It seems that the driving question at the heart of humanity is the repeated question, “who am I?” Even more basic than questions of purpose, the “who” question resonates with us all. We answer it in various ways: physical entities, rational souls, relational beings. Then, we live out of what we believe is most natural to us. If we are simply bodies, body image and exercise take precedence. If we are living in a dog-eat-dog world of evolutionary principles, then being a successful leader may become the answer to who we believe we are.
What does any understanding of our fundamental nature have to do with prayer? Christians have a unique understanding about human nature. Yes, we confess that we are flawed and utterly broken human beings, but we also remember that we are created for dialogue with the Divine – that thing that we call prayer. When we realize that prayer is the most basic thing to our nature, our attitude towards it changes.
Hans Urs von Balthasar puts it beautifully when he writes:
“Man was created to be a hearer of the word, and it is in responding to the word that he attains his true dignity…Man is the creature with a mystery in his heart that is bigger than himself. He is built like a tabernacle around a most sacred mystery…Certainly, in the sinner, this sanctuary is neglected and forgotten, like an overgrown tomb or an attic choked with rubbish, and it needs an effort – the effort of contemplative prayer – to clean it up and make it habitable for the divine Guest. But the room itself does not need to be built: it is already there and always has been, at the very center of man.”
-Hans Urs von Balthasar, Prayer, 22-23. (you can find the extended quote here)
Balthasar suggests that what is most fundamental to us is prayer itself. Most of us, especially in the midst of praying, don’t feel this. We identify more strongly with our severe inadequacy, our inability to focus on the Lord in the midst of swirling emotions and thoughts. Prayer becomes a time in which we reflect on our very struggle to pray. Yet, through this, Balthasar’s words remind us: we are tabernacles built around a most sacred mystery.
This is the Christian answer to “who am I?” It changes the way we think of prayer. It isn’t that prayer should be like breathing (something we hear often enough in the guilt-inducing sermon); it’s that prayer is like breathing for the Christian. It is the most natural thing in the world.
Perhaps we need to stop striving so hard, and just be, here at the feet of Jesus, the most natural place in the world. There we are experiencing the one necessary thing, the Divine dialogue, the thing that resonates in the deepest places of our heart. May we come a little closer to realizing and experiencing that, by the Father’s grace, the Son’s work and the Spirit’s power.