Editor’s note: This Lent, www.catholicreview.org will feature six contributors from the Archdiocese of Baltimore on the subject of Why Catholic?, the four-year, small, faith group exploration of the practices and beliefs of the Catholic faith tradition. The first installment is from Father T. Austin Murphy, the chaplain of the Newman Center at Towson University.
I have a small, carved, olive-wood statue in my room. It is of a woman with a jug balanced on her head and her hand and hip resting on a well. She is “the woman at the well” whom Christ met in John’s Gospel (Ch. 4). As He requested water from her, she came to realize that it was He who could satisfy her thirst. She reminds me so much of so many people – especially the young people with whom I work daily – who are seeking a real, deep relationship with God and so often don’t know where to find it. Many times, I find myself looking at this little statue as I pray and remembering some young man or woman with whom I have chatted in the past week.
“How is your prayer life?” I often ask them.
“It’s OK, I guess,” they usually reply. “I mean, I pray when I have a big test or exam, and sometimes I will pray when I lie in bed at night.”
“Yes,” I return, “but what about your prayer life? Do you consider yourself a ‘prayerful’ person?”
It’s a tough question to answer, but many times, for many of us, “prayer life” is really just “praying” from time to time – usually when we need something. Fostering a prayer life is not something that comes easily, nor is it infused into us simply by being Christian. A prayer life requires time.
That’s something that so many people will tell you they don’t have. “Time? Time for what?!” The suggestion to take a few minutes out of a busy schedule to just “be with God” seems like a request to pull off our heads when there are so many things that we could be doing with the time. However, there is value to this “wasted time with God.”
When we take that time to say to God, “You are the most important Person in my life, and this time, first, belongs to You,” we begin to see how the priorities of our lives as Christians start to fall into alignment. Taking an inventory of our spiritual lives, we can often see that when things are a mess we are usually not praying as well or as much as we should be – if at all. Our relationships, our sense of balance and who we are, our overall happiness – all of these flow from a true sense of where we are with God. When that relationship is healthy, then other areas of our life find a sense of completeness.
That feeling of incompleteness is the same as the woman at the well’s thirst. We are all thirsty. A real relationship with God, expressed in a healthy prayer life, is what Jesus is calling her and us to. It is the source of “living water” of which Christ speaks, and in our thirst we too beg, “Give us this water always.”
That prayer life is one that takes practice – and not so much in how we express ourselves. We usually have no problem telling God what we want; we know all the prayers. The area that we need to work on is often the listening part of that conversation. Vocal prayer comes more naturally to us – particularly as busy as we seem to be. However, listening is an art that we seem to be losing. Meditative prayer – simply being with God – “wasting time with Him” – is where we begin to truly find that source of living water.
I often advise a student in this situation to try and carve some time in the morning or at night when they can be alone. Light a candle for focus and ask God to open your heart to hear Him. The well then opens up – not because we have done it, but because God is working with what we give Him. The living water begins to flow, and we realize that this time is not really “wasted” at all.
Next week: Anne L. Buening