By: Art Canales, Ph.D., associate professor of theology
I recognize that the phrase the flow of prayer sounds a bit odd. What exactly does the flow of prayer mean? By the flow of prayer, I am suggesting that people get into a rhythm of prayer, that Christians find their own stride to prayer. This brief blog will focus on the flow of prayer on two fronts.
A Dual Focus to Flow and Prayer
The first rule to the flow of prayer is to get into the habit of praying—preferably daily. Just as exercising regularly is advantageous for the body, prayer is beneficial for the mind and soul. Without proper diet and exercise, people can become soft, fat, and lethargic. The same principle holds true for prayer and developing one’s spirituality. Without daily prayer Christians can become spiritually soft, slothful, and lethargic. Christians may consider 10 to 30 minutes of quiet reflection and prayer the first thing in the morning as a morning ritual. However, if mornings are too chaotic, try an evening prayer ritual before bedtime. The specific time of the day is secondary, but the time spent in prayer is of primary concern for the Christian’s spiritual edification.
The second rule to the flow of prayer is to get into the rhythm of the prayer experience. Let the prayer pulsate through your veins, fill your mind, free your soul, and lift your spirit.Prayer can be a “magical” and mystical experience, but it takes time to discover one’s flow in prayer. Like athletes who get into the “zone” while training and competing, so too, our relationship with God can move us into the “zone” with God.
The flow of prayer, then, is getting the most out of your prayer experience. The German Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner (1982) maintains that prayer is, “an experience of the absolute, holy mystery, the experience of God...different from any other experience. The experience of God lies hidden within every human experience” (Theological Investigations, Vol. 11, 149-162). Therefore, prayer can be a moving inner experience that flows from one’s heart and energizes, renews, and refreshes one’s relationship with God.
The Power of Flow
In 1990, Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, a Russian born psychologist, who taught at the Chicago University, studied the concept of flow in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. The book has been used in the fields of education, psychology, leadership, business, and professional athletics. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time Csikszentmihalyi's flow concept is being applied to prayer.
There is power in flow, which comes from within, the inside of a person’s core; it is an interior power that flows from the inside out. Flow can be described as “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it” (Csikszentmihalyi, Flow, 4).
There are certain conditions for a person to experience the joy of flow. The conditions for flow to exist are characterized by two interdependent threads: (1) a high level of personal enjoyment and satisfaction and (2) enhancement of one's feelings of competence and efficacy (Flow, 49). Appling flow to prayer means that the person praying must enjoy the experience of prayer and be effective at the work of prayer. Experiencing flow as an activity means that one must be convinced that one’s skills (praying), insights, and discernments (listening for God) are strong enough to cope with the challenges at hand (life situations).
The Benefits of Flow
The benefits of flow can be easily integrated into a stronger prayer life. First, flow provides a sense of discovery and awe, and a creative feeling of transporting the person into a new reality (Flow, 79). A person who has truly experienced God during prayer can feel the awe-inspiring presence of God. Second, flow moves the person to higher levels of performance, and to previously undreamed-of states of consciousness. Christian mystics--people who are increasingly attuned to the presence of the absolute mystery of God--have often been moved beyond the temporal realm into the celestial realm as they contemplate God. In short, a strong prayerful experience correlates extraordinarily well with the concept of flow.
Flow transforms the self by making it more complex, insightful, and meaningful, and to this end personal growth is achieved. A significant time spent in prayer can achieve personal transformation, one of the aims of prayer. The Muslim word Sufi means “God intoxicated”; it has a marvelous connotation. In other words, falling passionately and radically in love with God, this is the ultimate goal of prayer. Flow, then, can be a term that describes the process of praying and potentially having mystical experiences--for those who really work hard at prayer--such as visions, locutions, ecstasies, dreams, and trances.
Getting into Flow during Prayer
Prayer is a powerful spiritual weapon and an influential psychological device. In all forms of prayer, we are actually dealing with interlocking networks of relationships: self, family, friends, community, and God. Getting into flow during prayer requires enjoyment, but also concentration during prayer, which allows for God to penetrate the heart and to “speak” to the person while praying. The flow of prayer focuses the individual Christian’s private prayer-life to move beyond one’s self and to create meaning. “Creating meaning involves bringing order to the contents of the mind by integrating one's action into a unified flow experience” (Flow, 216). When it comes to prayer and flow, the goal in itself is not necessarily all that important. The prayer experience of encountering God or reflecting on God is creating meaning; therefore, what truly matters is that prayer focuses a Christian's attention and energy, and involves it in an achievable and enjoyable activity.
Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Workers Movement, devoted all her energies of her life toward helping the homeless in the United States find work and housing, and in the process gave them self-respect and dignity. Mother Teresa invested all her passion to help the poorest of the poor not only in Calcutta but also around the world. Both women are shining examples for the power of flow in their lives because their lives were given to a single-minded purpose, based on unconditional love for others and having a tremendous faith in God. There have been millions of people throughout salvation-history that have experienced flow in a spiritual way in order to make meaning in their own lives as well as in others. The real question is: in which ways will you allow prayer to flow throughout your life?
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