“Prayer can be difficult. Prayer can be joyful. Prayer can be deeply challenging. But always life-changing.”
That’s the beginning of a trailer for a new book on the reason we were made, our “journey into the heart of God.”
Dan Burke, executive editor of the National Catholic Register , president of the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation and the creator of Divine Intimacy Radio and SpiritualDirection.com, is the author of Into the Deep: Finding Peace Through Prayer. We talk a bit about going deeper and what it can mean.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What’s this deep that you want people to go into? It doesn’t seem the most practical thing in the world.
Dan Burke: Well, the call to the deep did not originate with me. In fact, it was Jesus in the Gospel of St. Luke. chapter five, who invited Peter to “put out into the deep.” Peter was reluctant, but he answered Jesus’ invitation and was delighted to discover the abundance that comes from saying “yes” to God. There really is nothing of greater practical and eternal value in life than saying “yes” to God.
Lopez: Did you write this book because Catholics do not know how to pray?
Burke: At a typical Sunday Mass, nearly every hand would go up if you were to ask the congregation, “How many of you know what prayer is?” However, in my work in spiritual theology I have found that, in reality, only a small percentage of Catholics really understand or engage in the depths of prayer to which God is calling them. Catholics may know the basics, but we are called to seek more — the profound depths of prayer that God has revealed in the saints.
Lopez: How do the best practices you lay out help? Will it help someone who has never really read a book on prayer before or developed any kind of routine or plan for prayer?
Burke: The approach I propose will help anyone who is ready to make a serious commitment to prayer. The reason for my confidence is that what I propose is not my new idea, but one that is tried and tested and has been the staple of a myriad of saints. So what is new about this book? I think we succeeded in making things very simple and practical, yet not shallow. Our approach reflects ancient wisdom, practically applied to our time.
Lopez: Why would God ever desire you or I or any other imperfect human being, as you write? Doesn’t that suggest a God who needs higher goals?
Burke: No, it suggests that God’s love has no bounds. Jesus went to the cross to pay for our sins, and there has never been a greater demonstration of love and the lengths to which love will go to bring healing and hope. There is nothing unforgivable, no mind too confused, and no heart too broken that God cannot and will not heal if we would simply allow Him to do so.
Lopez: Can one really find peace through prayer? A lot of people might say about now: Killing terrorists would be higher on their priority list.
Burke: Could the 1st-century Christians find peace under persecution that was brutal and relentless? Some of the worst persecution in history is happening now, but the level of brutality and ruthlessness is not new. In the 1st century, in the face of the radical assault against humanity and the work of God, Jesus promised peace. The Holy Spirit also promised a “peace that passes all understanding” through St. Paul. The fact is, it doesn’t matter how loudly and powerfully the storm rages around us and sometimes in us, if we know intimacy with God in and through the sacraments and mental prayer, we can know the peace promised to us by Jesus.
Lopez: Why is prayer a “battle?”
Burke: Prayer is a battle because of our brokenness. Our hearts yearn for God, but we often don’t understand that yearning, so we seek to satisfy it in everything but the “one thing that is needful.” Once we discover that one thing, there is much in our nature that must be confronted in order to develop a healthy discipline of prayer. The battle lies in the constant assault of the world, the flesh and the devil, but the victory is won through perseverance and the grace that God promises to give as we say “yes” to Him.
Lopez: What do monkeys have to do with prayer?
Burke: I use the idea of “monkeys in the head” as a way to illustrate the significant challenge of distractions. Monkeys are quite rambunctious and usually do all they can to disrupt our focus. Everyone with a pulse has “monkeys” that want to keep them from prayer, and we provide a few key strategies to deal with these monkeys and eventually win them over to even help us in prayer.
Lopez: What does a “solemn commitment to God” look like?
Burke: A solemn commitment is one that we can make to God to increase our ability to persevere in prayer. It is solemn because we recognize how important prayer is to our relationship with God and because we deeply desire to honor this commitment. It can be applied to any person and their own specific desire and approach. It can be five minutes a day or thirty minutes. Whatever the commitment we make, when we work hard to keep it and truly seek to “draw near to God” in this way, He promises that “He will draw near” to us.
Lopez: How can one experience God? Especially anyone reading this who thinks this all sounds impossible, implausible, even silly?
Burke: Well the good news is that Jesus and the saints didn’t think it was silly. Jesus promised in St. John’s Gospel, chapter 14, that He would “manifest” himself to those who live within a covenant of love with Him. It is not only possible to know this reality; it is abnormal to not experience God in this life. The secularization of our culture, coupled with false beliefs about piety, have done a great deal of damage to our ability to understand what it means to be in relationship with God. The fact is that the saints had a dynamic and living relationship with God that empowered many of them to change the world that they lived in and some to literally change the world as a whole. The path that many of these saints followed to experience God is the essence of what I am trying to reveal in the book. I have not only seen this lived out in the lives of the saints, but also in the lives of moms, dads, college students, grandparents — anyone who is truly ready to yield to the work of God in their soul.
Lopez: Is there a way for Christians to influence better politics through prayer? Why does that seem like a cop-out to many? Surely you’ve seen some of them.
Burke: Well, as a matter of fact, anyone who says, “Don’t just pray … do something!” has a deeply impoverished view of prayer. In fact, if whatever endeavor we engage in is not empowered by prayer, the most important results will be either temporal or elusive. We need deep change in our world, but that change won’t come through the power of politics. Any lasting change can only come through hearts transformed by an authentic encounter with Christ. Those who know this reality will change the world and will engage in politics in a way that is in keeping with what it means to have an authentic relationship with God — one immersed in the power of His presence within and engaged in serving the world without.
Lopez: How does being “scrappy” help with holiness?
Burke: Most of us who make a living and are good at our work know what it means to be scrappy at work. However, few apply that same diligence, creativity, and resourcefulness to prayer. Thus we often “give it a try” rather than make a serious commitment to do whatever it takes to find this “pearl of great price.” When we make a serious commitment, we are saying that no matter how many times we fail or how much we struggle, we will never give up on the most important reality of this life: a life of union with God. Being scrappy is absolutely necessary if we are to be holy.
Lopez: Who is Into the Deep for?
Burke: I worked very hard to write Into the Deep for anyone who is ready to say “yes” to God in prayer. Matthew Kelly is responsible for helping me to simplify the effort without dumbing it down, giving it broad appeal and applicability — but significant depth. People can read this book in an hour, but it will take a lifetime to implement. I truly believe it can help anyone who has a real desire to answer Jesus’ invitation to “put out into the deep.”
Burke offers signed copies of the book available for purchase, and does parish events based on the book, with more information here.