One of the things I remember most when I think about the two years I spent in Ijebu-ode is one of the homilies given by a very close friend, Fr. Kevin O’Hara (SPS). He told a story about a certain house where slaves were kept in bondage before they were transported to Europe. He showed a picture of a round hall with cells along the walls and on the center there was a raised pavement where Franciscans celebrated mass everyday for the slaves and their masters. What always remains with me when I think about this scenario are some of Jesus’ exaltations in the bible about us Christians being the salt of the earth and light of the world. Also Jesus’ declaration saying that he was sent to tell prisoners that they are prisoners no more and to set captives free always comes to mind and makes me feel somewhat disappointed in the priests who were celebrating mass and preaching in that house of suffering.
Of course I am not a Franciscan and I was not born those many years ago when slave trade was unchecked and so it is quite easy for me to feel very disappointed and even upset with the religious leaders of that time. Why couldn’t they just connect the Gospel they proclaim to the real life situations immediately around them? But on deeper reflection, I have come to realize that I am as passive and even worse many times than they were. For example, I notice that there is the huge tendency in me to just switch to auto-pilot mode in prayers even during the mass. Because I know most of the prayers by heart, I can just recite them from my head without getting my heart and emotions involved and this has happened many times. When I catch myself doing this, I always feel inwardly embarrassed a little disappointed in myself. It takes a great amount conscious concentration and discipline to curtail this.
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The change in the words of the mass has helped me immensely to concentrate more and not just respond automatically to prayers without even being aware of what I am saying. This not only applies to the mass but all prayers including and especially the rosary and extensively all aspects of our lives especially as youths because we are at a very restive stage and so easily influenced and distracted profoundly by issues and realities around us. One day during October devotions, I watched two friends carry on a very important conversation about the gorgeousness of a girl who just walked into church late, and were still able to respond with superhuman-like and almost angelic ability to the hail marys and glory bes without skipping a beat. It was fascinating to watch! On retrospective reflection, I wonder myself what I was doing concentrating on their conversation, prayer modes and ejaculatory distractions when I should have being praying the words of the rosary with my whole being.
This all culminates in the fact that prayer should encompass all of our being, and it would make more sense if considered against the backdrop of scripture’s admonition: Pray in and out of season. Simply put, pray all the time. Why couldn’t scripture just make it that simple rather than give the scriptural exegetes something to fuss over? Anyways for me, this simple sentence answers the How to be a Christian question even better than the WWJD (what would Jesus do) proposition. This anecdote may buttress it.
When and if a young man falls in love, he tries to express this love to the lady with a lot of physical activities and presence including and especially presents. This love then grows to a stage where he doesn’t buy those stuff anymore but with just the words I love you conveys just the exact emotion to his partner. It further grows to a stage where words are no longer imperative, just a look conveys the meaning even deeper than the words to the partner. It even still further grows to the stage where even across long distances, a thought telepathically conveys this emotion to the loved one who immediately feels and responds to this warmth telepathically too. At this point, there are no inhibitions anymore in the relationship; not even distance can put a barrier-like separation between the parties. Consequently, one spends his or her entire life, every moment loving the other, every action, inaction or reaction is done out of love and with the love and consciousness of the other.
Relating this to our relationship with God vis-à-vis prayer, our personal relationship with God begins stained with a full dosage of human childish selfishness. We try to win favours from and with God by pouting, moping and gifting; and accordingly expect compensations for all our efforts and sacrifices. It then should grow to the stage where gratitude becomes paramount and dominates all our prayers. At this point we are content with just saying I love you to God without expecting him to say I love you too in material benefits. We come to the profound understanding that we love God for his sake - and for oursake too - because he is lovable and because he loved us first and not because loving and serving God has its perks – thereby unconsciously seeking first his kingdom and its righteousness… At this stage, most prayerful moments and encounters are a profound experience, like that of the disciples on the mount of Transfiguration; though, we are yet to realize that we do not pray to get spiritually high.
Then it grows further to the point where we are so immersed and drenched in this love that it becomes second nature. We are no longer consciously aware of us loving God in specific moments because it is now part of us but we can easily spot it in others; just like we can no longer perceive our own body smells but can smell others’. At this point everything we do or do not do is done or not done in the consciousness of the love of God. Even the most insignificant of actions such as trimming our toe nails connects us to the idea of God’s loving pruning philosophy to aid our growth and maturity into the best possible productive individuals we can be. Playing the keyboard, singing and dancing assume a new significance because we are now conscious that we do these through God, with God and in God. Imagine the feeling induced when doing these knowing we are being watched lovingly by God who smiling knowingly, contentedly and lovingly nods to our rhythm. Therefore, because we are always in his presence and he is always in our consciousness, all our actions, reactions and inactions become some sort of communication with God. Our whole lives and being, our workaday gists, laughter and quarrels, our sexual attractions and infatuations, fleeting moments of pleasurable discussion over a beer with friends and even our sleeping all become a living prayer to God. We are then knowingly praying in and out of season – all the time. This is the stage where one can proudly declare like St. Paul who and what can separate us from his love? We couldn’t ourselves even if we tried.
As youths, we can identify with these emotional tours more unequivocally because this is the stage of our lives when we are most overwhelmed and vulnerable to the promptings of love and whatever feels like it. If only we can learn to avoid the very convincing peccadillo of dualism (supposedly separating our spiritual selves from our human/physical selves implying the holiness and sacredness of our spiritual self and the sinfulness and corporeality of our humanity), we would realize that the same God who made the spirit made the flesh and everything he made was and is good. Therefore, even in our humanness and humanity, we can still give glory to God. In fact the glory of God is in man and woman fully human and fully alive. And so if we can bring in to bare all our emotions on those special moments and dates we have with God, those which are conventionally referred to as prayer, we would find a more enriching and fulfilling connection with the divine. However, wisdom they say is in the middle; - avoiding the extremes. Overindulging our humanness in the name of glorying God even in and with our human nature isn’t the best way to be a youth and a Christian just as rejecting any inherent goodness and prayer possibility of our humanity is tantamount to apostasy. Because of our high energy reserve, we usually have a hard time not overindulging and staying in the middle. So succinctly put, wisdom is in knowing when and just how to be wise and when and just how to be foolish enough to be the best possible balanced individual that our creator intended us as youths to be especially at this significant stage of our lives.
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