For four years I was a monk with the Brothers and Sister of Charity AND and Assemblies of God minister. The following is a lesson I learned about prayer during my four monastic years.
Kung Fu Praying
Every Friday evening at the Little Portion, the community gathered in the chapel for a half hour of silent prayer and meditation. At the appointed time, we would enter the candle-lit chapel, find a place to sit, and silently talk with God. Yes, occasionally you would hear the sound of slow, heavy breathing in the chapel (that unmistakable indication that one of the saints is taking a short siesta), but for the most part, everyone was engaged in some type of prayer. It was during these times-when I desired nothing more than to bask in the presence of God and simply be with the One who loved me to death-that unsavory images from my past or arguments I’ve had with people would come screaming into my head. I know I’m not alone in this experience; I’ve talked to many people who have fought this same battle. Here I am trying to meditate upon God, and an image of girl I once dated (and shouldn’t have) explodes upon my imagination. Now, instead of hoping to catch a glimpse of God’s glory, I have Victoria’s Secret dancing in my head. What’s a monk to do?
Oswald Chambers said, “The battle of prayer is against two things in the earthlies: wandering thoughts and lack of intimacy with God’s character as revealed in His word. Neither can be cured at once, but they can be cured by discipline.” I now share with you my discipline of overcoming wandering thoughts while praying, which I learned by studying martial arts is Bible college.
During my first year at Bethany, I met a classmate who was an excellent martial artist, and I asked him if he would teach me Kung Fu. Naturally, I didn’t do it because I was worried that I might get mugged on a Christian campus. I did it for the exercise and the fun. My teacher and I would often workout with Mike, another student and 2nd degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do.
I began to notice that if I threw a punch at Mike, he would often respond with a piercing scream and a brutal block of my arm so that I just might come away with a bruise. In Kung Fu, I would meet a punch with a circular motion of my hands that gently guided the oncoming punch away from my body. Or, I could simply sidestep the oncoming projectile, be it a hand, a foot, or a club. In Tae Kwon Do, the attitude is, “You are really going to regret coming at me and I’m going to hurt you REALLY BAD so you will NEVER even THINK about doing that again!!” In Kung Fu the attitude is, “You don’t really intend to hurt me, so I’m going to gently and almost imperceptibly redirect your negative energy so that neither one of us gets hurt and you have a chance to repent of your anger and we can be friends.” Okay, those were exaggerations, but you get the picture. Now, how does this relate to prayer?
When those unsolicited images come into my mind while I’m praying, my Kung Fu technique taught me to sidestep the offending thoughts and gently let them go by. Too often, I’ve used the Tae Kwon Do technique, which is to bash them into submission, but with little success. It seemed the harder I tried to get them out of my mind, the more forceful they returned. By imagining those images coming at me and gently sidestepping them in my mind, I didn’t give them the energy to continue haunting me and I could calmly go back to my conversation with God.
The other thing I learned to do was to thank God for what I was seeing. Okay, let’s say that scantily clad ex-girlfriend comes into my mind while I’m praying. Instead of trying to fight the image, run away in horror, and repent of my impure, unmonk-like thoughts, I’d say something like, “Lord, I want to thank You that You love her and died for her sins, too. I also want to thank You for the beautiful human body You created, and the pleasure it gives You when we are thankful for your gifts. You are good and Your works are too wonderful for me to comprehend. Be with her now as you are with me in this chapel. Amen.” I wasn’t upset, angry or over-energized by the image, but thanked God for an opportunity to ask His blessings to descend upon a sister’s life. If the devil thought he’d get me distracted from my prayer life, he simply gave me a few more things I could praise God for by praying that He release His goodness and His blessings into people’s lives. When I learned to fight the enemy’s visions with Godly praises, the images occurred less frequently.
Here’s another battle I’ve fought. How many of you have spent a majority of your prayer time replaying an argument you’ve had with a family member or co-worker, raise your hand? I thought so. How many of you have rehearsed an argument you were sure you were going to have in the future, using your prayer time to justify yourself before God, telling Him why you are right and the other person is wrong? Yeah, me too. What a waste of time.
Soren Kierkegaard said, “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.” When I’m rehearsing an imaginary argument before God in the name of prayer, I’m simply trying to influence God to see things my way. It doesn’t work. The primary purpose of prayer is to change me, not others. As time went on, I found it very difficult to stand at the Throne of God and accuse my brother or sister. There is already an accuser, and I don’t really want his job. Finally, after wasting many hours in prayer, I began to thank God for the people I was at odds with, whether real or imagined.
Romans 12:18 says, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” If I’m not at peace with people when I’m praying, I certainly won’t be at peace with them when I’m in their presence. Once again, I began to thank God for the people that popped into my mind while in prayer. Was I ever justified for being angry at what they had done to me? Sometimes, but that really wasn’t the point. They were people that God loved and I decided I was going to pray God’s love into their lives. I began asking God to let me see my “enemies” as He saw them, and when He did, He never showed me His anger, but only His loving compassion.
Successful prayer centers upon praying the heart of God. Martin Luther said, “Prayer is not overcoming God’s reluctance, but laying hold of His willingness.” If God was willing to love these people enough to die for them, then I would to. I’d die to my desires for justice and recompense, and use my time in prayer as an opportunity to bring the worst of sinners into the loving presence of God’s Throne. Naturally, the worst of those sinners started with me. When I began to think about all that God had done for me, it wasn’t difficult to pray those same blessings into the lives of others.