Soil and Seed, Flower and Fruit

So there I was, sitting in Adoration. Every particle of my being seemed to be bathed in glory and resonating with — okay, so actually, I was going over sparring techniques in my head, while grooving slightly to the Paul Simon1 playing on my interior soundtrack.

Because that’s how it usually goes. And certainly, much or all of this is my fault. I could be stricter with myself, I could be more vigilant, I could set myself more definite prayer times, could practice particular prayer “techniques”; maybe work through the Ignatian exercises, or get serious about Lectio Divina.

All of that’s true, and it would all help — but it wouldn’t make every single prayer session sweet and vivid and palpably intense, wouldn’t turn them all into the kind of prayer I think of as “successful.”

God could do this if he wanted to. He could do it every day. I know this because He’s done it before. My mood, my apathy, my laziness, my propensity to self-distraction — none of these are insuperable barriers for him, and they all evaporate if He wills it. Those times that prayer has made me glow, catch fire: those didn’t happen because I was paying extra attention, or disciplining myself extra hard. They Just Happened, which is to say, God gave them to me, for free.

But He doesn’t always, and He doesn’t usually. Why not? I’m not sure, but there’s a clue in this: prayer is like writing, almost exactly like it, for two reasons.

The first reason is this: one of the most important parts of writing is when you’re not writing. If you glide through every day doing your best to distract yourself, to fill in every bit of silence with noise or talking or music, then you will sit down to write and nothing will happen, because your mind has remained on the surface of life. Nothing’s been planted during the day, because nothing’s been allowed to take root.

Anthony Bloom says2 that prayer and action are two sides of the same coin, and that if your life is not prayerful, your prayer will not be lively; and of course vice versa.3

The second reason is this: it’s beautiful when writing Just Happens, when you sit down and your pen just flows with pure fire. But it’ll never Just Happen unless you do the work of blankly sitting in front of a blank screen while nothing appears to be happening at all. The blank times till the soil and plant the seeds.

That doesn’t mean we should feel free to sit in front of the Blessed Sacrament and do nothing but replay martial arts flicks in our heads. It does mean that times like these — when all we want is for the half hour to be up, so we can escape the blank gaze of the Eucharist and get back to whatever Important Thing we were doing — this is when the work happens. This is when the roots can really start to go deep.

No plowing, no seeds; no seeds, no flowers; no flowers, no fruit.

1 And seriously, Graceland is good but I think Rhythm of the Saints is even better, although much more understated. How many albums can you listen to for a month straight and not only not get tired of but actually like more and more?
2 I’m paraphrasing, because the book’s not handy, and I hope I’m not mangling this. But any time I think I’m “realizing something new” about prayer, it turns out I’m just remembering something I read in Anthony Bloom’s Beginning to Pray and then subsequently forgot about. This book really will change your life.
3 By which I mean both of the following: (1) If your prayer is not lively, your life will not be prayerful, and (2) If your prayer is not prayerful, your life will not be lively.

10 Comments on “Soil and Seed, Flower and Fruit”

  1. Eric says:

    The man who has Paul Simon playing on his interior soundtrack “sees angels in the architecture, spinning in infinity; he says ‘amen!’ and ‘hallelujah!'”

    As to why most prayer doesn’t give us the transcendent feelings, I don’t have any insights better than yours. (And yours, I think, are plenty good.) It does seem to me that in some way we’re not presently equipped to benefit from more direct sensory or emotional experiences of communion with God than the doses He grants us. Witness Peter at the Transfiguration, opining that “it is good for us to be here,” and the narrative’s editorializing that “he knew not what he said.” It was, indeed, good for them to be there; it wouldn’t have been good for them to stay there.

    In our mortal frailty, every one of our senses is subject to overload: a steady diet of sweets leads to a diminished capacity to really appreciate sweetness. (Something I am learning all over again this Lent. I had no *idea* how sweet a tangerine was until I made it the only sweet thing in my diet.) I suspect that our receptors for spiritual experience operate under the same limitation.

    I expect that such will not be the case in the world to come.

  2. Tara S says:

    I heard a story of this old retired farmer who went to Adoration every morning, but didn’t appear to be praying – he just sat there and looked up at the front of the room. Eventually the priest asked him about it and he said, “I look at Him, and He looks at me.”

    The times that the prayer doesn’t flow freely, and I can’t seem to wiggle myself into a prayerful state, I just sit there with a totally empty head and try to keep my eyes up front. Oddly, those are the times I can feel God most physically (as it were), because I can feel all the junk in my mind being tossed out and picked over, and things put back in proper order. It’s not an emotional experience, but it’s a very peaceful one.

    I’ve got to get out to Adoration more often!

    1. DaveMc says:

      Holy cow, Tara, that’s so true! Just staring at the Eucharist gives me peace in times when I can’t pray. A lot of times, I truly believe I can see Jesus’ face in the Eucharist.

  3. Annette says:

    I agree, Eric, that we capricious humans tend to value less what is familiar over time. Perhaps that is one of the consequences for living within time and space.

    I also am fairly certain that I would not be able to handle an estatic experience everytime. I think of Blessed Teresa if Calcutta, and how God called her, but then she relied on her phenomenal faith to get her through the untold years when she didn’t have a clear voice from God leading her. How very prideful I must be to be upset with God for not speaking to me when she was so holy and humble to accept it without bitterness! I should be so humble!

  4. Mariah says:

    Dear Steve:
    I just want to say…
    The end.

  5. Cameron says:

    A brilliant blog post – thanks very much. It’s just what I needed – actually, at the time I was reading your blog I SHOULD have been writing my thesis, or at least sitting staring at the screen in readiness to write. I will start on that now 🙂

  6. I love reading your posts, Steve. Among many other things, this one helped me understand writing better. I’ve never thought of this very accurately before: “The blank times till the soil and plant the seeds.”

    Out of curiosity, do you consider prayer that is “sweet and vivid and palpably intense” to be “successful” — or were these two separate thoughts?

    1. Good question, CitM. The thoughts were meant to be linked, not separate. What I meant was that I do have a tendency to consider prayer “successful” only when it’s sweet, vivid, etc. — but I keep having to remind myself that this isn’t really true, and that the dry times are at least as valuable as the other times.

  7. Maiki says:

    I don’t have the best handle on my thoughts, for sure, especially in adoration, and especially if I’m exhausted (not unusual, since I’m at adoration at 11pm in Wednesdays). If my thoughts are anything but strictly “prayerful” so to speak, I at least attempt to make them a conversation with God about the mundane things I can’t help think about. If running, or tv, or work are running through my head instead of actual prayers, I figure it is as good a time as any to have a more informal chat with God about my daily activities — and I find that sometimes that allows for some deep introspection. Sometimes, it is just me praising God that He made these awesome things around me that distract me so, but that is usually joyful, if little else.

  8. Christy says:

    I love this because it is so true! Prayer really does need some deeper thinking, more paying attention to the real reality, not our day to day and twitter feeds and everything that preoccupies us, but the realities of whats going on in our souls. Its hard to dive through the distractions. But it is so much like writing, if you want to write something decent you’ve got to dive through the jumble of our own thoughts.

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