In our lifetime, there has never been so much expectation for a new year, hoping that we can all turn a corner and leave a difficult year in the past. So much is out of our control, yet there is one thing that we can do to allow our lives to be shaped by the one who is truly in control. Our lives will be better this year if we give more time to God in prayer.
But what is prayer really about? I found it startling, when reading the sociologist Christian Smith, that we focus more on ourselves during prayer than on God. Citing a survey of U.S. Catholics, Smith relates that “the most frequently reported subjects of prayer are personal well-being and family relationships … Again, worldly issues dominate the prayers of American Catholics, and more ‘spiritual’ concerns — with the exception of giving thanks to God —recede far into the background” (Religion: What It Is, How It Works, and Why It Matters, Princeton University Press, 2017, 193). There is nothing wrong with praying for oneself and one’s family, although, if our prayers stop there, we’ll be missing the very heart of prayer: communion with the living God.
The Carmelite Anders Cardinal Arborelius, the first cardinal from Scandinavia, can teach us how to pray in a more God-focused way through his guide, Carmelite Spirituality: The Way of Carmelite Prayer and Contemplation (EWTN, 2020). The focus of prayer is God — sitting before him in silence to receive the gift of himself that he wants to give us. Cardinal Arborelius teaches that “adoration,” in particular, “is so important in Christian life … Adoration is completely God-centered. It is the core of our prayer to praise God just because He is God, just because He is what He is — not because He has given us so many things or insights, but just because He is God. It is our main obligation as creatures to adore Him Who made us. Until we have learned to adore God in spirit and truth, life is bound to be very troublesome because we will be bound up in ourselves. Maybe the best way to learn the art of adoration is to see our own poverty, that we are nothing and God is everything but that He still loves us and gives us all His riches” (113). When we focus on ourselves and not God, we turn our attention away from the real gifts he wants to give us. We ask for crumbs when he wants us to feast on his divine life.
The Cardinal points to the need for this adoration to become a way of life, guiding us not only every day but throughout each day. By refusing to be consumed by the daily grind of life, and focusing on God in prayer, we actually can approach the daily details more easily: “When we start to look upon our entire life as a pilgrimage, our attitude will change gradually. The small things of everyday life tend to become more important. Every little step we take becomes immensely valuable. We become aware that we are walking with Jesus to the Father with the wind of the Spirt drives onward, step by step. Every step brings us closer to God already, here and now” (7).
The Trinitarian emphasis in this quote shapes a large part of the book, with chapters on the contemplation of the Holy Spirit, remaining in the Holy Trinity, believing in and becoming a child of the Father, belong and surrendering to Jesus, and following the Spirit. Prayer is Trinitarian because Jesus shares his own love for the Father with us, who is the Holy Spirit, the one who draws us into the life of God. The Holy Spirit conforms us to Christ, who leads us to the Father, in whom we can rest secure as his sons and daughters. “We never want to be without Jesus and His Word,” Cardinal Arborelius says, because “we don’t want to be on our own. We don’t want to be independent individuals but His brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of His Father. We love to depend on Him alone” (8).
This brings us back to our initial problem — we miss what God wants to give us in prayer, or we don’t even pray at all. The Cardinal reminds us that what we need most is to spend time with God in prayer. “We are the temples of the Most Holy Trinity; our dignity couldn’t be greater. But, and this is a tragedy, most Christians couldn’t care less. God lives in them, and they are busy with all kinds of other things” (11). He calls us, following the great Carmelite tradition to prioritize prayer, even in simple ways, such as reminding ourselves with the rhyme, “now-Thou” to turn to the encounter with God each moment (58).
It is not an exaggeration to say that if we renew our efforts of prayer, opening ourselves to the life of the Trinity within us, 2021 will be a better year!