As with all the ways of practicing God’s presence, it is our authentic desire and willingness that counts, not the specific experience or lack of experience. ~ Gerald May
I love novenas–those nine-day Catholic cycles of prayer with a particular intention. I used to explain to Protestant friends that a novena is like a public radio pledge drive of prayer: of course, your local station would love for you to contribute at any time, but every so often they set aside several days to pester you about it. A novena is a dedicated time of prayerful pestering.
During a period when I had a lot of discerning to do, I used to use novenas frequently. It got to the point where I would sometimes receive an answer to my prayer almost immediately after I had formed the intention of praying a novena–even before I had actually prayed it.
I have come to believe that intention is everything in spiritual practice. It trumps technique, and it is more central, more vital than any altered states of mind we may experience. It is more key to spiritual advancement than any specific exercise or sacrament, and it is more powerfully influential in prayer than what we say or how we say it. And I will go so far as to say that the primary purpose of spiritual practice is to sharpen and focus our intention.
Now, I’m not advocating some kind of The Secret-esque “law of attraction” that will “manifest” what we want in the world if we manage our thoughts and feelings properly. But I am suggesting that if we sharpen our intention, two things will follow:
- Our moment-to-moment choices, both conscious and unconscious, will be more in line with our deepest desires. We will be less likely to “trade in what we want most for what we want now,” as a colleague puts it, if we have, through practice, kept our true intentions within our awareness. As Gerald May put it, “All our choices reflect an economy of passion: how we decide to invest ourselves in what we care about. Large and small, we make thousands of such choices every day.”
- God will honor our desires more abundantly as they become more focused. “Delight in the Lord,” says the Psalmist, “and he will give you your heart’s desire.” (Ps. 37:4) I used to think this was a kind of Catch-22, like Henry Ford’s promise that you could have your Model T in any color you wanted as long as it was black. But I have come to realize that our true “heart’s desire” is, in fact, the Lord–everything else is something we have been duped into believing we desire. The more focused our intentions, the less divided our loyalties between God and what the Bible calls “the World,” and the Upanishads call maya. “Come near to God,” says the Letter of James, “and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” (Ja. 4:8) Or as Jesus Himself put it, “No one can serve two masters.” (Mt. 6:24)
After a long period of uncertainty about what I was being to called to do in the world, circumstances began to align themselves in a way that made my path clearer than it has ever been. Now, you would think that this would be cause for rejoicing and plunging in with both feet, but life can put us into a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, in which we cling to our captivity out of fear of the very freedom we crave. Knowing exactly what I needed to be doing, I found myself doing everything but, balking at change and caught in the grip of acedia.
Fearful that my chance would pass me by, I began a nightly practice of chanting Om gam Ganapataye namaha–a mantra addressed to Ganesha–with the intention that the Lord of Success and Remover of Obstacles would clear my path of obstructions. Almost immediately, I began to feel my stuck-ness loosening up, and found that I could move down the path before me with increasing ease.
Finding that my rate of recovery was slackening, I approached one of my parish priests for laying-on-of-hands and healing prayer. The result was dramatic; the combination of her intercession and my own practice set up a kind of virtuous (as opposed to “vicious”) cycle of grace and intention, each fueling the other and taking me to a greater state of emotional and spiritual health than I had enjoyed for a long time. I practiced with intention, and God answered with grace that, in turn, encouraged my intention–an “upward spiral,” if you will.
The Baal Shem Tov
In Martin Buber’s Legends of the Baal Shem, God commands the Master to do spiritual battle with a false messiah. Warning him that his foe was too powerful for him to defeat alone, God charged the Baal Shem to seek the help of a tzadik, or holy man, to whom he would direct him. Traveling through a field, the Baal Shem saw a shepherd incessantly leaping back and forth over a ditch. “For you, Lord,” the shepherd cried, “and to please you! If you had sheep, I would guard them all day without pay; show me what I can do for you!” This, God told the Master, is the holy man you seek. I will have truly made progress on the day when all my spiritual practice is done in the same spirit of pure, Godly intention.
(This post originally appeared at Open to the Divine.)
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