This little work was amazing to me. You see, I've never really thought of myself as an expert on prayer, but this book made me aware of how much of a prayer newbie I really am! While I went on night after night repetitiously thanking and asking God for the same things, this book told me that prayer didn't need to be nearly that structured to be effective.
For instance, they suggest that we should bring our desires to prayer, and--this is crucial--not just the ones we're proud of. They write:
"With God, our desire is more naked, and rightly so. With no secrets, we come at God crudely, like beggars or greedy children. It is no good denying this or trying to mask it. We must see the crudeness and include it. God loves us in the flesh. Denying what God loves and died for is trying to go God one better, and only impedes our prayer. We must bring this crudeness along, too. Even our greed, which God permits, may work for the good. It brings us urgently into prayer where God can get at us. Our greed then may be winnowed, chastened, refined.I had always found it acceptable to bring my righteous desires to God and ask them to be fulfilled, but I had never considered bringing my selfish or even sinful desires to Him. To think: bringing God my desire for revenge, for greed, for lust! Though I don't use this prayer to ask God to satisfy my sinful desires, the Ulanovs say that prayer becomes that much richer when I use it to bring my desires to the divine. For that is one of their great insights: that all desire is ultimately a frustrated longing for the fullness and wholeness I can experience in God alone. So prayer then becomes a way of "winnowing" that desire enough for me to experience it as it really is--my longing for God Himself as the source of my being, my desire to experience being in its wholeness, to touch the infinite.
And this really does apply to any desire. Even desires of the worst kind--like for murder or something equally upsetting--are just a longing for God that has completely missed the mark. Without the kind of redirection prayer can provide, the sinner will seek for God in things--making idols out of lucre or lustful flesh. And their ultimate punishment will be to find that these things are empty of the divinity they assigned to them, left to themselves in a world full of their idolatry's empty shells.
But with prayer, any desire can become transmuted into a desire for Him and His goodness. With prayer, I realize that nothing God created is inherently evil, and that it is good to the extent that I use it as a means to reach Him. Prayer renders the world translucent to His light, showing me the paths to Him in and through the things in the world. And it is desire that gets me moving on these roads to the divine. The Ulanovs write that desire itself, in whatever form, "reflects God's desire moving us toward fuller being, toward the embrace of love." So the key is--whether the desire be for a job, a child, a partner of the opposite sex, or even a partner of the same sex--to follow that desire back to God, to see Him as He reveals Himself in it. For all desires harbor the seeds of divinity in them. Why else would they strike us as so compelling, as if we would die without their being fulfilled? For God is the source of our being, one we long to return to, and in the object of our desire that source reveals itself to us.
How does this work practically? Though the Ulanovs' advice is sparse on the actual wording of prayers, I suspect that such a prayer would involve consecration. To my Father in Heaven I would say something like:
"My Father in Heaven, I have a desire for something I know can't be fulfilled, and so I offer that desire to Thee. I ask thee to show Thyself to me in the fire of my longing, so that its fire and Thy fire may become one flame. I ask thee to show me the true meaning of what I long for, so that I may use this desire not to turn away from thee in a search for something I cannot achieve, but instead see my longing as a revelation of Thy longing for my return to Thee. Father, I ask thee to use the burning fire of my desire to purify me, to reveal to myself who Thou knowest I can be. I entrust my desire to Thee, and I ask Thee to mold it to Thy will, even if it cannot become fulfilled on earth. I say these things in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen."
In other words, even though a desire can't be fulfilled in this life--either because of sinfulness or plain impossibility--I can still find God in it. Such a person's desire calls them higher than most dare to go, for it invites them to see the flame of God's kingdom (see this post) as it reveals itself in their own minds and bodies. Without an object to mediate my desire for Him, I must learn to satiate my desire for Him directly, with only the medium of my faith and longing to bridge the way. That bridge is prayer, and prayer itself reveals God in desire.
Inherently helpful in this pursuit is another thing the Ulanovs say we should include in our prayers: fantasies. Though traditional prayer manuals strongly warn against indulging in daydreaming or fantasizing, Primary Speech suggests that such fantasies are only dangerous when they are taken literally. Instead of repressing these fantasies or else mindlessly living them out, when brought to God in prayer they can become the means to a greater communion with Him. The Ulanovs write on this topic:
"When looked at knowingly, courageously, and honestly, fantasy ceases to be distracting. Instead, it shows us our distractions. We see how many ways the world gives us to veer off from what matters centrally. The busyness, the competitive pace, the anxieties about having enough, the vanities about others' approval or disapproval of our dress or our ideas or our lifestyle, the constant stress of getting and spending, the false way of achieving a self by triumphing over our neighbor's self--all these worldly pressures can stand out boldly when we pay prayerful attention to our fantasies. Rather than taking us away from the Lord of our being, fantasies thus noticed expose us to the topography of our being."Fantasies are images of our soul brought to our conscious attention. When I fantasize about doing x or y, there is a part of me that longs to be known, to reach the light of my awareness. But what is really going on when we fantasize--especially in prayer--is that those parts of me are trying to gather themselves together into an integrated whole, so that that whole might present itself to God as His image. The Ulanovs say that "It may be that the Spirit itself creates 'distractions.' The Spirit stirs up prayer with fantasy, awakens images and motifs as if getting everything ready to be brought to itself in prayer." Fantasies are those ignored, buried parts of ourselves trying to actualize themselves in us. Knowing this, perhaps fantasies are among the "great things the Father hath laid up for you, from the foundation of the world" (Ether 4:14), finally being unearthed.
The key to utilizing fantasy in prayer is to learn "how to have our fantasies and stand aside from them simultaneously." I must stand aside from them without turning away from them, turn to them without losing myself in them. This takes mindfulness, a willingness to experience whatever comes before my mind with both rapt attention and equanimity. So whether I have a fleeting daydream of winning the Pulitzer Prize or being a victimized martyr, or else something more sexual, I use whatever I experience in my mind's eye as a lens to learn both of myself and of my relationship to God. It may be that my fantasy of being the next Dostoevsky or Heidegger indicates my innate disposition to illuminate meaning for the world. A daydream about my getting married with x person may then mean that the person about whom I'm fantasizing shows me what I value above all, that "crush" becoming a bridge or window to divinity. This principle is true even with seemingly lecherous sexual fantasies.
If desire is God's fire drawing my own flame into it, what I desire (i.e. my fantasies) is how that desire reveals itself to me, the ways I can experience the cosmic current drawing me into God. The key, then, is to make the fantasy translucent, to de-literalize it enough that I can see it for what it is: a way God appears to me, to draw me with all the force of His love into His purifying flame. Have no illusions, though--if I mistakenly assume I desire something other than God, I will inevitably face some degree of dissatisfaction. The only true fulfillment of desire lies in God Himself as the source of being, or else in images that let Him shine through.
But how does one practically integrate fantasies into prayer? The Ulanovs offer some advice:
"What does this mean in practice? It means we take our fantasies seriously. It means we offer them to God. We have them and we don't have them. We are rich and poor, hungry and satisfied, full and empty simultaneously. Our most fearsome fantasies remain with us--we are murderer and victim, sick unto death and healer of the dying, victor and defeated. We extend across worlds into every condition of men and women and are connected with them, as ourselves, in our living persons. We become bigger, more stretched out, more transparent, less densely compacted around our tight little identity. Our fantasies become lenses through which we see God's spirit working at us, on us, and in us. We see through our fantasies and are less apt now to be duped by them.
Offer your fantasies to God; see yourself now as victor, now as martyr, now as sinner, now as saint. In doing so you'll learn that these fantasies aren't you per se--they're fun to play around with, but with the endless dress-up game that fantasy always gives, you'll learn to discern your true nature constantly there underneath the costumes. But like all costumes, fantasies are wonderful things: countless ways to present myself to God, to receive Him, to "be-there-with" Him. And also like all costumes, one would be making a great mistake if you assumed that the mask I see is my actual face. Enjoy the mask; enjoy the face. They fit one another, and yet are not identical.
And how do I find my face, my true being? When these fantasies come before me in prayer, I learn with divine assistance to discern the main themes in them, the constancy underlying the variety. The threads of my fantasy, among other things, involves the dichotomies of infinity and finitude, self and other. They dominate my life, and you can see their manifest presence in my blog. But what are yours? It may be that a troubling or impossible-to-fulfill fantasy is revealing your vocation, what you are to do here. But of course, don't take it literally (in fact, don't take anything literally!); instead, look at it askew, trying to discern the divine light in it, the current pulling you into His presence. I have found mine, even in things of which I was bitterly ashamed. I'm sure you can too.
The Ulanovs say many other things in this book, but none of them are as pertinent to the themes we've talked about as the chapters on desire and fantasy were. Besides, this post is already getting quite long. If you're curious, go and buy the book--there's a link to the Amazon page at the top. And before I finish here, I want to remind you that God always loves you, and that that love can shine through all things, if you know how to look rightly.