This blog, by Fr. Bill Barry, SJ, is a reflection on the spiritual readings and guide being used this month by Ignatian volunteers in all regions across the country.
In Praying the Truth: Deepening Your Friendship with God through Honest Prayer (Loyola Press, 2102) I take seriously that God wants our friendship and use what I know about how we develop a friendship to talk about prayer. The bedrock of friendship is honesty, not carefulness with one another, as the novelist Richard Russo notes in That Old Cape Magic. At the Last Supper Jesus tells his disciples, “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father” (John 15: 15). Jesus has opened his heart to these disciples because he wants to be their friend; I presume that he hopes for reciprocity from them, namely that they will be as open with him. Prayer is, when all is said and done, just two friends hanging out with one another and being honest with one another. That’s what Jesus wants of us; that’s what God wants of us, our friendship with all that entails for prayer.
In the book I use the psalms a lot since they have been the best examples of how to pray to God. The psalmists let it all hang out. They tell God about their joys and sadness, their successes and failures and sins. If they feel that God is responsible for what has gone wrong, they let him know in no uncertain terms. Just read Psalm 44.
In Gail Godwin’s novel Evensong Margaret Gower Bonner, an Episcopal priest who serves as chaplain at a camp for troubled teenagers, has a series of conversations about prayer with a newcomer, Josie. It is quite entertaining and instructive. On one evening Josie tells her of the psalms that turn her off, one of them Psalm 137 which blesses the one who will bash the heads of Babylonian babies against a rock. “How can that be a prayer?” Josie asks. Margaret replies:
Because the psalms were written by humans and humans are a messy, contradictory lot. They grow up very slowly. The reason these psalms still speak to us is because the writers showed us ourselves as we are and yet put it in a larger container. They’re reporting to God what’s going on inside them at the moment. They rage and lament and give thanks and praise for their good fortunes and curse their enemies some more and blame God for abandoning them, but they also write down God’s voice telling them things they need to know, telling them that they are loved and special. It’s a mixed bag, but the point is it’s all in a bag, bigger than they are, called God.
When Josie says, “I thought the bible was a book that told you how to be good,” Margaret says,
No, it’s a record of a people keeping track of their relationship with God over a very long period of time. The amazing thing is, this constant accounting of yourself to an unseen other does make you change and grow. Sooner or later you become more conscious of what you’re doing. People go through some pretty awful stages as they fumble toward what they’re meant to be. As you put it, cruel and whiny. It takes a long while to complete the transformation from ‘eye-for-an-eye’ sandbox whiner into a loving person–a lot of us never make it (74-76).
Praying the truth to God our friend does change us. We become more like our friend, and thus more like what we are created to be, images of God.
Fr. Bill Barry, SJ is a Spiritual Reflector for IVC New England. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1950 and was ordained in 1962. He earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Michigan in 1968. He has taught at the University of Michigan, Weston Jesuit School of Theology, and Boston College. Presently he resides at Campion Center where he is co-director of a nine month Jesuit Tertianship Program and gives retreats and spiritual direction. He is the author or co-author of 15 books, including The Practice of Spiritual Direction, God and You, Finding God in All Things, Spiritual Direction and the Encounter with God, Who Do You Say I Am?, With An Everlasting Love, and Contemplatives in Action with Fr. Robert Doherty. For more on his writing please visit Loyola Press.