Lent is a sacred time in which many of us resolve to be deepened in prayer. Joining Jesus in the wilderness, we are invited to allow our heart to be captivated by God the Father, growing in our identity as beloved children of God, and claiming as our own Jesus’ victory over the evil one.
The prophet Hosea describes God’s invitation beautifully: “Therefore I am now going to allure Israel; I will lead her into the wilderness and speak tenderly to her” (Hosea 2:14).
God the Father awakens desire in our hearts. Deep and authentic prayer happens to the extent that we allow ourselves to experience and grow in that desire.
Have you ever considered prayer as an experience of desire?
I would say it took me a long journey with many detours before I really began appreciating the invitation to experience prayer as desire – and this was not for lack of pursuit on God’s part! If I take the time to reflect on my life, I can recall with gratitude many moments in which God sought to woo my heart in prayer – in childhood, in adolescence, and throughout my adult years. Sometimes the experiences were profound, intense, or astounding; other times simple or subtle or sweet. There were often obstacles impeding my response.
It turns out that deeply allowing the experience of desire is not so easy as it might sound! Feeling an ache that only God can satisfy can actually be painful – not unlike the experience of intense hunger or thirst. I used to laugh at the line in Matthew’s Gospel about Jesus fasting and being tempted in the desert: “And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.” I always used to think to myself as I read those words, “Well, duh!” But the spiritual combat of the desert – whether in Jesus or in me – is not mainly about physical hunger or bread – it is about the deep desire of the human heart that can be satisfied by God alone. We are created with an insatiable longing for him – one so intense that we rarely let ourselves experience it in full depth.
Augustine of Hippo perhaps put it the best when he prayed, “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” We spend much of our lives, as he did, plunging ourselves in unlovely ways into the lovely things God has created – good things which would not even exist had God not created them. But they hold us back if they diminish our thirst for God.
Jesus allowed himself to go into the depths of human hunger and thirst – both physically and spiritually. He invites us to share in his experience: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness; for they will be satisfied.”
Have you ever felt a thirst for God, and allowed yourself to abide in that longing? Or to seek and receive a taste of him, only to long for him even more? This is the invitation prayer offers us.
Even now, at a season in my life in which I understand the invitation at a much deeper level, I still notice myself avoiding it. Sometimes I numb out or keep myself distracted with lesser pleasures and lesser desires. Other times I stay plunged into busyness or activity; if I don’t let myself slow down, I won’t feel the ache. Still other times I try to make things happen my own way – as though “getting it right” will somehow bend the will of the living God.
Thankfully God has substantially eased my frantic urge to “get it right” – whether with daily prayer or on retreats. I can think of a few retreats in my young adult years in which I felt much anxiety over whether I was spending the time rightly – as though God is stingy or particular about awakening love or showering his blessings! Thankfully he often surprised me and – at least some of the time – I let myself be surprised.
One of the benefits of being Catholic is also one of our greatest pitfalls – we have thousands of prayers and devotions we can turn to. Often, instead of slowing down and just being with God, we can easily pile on more prayers. We can begin to think of holiness as a matter of being strong enough, disciplined enough, or doing all the right things. In this posture, prayer becomes something we “do,” rather than time spent receiving, and the more we receive, allowing the desire of our heart to be expanded even more.
Experiencing prayer as desire includes an invitation to engage with all our human faculties – our thoughts, our imagination, our emotions, our memories, and even the very sensations in our bodies. Again, Augustine captures what the experience is like, describing how all five of his human senses were transformed by his desire for and encounter with the living God:
You called and shouted and shattered my deafness. You were radiant and resplendent, you put to flight my blindness. You were fragrant, and I drew in my breath and now pant after you. I tasted you, and I ache with hunger and thirst for you. You touched me, and I burn with desire to attain the peace which is yours.
There are moments in which we have no doubt we have tasted and seen the goodness of the Lord. Yet we resist! I know that I sometimes do. Sometimes it feels safer to put surrogates in God’s place, predictable comforts that don’t involve waiting or trust or surrender.
I find it helpful at times to pray slowly the opening words of Psalm 63, words deeply familiar to anyone who prays the Liturgy of the Hours. I like to emphasize the words “you” and “your” in each line to remember Him whom I truly desire:
O God, you are my God, for you I long;
for you my soul is thirsting.
My body pines for you
like a dry, weary land without water.
So I gaze on you in the sanctuary
to see your strength and your glory.
I am grateful for the experience of God awakening desire in my heart, even though it can sometimes be intense. It is good to long for the living God. Nor is it necessarily a bad thing that it took me a long time to experience a thawing of the desire he had placed in my heart. Scripture suggests that God waits until we are ready: “I adjure you, Daughters of Jerusalem, do not awaken or stir up love until it is ready!” (Song of Songs 8:4).
Hopefully, this Lent will be a season in which you and I can join with the Psalmist in praying, “My heart is ready, O God, my heart is ready!” (Psalm 57:7).