Welcoming prayer has been so helpful to me on my journey, especially over the past few years. I’m going to keep it real and tell you that I thought I had uncovered and faced most of my problems in therapy in my twenties. LOL. So when I hit my forties, I was surprised that all kinds of seemingly new problems surfaced for me internally and I needed some new resources. Welcoming prayer was one of them. When my old coping mechanisms weren’t working any more, welcoming prayer was a tool for insight from God that helped lead me toward freedom from old wounds. It’s kind of like divine therapy — although it is NOT a replacement for counseling or medication, or spiritual direction. (We need to keep working out our healing with others too.) This is a simple prayer exercise that invites us to pause at the moment of frustration, welcome our difficult emotion and invite Jesus there with us.
I want to offer you two ways to consider welcoming prayer, and the first comes from Friar Thomas Keating, whom you might know for his many contributions to contemplative prayer. His theory is that everyone has unconscious needs that come out of early wounds in our lives, either around a lack of affection, or a lack of security, or a lack of power and control. And we unconsciously organize our lives around trying to get those childhood needs met, until we become aware of the cycle. So the partners and friends we chose, the jobs we take, the way we communicate, and the things we spend money on are all part of this program we think is going to complete us. It’s very behind the scenes, but we’re naturally compelled to try and heal ourselves by getting those unmet childhood needs met.
Well you can see by the cycle here if you go up clockwise from the bottom that this will eventually land us in some problems. Our hidden agendas to get these needs met will cause us to form attachments or aversions that create conflict in our lives. And hopefully it brings us to a moment of major frustration, which is the place where the cycle can be broken, and that’s where welcoming prayer comes in. If we can pause there in that afflictive emotion and experience it in the compassionate presence of God, we can begin to open to receive that security, and love, and awareness of our agency that we’re seeking. And we can get out of the program loop. But if we continue to repress our experience and avoid it or numb it out, we are bound to end up in the same place again, desperately seeking to get our needs met without really understanding what’s happening with us.
Learning to pause at this moment of frustration is really most of the invitation of welcoming prayer. If you can do that part, the rest will come. But it’s so hard to learn this pause because our emotional programs for happiness are so ingrained in us, and they’ve helped us to survive in life thus far! We are trained, especially by trauma, to just keep it moving. Until we learn to pay attention, most of us don’t even realize that we’re repressing or avoiding that difficult experience because we’ve had to endure it and we don’t know any other way. And that’s how we stay in this loop. But let me tell you, the Spirit doesn’t give up on us. In a life with God this cycle will get tiring if not unbearable. Jesus is so committed to our fullness of life and to our healing that he will make a way for us to be who we really are, which is fully loved and accepted.
Another inspiration for welcoming prayer for me was relating to the Internal Family Systems model in psychotherapy. This theory shows why it’s so hard to learn to pause in that moment of frustration, but it’s also given me so much hope in bringing all parts of myself to the table and into union with God.
In Internal Family Systems, we all have an exile, a manager, and a firefighter inside. This might seem silly but bear with me. These parts aren’t bad, in fact they exist to help us, to protect us from the stuff we can’t handle before we can handle it. The exile functions to take the worst of our hurt away from our consciousness so we don’t have to feel it. The rejection, the abandonment, abuse, neglect that caused emotions that are too threatening or socially unacceptable. The exile takes that shame, guilt, anger, and fear of not being enough and tries to carry it for us.
The manager part of us works hard to keep us functional and meeting the demands of life and relationships. This is the part of us that gets us out of bed when we’d rather sleep in and prompts us to do our work and follow the rules. Managers are wonderful assets to our being, but when they are running the show they can be highly critical, perfectionistic, people-pleasers. When exiled parts get triggered by prolonged lack of physical or relational safety, the managers get activated a lot. When exiles try to garner more attention for care and witness, as they do on the journey to becoming whole, managers can perceive that as a threat to the status quo so far and get more rigid in an attempt to maintain control. Of course, they eventually get overwhelmed and exhausted if they’re overfunctioning, because they’re not meant to be the leader of our internal system, and that’s when firefighters might jump in to save the day.
Firefighters respond to our internal crisis as momentary heroes. They relieve pressure but end up flooding the house. These are the parts of us that seek escape through food, alcohol, internet, games, emotional outbursts or other dissociative behavior. They are escape artists. They provide temporary relief in some ways but in a deeper way they reactivate our exiles whose needs fueled the process to begin with.
So you can see why that moment of frustration is so important to pay attention to. It’s a good sign on the journey toward wholeness! The moment of frustration is our invitation to hear from the true Self there at the center before this whole defense system gets kicked up again.
The Self is the core sense of who we are, the core place of connection between us and God. Some might call it the soul or the spirit in us that connects with God’s Spirit, and we experience it somatically, in the body. It’s the part of us that is hidden with Christ in God, and I think it’s longing to come out, to rise up and lead freely. Internal Family Systems theory would say that this Self remains even in the midst of life’s most horrific experiences and is always available as a resource for resilient recovery and wisdom. Our parts take the hits of traumatic wounding in protection of the Self. Rather than being shattered or broken or annihilated the Self is covered over by the parts who take on increasing leadership of the person, sometimes in problematic ways.
The goal of welcoming prayer then is to invite the parts to come to the table with Jesus and rest, so the Self can be uncovered and lead with the fruits of the Spirit. Our parts don’t need to be banished, they’re meant to be included and understood and healed with Jesus there at the center. Welcoming prayer is a tool for bringing them into the light with compassion, because Jesus totally understands why we are the way we are and how we got that way. And like Isaiah said about him: a bruised reed he will not break, a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. Rather than kick us when we’re down He came to gently tend to our bruised parts and fan the flame of life in us. Welcoming prayer has even helped me see the wisdom and beauty in those bruised parts in me and others.
In short, this is how the tool works: We pause in that moment of frustration, and welcome the negative feeling within ourselves: anger, shame, rejection, fear, whatever it is. We let ourselves feel it, as terrible as it is, instead of employing those defensive parts, and we welcome Jesus there to help us see what’s going on. In so doing, we begin to break the cycle of trying to get our needs met in places they can’t be met. And we allow our exiled parts to be found.
What happens with welcoming prayer over time is that our managers get some rest. Our fire-fighters also get an indefinite vacation because our survival is no longer in question and we don’t need to escape our reality. And what has been exiled gradually begins to come home to the love of God. Nothing is lost, and we’re no longer chasing our “program for happiness” because our needs for esteem and security and agency are finding their Source.
There’s a scene at the end of the new Mulan movie that shows this integration. Mulan comes face to face with an exile; you could even think of this character as Mulan’s own exiled parts. Shian Ling’s gifts were rejected and so she accepted evil in order to be accepted. She’s been confronting Mulan as an enemy, but instead of showing fear, Mulan welcomes her. She moves toward her and even gets vulnerable, asking for her help instead of fighting. Shian Ling responds with the gift of herself, because she recognizes the love and partnership that Mulan is extending to include her. She’s no longer an exile, she is brought into relationship, accepted and known for the goodness and humanity that was there in her all along.
Jesus knows our hurts and pain better than we know ourselves. He can help us welcome all of our parts to be healed. Nothing is wasted and nothing is unacceptable to him. Nothing is ignored or against. We don’t have to be at war with ourselves and each other any more because Love bears all things. In fact, this is what Valentine’s day is really all about; the Roman Emperor Claudius was banning marriage because it weakened the military! Love heals our impulse to fight because it is greater than hate and death. Love at our center with Jesus can help us welcome all the parts of ourselves and others that need to be included and healed. This movement toward wholeness is the movement of the Spirit that welcomes us now..