...and I ask blessed Mary, ever virgin,
all the angels and saints,
and you my brothers and sisters,
to pray for me to the Lord our God.
All around me people made this request of me, and yet it hadn't crossed my mind to fulfill it. I was very bothered by this when I first noticed it. Had I not been listening? Did I not consider myself, or at least desire to be brother to those with whom I was praying?
Confession presented a similar problem. How many times did I proclaim in my act of contrition my 'firm resolution' 'to amend my life,' knowing that I had made little or no effort to do any such thing since my last confession?
I was a liar and a hypocrite before God. At first this threw me into a panic which lasted, with varying intensity, for some years. Praying through it all, however--and by the grace of God alone--I came to realize that all of this was precisely the point.
The glaring gap between the high piety of our prayers and the lowliness of our actual spiritual condition makes all of our prayers a sort of confession of our mediocrity and failure. This is the realization that the saints called compunction. As Thomas Merton puts it:
But when...you see that your nature is still twisted and disfigured by selfishness and by the disorder of sin, and that you are cramped and warped by a way of living that turns you incessantly back upon your own pleasure and your own interest, and that you cannot escape this distortion: that you cannot even deserve to escape it, by your own power, what will your sorrow be? This is the root of what the saints called compunction: the grief, the anguish of being helpless to be anything but what you were not meant to be. (New Seeds of Contemplation, 263)
The negligences and lies of my prayers revealed this truth to me in the course of my efforts at Christianity, and made me realize how much I was 'trusting in the flesh,' as St. Paul puts it. Religion, as a human project, has no power to save us; its virtue is not itself saving, but in helping us get to the place where we notice the depth of our need for salvation.
I don't pray because I think that by praying I should make myself holy or worthy of God's grace (though sometimes folks mistake the peace received from prayer on the natural level for these things; hence the popularity of spirituality without religion.) I pray in order to be made aware of the dire condition of my soul and my need for God. It's like the bathroom floor; as I walk through the bathroom during the day, often without my glasses, it doesn't look like it needs to be cleaned. But when I get on my hands and knees and really look, it is then that I see how filthy it is.
This is part of the reason I am increasingly uncomfortable with Christianity being placed in the genus 'religion.' If religion is considered as a human activity, or as an aspect of human culture or set of human values and intellectual propositions (and this is what the world thinks, it seems to me), then Christianity is a religion in only a very ironic sense. In fact, it is a sort of unreligion.