Part 17 in a series; see other parts here.
Prayer can be both an immersion in love and an education in it, precisely because prayer is a central venue in our ongoing repentance, or turning toward God. Nothing illustrates love’s richness in paradox quite like prayer, for in prayer the experience of being overwhelmed by grace and acceptance can coincide with that of feeling deeply that serious things in our lives need to change. Adding to the complication, sometimes in prayer we learn that we need to accept the things we thought needed to change and that we need to change things we’ve long accepted. Love is always both simpler and much more difficult than it appears.
Both of the great commandments that Jesus, quoting the Torah, taught us turn on love: love of God, love of neighbor, and love of ourselves. Prayer unsettles any hierarchy we might find among these objects of love. Sure, from the perspective of dogma God ought to be the most important, but can we really love God without loving our neighbors or ourselves? Instead of a hierarchy, these loves exist in a network of quasi-Trinitarian inter-involvement.
Love turns out to be no less complex than the world to which it offers the best and, finally, the only response. It’s certainly possible to pray as a way of trying to run away from this complexity, but prayer more properly is a way of learning to face it, of opening up the soul in order to take it in, and having taken it in, to love it. By placing us in an environment of God’s love for us, prayer helps us to contribute to an environment of love for the people around us, so that we together can work to change what needs to change. Love means seeing things both as they are and as they might become, both actuality and potentiality. The present moment is riven through with invisible worlds, and the call to love stretches us toward embracing that full reality.
Just as we do not know how to pray as we ought, we do not know how to love as we ought, yearn though our hearts might. Here, too, the Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words, helping us to give voice to a love exceeding our capacities. Prayer lets us seek in the Spirit for the loves we do not yet know how to give. What greater quest can there be?