A Paper from a Western
Canadian Theological Conference, published in Dr. M. Treschow, ed.,
The Lord is Nigh: The Theology and Practice of Prayer (Kelowna,
B. C. Sparrow's Editing, 1997), pp. 74-78. +
I. Prayer as Human
Like as the
hart desireth the water-brooks:
so longeth my soul after thee, O God.
My soul is athirst for God, yea, even for the living God:
when shall I come to appear
before the presence of God? (Psalm 42:1-2)
Regarded from the
standpoint of human psychology, and as a phenomenon of universal
religious practice, prayer appears to be simply the articulation of
human desires, human longings and human aspirations. "My soul is
athirst for God," cries the Psalmist, and it is indeed that thirst,
that desire for God, which – whether acknowledged or merely
implicit – underlies and impels every quest of the human spirit.
"All men by nature
desire to know," says Aristotle at the beginning of his
Metaphysica. But what is it
that they desire to know? They long to know the reasons of things,
the causes, the truth of things; finally to know that truth by which
and in which all things have their truth. Thus Dante, in the
Paradiso, compares the intellect's desire to a wild beast's
racing to its den, where alone it can find rest.
What are all our sciences, what are all our fragments of knowledge
but droplets from that fountain of which we long to drink in all its
fulness? "My soul is athirst for God, yea, even for the living God."
What is our quest
for happiness, but a desire for the good; and what is that good we
seek – whether knowingly or not – but some participation in the pure
and perfect good which is God himself? What is our quest for
liberty, but our longing for God's own city, the heavenly Jerusalem,
which is above, and is free, and is the mother of us all? "My soul
hath a desire and longing to enter into the courts of the Lord: my
heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God" (Ps. 84:2). What is
our quest for beauty, but a longing for that pure and perfect beauty
which belongs to Sion; and what are all our fragmentary images of
beauty, whether in music, or painting, or sculpture, or
poetry, or whatever human arts, but pallid reflections of the
unimaginable beauty of the countenance of God? "My heart hath talked
of thee, Seek ye my face: thy face Lord, will I seek. O hide not
thou thy face from me: nor cast thy servant away in displeasure"
(Ps. 27: 9).
Desire takes so many
forms, and speaks with so many different voices. High up in the
mountains of central Italy, in Abruzzo, there is a tiny, isolated
hamlet called Bominaco; and near that place, in a solitary spot on a
mountain-side, there is a supremely lovely twelfth-century church,
with frescoes, sculpture and architectural lines of such exquisite
beauty as to move one to tears. The pastor of Bominaco sums up the
meaning of the place in one phrase: "insonne desiderio di Dio":
unsleeping desire for God. It is the soul's thirst, articulated in
stone. "One thing have I desired of the Lord that I will require,
even that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my
life: to behold the fair beauty of the Lord and to visit his temple"
(Ps. 27: 4).
All human desire,
all human longing and aspiration, expressed in a thousand different
forms, at a thousand different levels, is ultimately desire for God.
Dante makes that point lucidly in the Convivio: Therefore, I
say that not only in the gaining of knowledge and wealth, but in any
acquisition whatever, human desire reaches out, in one way or
another. And the reason is this: the deepest desire of each thing,
arising from its very nature, is to return to its principle. And
because God is the principle of our soul, and has made it like
himself (as it is written, "Let us make man in our image and
likeness"), the soul mightily desires to return to him.
And so, as a pilgrim
who travels along a road he has not been on before believes each
building seen in the distance is the inn, and finding it not so
directs his belief to the next, and so from house to house, until at
last he finds the inn; just so our soul, as soon as it enters upon
the new and unfamiliar road of this life, directs its eyes towards
the end, the highest good, and each thing it sees which manifests
some good, it takes to be that end.
And because its
knowledge is at first imperfect, inexperienced and untaught, little
goods seem great to it, and thus it begins its longing first with
them. Thus, we see the infant intensely longing for an apple; and
then, later on, for a little bird; and then, still further on, fine
clothes; and then a horse; and then a mistress; then modest riches;
then more; and then still more. And that is because in none of these
things does it find that for which it ever seeks, and it believes to
find it further on.
Prayer is the
interpretation, the articulation of all this desire: the soul's
ceaseless desire for God; and prayer is therefore, indeed, as George
Herbert describes it, "soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage."
Indeed, the desire is itself the substance of the prayer, as St.
Augustine remarks in one of his sermons: "Desire itself prays, even
if the tongue be still. If you always desire, always you pray. When
does prayer sleep? Only when desire grows cold."
St. Thomas Aquinas makes the same point in his commentary on the
First Epistle to the Thessalonians, when he says that "desire itself
has the force of prayer" ; and
Richard Hooker sums it up in a comment in the Laws of
Ecclesiastical Polity, where he remarks that "Every good and
holy desire though it lack the form, hath notwithstanding in itself
the substance and with him the force of a prayer, who regardeth the
very moanings, groans and sighs of the heart of man."
The articulation of
desire, the articulation of human longings and aspirations: from the
standpoint of human psychology and universal religious practice,
that is the meaning of prayer. It is homesickness for God. "My soul
thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth after thee: in a barren and dry
land where no water is."(Ps. 63:2). But looked at only in that
perspective-the perspective of human aspiration and human
experience-it has inevitably a tragic character, because it seeks
an end which human energy and human ingenuity can never attain: it
seeks the divine life, it seeks divine friendship, it seeks to be as
God. That is tragic hubris, the tragic pride of human aspiration,
whether one thinks of that in terms of the biblical accounts of the
expulsion from the garden, and the destruction of the Tower of
Babel, or whether one thinks of the fate of the heroes of Greek
tragic poetry; for the divine life and the divine friendship appear
to be, as Aristotle remarks, "a life too high for man."
Remember how the
temple of the oracle at Delphi bore the inscription gnothi
seauton, "know thyself"
-know that you are a man and not a god, and do not transgress the
human limits. The end of our desire must remain eternally beyond us,
as in Keats' meditation on the figures of the lovers painted on a
Grecian urn, poised there forever in the moment just before the
kiss: "Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss, Though winning near
the goal." There is, of
course, in such a spirituality a terrible hopelessness, perhaps most
fully manifest in the desperate religiosity of the last great pagan
philosophers,12 and perhaps less nobly manifest in some of the
bizarre religious enthusiasms of our own times.
But what is the
alternative? To deny the desire is to reduce the quest for truth to
idle curiosity or pedestrian utility, the quest for happiness to
selfish self-indulgence, and the quest for beauty to the search for
emotional "highs". It is to fall into that pusillanimity of spirit
which Dante so marvellously describes as the vestibule of hell,
where life is but the futile pursuit of an empty figment. "Non
ragioniam di lor, ma guarda e passa," says Virgil, "Let us not
speak of them, but look and pass on."
"O turn away mine eyes", cries the Psalmist, "lest they
beholdvanity" (Ps. 119:37) - lest they behold emptiness. "My tears
have been my meat day and night, while they say daily unto me, Where
is now thy God?" (Ps. 42:3).
II. Prayer as
Divine Gift: The Redemption of Time
To such an account
of human prayer as human desire, Christian theology would add
another, and more profound, and for Christian prayer altogether
crucial perspective, in the recognition of prayer as divine gift in
creation and redemption, inspired by the divine Word and moved by
the divine Spirit. St. Augustine makes the point in a famous passage
at the beginning of the Confessions. "It is thou, O God, who
dost rouse mankind to delight in praising thee, for thou has made us
for thyself, and our hearts are restless, until they find their rest
in thee."14 In another passage, near the end of the Confessions,
he comments more fully on the meaning of that unquiet heart:
By its own
weight, a body inclines towards it own place. Weight does not
always tend towards the lowest place, but towards its own place.
A stone falls, but fire rises. They move according to their own
weights, they seek their own places. Oil poured into water rises
to the surface; water poured on oil sinks below the oil. They
act according to their own weights, they seek their own places.
Things out of place are restless. They find their own places,
and then they rest.
My love is my
weight (pondus meum amor meus). Whithersoever I am moved,
I am moved there by love. By thy gift (dono tuo = the
Holy Spirit), O Lord, we are set on fire, and are borne aloft:
we burn, and we are on the way. We climb the ascents that are in
the heart....With thy fire, with thy good fire, we burn and go
on, for we go up to the peace of Jerusalem.
The activity of
prayer is thus the activity of love's conversion, the activity of
rational will aspiring and ascending towards its true, eternal good.
But what is the impulse, the spring of this ascent, this pondus,
this "weight" of love? It is the natural God-given desire of the
created soul, "the concreated and everlasting thirst for God's own
realm," inspired by the fire
of the spirit, which burns within the soul. And just as fire, by the
compulsion of its very nature, rises upwards, so the soul moves to
desire, and finds no rest until it finds rejoicing in the final
object of its love.
But whereas in the
realm of nature all things are created in number, measure and
weight, and by their very natures, by their rising and decline,
infallibly seek the good in ordered and harmonious praise of the
creator, human love is the activity of free and rational will; and
therein lies the possibility of wayward love: a love which fixes
upon some finite good as though that were the absolute and perfect
good. Thus, in human life, love becomes distorted, perverted, and
frustrated, and leads the soul to slavery - subservience to the
sensible, to idle curiosity and vain ambition, subject to all the
demons of the present age. And thus, the true freedom of the will is
lost; the fire of love is, as it were, extinguished, frozen in a
dark abyss of alienation and despair, and prayer is dead. But still,
somehow, the thirst is there, if only in a half-recognised sense of
emptiness and futility: "Like as the hart desireth the water, even
so my soul longeth after thee, O God."
That text from Psalm
42 is marvellously illustrated in the great twelfth-century mosaic
(just now beautifully restored) which adorns the apse of the ancient
Church of San Clemente, in Rome. In that picture, the harts come to
drink of the streams of paradise which flow from the Garden of Eden,
which is also the hill of Calvary, surmounted by the Tree of Life,
which is also the Cross of Christ. There is much more symbolic
richness in that astonishing mosaic,
but the essential point for us now is just this: It is through the
Cross of Christ that the ancient enmity, the old and ever new
alienation, is overcome, and the streams of grace flow out to renew
the spiritual life of humankind, and give rebirth to prayer.
It is through the
Cross of Christ that the gates of prayer are truly opened. Prayer
is, indeed, the articulation of human desire; but Christian theology
sees it as properly much more than that. By the Cross, we are raised
up, no longer just clients, so to speak, but friends of God; and
prayer becomes the conversation, the com-munication of friends. As
St. Thomas remarks, in his meditations of St. John 15 (Jesus' Last
Supper Discourse), Our Saviour calls his disciples "friends," and to
converse together in the proper condition of friendship. Friends
delight in each other's presence, and find comfort there in their
anxieties. We are made friends with God, he dwelling in us, and we
in him. We are no longer servants, but friends, "For ye have not
received the spirit of bondage again to fear, but ye have received
the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father" (Rom. 8, 15).
The great Puritan
divine, Richard Baxter, makes just the same point as St. Thomas,
specifically with reference to the Lord's Supper, wherein, he says,
"we have the fullest intimation, expression and communication of the
wondrous love of God."
In the sacrament
of the body and blood of Christ, we are called to a familiar
converse with God.... There we are entertained by God as
friends...and that at the most costly feast. If ever a believer
may on earth expect his kindest entertainment, and near access,
and a humble intimacy with his Lord, it is in the participation
of this sacrifice feast, which is called the Communion.
It is, of course, a
token of the intimacy of divine and human friendship that in the
language of prayer, in English as in many other languages, we are
privileged to use the intimate, second person singular forms, the
"thee" and "thou" and "thine" of intimate friends, rather than the
public and formal plurals. Prayer is the conversation of intimate
friends. But the theology of Christian prayer takes us even beyond
the intimacy of friendship: "Your life is hid with Christ in God"
(Col. 3:3): "I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me" (Gal.
2:20). We dwell not only in God's presence, as friends, but we dwell
in him and he in us, and rightly does George Herbert speak of prayer
as "God's breath in man returning to his birth."
Indeed, in prayer we
are taken up into the deepest mystery of the divine life, in the
relations of being, knowing and loving which are the Holy Trinity.
Through the gift of the Spirit, the Word of God engraces our hearts
to cry, "Abba, Father," and thus we have our places in that eternal
outgoing and return of the divine Word and Spirit, the divine
self-knowing, and the bond of love which unites the knowing and the
Thus our prayer
approaches God not from outside, as it were, but from within,
"through Jesus Christ our Lord, in the power of the Holy Spirit";
that is to say, our prayer is within the knowing and willing of God,
with the divine Providence. In a right understanding of prayer, it
can stand in no ultimate opposition to divine Providence, because
its whole point, really, is to place our life freely within God's
will, in knowledge and love; and our prayers accomplish precisely
what God's eternal Providence, the source of all order in the world,
has eternally willed to accomplish by them. They are the free agents
of Providence, the free, rational and willing instruments of grace.
God's grace descends, and ascends again in prayer. As Richard Hooker
beautifully expresses it:
For what is the
assembling of the Church to learn, but the receiving of Angels
descended from above? What to pray, but the ascending of Angels
upward? His heavenly inspirations and our holy desires are so
many Angels of intercourse and commerce between God and us.
descends, and ascends again in prayer. Thus prayer is God's gift to
us: God's work in us and our life in God, the redemption of desire.
As St. Paul explains, all who are in Christ are, by God's grace, new
creations (2 Cor. 5:17), and our prayer is our participation in that
new life of grace, converting us, setting straight our love,
transforming, transfiguring, "transhumanizing" us (to borrow Dante's
special word, transumanar).
And at this level,
when we speak of prayer, we're not speaking just of particular acts
of prayer, or occasional prayer, but of prayer as a condition of
life in continual conversion, continual reference to God. That is
habitual prayer, that state in which, according to the magnificent
Prayer Book collect for the Fourth Sunday after Easter, God so
orders our unruly wills and affections that we love what he commands
and desire what he promises, that so our hearts may surely there be
fixed where true joys are to be found. In that condition of habitual
prayer, that state of being in prayer, as John Donne says, in one of
his sermons, "that soul prays sometimes when it does not know that
III. Our Life in
In Christ, we are
new creations, born anew, no longer at enmity, but friends of God.
Our reconciliation has been accomplished, once for all; for Christ's
sake, we are accounted friends of God. But in another sense, our
reconciliation is not complete, and will not be complete, until we
come to know as we are known and to love as we are loved. Thus,
there is the tension between a justification, divinely-wrought and
finished once for all, and a sanctification, which is being worked
out within us day by day. Prayer reaches out, in faith and hope,
across that space.
In that reaching out
of prayer, precisely because it is by faith, trials and temptations,
the dark night of doubt, confusion and uncertainty, are not just
unfortunate accidents. In God's good Providence, they belong to the
very life of faith, for faith must be tried, like precious metal,
"which from the earth is tried, and purified seven times in the
fire" (Ps. 12:6; I Peter, 1:7). As St. Ignatius of Antioch puts it,
our desire is crucified: "My love," he says, "my eros is
crucified." Perhaps the trials
take different forms in one age or another, and different forms for
each of us. Those trials are necessary, and must be embraced.
Indeed, as St. James says, we must "count it all joy, knowing that
the trial of your faith worketh patience. Let patience have her
perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire (Jas. 1: 3-4).
confusions of the world in which we live, uncertainties within the
Church, and confusions within our own souls, present us with
problems and dilemmas, in which it is surely not easy to "count it
all joy"! But that is precisely the nature of our calling, and by
the grace of God, who gives manna in the desert, and water from the
rock, we are not without resources. As we were reminded this
morning, the Church's time of persecution is God's time of
preparation, and it is in exile that the bride is prepared for her
husband. As Thomas Traherne puts it, "Our very rust shall cover us
In this mixed time,
which is both glorious and hard, we are not without resources. We do
possess, in faith, God's word of reconciliation, committed unto us.
We do possess, in faith, God's work for us, God's word to us, made
audible in Holy Scriptures, made sensible in Holy Sacraments, if we
will but attend with minds and hearts obedient and penitent. We do
possess, in faith, the gift of God's Spirit to lead us into truth.
We do possess, if we will, in the community of faith, centuries of
wisdom and experience-none of it irrelevant-words and images of
prayer and sanctity which will come alive for us, if we will give
them (as to the shades in Homer's Hades) the living blood of our own
labours to drink. It seems to me terribly important and urgent that
we do our best to reclaim that great heritage of prayer and
spiritual discipline which is ours especially as Anglicans in our
great tradition of common prayer.
The practice of
Christian spirituality, our life of prayer, presents us, no doubt,
with many difficulties. But only one of these difficulties is, I
think, really fundamental; and that is the demoralizing of the
Christian mind and heart, and the demoralizing of the Christian
community, which we bring upon ourselves when we forget our calling,
and fall into a mindless conformity to the spirit of the present
age-the ambitio saeculi, as St. Augustine calls it.
Secular ideals, secular methods and measures insidiously invade our
consciousness, and pollute the springs of prayer. We lose heart, and
fall back into a hopeless neo-pagan spirituality.
The only true remedy
lies in the steady cultivation of the Christian virtues of faith and
hope and charity, holding on
to the centuries of Christian wisdom, holding fast to our road of
pilgrimage. What is essentially required is the practical upbuilding,
among us and within us, of the life of penitential adoration, the
life of habitual prayer. With such graces, may God now refurbish his
house. If this conference has given us a little bit clearer insight
into what that means, and if it has given us any morsel of
encouragement to renew our disciplines of prayer, it has indeed been
blessed by God, to whom be everlasting praise and glory.
"Why are thou
so full of heaviness, O my soul? and why art thou so disquieted
within me? O put thy trust in God, for I will yet give him
thanks, which is the help of my countenance, and my God"
1. Thomas Traherne, "Desire," The
Oxford Book of Christian Verse, ed. D. Cecil (Oxford, 1940), p.
2. Aristotle, Metaphysics, I,
1 (980a 21).
3. Dante, Divine Comedy,
Paradiso, IV, 127-129, Dante Alighieri. Tutte le opere,
ed. L. Blasucci (Florence, 1981) p. 631.
4. Dante, Convivio, IV, 12,
ed. cit., pp. 176-177, tr. R.D.C.; cf. Augustine, Enarr. in ps.
LXII, 5, CCL, 39, 796.
5. George Herbert, "Prayer," The
Oxford Book of Christian Verse, p. 139).
6. Augustine, Sermon LXXX, 7,
PL, 38, 497; cf. A. Cacciari, S. Agostino d'Ippona. La preghiera.
Epistola 130 a Proba (Rome, 1981), p. 48.
7. Thomas Aquinas, Super epist.
s. Pauli lectura, Vol. II (Marietti, 1953), I ad Thessal., 130,
8. Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of
Ecclesiastical Polity, ed. J. Keble, Works of Hooker,
(Oxford, 21841) Vol. II, V, xlvii, 2, p. 201.
9. Aristotle, Nichomachaen Ethics,
X, 7 (1177b 25); cf. Metaphysics, XII, 7 (1072b 15-20). On
the impossibility of friendship with God, Nic. Ethics, VIII,
7 (1158b 35-1159a 5).
10. For the history of
interpretation of the maxim, see P. Courcelle, Connais-toi
toi-méme de Socrate ā saint Bernard (Paris, 1974).
11. John Keats, "Ode on a Grecian
12. Cf. G. Reale, L'estremo
messaggio spirituale nel mondo antico nel pensiero metafisico e
teurgico di Proclo, introductory lecture in C. Faraggiana di
Sarzana, trans. Proclo. I Manuali (Milan, 1985) pp. v-ccxxiii.
13. Dante, Divine Comedy. Inferno,
ed. cit., III, 51, p. 396.
14. Augustine, Confessions,
15. Ibid. XIII, 9 (tr. R.D.C.). For
a full discussion, see A. DiGiovanni, L'inquietudine dell' anima.
La dottrina dell' amore nelle "Confessioni" di S. Agostino
16. Dante, Divine Comedy.
Paradiso, ed. cit.,II, 19-20, p. 622.
17. For a detailed description, see
L. Boyle, A Short Guide to St. Clements', Rome (Rome, 1972),
18. Thomas Aquinas, Contra
Gentiles, IV, 22; cf. Super Evan. S. Jo. lect., XV, ed.
Marietti, lect. 3, 1-4, pp. 379-382.
19. Richard Baxter, Works,
III, 816, as quoted in J. Packer, A Quest for Godliness
(Wheaton, Ill., 1980), pp. 213-214.
20. George Herbert, Prayer,
ed. cit., p. 139.
21. Richard Hooker, Of the Laws
of Ecclesiastical Polity, ed. cit., V, xxiii, p. 115.
22. Dante, Divine Comedy,
Paradiso, ed. cit., I, 70, p. 619.
23. John Donne, Sermon 12, in
G. Potter and E. Simpson, eds., The Sermons of John Donne
(Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1962) Vol. IV, p. 310.
24. Ignatius of Antioch, Ep. to
the Romans, VII, (ed. K. Bihlmeyer, Die Apostolischen Väter
(Tübingen, 1956) I, 16, p. 100.
25. Thomas Traherne, 'Christian
Ethics', in The Oxford Book of Christian Verse, p. 287.
26. St. Augustine, Confessions,
X, 30, 41.
27. Cf. R. Crouse, "Hope which does
not disappoint: The Path to Genuine Renewal," in G. Egerton, ed.,
Anglican Essentials (Toronto, 1995), pp. 286-291.