Why Pray? Socrates, Mind-Games & Taking Your Time (Part 1)

Hole by Anders Adermark via Flickr.

Hole by Anders Adermark via Flickr.

“I’d really like to pray, but… I’m just so busy that I don’t have the time.” I said these words, with utter sincerity, to the Jesuit priest with whom I was discussing joining the Society of Jesus. Well, it was partially sincere, since at the time I didn’t see how adding prayer to my already busy life could possibly improve it. “That’s ridiculous, Joe,” he replied, “it’s when you don’t have time to pray that you need prayer most.”

So flummoxed was I to hear these words that I wanted to get up from the conversation right then and walk away. It’s just an empty turn of phrase, I thought to myself.  Jesuit mind-games! Fast forward six and a half years.  I have been a Jesuit seminarian (a ‘scholastic’, or young Jesuit in training to become a priest, to let you in on the technical lingo) for over five years now, and I still feel like I’m a beginner at prayer.  I still ask myself, What does it take to pray well? Or even more simply, that most brutally honest of questions: Given all the pressing business in life, why pray?

***

A few weeks ago, I stumbled across a piece on the NY Times philosophy blog, The Stone.  Simon Critchley is a philosophy professor at the New School in New York, and his blog’s opening entry grabbed my attention: “What Is a Philosopher?” Critchley queries.  He responds by turning to Socrates, that old standby, who made the distinction between the lawyer and the philosopher.  The first, Socrates said, must present and defend his case in a set time and within set court procedures.  The lawyer’s work is timed by the water clock, the klepsydra, which ‘steals’ his time (think kleptomania in English). Not so for the philosopher.

The philosopher is not bound by time or the conventions of society.  While his or her body is bound within the state, the mind and soul of the philosopher delight in the unfettered pursuit of the Truth, Good, Beauty, etc.  Life is richer, because it is lived on one’s own terms. Philosophers can – to borrow a phrase – take their sweet time.  That’s all fine, well and good for them, isn’t it?  But who has the time for all this? Critchley’s response echoes that of the Jesuit priest I mentioned above: “to philosophize is to take your time,” he says, “even when you have no time, when time is constantly pressing at your back.  …As Wittgenstein says, ‘This is how philosophers should salute each other: ‘Take your time’.”

***

You may see where I am heading here.  Prayer takes time, and there’s no way around it.  To paraphrase St. Catherine of Siena, prayer is my way of going to that innermost chamber of my heart, which only God and I can enter.  The spiritual life is one of those rare dimensions of 21st century Western life that we cannot cultivate through maximized efficiency, imitation, or superficial affiliation.  Nope.  Instead, one cultivates the spiritual life by stepping out of the intense flow of busyness – work, play, and yes even friends – to be alone with the Alone. So how do those of us with plenty of demands on our time – work obligations, social and family commitments, keeping up with x, y, z, etc. – find time and reasons to pray?  I’ve got three simple points to consider.  No Jesuit mind games, I swear.

1. Take your time.  Take your time, or it will be taken from you.  Remember how the klepsydra steals time from Socrates’ lawyers?  The many small obligations of our day snatch away our time, too, and they have a ruthless No Returns Policy.  Just like Critchley’s philosopher, the pray-er must take his or her time.  If you are expecting to find the time, as if it were misplaced car keys, you will likely be frustrated and give up.

2. Remember that prayer is not entertainment.  Unlike checking one’s Smartphone every three minutes, prayer does not give the newbie the thrill of immediate feedback.  For me, the so-called ‘value of prayer’ is rarely immediately evident.  Unless I am in the midst of a good routine of prayer, getting started requires a lot of patience and up-front commitment.  In other words, prayer is an investment — its value only becomes clear with time.  Time that we take for it.

3. Prayer is not a competitive sport.  In this blog, I hope to share insights and experiences from my own prayer a few times each week – and I guarantee that 95% of my entries will be a small fraction of this first one’s length!  But I want to point out that there’s a risk here, and so I want to offer a caution: reading this blog is not praying.  Nor is it a measuring rod to see how well/poorly you may be praying.  Don’t tell the editors, but my real hope is that by reading this blog, you will be inspired to step away from your computer – to go pray yourself.

So – back to our initial question, Why Pray?  Because it helps us move away from simply floating through our unexamined days, lamenting that we have no time for what matters to us.  It moves us to live our lives more intentionally; for the believer, this entails cultivating a relationship with the living and true God.   There will be plenty more on this in coming posts.  For now, I’d encourage you to unplug from your computer or phone, sit in a quiet spot, and consider these questions:

  • How do I spend most of my free time each day? 
  • What are you inviting me to consider in my life today, God?
  • Given a choice between intentionally taking time to do this, or letting other things steal my time, which leads me to greater life?

From one pray-er to another, I hope you… take your time.  It could just make all the difference.

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