Life of Prayer I: Question Which We Must Ask Ourselves

Very often if not always, a preacher starts his sermon, or a lecturer, speaking in a Christian context, his lecture by the words ‘In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’. But do we realize the responsibility he takes and the responsibility those who hear take hearing or speaking these words?

To speak in the name of the Holy Trinity, in Christ means to speak from within the Truth who Christ is, not from within a theoretical truth, from a point of view, even doctrinal, but from within such relationship with the Lord Christ Who is the  Truth that words will convey not only their semantic meaning but be life to those who receive them. To speak in the name of the Spirit means to speak beyond one’s own ken, inspired, speaking words which are God’s own words which are committed to us, and these words must be fire and set hearts and minds aglow and on fire. And to speak in the name of the Father means to speak from within that unfathomable depth of serenity and silence which alone can bring forth a word which is adequate to the mystery of God and the serene silence of the Divinity.

But this also means that we must listen in the same way; we must learn, when we listen, to be so deeply silent, so completely open and listening with all our being that it should not be words which we hear, but communion with God that we should reach through, and perhaps at times to spite, beyond certainly, the words which are spoken, words of truth which are beyond words, words of fire which are beyond emotion. And so, in this encounter, let us try to listen, to one another, to be open to each other, and beyond the imperfection of words and images to reach out in faith, in worship and veneration to the Lord of truth in the Spirit of truth.

I was asked to speak on the life of prayer, and I would like to ask a certain number of questions, so that in the periods of silence and recollection which we may ask ourselves personally, individually the same questions and answer them; and having found an answer, try to live on, beginning with the answer which we have discovered.

It may be an unexpected question to begin with but it is born from what I see and hear around me, that in order to pray one must have a God to Whom one addresses one’s prayers. So often people come to see me and ask me to teach them how to approach a life of prayer; and when I ask them, ‘Do you believe in God, is there within your experience a living God to Whom you could address the words of prayer, towards Whom you could turn your heart, Whom you could invoke, that is call to come and dwell within you?,’ so often the answer is, ‘No, I have not got such a God; I believe in a first cause of the Universe, I believe that there must beyond, or in the depth of things a power that gives them existence and shape; I believe, with fear, that one day I will be answerable for my life to a Being whom I do not even know now’. And at this point I always say, ‘Don’t try to pray; ask yourself more questions; because praying is like speaking to a friend. One does not speak to an imaginary friend usefully; one can speak usefully only to a friend who is real, to someone with whom one can be face to face, to whom one can open one’s heart, who is listening, before whose judgement we stand, and who will stand by us whether we are in the right or in the wrong.’

So, this is a first question which I would like to ask, time and again, from myself, and now from you. When you go around in silence, when you pray, ask yourself, ‘Is there in my experience а living  God, as concrete, as real as my friends, my relatives, some- one and not some- thing,  not a power, but a real, person. The word ‘God’ comes from an ancient gothic word that means ‘One before whom one falls in adoration’. That is the primeval experience of mankind about God; it is not someone about whom one has heard; the first men who spoke of God spoke of a presence, a reality, a reality that at a certain moment had overwhelmed them by its glory, its splendour, its concreteness. If we are here, it means that each of us, to a greater or lesser extent, has had an experience, perhaps just incipient, germinal of a real God. We must recapture it — and this is a second point which I want to make.

An old priest told me once, trying to explain to me the passage at the end of the Gospel of Saint Mathew in which Christ commanded to His disciples to go to Galilee. And answering my question, why should He say to them, ‘Go to Galilee, there you shall meet Me,’ while He was there, in their presence? What was the point of sending His disciples to the other end of the Holy Land while they were together, actually? And the answer which I received was this: that Galilee had been the honeymoon of their encounter with Christ; they had discovered Him as a companion in their childhood, as a friend of their youth, as a growing man in whom they have discerned gradually saintliness, beauty, a dimension which no one else possessed that made Him to be their guide, their conscience, their master, and then, in whom they have discovered the God incarnate Who had come to save the world. Later, tragedy had come upon them; Judea stood for tragedy. And what Christ said to them, was, ‘Go to the place where everything was still peace and joy, and mutual discovery’. ‘And, — this priest added to me — everyone of us has within himself a Galilee; everyone of us, at a certain moment of his life, perhaps, in his childhood, perhaps at another moment, has had a moment when Christ, God had become real, a moment when eternity had come into his life. Later we loose it very often; but this experience is like the rivers in the desert which flow and then disappear under the sand, but reappear at times, miles away. We must recapture the Galilee, the moment, perhaps the split second, in which God became real and we became different people.

So this is a second question which we must ask ourselves: Am I still, in Galilee? Do I still possess this experience of a living God? Is it a memory, however sweet, or is it a real situation for me  now?’ We speak of God as Person; the word ‘person’ has a sense that speaks of (indicates a) limitation in modern languages; but the Greek word which one use in the beginning to speak of the three Persons of the Trinity, did not mean a person in a modern sense, even less a person in the Latin sense which meant ‘a mask’. It meant a face, and it meant that God could be met face to face, that one could be face to face with the living God, that He was not a faceless, an eye-less being. He has a beautiful image; of this in the story of the man born blind in Saint John’s Gospel. This man was born blind; he had never seen anything in his life. And when Christ gave him his sight, the first thing he ever saw was the face of God become man, and his eyes met the eyes of Divine love and compassion. This is what we mean by saying ‘God is a Person’.

And so, again, is our God personal? Have we ever had the experience or the certainty which faith gives us that we are face to face with the God, a living God Who listens, Who sees, Who understands, Who is open to us and Who speaks to us? And this is one more point to reflect on.

Very often we find difficulty in praying because when the time for prayer comes we try to find within ourselves thoughts, feelings, attitudes, which we could present to God, as it were, from within ourselves; and so often we find that we are empty, that we can only rehearse old words, old stories, old images, but that we are like a barren land. Why don’t we remember more often that God is the one Who takes the initiative, that He is the One who speaks to us first, not in any mystical sense, not revealing Himself in a spectacular way to each of us at any moment  we choose to put ourselves in His presence – no! In the Gospel He speaks — why not respond? If we take the Gospel in our hands, whether we read it systematically or open it at random we will be confronted with God in Christ, the living God become a living man addressing Himself to us, either speaking directly, giving a commandment, giving advice, explaining something, or simply standing in the glory of His full stature so that we can look at Him and respond; respond either to His words or to the vision of His Person. This is something which we can always do and if we are honest, and honesty is not something which is very easy to find within ourselves because we are used to be careful; but if we are honest in a stern, in a merciless manner and ask ourselves, ‘And what is your response? How do you respond to this? You see Christ going to the sinners, opening His arms to them, speaking to them with reverence, with tenderness, calling out in them all the hidden beauty that was and is there; — how do I respond to this? As an inspiration? Or as a challenge? Or do I say, ‘Times have changed, and I am not Christ?’ Do I receive the message or do I turn the message out of my way? And the same applies to the words of Christ: do they make my heart burn within me? Do they give light to my mind? Do they stir me up or do I remain indifferent: O, I have heard that so often, yes, yes, I know that? Or do I recoil from such and such words?

And according to each of these reactions I can respond; I can say to the Lord, ‘Thank you! You have touched in me a cord that has begun to sing and which will never stop singing in me’. Or say, ‘How terrible!  You speak, my God, and I have nothing to say to it except shrug my shoulders.’ Or else, ‘How terrible! I say no, no to you in your words and in the revelation of you heart, and mind and action’. If we respond that way to the words or to the image which is presented us, we will always be able to elicit from within ourselves something which is a prayer; o, a sigh, a groan, a tear, or words of shame or of gratitude, of joy, of sorrow. It may not be a long discourse, but who needs a long discourse? When we speak to a friend in exhilaration, or in shame, or in misery, or in happiness — it is not the length of what we say that counts, it is the truth that sounds in our hearts and in our words.

And again, another thing; I have spoken a moment ago of looking  at Christ as He reveals Himself in the Gospel. First of all it is important for us to read attentively and not to allow ourselves to say, within our minds, and hearts, ‘O, I have already read that, I know the story!’ — it’s not the story, it’s the Person; again and again we can be amazed at what happens: at the man and the God that stands before us. And if we are attentive, if we look deeply into this Person that reveals Himself both in words and in action, we may learn a great deal about praying.

I don’t know whether many of you have read a short story by Nathanael Hawthorn. I can’t remember the name of the story, but the story runs more or less like this: High in the Andes, on the banks of a deep pond stood a little village; and opposite on the other side of the pond, from time immemorial someone have carved the face of their God; a face that was of extreme beauty, a face that had greatness and serenity, love and strength. And there was a legend in this village that one day their God would come and live in their midst. Centuries passed, nothing happened. The villagers worshipped this God of stone, but He remained stone and statue and distant and dead. But one day a child was born in this village who, while he was still a small little boy, was captured by the beauty of the face carved in the rock. He crawled to the brink of the abyss and looked, and looked. Then he became bigger and walked to it; then he became a youth, and spent hours looking into it. And as he looked at this face and took in all its beauty, its greatness, its nobility, the serenity that poured out of it, the strength that filled this serenity, his own face gradually began to change. And one day the villagers looked at him passing along in the only street of the village and saw that all the expression that they have so loved in the carving of their God was on the face of this young man and that the miracle had happened: their God was in their midst.

This is a way in which we can take in through the commandments that reveal the heart and mind of Christ, through His actions, and simply through the contemplation of what comes  though  the Gospel that we can take in the beauty and greatness of God in Christ and become like Him, His image revived, our distorted features being harmonized by the inner power of beauty that would reach us; and then prayer would become to us contemplation, communion, the joy of being at one, the joy of being at one to such an extent that according to the word of Christ, He would live in us, we would live in Him, and our life would be hidden with Christ in God.

But this is not what happens all the time, of course; we cannot all the time be so perceptive; there is a limit to what we can take in emotionally; there is a limit to what our mind can contain; there is a limit simply to our ability to contain more than what has filled us at a given moment. And we must be prepared to the fact that there will be moments when either we will feel we have nothing to say; we can only be with God, but we cannot have any emotion, any new thought, that perhaps a gesture could express what we feel, but nothing more. Or at times that suddenly, — and this is in a way a delusion, — God isn’t there.

The first, I could give two images to illustrate. In the life of one of the Western Roman-catholic French saints, Jean-Baptiste Vianney, there is a story. He was a parish priest in a small village of Ars, not far from Lyon. He had in his parish an old man who used to come to church, sit down, and do nothing but sit. One day this parish priest said to him, ‘What are you actually doing in church? Your lips do not move in prayer, your fingers do not run along the rosary — what are, you doing hour after hour?’ And his reply was, ‘I look at Him, He looks at me and we are happy together’. That is perfect prayer. It doesn’t require either a discourse or a gesture, it requires a presence,  a total  presence: mine to that of the Living God.

And as far as gestures are concerned, at times one simple gesture, one sigh could be more expressive than all our long-winded and very often artificial prayers. I remember a little boy who stayed with us many years back, a little cousin of mine. He spent a very tiring day making himself very difficult for all of us. And having spent all his energy on us, when the evening came and prayer-time came he felt he couldn’t do more than go to sleep. But his last gesture was to send a kiss to the icon in the corner of the room. And in this he has put all his heart; it was true, it meant, ‘O God — I am tired, I am small, I want to sleep, but I love you: Good night!’ Are we capable of this simplicity? And I am using the word ‘simplicity’, not laziness, it’s not an escape, it’s not a way of saying, ‘O good! That’s enough for God.’ No; it may be enough for God, it may not be enough for us.

So, there is also a story about a Moslem, an Arab, who had ridden for hours and hours to reach the mosque for prayers, and he arrived too late; everyone had gone except the mullah. He saw the empty space; he stood and sighed, sighed all the sadness of his heart at having missed the time of common prayer. And the mullah said to him, ‘I wish I could sigh once in my life as you have done!’ But again, it’s not enough to sigh, it must come as an expression of all there is in our heart. So again, where do we stand with all these things?

But there is another side, — and I will not keep you beyond the quarter of an hour which I am allowed to — there is another side, what we call the ‘absence’ of God. For one thing, God is never absent; we may not perceive His presence, but He is there. There are two stories which I find moving. The one concerns Saint Anthony of Egypt. After days and days of temptation, of trial and struggle, where the pressure of evil had receded from him, he lay prone on the barren earth, and Christ appeared to him. And even unable to stand up, unable to kneel before Christ he said to Him ’O, Lord! Where were You when I was in struggle?’ And Christ said, ‘I was, standing invisibly at your side, ready to step in if you had given way’. And that we must remember. The Lord is there; but we are sent into the world to do His work. And therefore there are moments when it is for us to struggle, for us to be wounded, for us to be exhausted. Far too easily we tend to say, ‘To you O, Lord, the Cross, to me salvation and glory’. O, we don’t say that, we are too pious, but we do it; we expect God to have saved us, and us to reap the fruits — no! We are sent into the world.

The other image is that of another life of saints, and I can’t remember whose; Christ has promised someone that He will walk with him throughout his life. And indeed, this man, looking round over his shoulder saw always the marks of four feet on the sand. One day he got into problem, temptation assailed him, trouble came, he had to fight desperately. And when he emerged after the trial, he looked round and saw with bitterness that there were only the marks of two feet. And he turned to Christ and said, ‘Where were You, Lord, while I was in trouble?’ And Christ said, ‘I was carrying you, this is why there are only two feet marked in the sand’. And we forget it, both things; we forget how much we are carried, and we forget that we are Christ’s missionaries, Christ’s heralds and witnesses, and that it us for us to fight the good fight.

But there are moments when we have this sense of the absence of God. What right have we got to His continued presence? If we ask ourselves this question, don’t we feel forced into answering that we could rejoice in His continued, unceasing presence, perceptible and exhilarating if we were perfectly open to Him: but we are not. Our mind and heart are clotted with all sorts of things which have nothing to do with the Kingdom of God, with building the Kingdom, with being part of the Kingdom, with being citizens of the City of God.

So, we cannot even claim that we have a right, and this right is not given us. But moreover, it is so important for us periodically, and at times for long periods, to be aware that God is free to come to us and free to allow us to search for Him, that His absence, — the subjective sense of absence, I mean, — does not mean that He is not there, but He makes us perceive what life would be if He wasn’t.  And His absence, again, in a way, is like hunger. Hunger which makes us strive with more determination and at times in a more desperate effort to find Him. We too easily feel content and satisfied with what we possess; we get accustomed to possessing; we possess friendships, we possess parents, we possess so many things, and it is  only  when it is taken away from us that we begin to value them.

So, if you ever have perceived, or are perceiving that God is not there for you, ask yourself, how much do you need Him? Is God а luxury in your life or is it of the essence of your life? I remember a man who, years ago, came to see me, a wealthy man, a man in power within his restricted sphere of action, who said to me ‘Father Anthony, I want God.’. And I said to him, ‘What for?’ – ‘Because it will then crown all I possess’ I said to him, ‘You want God as other people want central heating in their house, for more comfort’. He said, ‘Yes — what is wrong?’ Everything was wrong because one does not add the pearl of great price to own other possessions; one sells one’s possessions.

And so, the absence of God is a very important thing in our experience because it allows us to gauge whether God means a great deal, or little, or perhaps nothing in our life; whether He is an old habit, or a superstition, or a guest, or a friend, or the very light of our life?

I will end this introductory talk now, and I think I have asked you enough questions, disturbing ones, to spoil your morning.

To be continued…

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