Prayer: Objective and Subjective

I was thinking about prayer as a Catholic and how we (at least we Americans) have a tendency to objectify prayer. What I mean by that is that we have a tendency to reduce prayer to a set of objective activities or realities. We reduce prayer to a prayer-book or a rosary or a set of prayers or even to the Mass. Prayer becomes a ritual to be endured because it is good. We focus on the objective contexts for prayer, the tools we use for prayer, the churches we pray in, etc. rather than focusing on the One to whom we are praying.

So I am suggesting that we focus more on the subjective qualities of prayer. Here’s what I mean: every objective context for prayer, whether it be Mass attendance, a rosary, a Bible study, a prayer book–whatever, is merely a means to an end. The end of course is unity with God, a deep loving union with Jesus. The subjective qualities of prayer are simple, but easy to overlook. They include our emotional and physical dispositions. That is, if I come to prayer extremely sleepy, I’m probably not going to benefit much spiritually. If I come to prayer straight from a heated argument, I probably won’t be able to focus and receive the grace offered to me in the prayer context.

Catholics used to talk a lot about “recollection,” the calming of the mind and body in preparation for prayer. I think it is time for us to return to the idea of recollection and emphasize the subjective appropriation of the objective graces offered to us in prayer. It is not enough to recite prayers vocally and attend Mass in the minimal sense of being physically present. We must be attentive to God’s word. We must bring our whole selves with us and present ourselves before God. It is not too complicated, but it is hard to wrap words around the concept without seeming to devalue the objective realities. It is more important for a Christian to subjectively receive and appropriate the graces offered in just a few prayer-contexts than to flood himself with prayer-contexts which he can’t appropriate.

Our American Catholic tendency is to fill time with prayer-events, rather than to focus on the one prayer-event at hand and sincerely open our hearts to receive what God has for us in that particular event. Yet if we fail to open ourselves to the grace offered in any one particular event, just going to more events will not help us. Prayer is a necessarily subjective experience because it is the stuff of a relationship. Prayer in that sense, is analagous to the conversations spouses have with one another. If they fail to sincerely express themselves and to sincerely listen to one another in those conversations their relationship will fail. As Christians, we must embrace our relationship with our our Heavenly Spouse and bring our whole selves to Him in prayer–sincerely listening to Him and honestly expressing ourselves to Him.

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