A Prolegomena to Prayer. Part VII.

A Prolegomena to Prayer. Part VII. June 20, 2010

Part VI-3.

One of the difficulties we have with prayer is that we might understand some theory about it, but we do not seem to get the results we are looking for in our prayer life when we try it out for ourselves. Once again, this shows that we expect prayer to be some sort of technique which brings magical results. While there are, to be sure, good reasons for these expectations — God is good, after all — there is more to our experience with God than meets the eye. Yes, prayer can be a time when people have a great, personal experience of God, but often, for one reason or another, it is difficult for one to sense God’s presence while in prayer. Why, therefore, can there be no results, if one is opening oneself up to God?

First, we must remember God works with us in ways which we do not always appreciate and understand. There is a great deal of transcendent mystery to God, and we might not always recognize his presence when it is there, either because we have not properly attuned ourselves to his presence, or God is wanting to be at work with us in the hidden recesses of our hearts. Often, the fruit of prayer is not had in the middle of the prayer itself, but later, as Jean Danielou explains:

Moreover, spiritual enlightenment is not always tied to the times of prayer: Mary of the Incarnation remarked that her greatest revelations about the Holy Trinity were given to her while she was rolling barrels along the quay at Tours. Indeed, it is striking to see how many people, experiencing dryness in prayer, have received astonishing spiritual enlightenment during their other activities. This demonstrates the sovereign freedom of God’s grace.[1]

It is not just the “sovereign freedom” of God’s grace which is involved, but it is also a demonstration of how prayer can be, and should be, united with our daily activity, so that if and when we accomplish some activity God wants us to do, especially some virtuous activity, what God has been doing with us is finally revealed to us and we see the greatness of God’s work and love in our lives. Or we might have a spiritual dryness, a “dark night of the soul,” in order to let us grow, to mature similar to the way someone learning how to ride a bicycle will eventually have their training wheels taken off the cycle so that they can master the art of bicycle riding themselves. In such a time, they might find their balance is off, and they crash. Since they have gained all they can from their training wheels, they must now learn to balance and steer their bike properly all by themselves: their parents are still there, watching, making sure they do not get hurt, but nonetheless, they are also there, watching their children learn what exactly they are capable of doing and turning that potential in reality. Their loving guidance is there, but it is shown in a new way, because it makes more room for their beloved child to act on their own, even if it means they will fall off their bike. In this way, it could be said that God’s silence is there, not because he doesn’t care, but because he does care, that he is allowing is to become spiritually mature, and when we do, we will appreciate all that we have been given in that time of maturation. Until then, it might seem like we have been abandoned, but he is there, letting us grow when he believes we are ready for such growth. Once we have matured, we will see that God was there, even when we did not think he was. It is like owning a house which has rooms we do not know about. Some benefactor is preparing them, decorating them and filling them up with all kinds of treasures, so that when we find them, we marvel at their glory while being thankful of the one who prepared them for us.

However, the main reason we do not see God’s work in our lives, do not sense his presence in our prayer, is because we have broken our lines of communication with him through sin:

Because the creature is from nothing and is defective, it can withdraw from acting because of God, so that it may do something because of itself and not because of God and thus something neither from God, according to God, nor because of God. This is sin, which is the corruption of the mode, species, and order. Because sin is a defect, it does not have an efficient cause but a deficient cause, namely, the defection of the created will.[2]

Even when we sin, God continues to give us all kinds of graces, but through such sin, we corrupt them. We fail to understand not only their origin but their noble purpose, and so we use them improperly, hurting ourselves in the process. It is like a computer being slowly destroyed by someone improperly using its programs –naively telling one of them to overwrite the hard drive, destroying the rest of the computer in its use. The program itself could be meant for some good, but it is being used against its original purpose, leading to the self-destruction of the computer itself. Before the computer is entirely useless, its other programs still perform, but without the ability to properly understand their own data, they come to indeterminate outcomes. Our sin likewise corrupts us, and corrupts the good which God has given to us, leading to our inability to understand all that God is trying to tell us in our interaction with him. Even then, God continues to show us his love. He gives his gifts to all, showing his love for all: “for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45b). Our experience and understanding of his gifts can be corrupted, so that, through sin, we end up receiving them in an improper fashion and harm ourselves, not because what God offers us is bad, but because of how we use or understand them is wrong. As long as we continue to sin, the corruption will continue. Once we stop sinning, God’s bountiful grace can heal us, and help us use those gifts properly, so that instead of corrupting us, they actually become aids to our union with him, which is why they are given to us in the first place.

The corruption of sin remains a constant threat, corrupting the good God has given to us, and it will continue to do so until sin is weeded out of our lives. Indeed, we must remember all that is harmful and painful to us is the result of a corrupted, deficient use of some good, which not only corrupts the good, but infects all the good which is dependent upon it as well. This is why God, who is all good, and the source of all goodness, in his love for us, can be experienced both as a joy to the saint and hell to the sinner. The living flame of love is the one gift given to all, but how we experience it depends upon our relationship with and response to God. “Wherefore you should employ all your diligence and skill in order to free your heart, senses, and affections from whatever could trammel their liberty, or could restrain or ensnare your soul. Strive earnestly to gather in the wandering affections of your heart and fix them on the love of the sole and pure Truth, the Sovereign Good…”[3]

Purifying ourselves from sin might be a long process. In the midst of it, we are likely to relapses into sin; we will desire to follow God, but as sin has weakened us and our abilities, it holds us back by the habits it has formed in our lives, causing us to constantly stumble as we try to get out of its grips. If we continue to open ourselves up to God, even if in our momentary actions we fail to follow God and sin, we will find ourselves opening more to God in our lives than closing off to him, and so slowly but surely, we will find and experience the grace of God more and more in our lives and the habits of sin being overcome by their contrary virtues. If, however, we continue to turn our back from God, we will find those graces remain, but we take them in, corrupting them more and more through sin, so that in the end, our contact with God will be less and less, and more and more pained because of it. In both situations we find whether or not we are saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to God. Sin is our no to him, and it aims to close us up from God. Paradoxically, such sin shows itself as both a yes and a no to the self. It is a yes to the self, because it tries to turn our selves into the source of our own good, and so becomes self-worship. It is a no to the self, because it closes us up truly from the real good, and without that real good, we will end up falling into greater and greater corruption, greater and greater suffering. It is clear that our eternal decision for or against God is what determines our ultimate destiny, but we must remember, our eternal destiny is the manifestation of that choice as represented in our temporal life:

As a being of freedom, therefore, man can deny himself in such a way that he really and truly says ‘no’ to God himself, and indeed to God himself and not merely to some distorted or childish notion of God. To God himself, not merely to some inner-worldly norm of action which we rightly or wrongly call ‘Gods law.’ Corresponding to the essence of freedom, such a ‘no’ to God is originally and primarily a ‘no’ to God in the actualization of human existence in its single totality and in its unique freedom. Such a ‘no’ to God is not originally merely the moral sum which we calculate from individual good or evil deeds, whether we treat all of these acts as having equal value, or whether we believe that in this sum what matters is only the temporally last individual act in our lives, as though this were of absolute importance merely because it is temporally the last, and not insofar as it recapitulates in itself the act of freedom of a whole life in its self totality.[4]

God is the source of all goodness, and he is what the heart truly desires; even the heart of the sinner desires the unlimited grace of God, but that corrupted heart only wants it for the self, to take it for the self and make it an object of that self. Sin in this fashion is what leads to us to being unable to properly understand not only God’s work in our lives, but the truths of God himself, because it tries to turn God into an object of ourselves.[5] As long as we keep opening ourselves up to God, even if the opening up in prayer and sacraments is miniscule, that opening gives room for God to come in and to help us open up to him more and more, until at last, the flood of God’s grace will rush in and heal all the corruption of sin in our lives.

To understand more of the way sin corrupts our experience of God, let us return to the example of the house above. Not only can there be rooms where God is, unknowingly to us, putting all kinds of treasures to surprise us for when we find them, these are the rooms which we are boarding up, closing off, with the result being that we do not experience those marvels. It is not that God is no longer communicating with us or giving us his gracious gifts, it is that we have turned away from where God is doing it, and then wonder why he isn’t doing it according to our desires (in the rooms we want him to decorate) instead of his own. But just as we can turn away from our sin, we can break down those barriers and open up those rooms, and find the gifts are still there — and indeed, when great sinners become great saints, this is exactly what happens in their lives. And whenever we see these gifts, whatever they are, it is always clear:  not only are they far more, greater than anything we can have done for ourselves, but often, they contain with them qualities which were also trying to help us find them. Thus, for example, the sacraments are gifts which are not only found when we break down the wall, but are also actively involved in its breakdown. Indeed, in some cases, the wall can only be broke down by their power. Until it is removed, we only see the wall from our side, and do not realize how much has already been overcome on the other side, until it crumbles before us.[6] In a similar fashion, we might not see God’s presence in our life because of the wall of sin, but when that wall comes crashing down, we will see how God has been at work in our life, leading to great amazement and wonder.

Footnotes

[1] Jean Danielou, Prayer. The Mission of the Church, 14.

[2] St Bonaventure, Breviloquium. trans. Erwin Esser Nemmers (London: B. Herder Book Company, 1946), 82.

[3] St. Albert the Great, On Union with God. no trans. (New York: Continuum, 2000), 32.

[4] Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith. trans.William V. Dych (New York: The Seabury Press, 1978), 101.

[5] And just as there are many kinds of sins, there are many ways sin can corrupt our experience of God. Some entirely blind us, as if we put on a blindfold. Others, however, do not entirely blind us, and so we are given a corrupted vision the world. They become like cataracts on our spiritual vision. And just as cataracts might make us see and believe something is out there which is not, so they can lead us to spiritual delusion, believing we have attained the fullness of spiritual awareness and capable of delineating it to others, when, in reality, we have not. Pride, in all its varieties, is a great source of this kind of corruption. And demonic influences encourage us to misconstrue our sin-bound experiences of God, to believe the misidentified cataract for the fullness of truth.

[6] For those actively turning away from God, however, they can be said to be rebuilding the wall, trying to keep it there, perhaps because they are afraid that whatever is on the other side is a threat to their way of life, a life which, even if imperfect, even if filled with suffering, they are accustomed to and do not want changed.

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