As far as Nouwen is concerned, no word destroys the spiritual life more than the word “useful.”
Is it useful? That’s the question asked by a utilitarianism that ascribes value only to those things that “produce results.” And because we cannot ever actually “prove” that prayer “works,” many dismiss it as a waste of time.
Prayer, by its very nature, calls us into communion with God—communion for its own sake, not for any other reason. We do not pray to “feel” anything, to gain a new insight, or to be given power to accomplish something. We pray to be with God—or more accurately, to enter into fellowship with the God who is already with us (Emmanuel).
Recently, I have begun to notice that many of the ancient paintings and older photographs that show people praying, do so in positions and postures of silent reflection. A picture of Thomas Merton praying that I’ve looked at a few days ago just shows him “sitting there”—just “sitting there.”
I suspect this sense of prayer speaks to me because of my activistic personality. I have relied (perhaps even too heavily) on having a “plan” of some kind for my praying. I have to confess that I have often heard the Inner Voice saying something like this to me, “Steve, are you able to lay down your plan and just be with me?” I have had to ask myself if I was more drawn to my plan than to the Person the plan is meant to reveal.
When I am willing to “waste time with God,” I am placing ultimate value on communion, not on what the time contributed. And as I am able to lay down my plans, it opens the way to be able to know that if anything does happen, God was the One who did it!