort ourselves with reflections of the Advent liturgy. Christ has come, is always coming, and will come again. We are not alone for he is with us, and while we wait for him we are also in some sense waiting with him – and, of course, with his blessed Mother. We are never alone.
 Karl Rahner, Encounters with Silence, New York: Newman Press, 1967, p. 22.