by Martin L. Smith
Fundamental to all the great wisdom traditions of the world, including our own Christian spirituality, is the core insight that human beings are hard wired for self-deception. We are constantly finding plausible reasons for behaviors that in fact are motivated by quite different impulses largely hidden from consciousness. Modern brain science has found ways of demonstrating this hard wiring in action. There have been remarkable experiments with people who have had their right brain disconnected from their left brain through a drastic surgical procedure to relieve severe epilepsy. In one of these, the experimenter met with a boy who had had this operation in a trailer outside his home, and used picture cards to indicate that the boy was to go into his house and then come back. When the boy returned, the experimenter asked him why he had gone. Of course this verbal instruction was processed by the other side of the brain than the one that had processed the original signing. He instantly replied, “to get a Coke.” It appears that the brain cannot tolerate gaps in the story we are weaving about what we are up to, and has an active ‘department of inventiveness’ responsible for fabricating fake reasons.
Authentic spirituality is always marked by a gentle but probing skepticism about the reasons we come up with for acting or failing to act in certain ways in our relationship with the Holy One. Take our difficulties in getting down to prayer. The faithful practice of prayer has now become largely an optional extra for many Christians, something most of us never actually get round to, and the reasons we tend to give for this point to our hectic lifestyle, pressure on our time, difficulties in finding the right place, problems we have with focusing. All perfectly true, of course. It was also true that the little boy in the experiment liked Coke. It just wasn’t the real reason for going into the house. The real reasons for our avoidance of prayer might be concealed from our awareness. Spirituality addresses the task of allowing these hidden real reasons to break through our inner censorship.
Perhaps the real reason we find prayer so difficult to get around to is because it really demands today a level of emotional honesty most of us are unsure we can risk. Previous generations may have just prayed. Maybe it was the thing to do. But now prayer has become peculiarly psychologically demanding. Even the most basic prayer presents us with three challenges to our emotional life that can only be met from the place in us inside that is committed to maturity and honesty. I call them the three Ls.
Prayer asks that we Love with the brakes off, that we Lament, and that we Long. Loving, lamenting and longing ask a lot of us. Is it any wonder we find excuses to avoid prayer?
Since our faith is centered on the radical permission to identify ourselves as lovers of God, to “love God with all our heart, with all our mind, with all our soul and with all our strength,” prayer must be about experimenting with expressions of love for God so that we declare that love. And prayer is the place for “taking the brakes off” so that our expressions of love for God aren’t paltry and stilted, but generous, risk-taking and even passionate. These experiments are what is meant by praise and adoration. It isn’t easy to let go. It takes practice.
Then there’s Lament. It is impossible to express love for God without facing the shadow side of our relationship with God. The more we express love for God, the more painfully we become aware of how inadequate and precarious that love is, and how mixed up it is with our projections of fear and resentment, and our reluctance to forgive. We have to lament our own daily follies and tepidity and inconsistency, and lament the havoc and pain loose in the world because of our human disconnection from the Creator. Praying takes us to a place of grieving. Pain can’t be avoided. Is it any wonder we find other things to do than pray?
And there is Longing. Prayer demands that we let desire out. We let loose with our longing to change, and for things to change, and the world to be changed. The bible ends with words that remind us that without the awakening of desire, nothing happens: “Let the one who desires take the water of life freely.” But to identify oneself as a person of desire is very risky. We have surrendered our desire mainly to consumption: everything around us screams that things for sale are the true objects of desire and we have given in. To pray is to rebel, to take back our desire and let it loose on God and the world of possibilities Jesus called the realm of God.