Monday, 11 May 2015
When You Pray, part 1, by Rev. Robert Nash; S.J
PRAYER is a lifting up of the mind and heart to God. Prayer is conversation with God. Prayer is the aspiration of the creature and the inspiration of the Creator. Prayer is the meeting-place between God and the soul.
There is a hunger in every man’s heart for happiness, and prayer can satisfy this hunger. There is a yearning in every heart for love and prayer has the power of bringing the thirsting soul very close to the source of true love. The soul, sometimes even without knowing it, is seeking God, and in prayer He discloses Himself to her. Prayer teaches her that God is actually dwelling as a Guest within her. Prayer grows and becomes a loving attendant on this Guest. Even in the midst of the turmoil and business of daily life there develops in him who prays a tendency to seek God within, to speak to Him very often, indeed to be so impressed by a sense of the value of prayer that there arises between God and him a companionship, a holy intimacy, that becomes virtually uninterrupted. Prayer is loving familiarity with God.
Thoughts like these flow readily enough from the pens of the saints when they begin to write about prayer and try to explain to us what it is. But even when they have said much, it is easy to detect a feeling of dissatisfaction still. For the truth is that prayer has secrets to unfold which can be learned only by praying. Hence the insatiable desire on the part of those who pray themselves to make others pray too. The man who prays climbs high up into the mountain and there breathes deep draughts of the bracing air of the supernatural. From this point of vantage he looks back over the ground he has traversed. Below in the valleys he sees others still toiling. They are of the earth, earthly. They are sense bound. Their eyes are turned down towards the ground. Their hearts are weighted with a thousand anxieties. They are wedded to their money. They are eaten up with lust for power. Plans to better their earthly condition leave them restless day and night.
Now, when prayer begins to attain to its rightful place in a man’s life, a whole new world opens out before him. The important things that engross the minds and hearts of the toilers in the valleys are now seen to be not so important after all. Here on the mountain the climber finds God, and with God a happiness and a peace of soul to which hitherto he has been a stranger, and with God a courage to endure not felt before, and with God rest from undue anxiety and a lessening of interest in many of the things that used to be so important. He has discovered paradise on earth through this life of prayer. What wonder is it, then, if he longs to call out to the whole world to lift up its eyes towards this mountain? What wonder is this forceful eloquence that comes so readily to his lips as he urges men to bestir themselves, to walk courageously the steep slopes of that mountain? What wonder the note of intense conviction that rings in his tone as he assures them that the intimacy with God which prayer gives is reward a thousand-fold for all the hardships to he encountered on the road?
To seek God in prayer is to plunge the soul into light. In many places in Holy Scripture you will come upon references to the fact that God is light. The chosen people of God in the Old Testament had been groping for long years and stumbling much in the darkness that covered the earth. And lo; at last there was vouchsafed to Isaias a glimpse of the Messias Who was to come. Here is his exultant shout of joy: “The people that sat in darkness have seen a great light. To them that dwelt in the region of the shadow of death light is risen.” Wherefore, arise and be enlightened, O Jerusalem, for thy light is come and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee. For behold darkness shall cover the earth and a mist the people, but upon thee the Lord shall rise and His glory shall be seen upon thee.” When Our Lord comes, we are again reminded of this symbol of light. Light shone out in the midst of the darkness of the first Christmas night. Simeon took Mary’s Son into his arms, and his eyes shone with joy as he recognised in Him “the light of the gentiles.” Our Lord Himself proclaimed Himself to be the light of the world, and the evangelist knows Him to be the true light that enlightened every man that cometh into the world. St. John, who soars in prayer like the eagle high up into the blinding rays of the divinity, tells us that “God is light and in Him there is no darkness.” And St. Paul writes to his disciple Timothy that God is He Who dwelleth in light inaccessible.
So when a man kneels down to pray he is seeking companionship with this God of light. Once more there is darkness over the face of the earth, more especially, alas, in the evil days upon which we have fallen. To pray means to step out of that darkness to separate oneself at least in thought and desire from the pressure of external things and to bathe the soul deep in that ocean of light that is streaming down upon it from the countenance of Almighty God. “The light of Thy countenance is signed upon us; Thou hast given joy to my heart.” A man going to pray is entering into a secret place apart in order to give his undivided attention to God, Whom he is going to meet there. “When you pray. . . . . enter into your chamber, and, having shut the door, pray to your Father in secret,and your Father Who seeth in secret will reward you.”
That is why the saints urge us to enter upon our prayer with’ much care, and, especially at the beginning, with conscious advertence to the Presence of God. That is why Holy Church places at the opening of her Divine Office the invitatory prayer which is well calculated to steady the thoughts of the priest. It focuses his attention on the fundamental truth that prayer means stepping out of the darkness and plunging the soul into the light of God.
A Protestant went into a Catholic Church on Good Friday, and, noticing that the door of the tabernacle was open, he peered curiously inside. What was his surprise to find that the interior of the tabernacle was studded with precious stones. The discovery led ultimately, to his conversion. For he rightly argued that Catholics must be sincere in their belief of the Real Presence if they placed thus in the interior of the tabernacle stones of such value in a place where nobody could see them.
In some such way we may argue that the lives of men go far in the ways of prayer are a proof of the divinity of the Church. Holiness is a mark of the true Church, and holiness and prayer are so closely linked together that it is impossible to think of the one except as complementary to the other. The soul of a man who is holy is a tabernacle behind the door of which there is lived a life hidden, for the most part, from the eyes of others-so hidden indeed, that even its existence is not suspected by many who consider that they know the man intimately. For he guards that door jealously. Having shut the door, he prays to his Father in secret. But to himself that hidden interior life becomes so vivid and so real that the very reality of it seems at times to be overpowering. “When you pray. . . . . enter into your chamber.” In that secret place there is continuous prayer, and prayer means the words spoken there by the soul to God and the ineffable responses of God to the soul.
We are going to try reverently to open that door and look inside, and see and handle some of the treasures that enrich the interior of that place of prayer.
“God is light and in Him there is no darkness.” You will find first of all, in the life of him who prays much, an intense preoccupation with God. That is the first light that breaks in upon his gaze as soon as he begins to turn his eyes inward and look into the hidden places of his own soul. The light of the Presence floods that interior temple; when you enter in, at once you are “drenched with His divinity.” God’s light surrounds the soul, pervades the atmosphere of the soul, seems, so to say, to saturate, to weave itself into the, very texture of the soul. Prayer teaches the man who gives himself to prayer much about the “allness” of God.
Learned men and saintly men have looked long and reverently into the wonders of the divinity, and they have tried to set forth in words what they have seen. Kneeling there in that blaze of light, the truth dawns upon the soul that in God is to be found every good that can be imagined and in a degree that is without limit. “One only is good, God.” God is all- powerful. God is all-beautiful. God is infinite love. Name any perfection that can be named and then look into His divinity and see that it is there and in an infinite degree, in a manner so full, so comprehensive, that He is clearly seen to be the very source itself of that perfection. People and things are beautiful in so far, and only in so far, as they reflect His beauty. Our fellow-men are worthy of our love in so far, and only in so far, as they have drawn their lovable qualities from Him Who is infinitely lovable.
God is eternal, “alpha and omega, the beginning and the end, Who is and Who was and Who is to come.” A thousand years in His sight are as yesterday. He was, before the foundations of the world were laid. He will be, when the sun has become extinct, when the last drop of ocean shall be dried up. Without beginning, without end, this wonderful God reaches from end to end mightily and disposes all things sweetly.
God is infinite wisdom, all things being naked and open to His eyes. Not a thought passes through the brain of any of earth’s teeming millions but He sees that thought. Not a word is uttered but He hears that word. He contains in His infinitude of knowledge not only every single deed and word and thought that has actually taken place, not only every single detail that is still to be in the centuries ahead, but with the same poise and clarity all those things that might have happened in other circumstances. Thus He knows exactly how the course of human nature would have run had Adam not sinned, had the Incarnation never taken place, had you or I been born in the Middle Ages or a thousand years hence. No wonder St. Paul is overpowered by it all, this infinite knowledge of this wonderful God. “O, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and of the knowledge of God!”
Then there is God’s blinding sanctity. In His all-holy sight even the very angels are not pure. There is the infinitude of His mercy “patient and of much mercy and true.” And side by side with this infinite mercy there is infinite justice. “Thou art just, 0 Lord, and Thy judgment is true.” There is God’s infinite power. That power has drawn the mighty universe forth from nothing. That power sustains at every moment the creation it has made. Did God for a single second cease to remember His creation at that same instant it would lapse into the nothingness from which it came. God’s power governs the movements of the planets and ordains what shall be the course of the molecules in this sheet of paper from which we are reading.
This is the merest recital of a few of the attributes of God. How helpless one finds oneself in casting about for words that will even faintly express a little of the reality! Now prayer admits the soul to holy intimacy with this Being, this infinite God, this eternal, all-holy, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-beautiful, all-sufficient and all-sufficing God. No wonder that he is preoccupied with the thought of God’s “allness.” No wonder that as he kneels there in the light and contemplates God, the sight becomes almost paralysing in its effect upon the soul that prays and looks and tries to see.
It is not surprising if now the soul begins to show total disregard for many of the things which the world values very highly. Men have set their hearts upon money, and nothing is more common than to hear them bemoan their losses or rejoice at their gains. Men are jealous of their honour. They are quick to resent a snub or to vindicate an injustice. Men are tools of avarice, the slaves of human respect, the plaything of their whims or of the passions. “A thousand wants gnaw at the heels of man.” They are disappointed and soured when their plans go wrong. They are indignant when their confidence is abused. They are eaten up with curiosity to know the future. They are, many of them, ruled by the impulse of the moment.
The man who has glimpsed the beauty of the divinity has little time for much of this. God’s eternity, God’s infinity, God’s awful sanctity, God’s vast ocean of love, God’s “allness”-in the sight of this how trivial, how utterly unworthy of a moment’s consideration are many of the tremendous trifles which engross the minds and the hearts of most of us. “God is light and in Him there is no darkness.” The first precious stone to be set up in the interior of the tabernacle of the man who prays is thus a knowledge of God’s greatness.
Hence follows a profound reverence for God, a deliberate preference for God and His interests, an entire lack of care about the opinions of men when these run counter to God, but a deep concern and a keen anxiety about God’s point of view. “We ought to be resolved to displease the whole world rather than offend God.” That was said by a man who prayed much-Blessed Claude de la Colombière. He acted consistently on that principle, for prayer had shown him clearly that only God mattered.
“God is light” and the light is next turned on the man himself who is kneeling in prayer. Presently another truth stands revealed-the terrifying contrast between God’s “allness” and his own nothingness. Prayer teaches self-knowledge, and the light which thus shows a man to himself makes him strike his breast with a feeling of most genuine and heartfelt humility. Our Lord told His followers: “I have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” The same He would seem to say to a man embarking on the way of prayer. If at first that man was given a true knowledge of his vileness, he must needs stagger and despair under the weight of such a load. So a merciful God permits the reality to dawn upon him only by degrees. Even when communicated to him thus gradually, the light seems almost to shrivel him up. The sight of his utter worthlessness and nothingness must needs prove insupportable did not God’s grace sustain him to look upon it.
What is he? Has he, perhaps, sinned grievously in the past? Where is he going to find words now that will express the unspeakable effrontery of mortal sin? A pigmy dictating to God! A creature defying his Creator! Insolence without parallel, that the thing made should scrape the mud off the earth and brazenly attempt to fling it into the face of God! The complacency of the slave who calmly tells his Lord and Master to mind His own business! Such a vaunting of independence in one so entirely dependent! Such an easy assumption of liberty to act in one bound by a thousand claims to obedience! Why has God not annihilated the sinner? Why has He tolerated his jeers and his taunts?
Tolerated them? But what must the sinner think and say when he begins to realise that not only has he been endured, but actually permitted to love God? Not only permitted to love Him, but even commanded?”Thou shalt love. . . . . .” When he deserved eternity in hell? When he had led other souls far from God into the ways of sin? “God is light,” and when the light falls upon his sin and shows him sin in its true colours, the sinner, like Adam and Eve, would fain hide himself from the face of God, would crawl away from the light back into the shadows where his vileness and ingratitude and insufferable pride might perhaps more easily pass unnoticed. And even if he never sinned greviously, there is still that downward tendency which he sees in the light of prayer.
There is his sinfulness. Well he learns that there is no depth of depravity so low but he is quite capable of descending headlong into it. Well he understands that, once sunk in the gutter, in the gutter he would continue unless an all-merciful God reached down and lifted him up again. Well he knows that one thing only is preventing him from sinking thus-the sustaining grace of God. This innate craving for what degrades him, this insatiable curiosity to see and hear and think about what is evil, this haunting sense of his powerlessness to do anything good, of his readiness to embrace sin even in its most loathsome forms-all this he learns in the light of prayer, and he rises from his knees chastened in the school of a sobering humility.
Seeing himself in this light, recognising the baseness of his sin and his constant sinfulness, learning thus clearly that only God’s mercy has saved him from hell, he now will surely show himself grateful. How? God tells him that what he does to the least of his brethren is done to God Himself. Here then his chance. Having been tolerated himself, he will surely show every tolerance towards others. Having been himself treated with such kindness and love, you must be prepared to see him a model of patience and forbearance. This would be but the barest justice, considering his record. But actually what happens? Why he finds himself overbearing in his manner, harsh in his words, cynical in his criticisms of others. He, being what he knows himself to be, dares to show himself full of arrogance, dictates haughtily to others, presumes to give himself superior airs, sneers when somebody makes a mistake, swells with indignation if his will be opposed even in a trifling matter, insists on imposing his own views, compels their acceptance, bristles all over at an imagined slight.
Such a catalogue of inherent meannesses! It is only through prayer that he comes, little by little, to see into the depths of his pride. It is only as the light gradually gains in strength That he is able to recognise how his whole life has been out of joint: “Often,” writes Father Considine, “the best kind of prayer is to allow God to look into our soils.”
Let the man but persevere in prayer and presently a change in his character begins to show itself. As he grows in self knowledge, pride begins to give way to a very genuine and heartfelt contempt of self. For what can this thing be proud of, this corrupt human nature? In the clear light of prayer he sees very well that pride is indeed the “never-failing vice of fools.” Recognising that nothing only God’s grace has lifted him out of the mire, he considers, and very rightly, that any snubs or insult’s, or even gross injustices, are all too good for him. They are a welcome exchange for the place he had deserved in hell. And if an all-merciful God has spared him, and instead of sweeping him off the face of the earth has drawn him into this holy intimacy with Himself, is not this only an additional motive for shame and confusion and self contempt? “What is man that Thou art mindful of him?” Now you will no longer find him loud in asserting his rights. Now he does not complain that he is forgotten or ignored. Now he does not expect you to wait on him and attend to his wants. On the contrary, he is genuinely confused that anybody should do him a service or show him any consideration. It is a matter for surprise to him to meet with even the mere civilities of ordinary life, so profoundly convinced is he that if men knew him as he sees himself to be they would not endure him.
But God knows him thus. God knows him even more intimately than he knows himself. And, knowing him thus, God still endures him. More than that: He still wants him for His friend. He is ready to trust him still. He is ready to reach down from the heights of His sanctity to this creature of the gutter! Yes, the man who prays begins to understand now why St. Ignatius said there was no vice he feared less than vainglory. He begins to fathom now the depths of heavenly wisdom contained in that word of ả Kempis: “Consider yourself to have made no progress until you regard yourself as being the least of all.”‘ He is desperately in earnest as he strikes his breast and prays: “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.” Humility, say the saints, is that virtue by which a man, from a most true knowledge of himself, grows contemptible in his own eyes. Ex verissima sui cognitione sibi ipsi vilescit. Just a creature not to be given any consideration at all, a nonentity not expecting to he noticed.
Here then are the first two precious stones you discover in the life of the man who gives himself much to prayer Open out the door of that tabernacle and look inside. You find in that life a deep reverence for God springing from the knowledge prayer has imparted to him of the “allness” of God.