|The Father is Very Fond of Me|
By Brendan Comiskey, ss.cc.
Prayer is God's work: God calling, inviting, offering, lavishing, gracing. Prayer is total gift and as such is not about what we do. Prayer which does not take this truth into account runs the risk of being merely talking in a vacuum or even talking to oneself. This is not true of prayer only; it is true of the whole Christian life, which is all about really believing that God is calling me into an intimate friendship with Him and about my responding to that divine call. If one doesn't realise this call-response structure of life and prayer, then the whole emphasis in both turns on what I do, how I pray. Me, me, me! It is a house built on sand. Such a prayer, such a life, is barren.
THE VIRUS OF PELAGIANISM
The primacy of God's call in the Christian life and prayer was undermined by the virus of Pelagianism as early as the fifth century. Pelagius, a fifth century British monk, taught that a human being was capable of achieving his own salvation. Although condemned by the Church fifteen hundred years ago, the Pelagian virus is alive and well in the lives of many Christians today. One sign of it is the endless talk and writing about "methods" of prayer, "progress" or "success" in prayer. Although all true prayer is grounded in God's initiative, many still place the emphasis on their part. The anthem of such people might well be I Did It My Way but there is only one way to pray, that is, God's way. I am often tempted to ask a person who goes on and on about the difficulties he is experiencing in prayer whether he is confessing or boasting! A witty Cistercian monk, when he learned that his abbot, the great Dom Eugene Boylan, was writing a book entitled Difficulties in Mental Prayer, commented wryly, "It's going to be a very long book!"
THE ESSENCE OF PRAYER IS GOD
Ruth Burrows states that the essence of prayer is God, and that much of the searching for the right method, craving for technique and fretfulness indicates a lack of faith.1 Unless I am doing something, I believe that nothing is happening. With me as principal actor there is no space left for God and therefore no prayer. A method of praying is not prayer. When it is mistaken for prayer, it distorts everything. Even our naming of methods can sometimes be misleading. We speak, for example, of centering prayer, describing the whole reality of it by our part in it, that is, centering or becoming focused. This is especially true when prayer is defined as a "conversation with God". This definition has had a long and noble place in the history of Catholic spirituality but in our day and age it is misleading for language has changed. According to the Oxford Dictionary of English "to make conversation" today means to "talk for the sake of politeness without having anything to say". Originally in Middle English it meant "living among, familiarity, intimacy", almost the opposite of what the word now means In his poem, Having Confessed, Patrick Kavanagh describes our usurping God's primacy in life and in prayer as the sin of "anticipation": God must be allowed to surprise us. /We have sinned, sinned like Lucifer/By this anticipation. Let us lie down again/Deep in anonymous humility and God/May find us worthy material for His hand.2 It is not so much with prayer that we have difficulties but rather with the idea of having "to lie down again, deep in anonymous humility", trusting in God, and waiting on Him.
A call-response approach to prayer, in theory, looks too good to be true, too simple. It might be taken to mean that all I have to do is just sit there and let God do everything. In practice, however, it costs "not less than everything" for it makes three radical demands on us: trusting totally in God, total self-disclosure before Him, and abandoning ourselves to His will. Running this triple rule or measure over our lives will tell us something about the condition of our "heart" from which all genuine prayer flows.
In Luke's gospel we see Jesus ending his discourse on prayer with this question, "But when the Son of Man comes, will he find any faith on earth?" (Luke 18:8) What kind of faith was he speaking of? Hardly faith in the everyday sense of the term, that is, believing certain religious truths, belonging to one or other church. He is likely to find a great many people who have this kind of faith. But there is another kind, that is, a trusting surrender to God in Jesus that changes the way we live, and makes radical demands on us. This is a much rarer brand of faith altogether.
Such faith is illustrated in the humorous tale of a man falling over a cliff who cries out in his desperation, "God, help me!" Suddenly a branch appears miraculously before him growing out of a cliff face and he grabs hold of it. But almost as soon as he does, he sees that his weight is already pulling it loose. "God, help me!" he cries again and in response he hears a voice thundering from heaven, "Let go, my son. Trust me. Jump!" Holding on, the man gazes heavenwards and cries out, "Is there anyone else up there I could speak with?"
This man was seeking a God with whom he could negotiate, a God made in his own image and likeness. This is hardly the faith that the Son of man will be looking for when he returns. It is not the kind of faith that He is looking for today either. It is not the kind of faith that grounds genuine prayer. We may have been taught from earliest childhood to "look before you leap" but Jesus turns this on its head, telling us, "Trust in God and leap!" How often, for example, do we speak of "a leap of faith"? Talking of course is one thing. Jumping is something else altogether!
When one is going through a period of intense pain and suffering and is looking for some relief from it all, it can be extremely painful to surrender, to pray the ultimate prayer, "Thy will be done!" The fear that there is still more pain and suffering ahead and that trusting In God might mean more rather than less of it can be acute. Do I have the courage to let go? This is the crux of the matter. Can God really be trusted? If I hand over my life situation to Him will I be hurt instead of helped? To hand over is to surrender my security.
Jesus himself sweated blood as he engaged in just this kind of struggle. He asked to be relieved of it if that was in accordance with His Father's will. It wasn't and he died on Calvary. In the desert, at the outset of his public ministry, the devil had tempted Jesus to seek his security in material things, in extraordinary works and in power and authority over people. Each time Jesus said "No"; he would place all his trust in God alone. "Having exhausted every way of putting him to the test," Luke tells us, "the devil left him, until the opportune moment." (4:13) The devil hadn't ever gone away, he just had made a temporary and strategic withdrawal. In Gethsemane he was back again to test Jesus' trust in the Father at the most terrible moment of his life. Those who wish to be the friends and followers of Jesus will not escape similar testing moments. The disciple is not greater than the Master. Prayer is dangerous. We have been warned to be careful what we pray for. Those who pray in and with Jesus should also be warned, "Be careful with whom you pray!
HIDING FROM GOD
A second dimension of trusting in God is a willingness on our part to stand open and naked before God. I once read the story of a holy woman who wished to surrender everything in her life to God. She offered all her thoughts, words, deeds, all her works, her prayers, all her sufferings. When she came to what she thought was the end of her list, God told her that she was holding something back, that she hadn't given Him her sins! She might not have been deliberately hiding her sins, but it was apparently a no-go area even in her prayers. We see the opposite in the lives of great saints such as Paul and Augustine and our own Patrick. We see them confessing their sins and sinfulness. These confessions were not an expression of some kind of false humility but a spontaneous reaction on the part of people who had some kind of vivid experience or taste of God and saw all the dark and sinful parts of their lives illuminated in the light of God's presence. Peter, when he was first called from the nets, witnessed the power of God in an extraordinary haul of fish. His first reaction was to kneel down and confess that he was a sinful man. He even asked Jesus to leave him, to go away. For their part, the first thing that Adam and Eve did after they had sinned was to hide in the bushes. The long evenings of their intimacy with God were over. They went into hiding from God.
Daniel O'Leary in an article in The Tablet quotes Sidney M Jourard's definition of a psychologically healthy person as one "who displays the ability to make himself fully known to at least one other significant human being."3 O'Leary himself thinks that for most people this is an almost impossible challenge. "There is such a strong tendency to hide from intimacy, to fear exposure. Deep is the ache to be known and loved, but deeper is the fear and pain of rejection."4 I cannot help wondering if this might be one reason for the reluctance of many people today to confess their sins within the sacrament of reconciliation.
A third dimension of trusting in God is an abandonment of self-will to God's will. "Abandonment" is a scary word, something reserved for those we consider extraordinary in some way. Yet every day in countries all over the world hundreds of thousands - millions even - of very ordinary people abandon themselves to God. These people belong to Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-Step programs and they have discovered by experience that abandonment to God, or "handing it over to God", as they term it, is essential if they are to live sane and sober lives. Step 3 of the 12 Suggested Steps of AA reads: "Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him."5 Step 11 continues: "Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry it out."6 Note that the members pray for one thing only, the grace to remain faithful to their Third Step decision, that is, "handing over" or abandoning themselves to God.
What is of fundamental importance in life is our relationship with God, our friendship with Him, our entrusting everything we are and have to him. The people who have made the greatest impact on my life are those who truly were "poor in spirit." They may or may not have known much if anything about methods of prayer, or progress in prayer, or the three ages of the spiritual life, but they gave me master classes in trusting God, in living intimately with God, in abandoning or handing over their days and their lives to Him. These people knew the difference between intimacy with God and familiarity with Him. For them to pray was as natural as breathing.
They were the first contemplatives I ever met even if they would have laughed heartily at the idea of being so described. But if contemplation "has to do with awareness of the presence of God apprehended not by thought but by love"7 then Mary and Kate Moorehead, two elderly ladies who lived across the fields from us at home when I was growing up, were true contemplatives. I like to think of contemplation as prayer in which there is more of God and less of me and if there is little room for God in my prayer - and strangely enough this is common enough - there will be less room for him in my life. The ancient Christian principle, lex orandi, lex credendi (the law of praying is the law of believing), means that how a person prays shows what he believes. I would add a third law, lex vivendi (the law of living). How a person prays tells us what a person believes. It also describes how a person lives his life. If my prayer is focused on what I do with little awareness of and openness to what God is offering me, so will my life be also. On the other hand, contemplative prayer will lead to one living a more God-centered life, that is, recognizing God "in the bits and pieces of Everyday/A kiss here and a laugh again, and sometimes tears/A pearl necklace round the neck of poverty."8 One becomes more convinced that God lives within one and desires one thing, that I allow myself to be loved by him. A mysterious but utterly real encounter takes place between God and the soul, made more mysterious by the fact that God's language is silence and no one has yet found a way to translate it.
Rocco A. Errico, an expert on the Bible and ancient Semitic culture, whose mother tongue is Aramaic, the native language of Jesus, in his book Setting a Trap for God, tells us that the word for prayer in Aramaic is slotha. This word come from the root word sla which literally means "to trap" or "to set a trap". "Thus prayer in its initial sense implies ‘setting your mind like a trap so that you may catch the thoughts of God' - in other words, ‘to trap the inner guidance and impulses that come from your inner spiritual source'. Prayer also means ‘a state of mind in which we still all personal thoughts and make no attempt to project anything outwardly.' It is an ‘alert state of total sensitivity and attentivness'."9
One does not need to search the writings of the mystics to discover contemplative prayer and life. Patrick Kavanagh, himself deemed to be a mystic by at least some,10 saw this mystical quality in the lives of "ordinary people" in his native village: Yet sometimes when the sun comes through a gap/These men know God the Father in a tree:/The Holy Spirit is the rising sap,/And Christ will be the green leaves that will come/At Easter from the sealed and guarded tomb.11
I once read the story of a priest home on holidays in the west of Ireland. At the end of a long summer's day he was out walking when he was suddenly caught in a cloudburst. Taking shelter under a large tree it was a few moment before he noticed a very old man also sheltering there. It being Ireland, the visitor engaged in conversation with him on the usual topics, the weather, the local sports scene, etc. After a while the old man fell silent and the priest noticed that he had taken out his Rosary beads and was quietly saying his prayers. Impressed, the priest remarked "You're great at the praying!" "Ah Yes!" the old man replied "The Father is very fond of me!" Notice how the priest put the emphasis on the man and what the man did, that is, the human response. The old man, for his part, put the emphasis on God and on God's relationship with him, that is, on God's initiative, and on his invitation to intimacy. The priest was so impressed that he afterwards wrote a book. In memory of the incident he called it The Father is Very Fond of Me.12
1 Essence of Prayer, Burns & Oates, London and New York, 2006, 27
2 Patrick Kavanagh, "Having Confessed" in Collected Poems, Alan Lane, London, 2004, 190-91 Essence of Prayer, Burns & Oates, London and New York, 2006, 27
3 "The most difficult leap", The Table, 18 August, 2007, 15. Jourard's book is entitled The Transparent Self, New York, 1971.
5 Alcoholic Anonymous, The Story How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism, New York, 1976, 59
7 Michael Downey, ed., The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality, Collegeville, Minnesota, 1993, 209
8 Kavanagh, "The Great Hunger" in op.cit. 72
9 Rocco A. Errico, Setting A Trap for God: The Aramaic Prayer of Jesus, Unity House, 1997, 6,7
10 Una Agnew, The Mystical Imagination of Patrick Kavanagh. A Buttonhole in Heaven? The Columba Press, Dublin, 1998
11 Kavanagh, "The Great Hunger" in "op. cit.,68
12 Edward J. Farrell, The Father is Very Fond of Me, Dimension Books, U.S. (November 1976)