We spend the whole of our conscious lives waiting. The moment a child is asked that seminal question, “and what are you going to do when you grow up?” is the beginning of the expectation that life has something to offer, or that it doesn’t. At such a moment, or perhaps even earlier, a life can be turned towards hope or despair. A child’s self perception is positive, and their life basically hope-filled, when he or she receives the kind of response to their dreams, or to the way they answer such a question, which affirms them as unique and valuable persons with a wealth of hidden glory yet to be revealed and released. A child is orientated towards hopelessness when he or she feels that they have failed the expectations of others, or that their own expectations do not fit with those of their parents or peer group. Failure makes them feel worthless. These two responses of hope or despair become the ‘life’, or ‘anti-life’, line which a person will grasp and hang onto until they are well on in years.
Depending on how we have been conditioned to think about ourselves and about the meaning and purpose of our lives, we will wait in different ways. People who are comfortable with themselves will wait in the expectation of good, and of the good that they are capable of doing for others. They will wait for the right opportunity to come along, believing that it will. This is what we call hope. Those who are conditioned to think of themselves as having failed in some way will wait for that word or gesture of genuine affirmation which will change the way they think about themselves, and therefore about the meaning and purpose of their lives. This is not quite despair (although it can lead into despair in later life), but it is not hope either.
Prayer begins with doing whatever kind of waiting we are used to doing, the hoping or the despairing kind, in the presence of God. It is not about words or any kind of formula, although it can begin and ultimately lead back into both of these. Prayer is about letting oneself be seen by God, rather than earnestly trying to get an answer or sign from him about what we should be or what we should do with our lives. It is about letting go and letting be. It is about hope-filled waiting.
Letting go of despairing thoughts and allowing God to really see us is not easy, especially to begin with, because it requires trust, and learning trust can take time. God is happy to wait for us to learn to trust him, so we have to be patient with ourselves. If we have been conditioned to the anti-life way of thinking we will probably never have learned to trust anyone, least of all God. But the way to self acceptance, and hence to a life of hope, begins with knowing that we are already accepted by God in Jesus Christ. In this sense, he is already ‘us’, as we feel ourselves to be. He is already working in and through us in whatever psychological damage we may have suffered as a result of being handed despair as the ‘line’ on which to drag ourselves along through life. The hardest part of prayer is therefore the easiest. It involves waiting in an entirely different way as we gradually let go of old habits of mind and reach out to grasp Christ as our life line.