Tuesday, 12 May 2015
When You Pray, part 2, by Rev. Robert Nash; S.J
Side by side with, that reverence there is a most sincere and genuine contempt of self, for prayer has shed light too on his worthlessness and sinfulness, and now he is beginning to understand what he is.
It is very easy to illustrate these two traits in the lives of the saints. St. Francis was wont to spend long hours of the night plunged in prayer, and the thoughts that occupied him he would express in his well known prayer: “Lord, Who art Thou and what am I?” It is an echo of the prayer of Augustine: “Lord, let me know Thee and know myself in order that I may love Thee and hate myself.” In more modern times you have the shining example of St. Peter Claver. He signed his last vows as a Jesuit priest: Peter Claver, slave of the slaves forever. And that was no perfervid exaggeration. For forty years he made himself, quite literally, the slave of those poor down-trodden negro slaves. The full story has to be read elsewhere. Why did he wait on them thus except that he realised the “allness” of God? These poor outcasts of society have souls and he can contribute to God’s glory by saving those souls. And why humble himself thus into the dust? Why take on himself the most humiliating labours and persevere on his course in spite of superhuman difficulties? Why, except that prayer had taught him his nothingness, and he rightly considered it an honour to be allowed to take up the place that he sincerely believed was one most suited for him. Ex verissima sui cognitione sibi ipsi vile scit.
If prayer had only these two lessons to teach us, discouragement would certainly ensue. The greatness of God would overawe us and the sense of our own miseries would crush us. But now a third light begins to appear. Notwithstanding the infinite chasm between us, it is true that that great God still desires union with our souls. “Abyss calleth upon abyss.” The abyss of His “allness” reaches deep down, even to the abyss of man’s nothingness, with the intent of raising man up out of the mire. God’s design is nothing less than that man should become Godlike; more even than that, that he should actually be made to partake in the very life of God Himself.
It is at this stage that Jesus Christ begins especially to enter into the life of prayer. This plan of God is far too sublime for weak man to reach up to it of himself. Left to himself, he will continue to wallow in sin and sinfulness. But Our divine Lord appears in order to act as a bridge across that chasm that separates man from God. He is, first of all, the well-beloved Son of that Father. He is equal to the Father. Hence if He asks the Father for anything, the Father must surely be moved to grant it. At the Jordan the Father declared as much. “This is My beloved Son in Whom I am well pleased.”
Again, at the Transfiguration, the voice of the Father was heard proclaiming that Jesus Christ was in truth the very Son of the Eternal Father. There is no name more frequently on the lips of Christ than “Father.” “Father, I confess to Thee.” “Father, forgive them.” “Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit.”
But, besides this, Jesus Christ is also a real Man, and the soul given to prayer begins to realise more and more that He is the greatest lover of mankind Who ever walked across the stage of time. A man stepping into the light that prayer is wont to shed sees very clearly that when Our Lord assures men of this love He is not speaking the language of metaphor. He is making .a statement of a fact that is most literally true. The man of prayer understands well the import of the message of the Sacred Heart. “Behold this Heart on fire with love for men.” His revelations at Paray were “a last effort” to arouse the world from its lethargy and stun all men into a realisation of the most stupendous fact that God-made-Man had a Heart on fire with love for them.
If Jesus Christ loves thus, you would expect Him to be ready to help us in our many miseries. And that is just what happens. He is the well-beloved Son of the Father and He is the Friend and the Elder Brother of us. So He acts as a bridge between the Father and ourselves. He pleased the Father, and so He is heard by that Father. He turns towards us, and seems to ask Himself what He can do to enable us to reach up to the glorious plan the Father has made for us. What can Jesus Christ do in order that man may be fitted to enter into a sharing of the very life of God?
St. Paul supplies the answer. “In all things,” he says, “you are made rich in Him, so that nothing is wanting to you in any grace.” Nothing is wanting! Jesus Christ has accumulated a vast, infinite store of merits, through the life He lived, and especially through His Sacred Passion. All these He places most willingly at man’s disposal. Through the Sacraments and through prayer the grace of Christ is communicated to the soul. The only measure of His giving is the soul’s capacity to receive. In the proportion in which this most precious treasure flows into the soul in the same does the life of sin and sinfulness disappear. But something else happens. As this grace obtains more and more possession, the soul grows more and more in a new life. In the forcible expression of St. Paul, she becomes “a new creature.”
Let not the man of prayer be confused any more when he comes into the light of God now. For now he kneels in that blaze of light clothed with the merits of Christ Who is the well-beloved Son of God. Now he is inflamed with the affections of that Sacred Heart of Christ Who loved the Father with such a pure and disinterested love. This is his debt to Christ, or, rather, it is an infinitesimally small portion of that debt. When the Father looks at him now, He sees him no longer in the rags of his sins and sinfulness. He is “made rich” in Christ, so that “nothing is wanting to him.” The Father sees that he has become like Christ. He has grown into another well-beloved. He is, as it were, Christ over again.
Such a transformation! Just as a piece of iron when plunged into the flame comes out red hot, all aglow, so the soul which has been thus brought into this intimate contact with Jesus comes forth cleansed and purified of its former vices and inflamed with the affections of the Sacred Heart. And the change is not merely an external one. It is not only that the man has been cloaked over by the merits of Christ while retaining his sin and sinfulness in his heart. There is an entire interior transformation too. Indeed, in his soul, Christ reigns supreme. Again turn to the immortal St. Paul and you hear him cry out in ecstasy: “I live, now not I, but Christ liveth in me.” That man now kneels in the sight of his God beautified with the beauty of Christ, loving the rather with Christ’s love, burning with zeal for souls as Christ’s Heart burned, hating sin with the very same hatred which Jesus ever showed towards it, craving for sinners and their return to God with the very intensity of Jesus Christ Himself.
Well might we think of the Father pointing him out, as He now looks on this man and sees this marvellous change wrought in him through the merits of the Son. Once again, as at the Jordan and at the Transfiguration, does he declare: “This is My beloved Son in Whom I am well pleased.”
How helpless and hopeless is our condition without Christ! Crushed underneath a load of sin and sinfulness! But the nearness of Christ, the touch of Christ, quickens that languishing life. “No man cometh to the Father but through Me.” Seeing himself enriched thus by His merits, the soul is emboldened to arise and go back to her Father. It is worth her while, after all, trying to reach that grand ideal of union with God if Christ has had compassion on her thus, if He had destroyed her sins and her sinful past and has clothed her in a garment of such transcendent loveliness. “I live, now not I, but Christ liveth in me.” “Not I”-no longer the “I” of selfishness and sin, but another, Christ Himself dwelling in me. When a man prays much, all this grows upon him. He understands better each day the debt he owes to this loving intervention of Jesus Christ. “No man,” writes Benson, “can walk three steps on the road to heaven unless Jesus Christ walks by his side.” Very true. More true, however, if we say that he cannot walk even a single step. “Without Me, you can do nothing.” But with Him, what a difference! “I can do all things in Him that strengtheneth me.” Christ’s grace has made access to God possible once more. When sin had usurped God’s place in the soul, Christ came and destroyed the reign of sin. When heaven was lost irrevocably, Christ came and re-won heaven for mankind. If all men of all time had united in a great act of atonement to God for the insult offered Him by even a single mortal sin, all that they could do would be utterly inadequate. For God’s offended majesty being infinite, only an infinite Being could make sufficient atonement. And Christ did that, for He was very God and of very God. “Our sufficiency is from Him.”
This is much, but not even here does our debt end. For it is possible for man to undo all Christ’s magnificent work.
Mortal sin can expel the life of grace and enthrone the usurper once more in the soul, when even that base ingratitude is perpetrated, the way back to God always remains open- once more through the merits of Christ. Not only has He redeemed us, but He is ever ready to pardon when in our blindness we break again the bond of friendship with the Father. In the entire Gospel there is not a single instance to be found where Jesus treated a repentant sinner with harshness.
No wonder then that the third precious stone you find in the interior of that tabernacle is a burning personal love for Jesus Christ. The man of prayer discovers, a thousand times over the utter sincerity of this Friend. Christ redeems. Christ enriches the soul with His grace. Christ presents the soul “a new creature,” clothed with His merits, in the sight of the Father. Christ points to heaven which His labours have won for the soul. And, perhaps most astonishing of all, when the soul has rejected all this and thwarted it by sin, Christ pursues the soul, persuades the soul to return, assures the soul that pardon is hers for the asking. You would think that man must be in some way necessary to God’s happiness so eager is the Son to secure the salvation and the sanctification of the soul. Was there ever a saint who failed to realise this marvellous love of Jesus Christ? Open up the story of their lives and there you read on every page expressions that seem to our dull worldly minds to be extravagant and exaggerated. Personal attachment to Christ, deep affection for Him as for a most trustworthy Friend-that is the third characteristic of the man who gives himself in prayer.
“Thaw Thou my coldness
Which doth now obstruct Thy love,
Curtailing its full measure.”
St. John of the Cross.
For the man of prayer Christ is seen as infinite wealth to enrich his poverty. If he be a sinner, Christ is sinless and Christ is his intimate Friend. If he be weak, Christ is strong, and Christ is his Friend. If he be stained with the guilt of many crimes, Christ has in Himself the infinite sanctity of God, and Christ is his Friend.
The fire of Christ’s love to inflame his coldness, the mercy of Christ’s Heart to gather him, the patience of Christ’s eagerness for him to encourage him to begin again even when he has proved himself a traitor.
All this becomes reality to the man who prays. And is not such a Christ the Christ of the Gospel? It is hard to understand how some even of His friends insist on making almost a caricature of Him. They will stress His justice to such an extent that you would think He was only watching for an opportunity of sending the sinner to hell. The contrary is the truth. He reveals Himself as patient and abounding in mercy, ready to forgive even till seventy times seven times. No wonder that when the beauty of Him, the mercy of Him, the kindness of Him, the generosity of Him-no wonder that when all this and much more begins to become reality to the man who prays-that he is caught up in a fire of zeal, of enthusiasm for Jesus Christ.
“Who then shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation? Or nakedness? Or fire? Or the sword? For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor any other thing shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” He is all. You might cover pages and fill volumes in the effort to express all that He means to the man of prayer, and at the end you have still not even grazed the surface of His lovableness.
Now comes the question: Why does prayer not mean all this to many more of us? Why is it that perhaps after years of effort in the work of developing a life of prayer, we still remain dry and inappreciative? We go through our prayers because we are convinced of the need we have of prayer. We are impelled by the strong statements of the saints about the power of this holy exercise. But there is no great zeal in us for prayer. Prayer is perhaps an irksome duty. Prayer tends to assume the appearance of a burthen which we would willingly lay aside if we dared.
We do not feel that awe inspiring conviction of God’s greatness. We are not at all inclined to admit that we are ourselves so vile, and we are far indeed from thinking ourselves the worst sinners on the face of the earth. Our Lord’s personal love-yes, here perhaps we are somewhat affected. But, yet, even here, the burning love of the saints for Him, their anxiety to make Him known and loved, their readiness to let go everything that life holds dear for Him-all this we call imprudent zeal. It does not appeal to us. We do not understand it. We can admire these three precious stones in the tabernacle, but we have no great keenness about setting them up within ourselves. A life of intimacy with God in prayer is all right-but from a distance.
Why should prayer seem so distasteful? Why should we show ourselves, many of us, very reluctant to set before ourselves a very high ideal in this matter of prayer? Why be content to settle down to the attitude of one who regards prayer as almost a nuisance, or, at least, of one who never hopes to find in prayer his greatest delight?
The answer is not far to seek. There is no denying that the world today has a most attractive program to set out before the eyes of a young man or woman facing life. You have every conceivable facility for having a good time. For many “a good time” is the be-all and end-all of life. What use is life if you cannot have it a succession of thrills? That mentality is common enough. Now comes the world offering to open up endless avenues of pleasure to the youthful explorer. There is thrill and excitement and pleasure to suit all tastes. The heart craves naturally for these, especially the young heart. And are they sins? No, you are told, sometimes with a suggestion of indignation even at the mention of the word. All the youth wants is enjoyment; there is every intention of stopping short at sin-at least mortal sin.
Gradually a false mentality is induced. The standard is lowered. Provided a pleasure is “not a sin,” the pleasure -seeker decides that there is no reason on earth why he should not reach out both hands and seize upon it. But a little thought shows clearly that such a mentality saps the life-blood of a deeply interior life of prayer. Even granting that you do keep free from sin (and the supposition is a large one), still, if you are not prepared to deny yourself, you may make up your mind that intimacy with God and the sweet familiarity with Him engendered by prayer are out of the question.
Prayer thus postulates a big act of trust in Our Lord’s promises. You have to take up the knife and deliberately cut from out your life much that is merely pleasurable without being sin. It is the price of intimacy with Jesus. But let it be asserted, as a first axiom and with all possible forcefulness, that He never allows Himself to be outdone in generosity. No sooner do you begin to try to sacrifice yourself for Him than a new joy comes into your life by the side of which all that the world offered appears hollow and insipid. Many who will read this may perhaps refuse to believe it because it is not their experience. And it is not their experience because they have jibbed at the price to be paid.
Another cause of the repugnance we feel towards prayer is to be found in people who themselves pass for pious, religious folk. While the world is full of merriment, the servants of the Lord seem dull and uninteresting and gloomy and long-faced. Result? The youth turns away from such a person. Many who give themselves to prayer are very bad, advertisements for the joyousness that ought to be characteristic of holiness. It was a great friend of God who wrote: “A saint who is sad is a sad sort of saint.” Holiness should be attractive. Christ, in Whom resided the fullness of sanctity, was so attractive that all sorts and conditions of people followed Him everywhere, hanging on His words, forgetting even to take their food, and leaving Him not a moment to take His.
Prayer and the service of God are rendered repulsive, too, through much formalism. Go into a Church and watch those young boys or girls, yawning, bored, sprawling over the back of the benches. Let us not be too ready to condemn them. If the prayer is an unintelligible drawl or an ill-articulated jumble of words, whose fault is it if the people are soon wearied? Such a contrast with the catering of the world for worldly enjoyment! The world and its advocates leave nothing undone to push their wares, to deck them out in most attractive programs. But religious services, it seems, can be dashed off any old way. Prayer can be mumbled, prayer can be inaudible, prayer can be merest lip-service. Can we blame people who find such prayer uninteresting, deadening, extinguishing true devotion?
Here is a group of boys kneeling in the chapel. One of them is stumbling through a set of prayers amid innumerable disturbances. Some boys are still tramping in, the chapel door is banged and banged again, there is a regular barrage of coughs drowning the voice of the one who is reading, the words are absolutely meaningless both to him who reads and those who are united, supposedly, with him in the act of praying. Is it any wonder that, if this is what passes for prayer, boys are bored with prayer in no time, and drop it promptly when they leave school? “This people honoureth Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me.”
On the other hand, enter a Church where the prayer is made to be a real prayer. You have an immediate response from the people. They have come here to pray, and they are frankly delighted when they can hear with ease what is being said. They need only a little encouragement to throw themselves heart and soul into the great act they are performing. A little more spontaneity, a little more care to be heard, a little more trouble to lay the axe to the roots of distractions-a little more, but what a vast improvement it would mean to our public prayers and our esteem for the great work of speaking to God in praise and petition! Formalism, routine-this is a canker worm which has eaten the heart out of our life of prayer. Carelessness about removing the causes of distraction at the actual time of prayer has often made the prayer a travesty of that holy exercise.