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Prayer is not about self-improvement, as my newborn reminds me

MOTHER WITH NEWBORN
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Our culture is so practical, so single-mindedly results-oriented, that it’s hard to consider what prayer really "is" and not what it's "for."

I was googling “infant developmental milestones,” and happened across this gem of advice, for mothers of one-week-old babies: “As you or your partner feeds her, move your head slowly from side to side and see whether her eyes follow you. This exercise can help strengthen the eye muscles.”

This is the kind of thing that used to make me start second-guessing everything I know. “Have I not been moving my head enough? I didn’t even know this was a thing! What if his eye muscles are weak now, and it’s all my fault?” I’m on kid #2 now, though, so my reaction is more of a vigorous, muscle-stregnthening eye roll. Besides knowing that infants are perfectly capable of moving their own eyeballs enough to work those muscles, I also know that not every interaction with my daughter has to be developmentally oriented.

I don’t talk to her in order to give her an early start at language, or put her up against my skin in order to regulate her heartbeat; I do those things because I love connecting with her. I certainly don’t hug her in order to make her smarter, for heaven’s sake. I’m glad that cuddling her might have awesome developmental side effects, but that really isn’t the point of the hug.

Anyway, one major perk of being a mother is how many opportunities it gives God to hammer me over the head with reminders about my own spiritual infancy. Because it seems I’ve been treating my relationship with God like it’s all about the developmental milestones. I made my spiritual director burst out laughing, actually, when I used the phrase “self-improvement” with regard to my Lenten resolutions. (He may also have rolled his eyes, but it was a phone conversation, and I’m sure he’d deny it.)

At first, I wanted to defend the choice of words. Isn’t it true that more frequent prayer ought to make us better people? I know that when I don’t pray, it’s easier to ignore my sins, so I figured prayer is like working out, and Jesus’ role is some cross between benefactor and personal trainer. He gave me the equipment and shows me how to do the work, but it’s my work, not his. And, of course, if I slack off, I lose the spiritual muscle tone, and if I keep up the habit, I get better and better.

Maybe frequent prayer does help prayer come more easily, but as with hugging your infant, that’s just not the point. Our culture is so practical, so single-mindedly results-oriented, that it’s hard to remember this. I find the attitude in my own phrasing, when I set out to have “the most productive Lent” that I can. What tools, I start asking myself, can I use to yank myself out of my spiritual coma, so that by the time Easter comes, I can celebrate with a good conscience?

But prayer is not a tool. Prayer is prayer. Prayer is “the raising of one’s mind and heart to God.”

The Catechism doesn’t talk much about what prayer does–that’s up to God, not us. As to what prayer is, though, the Catechism makes it clear that it’s about relationship, not result. Prayer is where “Christ comes to meet every human being.” It is “the encounter of God’s thirst with ours,” a ”covenant relationship between God and man.” Prayer is “the living relationship of the children of God with their Father,” and “the habit of being in the presence of the thrice-holy God.” Honestly, all of that language sounds more like a mother’s arms around her newborn than like a regimen of self-improvement.

Whenever I forget what prayer really is, I also forget that self-improvement isn’t actually possible. God is the one who improves us. “Remain in Me,” Christ says, “And I will remain in you. Just as no branch can bear fruit by itself unless it remains in the vine, neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. … Apart from Me you can do nothing.” (Jn 15: 4-5) We can choose to let God work in us or not, but the work is all his. For us, it’s enough that we just remain in him, like a branch remains on the vine, like a brand new baby remains in her mother’s arms.

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