“All men need enough solitude in their lives to enable the deep inner voice of their own true self to be heard at least occasionally” – Thomas Merton
Friday night, just after 10 p.m., my car broke down. I was about 20 minutes from home in stop-and-go traffic when I saw my temperature gauge start to rise. It climbed slowly at first, inching up bit-by-bit, but it wasn’t long before it skyrocketed past the last tick mark. I knew I had to get off the highway fast.
I pulled into a well-lit parking lot and popped the hood. Not long after, a nice man in a pick-up truck pulled over and asked if I needed help. He owned an engine shop up north. He checked a couple hoses, along with the coolant reservoir, before giving his best diagnosis – he suspected the car’s thermostat wasn’t registering, and as a result, there was no mechanism to keep the engine at a constant temperature.
In the days since, I learned that a thermostat serves two very important functions. First, it holds the coolant back while the engine heats to a minimum operating temperature. If an engine runs below its threshold operating temperature, it is less efficient, its parts wear out quicker, and it emits more pollution. Second, once the engine reaches its operating temperature, the thermostat regulates the release of coolant. This allows the engine to run without overheating.
The thermostat is the engine’s mechanism to maintain a consistent and efficient temperature. When it doesn’t register, there is nothing to prevent the engine from overheating or running cold. It then becomes either inoperable or quick to wear out.
Our prayer life is a little bit like a thermostat. It measures our present state and can determine when we reach our prime operating temperature. It is also responsible for keeping our systems from overheating by deploying resources when things heat up.
If our internal thermostat isn’t registering, it isn’t providing the information our vehicle needs to operate smoothly.
Two weeks ago, I visited my alma mater, Gonzaga University, the birthplace of my adult faith. One afternoon, I sat along the Spokane River in silence, absorbing the scents, scenes and sounds of a beautiful fall day in the northwest. I thought about the different areas of my life – work, friendships, relationships, social activities and spirituality. I hadn’t done that in a long time. Admittedly, I haven’t wanted to.
My thermostat hasn’t been registering for a while. My engine has been running fairly hot for the last few months, without a lot of room for or attention to my internal world.
On some days I’ve been running the engine cold, eager to sprint through the day without allowing ample time to reach an efficient operating temperature. On other days, the engine has no regulating mechanism and quickly overheats from internal and external stressors. The only option for an engine that overheats is to leave it to cool off; it certainly isn’t drivable.
Prayer and a deeper connection to our spiritual compass provides an opportunity to check-in with the areas of our lives that are running hot or those areas where the parts are quickly wearing down. It allows for reflection and discernment of where we see God and where it is hard to see God in our lives. It helps us sit with the sticky spots and pray through experiences of heartache and trial. It can also be a time of great joy and gratitude.
Prayer looks different for each driver. For me, it often comes in the form of writing. Sometimes I pray while I’m running or painting. Other times, my prayer is strongest when I’m in community at morning Mass. My prayer is rarely, if ever, perfect. Specific or general, memorized or freeform, what prayer looks or sounds like is far less important than the commitment to the practice itself.
Instead, prayer is about making sure our thermostat is registering, and that we are able to remain constant at the deepest internal levels in order to best live out our external experience.
Last Friday, my car certainly wasn’t operable. I had to have it towed to a mechanic who could further diagnose its ailments and provide the necessary repairs. The mechanic had to replace and reset the thermostat so it would, once again, act as a regulating mechanism.
For the past few months, my internal vehicle hasn’t been fully operable. It took going back to Gonzaga, the place where I first learned so much about faith and prayer life, to see what was ailing and what repairs were necessary. It took a simple, yet profound encounter with the Mechanic, while sitting next to the Spokane River late one Friday afternoon, to reset my internal thermostat, so that it too may once again serve as a regulating mechanism.
Thanks be to God for thermostats.