Try as I might, there are times when prayer seems to lead me further away from love; sometimes it seems that prayer is the problem.
Let me suggest that this happens when I confuse spiritual formation with the life of prayer. This misconception is as common among Christians in liturgical traditions as it is non-liturgical Christians. But we need to remember that while a life of personal and communal prayer is essential to our spiritual lives, spiritual formation itself is concerned with helping a person or a community discover and incarnate their identity in Christ. Put slightly differently, formation is about vocation and not strictly speaking about devotion.
One of the most important parts of my day is the time I spend with the Psalter and reflecting on Scripture. My life of personal prayer is nourished by the celebration of the Divine Liturgy and reception of Holy Communion and my participation in the other sacraments of the Church. Vespers and Matins (communal evening and morning prayer) are also important parts of my prayer life.
Just as communal prayer sustains my personal prayer, the personal prayers also helps shape my experience of communal prayer. Personal (in the sense of private) prayer fosters in me an awareness of the depth, beauty and wisdom of the Church’s liturgical tradition. Over the years I’ve come to appreciate how personal and communal prayer—like grace and freedom—are the two wings by which the soul ascends to God.
The formal, liturgical prayer of the Church purifies my personal prayer. As I reflect on the vision of the human person embodied in the Church’s hymnography, I am better able to distinguish what in my prayer life is of lasting significance. This in turn helps me understand what in my prayer is merely transitory. Maybe most importantly, the Church’s liturgical tradition helps me see what in my prayer life is immature and even sinful.
Without liturgical prayer, my personal prayer lacks a firm foundation in Christ (1 Corinthians 3:11, 2 Timothy 2:19). At the same time, I can’t depend on liturgy to carry the whole weight. When I neglect personal prayer, liturgy becomes merely a religious performance (or worse). In the Cherubic Hymn, we say that we “mystically represent the cherubim”; like the angels, the Church gathers around the Throne of the Lamb that was slain and offers Him worship and praise (Revelation 5 and Colossians 1). This is what we mean when we say that the Church’s formal worship is sacramental.
Sacramental worship isn’t magic it is prophetic, because it is a revelation (mysterion or “revelation”; see Ephesians 5: 32) here and now of who we will be in the Kingdom of God. Together with ascetical struggle, daily prayer is how I bring the whole of my life into greater conformity with the life of Heaven, with who I will one day be in Christ. Personal prayer helps me take captive not only “every thought” but my whole life for Christ (see 1 Corinthians 10:5). Personal prayer is about becoming the person I claim to be in liturgical prayer.
All of this is lost on me without a sound spiritual formation. If I have no sense of who I am in Christ or if I don’t strive to be the person God has created me to be, then prayer—personal or liturgical—will never be more for me than a rote exercise. The tragedy of merely routine prayer (private or liturgical) is I come to prefer the words I say to who I am. Over time this leads me away from God, my neighbor and myself; I become rigid, lonely and angry. Consonant spiritual formation is part of how we avoid this situation.
And more importantly, spiritual formation lays the foundation I need to correct it when prayer becomes the problem.