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PRAYER: STRUGGLING TO CATCH FIRE

Written by a Sister in the Community
(Reprinted by kind permission of the editor of the Review,
Mount Carmel
)

 

 

“We read to know we are not alone,” a student remarks to C.S. Lewis in Shadowlands. How true that is! We scan pages, much as a storm-tossed sailor scans the horizon, in the hope of finding a familiar landmark. We long to fine someone who has travelled our journey and has lived to tell the tale. We need encouragement like we need air. In the Problem of Empathy, Edith Stein points out that “understanding another is bound to our individuality and our experiential structure limits the range of what is for us intelligible.” So anything I have to offer on “struggle in prayer” is limited by my own experience. I can’t speak to everyone, but someone might recognise a landmark or two, and feel less alone. Prayer – the fire that the Holy Spirit enkindles in our hearts – burns uniquely in each one, yet the one flame unites us. Learning to nurture and share the flame is a life-long task and leaves us open to the risk of being burnt.

The Spark of Divine Love

Our entrance into life laid out a pattern for us. We may have encountered tenderness or tragedy or, more usually, an odd mixture of both.
But each one of us carried a spark of God into our existence, a spark

“no waters avail to quench, no floods to drown”, and which no background, however broken or blessed, can confine. For, by the gift of life, God made a covenant with us and, through the mystery of His Son’s Incarnation, bridged the chasm between the infinite God and finite humanity. Prayer is simple. It is a way of crossing the bridge. It springs from the covenant God has made with us. Through it God acknowledges Himself to be the One Who creates us, the One Who redeems us and the One who loves us. And each of us acknowledges that we are the one He creates, the one He redeems and the one He loves. Simple, yes, but not easy. For life itself is not easy. It holds the capacity for good and evil. Our everyday reality reveals that we are holy and sinful. “O to vex me, contraries meet in one” – John Donne knew what he was talking about! It is the ever-changing dance between these two ‘contraries’ that causes all our struggle in life and prayer. Some of us struggle more with the fact that we are created, some with the fact that we are redeemed, but all of us struggle, in one way or another, with being loved.

It’s just not fair!

Often, (but not necessarily), the way we begin to pray is conditioned by the way we were introduced into life. And – as any toddler will confirm – life is just not fair! We seem to be getting the hang of things and then the rules change.

We have, perhaps, managed to delight all around us with our ability to crawl, when, suddenly, the hands are taken from under us and we are urged to walk. And so the story goes. Through the varied and often confusing signals we are given, we make up our own survival book for coping with life. We begin to value efficiency as a way of gaining acceptance, which is a type of ‘love’ with ‘rules’ attached. If people are introduced to God in the ‘eat your porridge, say your prayers’ mode, they will begin to carve a ‘survival book’ on God, on the small stone that is beginning to form in and weigh down their heart. It takes all the ingenuity of an infinite God to melt that stone and introduce us to His own brand of ‘it’s just not fair’ love – namely, Mercy.

“The only sign given to this generation will be the sign of Jonah”

God, from the beginning, warns us that He is not going to be fair. His way will not be our way. Through Scripture, He tells us “the first will be last and the last first”, breaking rule one of efficiency!

He insists that those who labour for only one hour be paid as much as those who have worked all day – which is really not fair at all. Deep down, this enrages our hard-earned sense of human justice, so God gives us Jonah to empathise with! For, sooner or later, anyone who prays will end up in the same boat as Jonah. The road to that boat is long and winding for some; short and swift for others. “Have you caught sight of Me, Jonas, My son? I am Mercy, within Mercy, within Mercy.” (Thomas Merton).

Creation and the Gift of Hope

Through the act of creation, God calls each of us from nothingness into existence. If we pray at all, we acknowledge God to be our Creator and ourselves as created.
The Catechism tells us that the ‘tree of knowledge of good and evil’,
(in the Genesis creation

story) ‘symbolically evokes the insurmountable limits that man, being a creature, must freely recognise and respect with trust. But man, tempted by the devil, lets trust in his Creator die in his heart.’ Yet, in His infinite mercy, God still calls each of us by name to that mysterious encounter known as prayer and, through Baptism, frees us from sin and bestows on us the divine virtue of hope. From childhood, I have always delighted in the fact that prayer is no elitist affair. Anyone, at any time, has free and total access to God the Creator through prayer. The only qualification needed is the fact that we exist! We do nothing to ‘earn’ access to God. We do not need to struggle to get God’s attention; we only have to struggle to get our own. For, in remembering our Creator, we must freely recognise and respect with trust the limits of being a creature – a creature burdened with the knowledge of good and evil. The ‘spark of God’ and the ‘tinder of sin’ both await the free choice of our hearts. Most people, in spite of the difficulties, are grateful for the gift of existence; they would rather ‘be’ than ‘mot be’. The beauty of creation calls forth praise, worship and thanksgiving for them in prayer. However, there are some who (while believing in God and acknowledging the beauty), experience existence as a heavy burden. If given the option, they feel they would rather not ‘be’ at all. To come before their Creator, feeling like this, seems impossible and almost blasphemous. ‘But where can I go from Your presence?’ Psalm 138 cries for them: ‘If I lie in the grave you are there.’ For death does not bring an end to existence, only to this life on earth. God invites the heart, struggling with the very fact of being, of living in a world where evil – as an option and a reality – leaves them battered and fearful, to trust His infinity over their finite view of things; to hope that the incomprehensibility of existence will one day be revealed in its ultimate meaning – Love. God, Whose initiative of love always comes first, can demand the divine virtue of hope from us because He did not leave us alone. He sent His Son to experience and redeem our existence. It is Jesus Who offers us a trap-door out of the rejection of our existence, (which is the essence of true sin), by His on experience of that existence. Those who struggle to trust in Him, even if despair howls within them, truly face the reality of humanity; and, by accepting the limits of their ‘creaturehood’, with a humble and contrite heart, help bring all creation under the reign of the Paschal Mystery. For we never pray alone and those who feel the pain of existence and believe in God trust Him for those who feel the pain, but do not know Him. The struggle to hope lets the ‘spark of God’ burn away the stone of mistrust in our hearts and its flame, while searing our being, warms all of creation.

 

Redemption and the gift of Faith

Belief in and acceptance of the gift of Redemption is the touchstone of all Christian prayer. The Good News of Christian revelation is that Christ has come to save sinners. We tend to see our sinfulness as the ‘bad’ news and we struggle to accept, in faith, that it is really the ‘happy fault …the necessary sin of Adam that gained for us so great a Redeemer.’

Redemption is the wedding feast of God and humanity and we long to bring something other than our sinfulness to it. Our capacity for missing the point is legion, because the only other thing we can bring to it is our grateful acceptance. The heresy of Pelagianism is an ever-recurring temptation. Pelagius asserted that, although God gave us existence, it is our responsibility to sanctify ourselves and, if we but will it, there is no height of sanctity which we may not attain! The temptation to be ‘good’ by ourselves – when God alone is good – is most subtle. It is as dangerous as is its ‘complementary opposite’ – Jansenism – which sees the human will as always sinful in all its actions, and would restrict the value of Christ’s death by denying that it is the will of God that ‘all should be saved’. Only the heart of a child can accept, with serenity, that ‘wonderful exchange’ wherein the Creator takes on a human body and bestows on us His divine nature with reckless generosity. Prayer is not an accomplishment or a possession; it is a relationship, initiated by God in His self-revelation in Christ. As we pray and enter ever more deeply into the mysteries of Christ, we discover more and more that we have no ‘goodness’ but His. Encountering our sinfulness can be prayer’s biggest ‘stumbling block’; but Infinite Mercy invites us to turn it into a ‘stepping stone’. Instead of running away from it, God asks us to accept our need of Redemption. We must resist the temptation to substitute a series of ‘good works’, ‘merits’ and other votive offerings in place of our need of Mercy. Carrying this need, with faith in Jesus saving power, before the living God in prayer, is itself our greatest ‘work’. It provides another entrance point into humanity for Mercy and becomes the corner-stone of our personal and communitarian salvation history. The struggle to accept in faith that our need of Mercy is the most precious thing we bring to prayer allows the spark of Merciful Love to flame in our hearts and shatter the darkness of unbelief with the Light of Christ.

The Beloved and the Gift of Love

Love is the beginning and end of prayer – its only raison d’être. Love is the divine virtue by which we love God above all things and our neighbour as self for the love of God. The vocation of humanity is to show forth the image of God and it is life in the Holy Spirit that fulfils this vocation.nThis life is made up of divine love and human solidarityuand is graciously offeredsthrough theegift of salvation in Christ. It is gift and challenge.l

We are asked to accept it without reservation and pass it on without reservation. And here, sooner or later, all roads lead to Jonah! Running away from unconditional love comes naturally to us. Surrender to it would mean less control and set at naught all our hard-earned survival tricks. In fact, survival, as we know it, is not an option. We are invited to lose our lives in order to gain them. This strikes our consumer-orientated world as a most uneconomical use of natural resources! Even in prayer we would like to hold our options open on this one. In various ways and words we tell God we will get back to Him on it. Then we run chaotically – anywhere – to prayers, fasting, almsgiving, work, or other less worthy diversions. But running is futile. We carry the '’spark’ ’of God within us and it never stops calling us home to the gift and challenge, no matter how we try to avoid it. This ‘spark’ is the Holy Spirit – the ‘Spirit of God on the waste and the darkness / Hov’ring I power as creation began / Drawing forth beauty from clay and from chaos / Breathing God’s life in the nostrils of man’ (Stanbrook Abbey Hymnal). The chaos of our struggle with love is all the Spirit needs to make a new creation. ‘Love is the life of our heart. According to it, we desire, rejoice, hope and despair, fear, take heart, hate, avoid things, feel sad, grow angry and exult.’ (St. Francis de Sales). The Holy Spirit hovers over all. And, if we but surrender the chaos of the various forms of ‘love’ fighting for supremacy in our hearts, a new creation will be born. For there is only one eternal reality – the fire of divine Love. We receive its ‘spark’ with the gift of existence. How we nurture or reject it during life makes us who we will be when we come to die. But this spark itself cannot die. For those ready to enter eternal life, with humble and grateful hearts, it becomes eternal bliss. For those of us still struggling, it will burn all dross away. Awesomely, there is a third option – outright rejection – but this we plunge, with unconditional hope, into the hands of Mercy, the Mercy that calls us to that mysterious encounter – prayer – and keeps us tenderly in its care, however deep the struggle. From the Merciful One we come; to Him we go, bearing His own gift of faith, hope and love. ‘Exposed on the cliffs of the heart’, we struggle to tend and share the flame, as we await the Dawn.

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