Wednesday 22 September 2021

Some more about prayer

Much has been written about prayer and while it is helpful to read about it (to a degree at least), it is not the same as praying. However, spiritual writers often have useful tips or anecdotes which they serve up to us as an encouragement to persevere, especially when the whole exercise seems futile or just plain dull. And these we need when we find ourselves totally floored by our efforts. “But I don’t feel anything when I pray?” we say. And our confessor, falling back on his last line of defence usually runs along the lines of: “Ah, you mustn’t judge by the feelings.”

But what else — we ask — have we to judge by? It is a question which touches every part of the interior life (and a good few of the exterior too) so it’s well worth giving a thought to it. I am presumably hot when I feel hot, in need of food, sleep, exercise and so on, when I feel I want or need these things. Similarly, I trust my feelings in other situations, such as when I am in love, in a temper or whatever. Why should I not trust my feelings when it comes to prayer? I suppose because prayer isn’t governed in quite the same way: it is not about physical or mental activity. It engages the soul. It is conversation with God. Grace is at play here.

Is there any way in which our feelings can measure the success or failure of this exercise? There isn’t a thermometer to gauge how our prayer time went, whether it was successful or not. So how do we examine it in order to assess the quality? We may, for example, have been praying intensely for someone for whom we have a deep affection. We felt good about it — but was it a better prayer than say that which we have forced ourselves to make for someone who bores us or whom we dislike? The good feelings we had, when we prayed for our friend or loved one, might simply indicate that we enjoyed thinking about them. The prayer which we made ourselves offer may well have been the ‘better’ prayer.

The truth is, there is only one person who can see exactly what is happening in our prayer, and that is the Lord. It might even be said that the less we see of it the better. We don’t practise prayer simply for our own benefit. We pray in order to please God. Seen this way, I don’t suppose it really matters much how we feel about it — which might perhaps sound rather a strange observation. God, I am certain, is pleased by our sincere efforts to pray, however unsatisfactory they may feel to us. “The art of prayer,” says St Catherine of Siena, “is that there is none.” Our problem is that we try to make it so, when we should be aiming to become like the little child our Lord speaks of, artless, open, spontaneous and loving, if we are to enter the Kingdom of God. Not looking at ourselves, nor seeking for an effect or to impress God with our elevated and beautiful thoughts. One modern spiritual writer once remarked (rather shockingly to us maybe) that there is more sincerity and truth in an exasperated “God almighty!” than in the most perfectly sung “Alleluia!”

The thing is to keep at it whether we feel like praying or not, trying to keep in focus the fact that God is seeking us more intently than we are seeking Him. Last year, I read Lawrence Durrell’s novel The Dark Labyrinth, in which a group of travellers find their way into a kind of garden of Eden high up in the mountains, from which there is no way out, since the caves through which they had come had become impassable, the roof behind them having collapsed. Twenty-One years later, the sole survivor, an old lady, had made her peace with her situation. She had settled down to her isolation in her beautiful prison, high up, surrounded by mountains and had come to realise that although she was completely isolated, she was not alone. And this realisation came through her being still — which is vital to prayer. “There’s no positive way. It’s rather a negative business — becoming still enough to be receptive to it. You can’t seek for it, but if you prepare for it it will come and settle on you like an Emperor moth. In fact, not ‘seek and ye shall find’ as the Bible says, but ‘prepare and ye shall be found’.” Perhaps, since it was our Lord who told us to seek, we might yet go out to meet Him, who comes in search of us. This is what we call prayer.