So that’s a start: replace fiction with substance in your discourse and decision-making. I’ll be back soon with more steps to take.
Well, then, the next step. You need to begin those first steps as you continue this “next” step–one that should already, and regardless of the situation, be your normal practice.
What do I mean? OK, with Part One in mind, read the following two Scriptures:
And he told them a parable, to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.
He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor regarded man; and there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Vindicate me against my adversary.’
For a while he refused; but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor regard man, yet because this widow bothers me, I will vindicate her, or she will wear me out by her continual coming.’”
And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God vindicate his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will vindicate them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
(source: Luke 18:1-8 RSVCE)
Therefore King Darius signed the document and interdict.
When Daniel knew that the document had been signed, he went to his house where he had windows in his upper chamber open toward Jerusalem; and he got down upon his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously.
(source: Daniel 6:9-10 RSVCE)
So, given steps one and two: “Sober Up” and “Think your way in from the edges,” the next several steps all concern the word “Pray.”
3. Pray systematically.
I have a long habit of praying spontaneously, which is typical for my formation in low-church evangelical Protestantism. In times of heavy opposition, however, such prayer often falls into a rut, a perpetual “Why, God?” or begging for mercy or self-accusation for sins real or imagined. And each of these responses does have a place in spiritual life, and may for a brief season predominate. But it was an evangelical pastor who first suggested to me the systematic and prayerful reading of the Psalms as a cure for a “dry spell” in my spiritual life during grad school; and he was right. I return to that advice regularly, and it is simply the case that the Psalms are the most authentic and full-orbed expression of the experience of the obedient and faithful soul you can ask for. They have God for their Author, and as such they put in the mouths of those who read them prayerfully the sanctified expression of all that God has called them to suffer, embrace, survive, and thrive on with joy.
I will extol thee, O Lord, for thou hast drawn me up,
and hast not let my foes rejoice over me.
O Lord my God, I cried to thee for help,
and thou hast healed me.
O Lord, thou hast brought up my soul from Sheol,
restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.
Sing praises to the Lord, O you his saints,
and give thanks to his holy name.
For his anger is but for a moment,
and his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may tarry for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.
As for me, I said in my prosperity,
“I shall never be moved.”
By thy favor, O Lord,
thou hadst established me as a strong mountain;
thou didst hide thy face,
I was dismayed.
To thee, O Lord, I cried;
and to the Lord I made supplication:
“What profit is there in my death,
if I go down to the Pit?
Will the dust praise thee?
Will it tell of thy faithfulness?
Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me!
O Lord, be thou my helper!”
Thou hast turned for me my mourning into dancing;
thou hast loosed my sackcloth
and girded me with gladness,
that my soul may praise thee and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to thee for ever.
And it is no accident that the systematic praying of the Psalms has been, throughout the entire life of the Church, and extending back into the days when the synagogues attached to the Temple worship were the chief expression of God’s work in calling the People of God together, a central and continual form of prayer. In every Mass, and in the liturgical worship of most Christians who have an orderly method of prayer, and in the hymns and songs of all Christians who have not abandoned their heritage, we find the Psalms read and prayed and sung.
Most notably, the Liturgy of the Hours provides everyone with a way to join the whole Church in prayer through these divinely given words at any time. Not Catholic? Well, join in anyway! You don’t need to say anything you don’t believe, but if you are in any way affiliated to those who have responded to the knowledge of the One God who spoke to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who gave instructions in tender love to Moses in thunder and thundering prophecy to Elijah in stillness, who made a herdsman his messenger and sent a ranking bureaucrat on a fool’s errand, who walked among us in the Person of the Son of God and the perfect humanity of the Son of Man, who chose Apostles (radicals and collaborators, educated like John or rough-hewn like Peter, enthusiasts like Andrew or stalwarts like Paul) and founded His Church in them–if you are a Christian or any kind of believer in the God that Christians find revealed perfectly in Jesus Christ, these words are for you.
Praying systematically, using prescribed words and the Psalms (and additional Scriptures and sound meditations), will properly orient you in life’s situations. There will be moments when you know just who the Psalmist is speaking about in the imprecatory Psalms, but need help with the rejoicing; there will be moments when the Psalms of struggle and anxiety seem distant, but you feel the need to add your own praises to those that overflow from David and the Hebrew liturgists.
That is the fitting and correct response to these prayers: to see them embodied by and fitting into the concrete situation around you, as indeed they do.
In fact, that is specifically what the next step calls you to do:
4. Pray with reference to your real situation.
Remember “Sober Up”? One reason you need to do that, and to think substantively rather than in terms of conventional clichés and popular delusions, is that your prayers will only be effective in orienting you within the real world. If you paste a cliché world view into the Psalms, you will turn the Psalms into so many bad Hallmark cards in your hearing, and the result will not be sufficient to anchor and direct your thoughts in a real world where balloons-and-unicorns are not adequate representations.
Note what Daniel does in the passage above. He specifically took action by praying “When [he] knew that the document had been signed.” Your prayers are not restricted to the scope of your personal wishes, or to how you feel about things. Your prayers, your systematic and intentional actions to dispose yourself appropriately toward God, orient yourself in His world, and join your will to His insofar as He has enabled you do do so, are not effective only in changing your feelings–though they do that. Your prayers are not effective only with regard to what might be–though they are that. Your prayers have everything to do with how God and His People interact with His Creation and all that happens in that world, whatever the motives of the actors.
Consider that God’s express motivations for the whole of Creation are such that He is willing for all of it to be useless except insofar as the People of God are gathered and turned into a whole family of Friends of God:
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.
(source: Romans 8 RSVCE)
What does that mean? It means that the material and social conditions you experience, the ones that cause rejoicing or suffering, that cause anxiety from which you must pray to be delivered or elation that will need to be tempered with suffering, are not the determining elements of your situation. Those conditions are real, and important, because they are the forms in which the substances of Creation achieve the purpose for which the Creator is always acting, the voluntary friendship of each of His rational creatures with God and other people. When you and other people align yourselves with that purpose, however imperfectly, you concretely intend what God intends, and that means that you and your material and social conditions will be adjusted to each other in whatever way serves God’s continuing purpose of shaping a People of God of whom each can be said to be “after God’s own heart,” fit to one day “speak to God face to face,” to be “the disciple whom Jesus loved” in as many unique ways as there are servants of God.
That, and nothing less, is the meaning of the events of the day. It’s not about your individual salvation apart from the world. It’s not about your congregation’s salvation out of the world. It’s not about the world being saved, or being remade in the model of your favorite social vision or ideological diktat. It’s about the whole world serving as the crucible for the People of God to become what they can only become by a difficult and voluntary process of being transformed into the image of His Son, not apart but together, not within themselves alone but as members of the Church militant (struggling in the world), suffering (in purgation until ready to behold God face to face), and in glory (beholding the Beatific vision and pulling us all together toward the Resurrection).
Understand: as Creator, God has judged it worthwhile that you and all His creatures should exist; as Redeemer, God has judged you and all His creatures worth saving. Worth dying for. God would be nothing but the Most Perfect Sado-Masochist, though, if all of His suffering and yours were not of the very essence of that redemption of creatures like us. In venturing us out as rational beings, capable by our voluntary decisions of shaping ourselves as fit or unfit for the friendship He intends for us, and in sacrificing Himself so that there can be no reasonable doubt of His willingness to rescue and befriend us, no matter what our pride or shame, God has already perfectly enacted the whole of history as His act of saving “whosoever will.” Your part is not to succeed in anything except with the obedience of faith, listening to His mother’s simple yet comprehensive instructions to His brothers and sisters. Doing so, however, will involve you in action–and the linchpin and key of that action is prayer itself.
Find this hard to do? Me too. But it’s important, even so.
5. Pray in ways that require you to alter your situation.
No, I don’t mean that you should pray for change in our nation’s commitment to the slaughter of innocent unborn children by walking into an abortionist’s office praying loudly (though I will support your doing so, if you are confident that is the best way to use your talents for God–though I don’t think it probably is). That sort of “prayer activism” has a place, but that is not what I’m talking about.
No, I’m talking about praying in public gatherings of various kinds–the kinds that require you to go to Mass (daily masses, even) or to Eucharistic Adoration, but also the kinds that require you to bring some food or clean your house. The kinds that mean people have to put objects in place, explain changed plans to kids and grandparents, and justify the time and trouble you take to pray.
Pray in a way that makes prayer concretely costly and concretely active for you and for others–that makes “together” not only mystically real, but really visible.
Some friends of mine have done this well. They have arranged to open their house every Tuesday evening for Vespers, starting with an experiment last Advent; now a mixture of parish friends, extended family, and neighbors–Catholics and non-Catholics all together–assemble each Tuesday with parts of a potluck. Before we eat, though, we pray Evening Prayer together. It is a beautiful expression of the Church’s common life, and a building-block to a concrete neighborhood formed by willing sharing in a common faith.
This kind of prayer involves a more specific kind of devotion than others; it is both more costly and more visibly effective, and as such it inclines us all to greater sacrifices. There are very good reasons that the Church has, from its founding (and with roots in the Jewish practice of the worship of God), insisted that the systematic, consequential, public prayer of the People of God gathered together–out of and yet aware of their mundane situation–is the privileged form in which Christian faith ought to express itself.