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Let us reclaim our Lenten focus.
We think that in prayer we speak to God, and we are not wrong to think so. But the heart of prayer is that God speaks to us. It is not God whose mind is changed by our prayer, but we ourselves, if we would but cease to speak, and would instead wait upon God, and listen to him. It is the prayer of silent expectation, whereby we who love God wait upon him, like the prophet Elijah who did not hear the Lord in the storm or the whirlwind of the earthquake, but rather in the still small voice, and he hid his face in holy fear. Monica had long petitioned the Lord that he would bring her son into the Christian faith, and Augustine had long cried out to be set free from bondage to intellectual error and sexual sin. Those prayers had been answered. But now, as they stand together in faith, hope and love, Monica and Augustine are ravished by that higher prayer, for they have raised up their ears “to him who made them, and God alone speaks.”
What happens to the soul then? I believe we have an image of it in the Transfiguration of Christ. Jesus took his three closest apostles, Peter, James and John up to the top of Mount Tabor, where he prayed, and all at once his clothes became a blinding white, and there with him were Moses and Elijah, the greatest prophets of Israel. No fuller’s bleach could make clothes so white, says Saint Mark, and so it is too with such prayer. Not all of our efforts can bring us that transforming prayer, just as we cannot manufacture joy, precisely because it is not joy if it does not come from without, taking us by surprise, ravishing us into the light.
What should we do then? Certainly we must act in the world and we must petition God for our needs. But sometimes we may love the world all the better by ceasing to act in it, and we petition God all the more mightily by ceasing to petition, waiting for God himself, who is our true and only need, and the source and end of our love. I cannot say that I have mastered this art. That is partly because I am a sinner, and it is much easier for me to chatter to God, or complain of this or that, rather than be still. But it is also because such prayer is not an art to master. It is instead an act of submission, to deign to listen; for the Spirit blows where it will, and all our effort is but to cease from effort, so that God will transform our hearts. His is the initiative, his the action, his the fulfillment.
– Anthony Esolen
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Anthony Esolen is a professor of English at Providence College, a senior editor of Touchstone Magazine and a regular contributer to Magnificat, from which this is excerpted. He is the translator and editor of Dante’s Divine Comedy and author of Ironies of Faith and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child.