Stating the obvious, these last several posts on prayer have been my own personal working out of my thoughts and experiences of prayer. I no doubt carry a universalizing tendency in all these reflections, but I trust my readers to discern what is my own experience from theirs, and further to take all these things before their own priests and spiritual fathers.
It has become very clear to me in this recent time of pre-Lent and Lent, that my understanding of prayer and my experience of faith have been distorted and truncated. Let me be clear, there was no evil intent in how and what I was taught regarding faith and prayer. Indeed, far from it. But, nonetheless, those distortions have severely affected what I know of prayer and how I practice it. For example, I grew up with an understanding that one ought not pray for that which God would not do. Of itself, a rather innocuous truism. However, for whatever reason and cause, that truth was applied to my practice of prayer such that the list of approved requests one may ask of God was rather small. Somehow, I am not sure how, it became lodged in my thinking that I could not pray that anyone would act in a particular way, for if I did I would be asking God to, in some way unclear to me, violate their freedom to choose to do some act or another. Less than half a moment’s reflection on this weird stricture would reveal that we could never ask God that someone would convert to Christ, and, more to the point, it would mean that a vast majority of biblical prayers would be invalid. Even Jesus’ own. After all, didn’t Jesus himself pray for St Peter that his faith would not fail?
The aberrations of one’s upbringing sometimes die hard, and so I have been brought to this Lent, in part, I think, so that this cancerous thought might be irradiated with struggle so as to be excised.
But another struggle I’ve had, and one I’ve chronicled often on this blog, is my move from a faith that is primarily intellectual, doctrinal, discursive, to one that is characterized by simple trust, one that is of the heart, that has tasted the goodness of God, one that clings to God. I do not want to in any way disparage the intellective aspects of life in God, including the importance and centrality in our experience of doctrine, dogma and theology proper. One cannot read the Conciliar explications of Christology and not have some grasp of the importance of the intellect. But when one has been formed by an experience in which the pendulum has swung hard in one direction, one feels quite strongly that an equally strong reaction is called for to bring balance.
Thankfully, the Lord has kept me from such an extreme reaction. But nonetheless, the moderation of an original extreme, when it happens by slow inches, can be agonizing in the extreme. Doubt becomes a too-familiar doppelganger. One feels split in half. The cries of the father of the demonized boy that Jesus and the Three meet after the events on the Mount of Transfiguration, is the heart-cry of such a soul: “I do believe! Help Thou my unbelief.”
And so, since prayer is the absolutely essential element in one’s personal union with God, these twin deformities shape and twist one’s experience in prayer in ways that make the struggle so much the harder and more painful. On top of the experiences of trial that one undergoes by virtue of life in the world, is added the extra layer of intensified pain in which one seeks the liberation of praying in faith.
This is, it is seeming to me, what Great and Holy Lent is for. Oh, to be sure, this is a pervasive experience throughout the year and within one’s daily living. But Lent is framed in such a way that we are called to pray in the desert with the Lord. We are called, as were the Twelve, to come away for a little while by ourselves with the Lord. But instead of the refreshing oasis and the revelation of God, we are called into the trackless wastes and into the divine hiddeness. In fact, more than called, but, in union with our Lord, compelled by the Spirit. After all, only those with great love would go willingly.
The wildness of the environment seems to me to call forth a similarly unsafe wildness in prayer. We are taken out of our norms, into something like chaos. We are taken from the safe into an environment we may not survive. The sort of prayer prayed in the comfort of one’s home in the pre-dawn morning, is not the same sort of prayer, qualitatively, as the prayer prayed when one is racked by hunger and thirst, where one is taken beyond one’s own resources, where one has no one and nothing else than the Holy Trinity and his ministers. This forced trek into the blasted expanse causes one, it seems to me, to give up the comfortable intellectual notions one may have of prayer and faith. Stripped of seemingly everything, including the niceties of conceptual debate and gamesmanship, one simply cries out from nothing else but the heart, “O God make speed to save me, O Lord make haste to help me.” “Turn not away Thy face from Thy child, for I am afflicted. Hear me speedily, draw near unto my soul, and deliver me.”
The trial undergone here, is not for the purposes of increasing the efficacy of one’s prayers, as though a little more suffering and God is more likely to hear and to answer. Nor is it necessarily the transformation of one’s prayers themselves. It is rather, or so it seems to me, God drawing us closer to himself. This trial is, if you will, the grasp of God. Praying in faith is not praying with doctrinal precision. Praying in faith is not praying with formal perfection. We do not need to know how and for what we ought pray, to be able to pray. For we have this promise that the Spirit himself will intercede for us. Praying in faith, I think, is the spreading wide of one’s arms, in a place of danger, hunger, thirst and death, and leaning hard into God’s embrace.
In this embrace, one is not guaranteed greater faith. But one needs faith no larger than a mustard seed to see moutains moved and cast into the sea. In this embrace, one is not guaranteed a richer prayer life. As though the goal of such prayer is its self-increase. Indeed, while one may suppose that one may experience more of God more deeply, it does not seem to be the case that we are even guaranteed an awareness of such a sweet consolation. We may continue to hear silence and experience hiddeness. All of this must certainly be lodged in God’s inscrutable love and wisdom.
And yet . . . I don’t know. I think it somehow cannot be the case that this burning away of the chaff of one’s faith and prayer, this being enfolded in the arms of God cannot have some real effect, some experience of peace and joy. More, I cannot think that somehow, those deepest and dearest requests, over which we have prayed and prayed and wept and hurt, day after day, may not in some way, from God’s vast love and mercy, find at last their yes, our heavy-laden selves brought at last into the rest which our Lord himself extends to us, where our tears remain, but drained of their pain and bitterness, refined by our struggle and full now of joy.
May it be so, Lord Christ. Heal us. Make us whole.