The heavens declare the glory of God. The skies proclaim his handiwork. Trees and mountains can sing to God together, and even the rocks could start crying out. But I can’t seem to open my mouth to pray.
The phenomenon, I’m assured, is not unique to me. Prayer is hard to do. I could take the time to compile a list of saints, divines, and other luminaries throughout history who struggled with prayer for seasons or throughout their lives, but it would only be a slight comfort in reassuring us that the struggle is common—which we already know. On the other hand, I could list people who have prayed so well that they would glow with the uncreated light. Again, that’s interesting, but little comfort, at least to me.
What is prayer, anyway? Prayer is just the willful orientation of one’s “being” toward the Source of being. When there is perfect orientation between creature and Creator, the creative self-giving of the Self-Existent One is then echoed by the contingently existing creature back toward its Creator in an ecstatic reciprocation of its own sort of self-giving, anchoring its very being in God. God is glorified in this process and the creature becomes more itself. Their two wills have as their end the final freedom of perfect meeting. But this process is begun by willfully orienting toward God in prayer. As Francis De Sales instructed his pupils: “Mettez-vous en la presence de Dieu.“
That very ontological definition of prayer is important to know and to meditate on as it drives home the gravity of the action; it links the action of prayer to our very being and purpose for existing. But it’s little help as practical instruction on the action itself. How does that willful orientation begin? What are those thoughts and feelings and urges and excitements and depressions within us that affect our wills and move them away from God? How do we deal with them? Is it really the case that we can’t—or at least can’t always—do whatever we put our minds to? Or rather, is it the case that we’re not always in perfect command of our wills?
A long time ago a man named Pelagius taught that Christians could both intend and achieve spiritual perfection. Jesus, after all, instructed us to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48). You know, just do it already. This implies the belief that we do in fact always have the ability to control our minds and wills, and that nothing inside us can ultimately compete with our wills. I don’t know about you, but I’m not convinced of this.
We all think we know what it means to will something. I will to pick up my coffee and drink it, and it happens. I will to type an email, and I do it. Ah, but then I will to get out of bed when my alarm goes off. When the moment comes, I find a conflict in myself. I have two scenarios before my imagination: one of dragging feet and cold floors, but also of coffee and getting to work on time (a place I’m not always eager to get to, but that crucially pays me money); or the scenario of staying right where I lie. At that moment, my desire is to stay in the warm bed, and there’s a fair chance that’s exactly what I will do. But if I do drag myself out of bed, I may speak of having to do it “against my will.” Alternatively, if I hit snooze on my alarm and oversleep, I may say, “That’s not what I wanted to do.”
The interplay between want and will is complicated. “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate . . . . I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.” (Rom 7:15, 18). I really did want to get up with my alarm…last night when I set it. But this morning, I find a new want in me. And I really do want to pray, in a general sense; but when it comes down to it, prayer, like getting out of bed, often feels like exposing my uncovered self to the cold light of day, going from a comfortable dream world to the hard corners of reality. And so though I want to pray generally, I don’t in the moment. Which want is my will? Was my will simply whatever I ended up doing? That seems tautologous.
Anyway, the point is that there are competing desires in all of us, and St. Paul suggests they come from two distinct parts of our nature: “For I delight in the law of God in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war…” (Rom 7:22-23). My inner being wanted to wake up on time; my members wanted to scrap that plan. According to Paul—who wants to do good but has not the ability to carry it out, and even more astoundingly actually does what he hates (!)—the human will is at least partly “in bondage” to the members of the body.
Against Pelagius, (but with Saint Paul) Saints Augustine and Jerome insisted that divine grace was needed for us to be able to accomplish not just complete perfection, but even the beginnings of perfection—and really anything at all. For them, every movement of ours toward virtue or holiness is ultimately the result of divine grace working on us and in us. But what does that leave for us to do? Does “divine grace” get credit for every good thing I do (à la extreme Calvinism)? What about the bad things: are they my fault or the fault of God for not giving me divine grace? The extreme poles of Pelagianism and Calvinism are both too simple for the holy ambiguity left to us in Scripture and in the Church fathers. Scripture and holy Tradition both seem to communicate to us what the Church calls a synergy (synergeia) between ourselves and God, wherein God does indeed give us both the ability and responsibility to co-operate with him in our own transformation. “We are fellow-workers (synergoi) with God” (1 Corinthians 3:9). But the very fact that this cooperative ability is given to us by God in the first place shows that we, of ourselves, bring nothing to the table.
This “both/and” of God working and us working frustrates “either/or” thinkers, not least because the line between what is definitely God’s work and what is definitely ours isn’t clear. But I think that’s precisely because, though there is a portion of work that’s definitely God’s alone, the portion that is ours is also God’s. It’s ours because we do it, but it’s God who gives us the existence, the life, the cognition and reason, and the material world in which to do it. Like the child who dunks the basketball because his father lifts him up to the basket, or the kid who pedals the bike forward only because his father is applying the steadying hand of balance on the seat. Those analogies break down because they imply a growth and a progress in the children that will eventually mean they will no longer need their fathers to help them dunk or ride a bike. But the Saints most advanced in prayer and holiness are actually the ones most aware of and desirous for the hand of God holding them up in all they do. In a perfect inverse curve, the more reliant they become on God, the more they are enabled to do.
But questioning with suspicion this mystery of how both we and God work together will yield us no fruit; we must hold the two realities in tension simultaneously, spurred to action by the knowledge that we must work, and humbled by the knowledge that it is God who works in us. This tension is perfectly captured in a line from Psalm 51 (50), “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth with declare your praise,” or in the beautiful rendering of the Authorized Version, “O Lord, open thou my lips, and my mouth shall shew forth thy praise.” This profound sentence has been chosen as the opening of the daily prayer of Christians for centuries. Why? Because it acknowledges—right up front, as the first thing—that we cannot pray on our own. God must first open our mouths, and only then our wills may carry on with praising him. And critically, it’s not as if God does this one simple work of initially opening our mouths and then everything that follows after that comes from us. No, it’s that God must open our mouths for every word, every syllable. Even if we, poor creatures, truly and honestly desired and willed to sing praises, our mouths would not form the words for us unless God made them to. Thus God inspires us to ask him to enable us to praise him. And round it goes.
So when I can’t seem to pray, because my flesh has imprisoned my will or for whatever mysterious reason it seems so difficult, my first prayer should always be, “O Lord, open thou my lips.” And even if I’m fully ready, willing, and primed to pray, I yet still begin, “O Lord, open thou my lips,” because these lips of mine are his creation, and without him, they cannot move.