What does it mean to be your genuine self, when you pray?
God can save the sinners we are. But not the saints we pretend to be. —Metropolitan Anthony Bloom
Metropolitan Anthony makes this point often in his excellent books Beginning to Pray and Living Prayer. He recalls this rather funny phenomenon, where prayer becomes a kind of self-presentation. Often when we address ourselves to God we unconsciously adopt a persona. For many of us, it’s a pious one. Suddenly I’m standing before God as this meek creature, asking forgiveness for my faults. My brow is furrowed, my hand is on my chest. I present others before God too, friends and enemies alike, in a spirit of innocent love. All of that is good: asking for forgiveness, lovingly lifting others to God’s care. But what if I’m only doing that in a pro forma kind of way?
Perhaps even that isn’t such a bad thing. As the expression goes, “Fake it ‘till you make it.” In other words, sometimes it’s good to go through the motions in order to train ourselves, on the way towards making those same motions expressive of a deeper reality. So maybe I can recite prayers in a rote way, and whether I’ve actually meant a word of it or not, it will still have been worth my putting myself into that posture of prayer, and mouthed the words, as a kind of training towards a deeper experience of the prayers.
That can work, but it’s risky. The problem is that we are liable to get stuck in the “Fake it” stage. Because praying and actually meaning it is scary. Genuinely asking forgiveness for sins, and genuinely praying for others, especially the “trouble” people in our lives, will probably mean that we need to alter our lives. Work on not sinning. Work on loving the people we pray for. Effectively, changing our inner lives. It’s much easier to fake it.
One of the ways we fake it is by becoming someone else while we pray. Before we’ve even uttered a word in prayer, when we put ourselves before God, we might ask, who is this “self” I’m presenting to God? Is it me, or is it a façade of some sort? The façade, the persona, can safely pray in an earnest way, and then leave the prayer-mode and return unchanged.
It’s much more challenging, but so much more fruitful, to use prayer as a moment to get in touch with my genuine self, in its untidiness, and present that before God. Knowing that God has seen this kind of thing before; knowing too that God loves this very same genuine self, in all its beauty, mediocrity, failing and striving. He will save that broken self. But he’ll want to wait for me to offer it to him first. That’s what I think this lovely quote means.
So if you do devote a specific time to prayer—whether in Church or at some other dedicated time—when you do so, consider beginning it something like this: Stand/sit there briefly in silence. Hear the silence. And before saying anything, take a moment to become mindful of who you are at that moment, and who it is you’re praying to.
It’s time well spent: it might change everything.