As long as we ourselves are real, as long as we are truly ourselves, God can be present and can do something with us. But the moment we try to be what we are not, there is nothing left to say or have; we become a fictitious personality, an unreal presence, and this unreal presence cannot be approached by God.―Metropolitan Anthony Bloom
Prayer is the most fundamental act of faith one can make. It is a living expression that what we say we believe we, in fact, believe.
Consider for a moment with me that in the Nicene Creed, by which we confess the essence of our Christian faith, we begin not by using the detached third person, i.e. “Christians believe in one God the Father . . . ” Rather, we speak in the first person, saying “I believe in one God the Father . . . ”
“I” means my professed, creedal words are I-defining, a statement of how I myself see the world. Though my mind is filled with lots of bits of information about diverse perspectives on things like God, the purpose of life or morality, relatively little of this knowledge actually enters into that privileged position of faith, i.e. defining my inner and outer vision. For example, while I understand the worldview expressed in Hitler’s Mein Kampf, it is not my worldview.
I like to say, for one who truly believes to say things like “the Church teaches” or “the Bible says that” is really redundant. If you believe, if you have internalized divine Revelation, what the Church teaches or Bible says is, for you, simply your reality you live out. Would a married man ever say to someone of his own wife, “Her parents tell me she is a trustworthy woman”? No! You believe she is trustworthy based on reasoned convictions grounded in evidence, and from that, you make an act of radical trust in her that establishes your relationship. In this sense, my faith is first the gift from my wife of herself to me and then my acceptance of that gift. The same is true of God.
But the truth of what I, in fact, do “believe” vis-à-vis Jesus Christ is more complicated. If I’m honest with myself, how much of the Creed or of the Christian Faith in general truly defines my own vision of the world? Well, if I am honest, it depends on the day, the moment, the degree of suffering, temptation, or darkness. In my daily experience, I find much of the Creed still remains alien to my inner core; or at least, the Creed resides inconsistently in my spontaneous (and controlled) thinking, feeling, desiring, and acting.
Here’s where prayer comes in. Prayer takes the conceptual content of faith and performs it “as if it were true,” so to speak. Prayer is “doing” faith with the “I.” And it does so with radical openness to transcendent and life-altering truth articulated in the articles of faith. In this sense, prayer can be seen as a grace-drenched, freely given, psychosomatic act of vulnerability and trust. When I kneel, raise my hands in surrender, and pray, “My God, I choose to believe, to adore, to hope, and to love you!”―it’s risky and dangerous! I risk transforming my creedal statements from a spectator sport into a full-contact wrestling match with Jacob’s God.
Only when I cease thinking about God, and begin speaking to him, can “what I say I believe” begin to reconfigure everything inside and out. As I let the Lion of Judah out of his cage.
Pray the Nicene Creed like this every day, again and again and again, and you will allow for the progressive fusion of “I” and “. . . one God the Father . . . ” Bit by bit, such intentional acts of faith will transform mere knowledge into ego-defining belief, descending the mind deep down into the heart, entering the secret sanctuary of my conscience. Permitting a full-scale God invasion.
As Bloom says, only prayer that engages the real me does this―only prayer willing to permit faith to infiltrate every aspect of my ambiguous life, personality, mixed motives, shifting / jumbled beliefs or inconsistent actions. Such a pray-er says with heartfelt intent, “Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief!” (Mk 9:23).
St. Teresa of Avila famously said that “mental prayer, in my opinion, is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us.” Though a lovely description, “Him who we know” comes alive only when “we believe” what we know, and we believe what we know only if we (often) dare to pray into the fathomless depths of our Creed of divine love.
When a young Evangelical college classmate named Chris approached my unbelieving self on one random Tuesday evening in February of 1987, he confronted my skeptical ridicule with a dare. A literal dare. After I rebuffed his sincere Jesus-witness with an invitation to take some shots of vodka with me, he said, “Okay, I see you’re not buying it. You up for a dare?” After I agreed to the dare with some trepidation, he continued, “I dare you to say the words of a prayer with me like you mean it.” I did it, and the rest is, as they say, history.
Dare to pray the Creed often, so that “you may come to believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (Jn 20:31).