Back in my seminary days, I remember a phrase that captivated my imagination: “wasting time with God.” It was some kind of parody or radical criticism of the modern productivity-crazed world’s disavowal of the godly, spiritual or prayerful life as a waste of time. Hence, back then, we indubitably “enjoyed” wasting time with God in the seminary.
We picked the thought from the contemporary spiritual thinker and theologian, Henri Nouwen (1936-1996), whose principles of spiritual direction and formation were written into books by two of his longtime students.
For Nouwen, prayer is “wasting time with God.”
“If we think about prayer in terms of its usefulness to us—what it will do for us, what spiritual benefits we will gain, what insights we will gain, what divine presence we may feel—God cannot easily speak to us. But if we detach ourselves from the idea of the usefulness of prayer and the results of prayer, we become free to ‘WASTE’ a precious hour with God in prayer. Gradually, we may find, our ‘useless’ time will transform us, and everything around us will be different,” Nouwen wrote.
Being unbusy with God
For Nouwen, prayer is being unbusy with God by letting God take charge of the situation: “Prayer is primarily to do nothing useful or productive in the presence of God. To not be useful is to remind myself that if anything important or fruitful happens through prayer, it is God who achieves the result.
“So when I go into the day, I go with the conviction that God is the one who brings forth fruit in my work, and I do not have to act as though I am in control of things. I have to work hard; I have to do my task; I have to offer my best. But I let go of the illusion of control and be detached from the result. At the end of each day, I can prayerfully say that if something good has happened, God be praised.”
Nouwen’s thought finds resonance in a more recent work, “Wasting Time With God: A Christian Spirituality of Friendship With God” by Klaus Issler, PhD.
An excerpt from the book’s synopsis succinctly declares: “When it comes to developing a deep, trusting relationship with God, efficiency and productivity are not the answer. It’s far better to ‘waste’ time with him, to just enjoy being with him. After all, that’s how friendship grows.”
Admittedly, I, too, have had a roller-coaster journey in my prayer life. In the seminary where I lived a spiritually regimented life until I left, I found myself experimenting with detaching myself from anything “conventual”—the Mass, prayer exercises like morning-noon-evening prayers, the Rosary, meditation, the sacrament of confession, spiritual devotions, etc.
Those were my “dark nights of the soul.”
But when I was already a family man and my children were growing up, I reckoned that there was no better way to inculcate in them the meaningfulness of a godly or prayerful life than by having one, or serving as an example.
It was the same when I was teaching theology. I found it absurd teaching the subject only for some factors like a salary, and without believing or practicing what I teach.
Now, with all our children grown and myself no longer teaching and only into writing, my wife (an ex-future nun) and I are really enjoying our days “wasting time with God” on a daily basis. We spend time with God before the Blessed Sacrament—whence, mind you, we find abundant love and comfort, pure joy, peace and profound meaning in our everyday life.
Yet what the heck is prayer really all about?
From our basic catechism, we’ve been taught that there are four forms of prayer, represented by the acronym ACTS: adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, supplication.
I have two insights on this concept or practice of prayer.
First, with a mnemonic such as ACTS, it seems like a programming of our minds whenever we go to prayer. I’m not saying that prayers of adoration, contrition, thanksgiving, and supplication are worthless. But with ACTS as a framework of orientation, we tend to limit or miss the deeper meaning and potential of prayer, which is pure encounter with God.
Second, of the ACTS, the one most practiced is undeniably supplication, or asking God for something. Multitudes of the faithful stew in prayer devotions and sacrificial rituals just to obtain God’s favor for their petitions. (If there’s a Jurassic computer in heaven registering those petitions, they could number zillions per second.)
Prayer “in order to ask for something” smacks of “controlling” our communication with God. We expect God to suit our expectations. If we treat prayer only as a ritual of asking, it may indicate that we remember God only when we are in need of him.
Again, I’m not saying that asking God for our needs is not worth the effort. Yes, the “Godness” of God makes it possible for him to “know all our needs” even without our telling him. But resonant with our gift of free will, God still wants to hear it straight from us, from the sincerity of our hearts, from our voluntariness and humility to admit our helplessness before him.
In other words, prayer is acknowledging the “Godness” of God, while humbly admitting our “humanness” or imperfection—and thereby growing in trusting and loving him.
Experiencing God’s presence
Now, let me state the thesis of this piece: Prayer is not just asking but simply experiencing God’s presence.
Our principal resource proponent for this spiritually penetrating thought is Richard Rohr, an American Franciscan priest, the founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation, and a writer on spirituality who is based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
For Father Rohr, as excerpted from his book “Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer,” when we surrender to love in the present moment, we encounter the flow of Divine Presence.
“Prayer is not primarily saying words or thinking thoughts. It is, rather, a life stance. It’s a way of living IN the Presence, living in AWARENESS of the Presence, and enjoying the Presence. Fully contemplative people are more than aware of Divine Presence; they trust, allow, and delight in it. They STAND on it!” Rohr wrote.
According to him, meeting God in prayer or experiencing the Divine Presence in the present moment is free of blame, judgment, or comparison.
“The present moment has no competition; it is not judged in comparison to any other. It has never happened before and will not happen again. But when I’m in competition, I’m not in love. I can’t get to love because I’m looking for a new way to dominate. The mystics, those who really pray, know this. Those who enter deeply into the great mystery do not experience a God who compares, differentiates, and judges. They experience an all-embracing receptor, a receiver who recognizes the divine image in each and every individual,” Rohr said.
Wow! Profoundly penetrating words, they seep into the deep recesses of the soul. Indeed, it is wonderfully amazing to experience the presence of God in the present moment, and thus exclaim with Mary: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior!”
Peace ye! Is prayer wasting time with God? Pray thee, it’s not. In truth, encountering God in prayer is the only and most useful time–because it is God, not we, who creates and sustains the world.
Bob Acebedo writes a column for the OpinYon weeklies (http://opinyon.net). —Ed.