Private Prayer and Private Morality
As I mentioned in an earlier post, I will be blogging through the third chapter of Ronald Rolheiser’s book “The Holy Longing.” This chapter outlines what he feels are four nonnegotiable essentials to a healthy christian spirituality. The first nonnegotiable essential that we’ll cover in this series will be “private prayer and private morality”. Ronald Rolheiser writes this regarding the necessity for this aspect within Christian spirituality:
Private prayer and personal moral integrity in things, even in the smallest private affairs, are things that Jesus makes nonnegotiable within the spiritual life. He asks us to “pray in secret,” to have a private, personal relationship with him, and through him, with God.
As Mike, a commenter, mentioned in the comments for the introduction post, this aspect as a nonnegotiable is a bit scary. I think maybe the reason why some feel this way, as Mike and I do, is that for many who find themselves in the Christian faith, this aspect of their religion is the primary focus. As some would say, “Jesus lives in my heart,” or in other words, it’s all about “Jesus and me” and therefore I know what Jesus wants in my life, and the lives of others. As I have witnessed many times over, this thinking can sometimes provide a foundation for the assumption that our internal morality should become a morality that must be accepted by others. The clear danger when this kind of thinking shows up is that when our promotion of our private morality begins to come the focus, it can very quickly and very easily overshadow the other elements of faith that Jesus clearly defines in his teachings. This is so evident in the need for us human being to be “right” and to show others how they are “not right”. Rolheiser addresses this danger this way:
There are real dangers in an overprivatization of spirituality. The spiritual life is not just about “Jesus and I.” However, there are equal dangers in not having enough “Jesus and I” within our spiritual lives. The Danger in not having the proper interiority (intimacy with God) and the personal moral fidelity to back up our faith preaching is that we end up turning Christianity in to a philosophy, an ideology, and a moral code, but ultimately missing what Christianity is all about, a relationship with a real person.
So obviously it’s a balance. But how do we see outwardly what this looks like? For me, if it’s just left up to me to figure out how to navigate within this practice of private prayer and morality, I will easily get lost. What is my compass? If I am pursuing faithfully this aspect spirituality, then what does that look like? Rolheiser addresses this question as well:
Moreover, in Jesus’ mind, the test as to whether or not we are in fact doing this, having a personal relationship with God, is not a question of whether we feel we are having one or not, but of keeping the commandments: “if anyone loves me, he or she will keep my commandments.” In the Gospels, fidelity in keeping the commandments is the only real criterion to tell real prayer from illusion. It is true, as one of the harsher criticisms of conservative Christianity states, that we can keep the commandments and not be loving; but it is also true, and Jesus teaches this very clearly, that we cannot pretend to be loving if we are not keeping the commandments.
When I read that, it made such perfect sense. I’d never actually considered that following the commandments would be a method of prayer. Maybe that’s what the notion of “praying without ceasing” is all about.
I have to admit, I grew up in an environment where this aspect of Christianity was the big emphasis. As I processed through this experience while becoming a young adult, this emphasis led me to a place where I was not compelled to seek Jesus. For me, within this landscape of private prayer and private morality, I could not find my way. I simply stopped walking. I didn’t turn back and run, but I simply stopped and waited for something to compel me to move again. Fortunately, my eyes caught a glimpse of something bigger. There were ideas that helped shape a life of faith that made sense to the extent where I could at least start walking again. I’m not here to say that the idea of private prayer and morality is bad or itself dangerous. But I am saying that itself is not enough.
Personally, while I process al of this, I’ve realized that I need to embrace this notion private prayer and morality with less suspicion and cynicism by passionately pursuing the intimate relationship with God that I’ve been neglecting in this regard for so long. While this is something that made little sense to me when I was younger, I need to revisit this notion with an openness to hearing God’s voice and seeking his will despite whatever stigma I’ve attached to this private aspect of faith.
The next post in this series will deal with “social justice” as the second of four nonnegotiable essentials. As Jim Wallis so clearly puts it, “God is always personal, but never private.” Amen.