In our current American culture, many people claim to be “spiritual” or to be interested in “spirituality” without really meaning anything by it beyond being polite and having good intentions — or maybe just a desire to have a reputation as being more insightful or refined. They usually do not really believe in any particular theology and they are not able to say just what God wants of them — and they might even assert that it is not necessary to believe in God to be spiritual in this way. We find such people responding “spiritually” to tragedy by leaving flowers, candles, and plush toys at the scene of a tragedy.
Most people who believe in God do much better than that, often making significant sacrifices to practice their religion and to live by that religion’s tenets. I have discovered, however, in doing spiritual direction even of the simplest sort, that most people — even those who are quite serious about their faith — have only the most general idea of who God is.
When I ask them who they pray to, for example, they give the obvious names “God” or “Jesus” and are surprised when I ask them to be more specific. Are they talking about the Trinity or only one of the members? And if the latter, which one? And how do they picture or feel about that Person as they pray?
If it is the Father, for example, is it the Creator or the Judge, the Lawgiver or a serene Wisdom, Loving Providence or an Avenger? I would ask the same sort of questions in regard to the Spirit, but in regard to the Second Person the list of possible “faces” is very long indeed: Holy Infant or Teacher, Shepherd or Eternal King, Brother or Healer, to name just a few.
There are many words and images for us to discover and use in reaching for God as individuals and as God’s people, and we must share the results of our individual prayer as we open ourselves to hear God’s words to us — but considering the importance of that is for another day. Here is what I offer my spiritual directees as a prayer exercise to get them beyond these basics:
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I want you to exercise yourself in speaking to that particular Person of the Trinity whom you feel most drawn to by asking for more insight so as to have a truly personal relationship with Him. You need to discover how that Person “tastes” and to develop a feel for that identity so as not to be simply praying into a faceless void. In time you will be able to turn to each of the Three and have that same loving conversation and even to turn to the whole family of the Trinity at once, but to help you along the road I want you to use the following simple exercise.
You need to enter into prayer with the accustomed withdrawal from activity, to move into immobility and silence, and to open yourself to listening. You must then choose the Person you wish to pray to and humbly ask that Person to reveal himself. Then you move through the appropriate list below, holding each word/expression quietly and gently in your attention and letting God touch you; react and respond to Him as seems best to you before passing to the next word/expression.
It is most important not to hurry but to move slowly and to listen patiently before moving to the next word. Notice that the order you take each item in does not matter, but it is easier if you start at a particular point in the list (no matter which point) and work from there, forward or backwards. Close each prayer session with a very slow Glory Be.
Ordinarily the fruit of your prayer will not come quickly, but what will happen is that you discover that some words have no resonance in you, will seem to evoke no response at all. At the same time, as a first fruit of the exercise you will probably wish to add words to the list. You might even copy the list I provide and edit it, putting the words in a different order, adding and deleting, making the list very personal. Do not, however, delete the original list; save it and use it occasionally to refresh yourself and your prayer.
It would be impossible for me to come close to describing meeting all three member of the Trinity together, face to face: if I were to see the Three in my prayer, close to actually meeting them face to face, I would stand stunned, openmouthed, and thunderstruck. It would be, from various perspectives, overwhelming, stupefying, silencing, and transforming, and I would be filled with wonderment, amazement, bewilderment, and a near stupor.
My reaction would be involuntary praise and gratitude, automatic adoration; my being would spontaneously transform into light and wonder, gratitude and praise, like a flower bursting open to sunlight. The Beatific Vision would be ecstasy for me, all of me alive and singing as never before, just as God has created me to live in eternity. The Trinity, even more than any Person taken individually, is literally ineffable.
3-Voice a Capella Polyphony
The only image that I have found that even begins to touch their reality is to experience the Three as living a joyful 3-voice a capella polyphony à la Palestrina: the Father is a bass, rich, supporting, seemingly simple and slow. Christ is the tenor, apparently the lead voice, driving the whole affair, while the Blessed Spirit is a coloratura soprano filled with grace notes and descant. We hear only one sound but we can distinguish the three voices, each one taking the lead at different points, the others adding depth and “commentary” in support but in a wonderful unity of mind and expression.
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Once we discover who we are praying to most frequently, we might reflect on what that says about us — our needs, our yearnings, our stance before God, our relationship to the Church, etc. — and we might use the fruits of such reflection to redirect and enrich our prayer. That would give us a much better idea of who we are and open our hearts more easily and more warmly.
And, since prayer continually changes us as God helps us to grow, this is a never-ending process. Who we are and who God is are topics that will occupy us for all eternity.
FATHER KESTERMEIER, S.J., is a professor at Creighton University, Omaha, Neb.