How small that is, with which we wrestle,
What wrestles with us, how immense;
Were we to let ourselves, the way things do,
Be conquered thus by the great storm-
We would become far-reaching and nameless.
What we triumph over is the small,
And the success itself makes us small.
The eternal and unexampled
Will not be bent by us.
This is the Angel, who appeared
To the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
When his opponent's sinews
In that contest stretch like metal,
He feels them under his fingers
Like strings making deep melodies.
Whomever this Angel overcame
(who so often declined the fight)
He walks erect and justified
And great from that hard hand
Which, as if sculpting, nestled round him.
Winning does not tempt him.
His growth is this: to be
Deeply defeated by the ever-greater One.
Excerpt from Ranier Maria Rilke, "The Man Watching," translated by Edward Snow in The Book of Images. New York: North Point Press, 1994. (NB: the more common translation by Robert Bly to be found on the internet is a poor translation.)
If you wrestle at all with the idea of God, stop. God is not an idea. God is not something to be grasped. Augustine said it well: if you understand it, it's not God. If it can fit within your reason, it's not God. If you've found good arguments to banish it from acceptability, it's not God.
We pray not because we think it's a good idea, but because prayer works. We don't understand why. We simply see that it makes love possible. Father Zosima, the wise old monk of Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov, got it.
Strive to love your neighbour actively and indefatigably. In as far as you advance in love you will grow surer of the reality of God and of the immortality of your soul. If you attain to perfect self-forgetfulness in the love of your neighbour, then you will believe without doubt, and no doubt can possibly enter your soul. This has been tried. This is certain.
(translated by Constance Garnett)
Love opens a window to the soul. It is a window to which reason has no access. Lay down reason. Love works, because God works in us.
Mark Vernon has written a very insightful piece in The Tablet about why religion is good for us. He makes mention of a book by Alain de Boton (see a short but very good TED video on Atheism 2.0 here) which argues that there is much that atheists can learn from religious practices in their ability to increase happiness. Vernon points out, however, that religions do not primarily aim at happiness:
What he misses, is that religions are good at building community and nurturing kindness because, paradoxically, they do not aim directly to do either. Rather, they aim to open adherents to that source of life, or spiritual sustenance, that is expansive of our humanity. They offer practices that, over time, transform the soul. It is variously called salvation, eternal life or enlightenment.
They do this by offering an invitation to see the world in a new way: by dislocating ourselves from the center of it.
Mary Karr describes her process of coming to understand this dislocation in her poignant memoir Lit. She had no belief in God and led a self-destructive lifestyle until a mentor held her accountable for recovery. She demanded that Mary begin to pray, regardless of what she thought she was doing. Get on your knees, she told her. And in spite of herself, Mary did. As the practice started to become habitual, internalizing the prayer Lord make me an instrument of your peace, she begins to observe something.
As I slow down inside, the world's metronome seems to speed up, for without keen, self-centered focus on your own inward suffering, clock hands spin. Days get windstormed off the calendar. Rather than thinking about spiritual practices, arguing them out in my head, I almost automatically try them. That, I suppose, is surrender.
It is no surprise that the 12-step phenomenon borrows this most fundamental insight from the spiritual tradition of Saint Ignatius of Loyola: that prayer is not fundamentally about the way you think, but about the desires that lead you to act. And you transform your desires not by thinking about them, but rather by identifying the good and acting toward it, even against your current feelings and judgments. The founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson, had a Jesuit spiritual director named Fr. Ed Dowling, whose guidance was rooted in the Ignatian tradition of finding God in all things and finding the roots of our deepest desires in the love of God. Ignatius was the author of The Spiritual Exercises, probably the most widely-used guide for retreats around the world. And what is central to the Exercises is that they are about transforming desire not by sheer will power or clever thinking, but rather by the use of imagination and action.