Chapter 4: Praying by John Drury
John Drury is formerly Chaplain of Downing College, and now Fellow and Chaplain of Exeter College, Oxford.
A word of preamble and warning: most, if not all, of Lithe material in this lecture comes from the realms of the personal and the aesthetic. I don’t think one need apologize for drawing on the personal, but the aesthetic does not seem to have achieved such a respectable place in theological discourse. I will be using a good deal of poetry, referring to a musical work from the literary point of view, and the way an artist works will come into consideration. So let me try to say a word about this.
First, these things are meant only as signposts or pointers suggesting, as Balthasar says, the direction in which to look for what is specifically Christian.
Secondly, still following Balthasar, they are nevertheless valid pointers. He says ‘Just as in love I encounter the other as the other in all his freedom, and am confronted by something which I cannot dominate in any sense, so in the aesthetic sphere, it is impossible to attribute the form which presents itself to a fiction of my imagination. In both cases the "understanding" of that which reveals itself cannot be subsumed under categories of knowledge which imply control.’(H. U. von Bathasar, Love Alone. Burns & Oates.) In other words there is a simple and basic ‘being there’ about these things which makes them particularly appropriate in talk about the mysterious business of prayer.
It may well seem to you that it takes me rather a long time to get going, if I get going at all. So I will ask you to be patient and to bear in mind the words of Quince the weaver in his role of prologue in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
Gentles, perchance you wonder at this show
But wonder on till truth make all things plain.
Indeed, I hope you’ll wonder on long after I have done.
‘Theological work’, said Karl Barth, ‘does not merely begin with prayer and is not merely accompanied by it, in its totality it is peculiar and characteristic of theology that it can be done only in the act of prayer.’(Evangelical Theology, Fontana.) It has been the declared policy of these lectures to be personal. We have tried to set before you the Jewish-Christian tradition as it is for us today. In doing that we have considered how it was for other people in other times. In all this the category of the personal, the fact of the individual set in his particular time and his particular community, has been our first concern. For this tradition has been constantly renewed, taking on new energies and new insights as it passes though the living experience of people. It has not gone through history like an express train, leaving the country on either side indifferent after the slight momentary disturbance. It has taken on the forms and styles of the people who have become engaged with it, and not just the forms and styles but the deepest convictions and perplexities too. Again and again it has been found that when men deal with this tradition faithfully and honestly, being the men they are and caught in the time which is theirs, then it comes alive; and the tradition itself is like the grain of wheat which falls into the ground, losing itself so as to spring up and bear fruit. It is only by taking ourselves and our place and time seriously that the God of the Exodus, the God of Jesus, the God of the Fathers, can be our God too, and that we can recognize him. That is how it was for Augustine in a conversion which was a rediscovery of a ‘beauty at once so ancient and so new’. ‘How was it’, he wondered, ‘that I recognized them [the Christian facts] when they were mentioned and agreed that they were true? It must have been that they were already in my memory, hidden away in its deepest recesses, in so remote a part of it that I might not have been able to think of them at all, if some other person [Monica, perhaps, or Ambrose] had not brought them to the fore by teaching me about them.’
Augustine is here speaking out of experience. And it is that experience of a man’s quest and discovery which somehow reverberates in the lives of others and is called prayer. When Ferdinand Ebner says that ‘to speak of God except in a context of prayer is to take his name in vain’ it means that to speak of him without yourself being in relationship with him, without seeking and finding again and again, is to talk vaporing nonsense. To speak of him at all adequately we must use personal language: it can be so personal in fact that its only parallel is in human loving and the language of the heart. So I shall talk about prayer under such headings as recognition, as resistance and submission, as community. None of these things happens in mid-air. They are all functions of being engaged with someone. The totality of it can only be put in the name of that someone. For a lover it is the name of the one he loves. This is delicately expressed in a poem from Paul Verlaine’s La Bonne Chanson in which he assembles the things which the name of his beloved bring to mind:
Une sainte en son auréole
Une châtelaine en sa tour
Tout ce que contient la parole
Humaine de grace et d’amour
(A saint in her circle of light
A princess in her tower
All that human speech contains
Of grace and of love)
More images and recollections follow, and it ends
Je vois, j’entends toutes ces choses
Dans son nom Carlovingien
(I see, I hear all these things
In her name Carlovingien)
For the person at prayer it is the mysterious name of God, calling up memories, recognizing a presence and opening up hope.
. . . Lovers don’t see their embraces
as a viable theme for debate, nor a monk his prayers
(do they, in fact, remember them?): O’s of passion,
interior acts of attention, not being a story
in which the names don’t matter but the way of telling(‘W. H. Auden’s poem ‘The Cave of Nakedness’, in About the House, Faber.)
Certainly this is not a story where the name doesn’t matter. Cast your mind back to Mark Santer’s lecture. The name matters entirely. Its content can only be known from the inside. And the Christian tradition, being at heart a tradition of prayer and worship, the story of a loving, can only be understood by those who join in and do it. This leads into a consideration of prayer as recognition, and in particular the mutual recognition of individual and tradition.
Anyone who prays is at once doing something very traditional and very personal. At once he takes seriously himself as he is today, and also truths and images much older than that, hidden away in the recesses. He finds that the old images and truths evoke and clarify what he is today when ‘some other person’ (Jesus, Jeremiah, Augustine, Bonhoeffer or whoever) brings them to the fore by teaching him about them: it is not unknown for someone to find that the words of a service used day after day are the very words he is wanting to speak at present. It is the day’s experience which gives urgent content to saying ‘O God make speed to save us , or ‘O Lord make clean our hearts within us.’ What happens to us convinces us that these are things we want. And so, going the other way about, a man praying finds that present experience evokes and clarifies the truth of the tradition.
Prayer, by joining the personal and the traditional, is a moment of recognition. By that I mean the one thing that makes us happy above everything else, for recognition is what we all long for. The simplest example is when somebody, loaded with perplexities and half-grasped ideas, is talking to someone else, and that someone else, after listening, says something which gathers it all up, focuses it, and so opens a way forward. What is said may be something as banal and traditional as ‘Where there’s a will there’s a way or ‘God loves you’, but it is felt as new and helpful. A more far-reaching example is when somebody recognizes you for what you are, knows you, to use Biblical language, and accepts that. That is recognition under its highest form of love, and it is what enables us to go on living. We would not have known what we were, let alone dared to be it, if someone else had not brought it to the fore by teaching us about it, and this is what the language and images of tradition can do for us.
To see it in the context of prayer we can go to Thomas Traherne who, with an instinct commoner than we might believe, saw ‘Evry Thing being Sublimely Rich & Great & Glorious. Evry Spire of Grass is the Work of His Hand: And I in a World where evry Thing is mine, & far better than the Greater sort of Children esteem Diamonds & Pearls.’ But ‘I was so Ignorant that I did not think any Man in the World had had such thoughts before. Seeing them therefore so Amiable, I wondered not a little, that nothing was Spoken of them in former Ages: but as I read the Bible I was here & there Surprised with such Thoughts, & found by Degrees that these Things had been written of before, not only in the Scriptures but in many of the Fathers & that this was the Way of Communion with God in all Saints, as I saw clearly in the Person of David. Me thoughts a New Light Darted into all his Psalmes, and finally spread abroad over the whole Bible. So that things, which for their Obscurity I thought not in being, were contained: Things which for their Greatness were incredible, were made Evident & Things Obscure, Plain. GOD by this means bringing me into the very Heart of His Kingdom.’ So tradition gave Traherne the courage of his convictions, and his convictions gave life to tradition. So a solitary experience became a ‘Communion with God in all Saints’ in a moment of recognition. In a similar way Luther found himself and more in a study of the Psalms, with consequences far beyond his life and time: ‘wherefore, whoever wants to understand the scriptures wisely needs to understand all these things tropologically: truth, wisdom, salvation, justice namely with which he makes us strong, saved, just, wise’. ‘From this point’, he wrote later, ‘the whole face of the scriptures was altered.’
So prayer holds the happiness of the moment of recognition -- the moment of mutuality -- ‘this is for me’. In the words of Adam, when the Lord introduced him to Eve, ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh.’ It is the prodigal son ‘Through seas of shipwreck home at last’. So, when George Herbert writes his poem ‘Prayer’ he caps a dazzling collection of images and descriptions with the plain final words, ‘something understood’.
Prayer the Churches banquet, Angels age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth:
Engine against th’Almightie, sinner’s towre,
Reversèd thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six daies-world transposing in an houre,
A kind of tune, which all things heare and fear;
Softuesse, and peace, and joy, and love, and blisse,
Exalted manna, gladnesse of the best,
Heaven in ordinarie, man well drest
The milkie way, the bird of paradise,
Church-bels beyond the starres heard, the souls
bloud, something understood.
But an essential warning must be given here against too quick and easy an arriving at these moments. Readers of Herbert will be aware of the testing and judgment he had to go through, the impatience, reluctance and darkness he explored and expressed as well as the sweetness and light of his homecomings.
It is a temptation which everyone knows, to trick himself out in virtues and insights which do not really belong to him. To succumb to it is to lose before we start because we deny the validity of the today where we are. The word of God addresses a man where he is, so he gains nothing by being somewhere else, even in wish and imagination. Last term an anonymous master of the spiritual life wrote in yellow chalk on the Pitt Press Building ‘Today is the first day of the rest of your life.’ If we take up false attitudes today we cannot hope for genuine moments of recognition tomorrow. It may sound banal, but to avoid being someone else, to avoid being elsewhere, requires a determined act of resistance. You get the flavor of this in the studied ambiguity of the attitude to ‘the world’ in St. John’s gospel, or, for that matter, in a contrast of the first two chapters of St. Paul’s letter to the Romans with the eighth. God loves the world, and this is evident because in Christ he is both present in it, and working out its salvation to a fuller life. It is evident in the insistence on the flesh and body of Jesus. But also God, in Christ, is against the world. It is resisted and overcome, not out of mere bloody-mindedness, but in order that it may receive a peace and a kingdom which are not its own. And this is evident in the insistence on judgment, spirit as against flesh, and the second birth.
There is a parable of it in the working of any creative artist, thinker, scientist or lover. These people are contra mundum. They separate themselves from ordinary distraction, sometimes to the point of eccentricity. Called absentminded, they are in fact present-minded, because they do this in order to be present with some particular point of the world -- to love it and know it -- the artist and lover with a particular face, for instance, the scientist with a particular cell or organism. The resistance is in the service of knowing and recognizing.
Prayer because it is recognition is also such an aggressive act. If I understand R. D. Laing correctly he has something to say to us here. His Politics of Experience(Penguin Book) amounts to a defense of the validity of the individual’s internal experience against external pressure -- ‘the alienated starting point of our pseudo-sanity’. He pins his faith on a man like his patient Jesse Watkins going on his journey into the interior: ‘Yes, the -- that was the enormity of it, that I -- that there was no way of avoiding this -- facing up to what I -- the journey I had to do.’ The journey meant taking on the ‘enormity of knowing’, and ended in a return to a world where ‘the grass was greener, the sun was shining brighter, and people were more alive, I could see them clearer’. For each of us there is a journey and, like the Jumblies, we must heed not what men say but take it:
They went to sea in a sieve they did
In a sieve they went to sea:
In spite of all their friends could say
On a winter’s morn, on a stormy day,
In a sieve they went to sea!
And everyone said, who saw them go,
‘O won’t they be soon upset you know!
For the sky is dark, and the voyage is long,
And, happen what may, it’s extremely wrong,
In a sieve to sail so fast!’
For here is the possibility, and indeed the promise, of finding ‘a land all covered with trees’, furnished with delightful and useful commodities, and of returning mysteriously taller. I can do no better here than to quote from Alan Ecclestone’s pamphlet On Praying: ‘The kind of resistance with which our praying is concerned includes both the willingness to tackle seemingly intractable experience and the patient maintenance and defense of the positions we have already taken up. Such prayer includes the vigilance and the audacity necessary to keep alive spiritually in circumstances which always threaten to choke and smother us. "Our fidelities", Péguy wrote, "are citadels: they do in the long run make, constitute, raise a monument to the face of God."’(Prism Publications.) The man who prays has to go into his room and shut the door, both to be with his Father who is in secret and to exclude the insistent voices of fashionable witch-doctors, his own distractions, and not least the admonitions of anxious orthodoxy. The courage to do this can only come from the assurance that he matters as he is, and this assurance is itself a gift of God in prayer, something he must always ask for and receive.
Here, in resisting instant orthodoxy, tradition comes to our aid -- surprisingly perhaps. It might be the story of Jacob’s wrestling which gives a frame and a validity to what someone is going through. Jacob, left alone at the ford Jabbok at night, wrestles with a mysterious man who puts his thigh out of joint. Then he said, ‘Let me go for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’ So in the end the wounded patriarch limps off into the dawn with a blessing and a new name: ‘Israel, for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed’, and a pain in the leg to remind him of it. A new name and a new reality. Or one may take the story of Job, his refusal to be deflected by the well-meaning advice of pious friends. It is to him that God in the end reveals himself:
‘I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees thee,
Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes.’
As for the friends, God is angry with them ‘for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has’. The hope for them is that ‘my servant Job shall pray for you, and I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly’.
In our own time we have a powerful example of this in Britten’s War Requiem, where the traditional Latin Mass for the dead runs alongside Wilfred Owen’s passionate war poems. Sometimes the two are in flat contradiction, sometimes in a sort of agreement; but at others, as in the Agnus Dei coupled with Owen’s ‘One ever hangs where shell’d roads part’, they are wonderfully together. These moments of coincidence and, very precisely, compassion, are all the more moving for not having been reached easily. I suggest that we have here a paradigm of the Christian’s living with tradition.
The point of all this is summarized in words of Teilhard de Chardin: ‘Unless I do everything I can to advance or resist, I shall not find myself at the required point -- I shall not submit to God as much as I might have done or as much as he wishes. If, on the contrary, I persevere courageously, I shall rejoin God across evil, deeper down than evil.’(Le Milieu Divin, Collins.) But notice what is going on here. In both these Old Testament stories we see the solitary wrestling of a man with the divine. His prayer is an engine against th’Almightie’. But the issue of it is not solitary. Jacob is given a name which is to become the name of a people. Job is declared to be the one who can offer sacrifice for others. The particular point of the lonely struggle becomes the gathering point of community. The isolation and anguish of the cross becomes, according to St John, the place of the gathering together in unity of the scattered children of God. Just as Traherne’s experience of the glorious world, focused in scripture, became a communion with God in all saints, so this other dark individual experience is also a communion with others. We are dealing here with a familiar Biblical pattern, the clustering of all human need and hope round one event as creatures of the night gather around a solitary light. As it says in the Christmas hymn:
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight.
This too, is something which happens when a man is praying. He becomes such a meeting point even in his solitude. I will try to give some description of this.
In his Hulsean Lectures, Prayer and Providence, Peter Baelz told us that ‘Prayer is for the particular, but it deals with things in the spirit of the artist and the discoverer, and not that of the manufacturer.’ The particular dealt with in the spirit of the artist and the discoverer -- this is what I shall try to look at. Having glimpsed some discoverers, the Jumblies, let us turn to some artists.
Some time before he was executed for losing a battle in AD 303 the Chinese poet Lu Chi wrote an extended meditation on the poet’s art. This, in the discreet rhetoric of his time, is something of what he says about the poet:
Taking his position at the hub of things he contemplates
the mystery of the universe;
He feeds his emotions and his mind on the great works of
the past. Moving along with the four seasons, he sighs
at the passing of time;
Gazing at the myriad objects, he thinks of the complexity
of the world.
There is a sense, which Traherne knew well, in which each of us is at the hub of things. The world is made for us and we for the world. That is something we can take seriously. But more than that, for the poet this is a position which he takes explicitly and for a purpose, a centre of receptivity. The man of prayer, with his daily discipline, is equally explicit and deliberate. We do it to ‘take upon us the mystery of things/As if we were God’s spies’.
Keats is saying something similar in one of his letters: ‘At once it struck me what quality went to make a man of achievement especially in literature and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously -- I mean negative capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason. In those last words we catch the note of resistance again. We resist in order that we may be able to see what is going on -- and then make a proper and mature submission to it. The whirligig of everyday events often means that we don’t see anything at all. To pray is to take time to look, to see what’s going on and let it speak to us in the way of the blind, night vision of the poet in Shakespeare’s Sonnet XLIII:
When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see
For all the day they view things unrespected
But when I sleep in dreams they look on thee
And darkly bright are bright in dark directed.
Prayer is sleep, and prayer is vigilance. The praying man is a collecting point for experience, one who gives time for it to be seen for what it is. His prayer first gathers things together, with tradition perhaps upholding and giving reference to his day-by-day experience, and then holds it up in supplication, penitence, or thanksgiving to the light of God. This is the point at which things begin to happen. The poet’s ordered and digested experience is put in poems which can make a difference to other people, comforting or surprising them. The Christian’s ordered and digested experience is put in prayers which Herbert describes as working effectually in two directions; ‘Engine against th’Almightie’, and ‘a kind of tune which all things hear and fear’. In either case, when the poet has written or a man has prayed, things cannot be quite the same again. A difference has been made at the heart of things which reverberates into other lives. ‘The power of God’s love’, says John Burnaby, ‘takes effect in human history in no other way than through the wills and actions of men in whom that love has come to dwell To pray is to open the heart to the entry of love -- to ask God in; and where God is truly wanted he will always come. What happens when I pray is, to begin with, an encroachment of the love of God upon the defenses of myself, my hard heart and laggard will.’(From Soundings, CUP.)
This idea, of the individual at prayer being a point at which things start to happen, enables us to say something about intercession. A man praying is, so to speak, open at both ends. We have already seen how the lonely struggles with God of Jacob, Job, and Jesus issued in a communal blessing. Their final victory-cum-submission to the divine kingdom was for the sake of other people and for their benefit. In them, both the community of human experience and the ways of God with men found a focus, so that starting from them something happens to affect men and, if I may say so, God. Certainly I can say that a revelation of the being of God takes place because of them, their steadfastness and refusal to be put off. Imagine, if you like, that they are points towards which the human and the divine gather, and also -- using the same diagram -- points from which the human and the divine spread out. Put in crude visual form it looks something like this:
COMMUNITY OF HUMAN EXPERIENCE
COMMUNION OF THE KINGDOM OF GOD
Let us consider this double aspect of intercession a little more expansively. From the human side it is not hard to understand, If I take ten minutes every day to think about what has happened to me and about the people I have met, then all this experience, viewed unrespected in the day, finds a place where it can rest, where it is seen for what it is, where it is recognized. So W. H. Auden describes the dying Sigmund Freud:
For about him till the very end were still
those he had studied, the fauna of the night,
and shades that still waited to enter
the bright circle of his recognition.
--In memory of Sigmund Freud, from Collected Shorter Poems 1966, Faber.
That last line provides a description of prayer and an incentive towards it. Let us be quite clear that this recognition is doing something. It makes a difference.
About our praying for other people Ecclestone says this: ‘They have needs of their own, secret needs no other person knows, but the prolonged holding of their needy condition in the attention we give is what really matters. A recognition of their need has been lodged in the fabric of our experience.’(Ibid.) And Nédoncelle: ‘When I pray that enemies may be reconciled I have already, through God’s action, reconciled them in myself. There is something in them that has achieved harmony, and this something only exists in and through me. Nowhere else as yet has their ultimate condition been reached.’(The Nature and Use of Prayer, Burns & Oates.)
The poet, pre-eminently, has this confidence that his experience is potentially more than individual. ‘He never ceased to believe’, writes Willa Muir of her husband Edwin, ‘that his experience resembled the experience of everyone else involved in the process of living on earth.’ (Belonging, Hogarth Press). And the poet crystallizes this in writings which will help us to see and understand a little more of the reality which we are enmeshed in, giving us the courage to be and to see a little more because what we half suspected has been held and recognized. Similarly the prayer which gathers things becomes a sprig of energy and refreshment.
From the divine side it is, of course, harder to describe. The Christian believes that when he prays the world around him does not only enter ‘the bright circle of his’ own ‘recognition’, but also and of more far reaching and mysterious consequence, the bright circle of God’s recognition. He is leading things back, not just to himself as a hub of experience, but to God as the hub and source of all that is, by whose will they are and were created. This comes about in his penitence, thanksgiving, and petition, which are not just his letting himself feel these things (basic as that is) but his saying he is sorry to God, thanking God, asking God. God is, according to the tradition which waits to become ours, pre-eminently the place where things start to happen. The Christian knows himself as a poor man and a hungry man and his God as the one who enriches and feeds him, renewing in him the miracle of calling light out of darkness, calling into existence things which are not so that they are. It matters very much that he prays, but beside the fact that God works in his prayer that is almost inconsequential. It is the divine name that is the most real and valid thing in his praying, the name which guarantees everything about his prayer. This is the heart of it, and of this it is impossible to speak. It is not a viable theme for debate.
Having reached a point as exalted as that there is nothing to do but to climb down. The only way from the mountain of vision is down to the plains populated by ordinary human unhappiness and enjoyment. The connection between me today and the eternal God which has been made in prayer and fastened by tradition waits to be worked out in thousands of ways on the ordinary plain. I have dealt with the focus of prayer as best I can and tried to say something about what is going on when a man is consciously praying. A connection is made there of today and tradition, me and the other, the world and God. It is a spring of action running over into ordinary life. It is a moment of recognition which means that things will never look quite the same again. I have used the analogy of poetry, and in case that seems to you to be rather esoteric, something of an optional extra, may I point you to the great poetry of the Psalms? There, and especially in the psalms of lament and penitence, we find something that is both strikingly and uninhibitedly personal and at the same time traditional and generalized. Reading them we are in no doubt that a particular person is speaking from a particular point in his living. But if we ask precisely what is the matter with him (is he suffering from influenza or disappointment in love? who are the enemies he goes on about?) we are baffled. He uses, and finds it appropriate to use, the old images of the pit, the overwhelming waters, ambush and death. There is a sort of precision here, but because it is put in images rather than personal details, it is something which we can enter, a place of rest and recognition for our troubles and the troubles of those near to us. In this way the personal is not excluded but made inclusive. ‘This prayer of offering’, says Nédoncelle, ‘consists in presenting oneself and the world to God, in such a way that the realm of created beings, in spite of everything that afflicts it, is subjected to God and becomes holy, co -- operating in the movement which originates from him.’(The Nature and use of Prayer, Burns and Oates.) In Herbert’s words: ‘God’s breath in man returning to his birth.’
‘Only connect the poetry and the prose and both will be exalted.’ E. M. Forster points us on the way. We are not to be ashamed of the sublime or the ordinary, nor shirk either, nor should we be ashamed of being new or of being traditional. For this purpose we make our act of resistance, to allow the ‘negative capability’ of being in the presence of things as they are. We cultivate, in fact, a double confidence -- in things as they are and in the vision of things as they can be in the Kingdom of God -- by observing both, by holding in ourselves the tension between them. Only if we take each seriously as it is will the connection between them, the moments of recognition, be genuine. Only so can energy flow Out from there to renew both the vision of God and the face of the earth.
You get this insistence in Stanley Spencer’s superb assertion, ‘I believe in angels and dirt.’ The two do indeed belong together. You get it in the teaching of Jesus where glory and the joy of angels happen around the morally dirty publican as he repents, and not around the purer pharisee who considers himself exalted above the dirt. We think of saints as those who are on terms with the sublime. Ought we not to think of them too as those who have come to terms with the degraded and degrading? For it is there, we are told at Christmas and at Easter, that the wonderful is to be found. This is a theme of Patrick White’s novel Riders in the Chariot. It is about four people who have seen the vision of the chariot throne attended by living creatures, and the effect which this has on the history of their lives. At the end only one is left, Mrs. Godbold, going home to her shack in the evening:
‘Even though it was her habit to tread straight, she would remain a plodding simpleton. From behind, her great beam, under the stretchy cardigan, might have appeared something of a joke, except to the few who happened to perceive that she also wore the crown.
That evening, as she walked along the road, it was the hour at which the other gold sank its furrows in the softer sky. The lids of her eyes, flickering beneath its glow, were gilded with an identical splendor. But for all its weight, it lay lightly upon her, in fact, to where she remained an instant in the company of the living creatures she had known, and many others she had not.
If on further visits . . . she experienced nothing comparable, it was probably because Mrs. Godbold’s feet were still planted firmly on the earth. She would lower her eyes to avoid the dazzle, and walk on, breathing heavily, for it was a stiff pull up the hill, to the shed in which she continued to live.’(Penguin Books.)
So, for all of us, life must go on. But that is not a deprivation. If we are there, we are in the place where God can encounter us, being a God not of the dead but of the living. And it is here that we find the material of our prayer and find what desperately needs our prayer. A sign of genuine holiness is that it is grounded, feet planted firmly on the earth. The incidents of the everyday world, says de Chardin, are the rungs of the ladder where the traffic is up and down between heaven and earth. It has been written of the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins, with its close attention both to nature and to God, ‘Just as Christ is reborn to the world though the witness of one brave martyr, so the grandeur of God will "flame out", beautiful and awe-inspiring, from the imperfect "perfection" of one of his creatures. Their duller glory can be converted into a divine irradiance when such a sight "meets" a human heart in a receptive and perceptive mood.’ (N. H. Mackenzie, Hopkins, Oliver & Boyd.)
But the important thing remains -- whether or not you choose to occupy yourself in praying. I have not suggested any techniques, this not being a story in which the names don’t matter, but the way of telling. But I’ll end with two bits of advice. One is from a poem by C. Day Lewis, in which an old priest of an unspecified religion is teaching the trade to a novice. He says:
But the crucial point is this:
You are called only to make the sacrifice:
Whether or not he enters into it
Is the God’s affair; and whatever the handbooks say
You can neither command his presence or explain it --.
All you can do is to make it possible.
If the sacrifice catches fire of its own accord
On the altar, well and good. But do not
Flatter yourself that discipline and devotion
Have wrought the miracle: they have only allowed it,’
--Final Instructions, Selected Poems, Penguin Books.
The other is based on lines from T. S. Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’, which take up the teaching of Julian of Norwich:
And all shall be well and
All manner of things shall be well
By the purification of the motive
In the ground of our beseeching.
--Four Quartets, Faber)
‘We do not know how to pray as we ought’, says St Paul. It is a statement that needs no questioning. Our major task in praying is to seek out the prayer which we should pray -- the prayer which is really ours and really God’s, which is genuinely mutual in fact. In this his presence, his spirit, helps us by witnessing along with our spirit. From this cooperation the word which eventually breaks out as the true word is (surprisingly and against so much probability) the cry of appeal and recognition ‘Abba -- Father’.
It matters little, with praying, where one starts or how one starts, so long as it is one’s real self that is engaged. And the tradition -- I have labored the point -- is there to help and confirm us. What does matter is the presence which we can neither command nor explain, that ‘certain name’ on which we call. The name of God is the promise of his presence, a presence working in the ground of the heart, sorting out and educating the motives behind our beseeching. So if there is one basic prayer for all of us I would say that it is the old one, ‘0 God make clean our hearts within us.’ Ordinary experience, if we are at all thoughtful, will leave us in no doubt about the need of it, the need of a perceptive and receptive centre for all our living. And if there is one thing entirely certain about prayer it is that we will find that the age-old words ‘I am the Lord thy God’ are true for us in our today.