A Prolegomena to Prayer. IX.

A Prolegomena to Prayer. IX. June 25, 2010


Prayer is difficult for us in the modern world because its dictates run contrary to the way we have been socialized. We try to control the world around ourselves, while prayer reminds us that ultimate control is not in our hands. Presently, we have been encouraged to be self-sufficient individuals whose happiness lay in ourselves. Prayer requires us to get out of ourselves, to realize that we need others, especially God.  It shows us that humanity, by itself, is not going to achieve its desires; it must open up, both personally and communally, to God, so as to accept the providential grace of God. Only through such grace can our hearts’ desires be truly achieved. Even in slower paced times, where technique was not so entrenched as a way of life, egotism and self-love, the giving over to the passions, had been a detriment to a life of prayer. The difficulty we have with prayer is not new, though it has been enhanced by modernity. But as C.S. Lewis understood well, even if we find it difficult to pray, we must pray, we must struggle against ourselves and those inclinations which would lead us away from prayer, just as a student must struggle to keep themselves diligent in their studies. Prayer is, in a way, a part of our spiritual education. “I must say my prayers to-day whether I feel devout or not; but that is only as I must learn my grammar if I am ever to read the poets.”[1]

The freedom we need for true happiness requires us first to deny ourselves; being rooted in what we are now leads only to a dead end. “Perfect freedom lies ahead of us; that is our eschatological goal.”[2] Providence is directing us to this freedom. If we struggle against God’s grace, against his providence, if we struggle to remain as we are now, we will eventually find ourselves getting what we struggle for: ourselves, entirely closed to anything but ourselves. We would find out how weak and incapable we really are, for all we would have is ourselves, and no matter how hard we try, we can never fulfill our desires by our own abilities. While it might seem contradictory to say that if we want to be free we must deny ourselves and to be open to providence, the problem is how we understand providence. It must not be seen as deterministic, as forcing us to act a certain way and only that way. Providence is about the creation of opportunities, and denying ourselves allows us to see those opportunities. It reveals to us a slew of real choices, of real goods, which we can creatively integrate with ourselves. Some might be better options than others, but all that is presented for us by God is good. We are given a choice to develop ourselves according to different goods, and what we do will have real significance as to who we are and what we experience. Our decisions really do mean something and providence takes them into consideration.

When we pray, we reveal ourselves, who we are, and where we are at in our spiritual quest. “Prayer is the touchstone of a person’s spiritual life. It discloses the true stature and authentic condition of one’s life. Prayer is what ultimately reveals who we are in relation to God and other people. If we pray, then we talk to others; if we know how to pray, then we also know how to relate to others.”[3]

The more we open ourselves up to God, the more we find ourselves united to Christ and have the Spirit of Truth in us. In this unity with Christ, the Spirit places in us the gifts described by St Paul: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law” (Gal 5:22-23 RSV). Prayer is spirituality because it is vivified by the Spirit. We become Spirit-bearers, and through the Spirit, we are led to our eschatological goal:

The value of prayer consists, first, in its orienting the spirit towards God; it is a conversation with God. But the principal power of prayer, of the Christian life, is to lead the Christian to the acquisition of the Holy Spirit. Those who live in Christ bear within themselves the Holy Spirit, and inversely, those who have the Spirit learn the meaning of the words, ‘It is not I who live, it is Christ Who liveth in me.’ This ‘Spirit-bearing’ baffles exact description, but it is instantly felt when one comes into the presence of such a person, as an ‘other’ spiritual life within the human life.[4]

Prayer gives us hope. When we pray, we have to be willing to wait, wait in hope, for God’s grace to make itself manifest. It is not that his grace is ineffective and doing nothing, it is that he is often working with us in the recesses of our heart, purifying us slowly as we give ourselves over to him. In prayer, we open ourselves up to God in love. In this way, prayer is counter-cultural, because we live in an age of darkness and despair. While we marvel at what we, as a society, have accomplished with our scientific progress, we also find that our own lives remain shattered. We hoped in ourselves, and we found ourselves wanting. For many, the only thing left is despair, a grave sin indeed. Since they don’t know how to open up and overcome themselves, they perish in sorrow. They find our world to be hopeless. But it is clear, the reason our world has become a world without hope is because it is a world without prayer: “the abandonment and loss of interest in prayer is exactly the spiritual proof that we have no hope.”[5]

We no longer know how to interact with each other. We are imprisoned in our lonely islands of the self. This is not to say we don’t try to communicate with others, we do, but we don’t know how to do it. We want others to listen to us, but we have a hard time listening to them. We speak fast, and demand even faster results. Technology has allowed this go become much quicker than over before. The speed of our engagement with others is so unreal that it is no surprise it is only overcome by the speed of our disenchantment, the speed of anger, and of the speed of our restlessness. Technology only enhances the dark underbelly of our angst.

This is not how things should be. For the one who know we are not the measure of creation, that we do not control all things, there is a reason for hope, a reason to pray. Even if we are affected by those around us, by the sins of the world which overwhelm us as they do with everyone else (because of our interdependent relationship with everyone else), we still know that there is more to the world and its salvation than what we can do by ourselves, that we can and must open ourselves to God. We must be the ones who keep hope alive.[6] However paradoxical it might appear, it is only when we deny ourselves that we find hope, it is only when we open ourselves up to divine providence that we find freedom. “The human person’s freedom is only fully illuminated when it is seen to be bound up with a divine and personal freedom that is at pains to promote man’s freedom.”[7] And it here we find out the meaning of our life, our “mission” to the world. “If this is true in the case of every free, created being, it is superabundantly true of the God-man; his finite freedom is so deeply rooted in his infinite freedom that it continually transcends itself toward infinity — not in order to rest there, however, but to receive his mission.”[8]

If we want self-fulfillment, we must deny ourselves. We must open ourselves to God and his infinite freedom, so that we can then find our place in the world. Once we know it, then we can act upon it. This is exactly what we need to understand if we truly want to find a way to look for an answer to the riddle of petitionary prayer as given by C.S. Lewis. Faith is fidelity; we are called to open ourselves to the prompting of God’s grace, to see the possible directions he would lead us, and to follow through with those choices. When we are truly open to God, and see the potentiality God has given us, our prayers will be the open revelation of our heart and the acceptance of the will of God at once. The desires of a pure heart are never evil, indeed, they are natural and so good; the point is, however, not to cling to them. This is best expressed by the prayer of Jesus in the garden: “Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done” (Lk 22:42 RSV). Here is a prayer of the heart, revealing the perfectly natural desire, showing such a desire does not have it be in itself the problem, the problem is trying to cling to it if it. Jesus’ perfect love for the Father is also his perfect fidelity, his perfect faith. That faith is indeed more at the heart of the prayer than the desires, but the desires reveal the human situation. Prayer in faith must always be where the heart’s desires are revealed, laid out before God, and remain with God; one gives it up and over to God, knowing that God’s response to it will always be good, and his response will always be for the establishment of his providential good in the world.

One might want to understand deeper how this overcoming of the self leads to true freedom. This is perhaps best done by analogy, which will lead us to our final remarks. Consider what happens when two people, with one being infinitely strong, wise and good, and the other being weak, of indeterminate wisdom, and of indeterminate moral character are tied together by a fifty mile-long, unbreakable rope. They are at a great distance from each other, perhaps ten or more miles apart. The strong one, in their wisdom, is moving forward, to a place they know is good and will be beneficial to both. As the strong person progresses, everything is getting better and better, leading to greater and greater happiness. The other, however, has a choice. They can struggle against the one who is moving forward like that, and try to remain where they are (or even to go in the opposite direction). If they move in the same general direction, both are free, and both are capable of moving as they wish. If the weak one tries to go in a direction contrary to the strong person, they will find themselves eventually at the end of the rope; if they struggle, they will be dragged against their will, and the rope will have become like shackles unto them. What should be guiding them to happiness is thing of suffering. On the other hand, if they see the direction the rope is trying to take them, and they decide to follow it, the rope will no longer become tight, but will be a guide, telling them a direction they can travel to obtain their own happiness. They are not necessarily forced to travel in the exact same way as their guide, there is a large amount of leeway given by the rope. But it is guaranteed, as long as they follow the direction of the one who is at the other end of the rope, they will find themselves more and more happy. Clearly, as they see what is going on, the further they will go; they might enjoy a path which the other has not taken, to see other goods the other has not seen, but they will find themselves constantly finding new and greater forms of happiness. Now, if the strong person can do this infinitely, leading to ever greater and greater joys and happiness, we have our analogy to God’s providence and how it is guiding us. We can struggle against it, go against it, and find ourselves ultimately trapped in a pain of our own choosing, at the end of our rope; or we can follow it, move slowly forward, and find ourselves guided to great joy. Our faith is manifested in our willingness to follow where the rope would lead, even though we might not see the person leading us. God moves at such a pace that he gives us the ability to catch up with him, to see his movements, and to follow near him, which is exactly what happens in theosis, as the Apostle John tells us, “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1John 3:2 RSV). Even then, we will have not found ourselves at journey’s end, but at its beginning. For, as C.S. Lewis points out, there will always be “further and further in” for us to journey. And we shall not do it alone. Part of the joy and happiness will be in how we share that joy and happiness with others — a joy shared is infinitely greater than a joy kept to oneself.

If we wonder what role prayer would have in our rope discussion, we would just need to add communication equipment which puts us in contact, not only with the person guiding the rope, but with others who are also following along. Sin interferes with the equipment, makes it break down, perhaps giving a shorter ranger of communication necessary for us to hear a proper response back. But we can rely upon others, upon those who have better communication equipment, the saints, to both tell us what they see lying ahead of us, to prepare us for the opportunities which lie ahead so that we can decide better what we would like to experience. Moreover, with that equipment, we can also directly converse with the leader, and put forward our own desires, which may or may not influence the direction they go. Now, of course, there are weaknesses in this analogy but hopefully it helps present a way to understand how guidance is not contrary to free will, where providence embraced leads to happiness, while fighting against providence can lead to misery.

This leads us back to the need for self-denial. We must be willing to follow Christ to the cross:

And he called to him the multitude with his disciples, and said to them, “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it; and whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. For what does it profit a man, to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? For what can a man give in return for his life? For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of man also be ashamed, when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”  (Mark 8:34 – 38 RSV).

Once we have died to the self, we can experience the glory of the resurrection. Prayer shows us how this self-denial is not to be understood nihilistically: it is the denial of self required of the lover for the beloved. This is what prayer is all about, why it is a necessary component of the Christian life. It is what allows us to remain a person while being open to God and his bountiful love. Without prayer, either we will remain without hope or freedom, or both. With prayer, we are shown how God has given us both hope and freedom through his love. Let us embrace the path of prayer, let us now wrestle with God in prayer, until at last we come out victorious, poor in spirit and pure of heart, so that all that we see around us will by the glory of God which fills all the heavens and the earth. It is a glory which, when experienced, shows we have found that ours is indeed the kingdom of heaven.

And then that will only be the beginning.


[1] C.S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, 115.

[2] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Engagement with God. trans.R. John Halliburton (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2008), 16.

[3] HH The Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew. Encountering the Mystery: Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 75-6.

[4] Sergius Bulgakov, The Orthodox Church. trans. Lydia Kesich (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1988), 149.

[5] Jacques Ellul, Hope in Time of Abandonment. trans. C. Edward Hopkin (New York: Seabury Press, 1977), 272

[6] Is it any surprise it is the religious who have kept that hope alive, even in the darkest of times, and have helped preserve humanity through the various dark ages of history?

[7] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama II: Dramatis Personae: Man in God. trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), 198.

[8] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Theo-Drama III: Dramatis Personae: Persons in Christ. trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992), 199.

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