Sunday, 13 December 2009

A Fragment from a Letter on Prayer

....... Because He loved us first. I could never of myself form even the intention to love Him … but the Divine Initiative has given me the faculty of response. I have the ability to love Him because He loved me. And that, my dearest Agatha, is the manner in which I can help you. You asked me for help in the ways of prayer, and I respond not as teacher but as fellow pilgrim.

There is a time-honoured phrase in the Faith: sentire cum Ecclesia. That is, literally, to feel with the Church. It denotes an understanding that is supported and nurtured at the bosom of Holy Mother Church. From what I gather, you experience a part of this in your newfound understanding concerning contraception/divorce/same-sex marriage and the like. Now, a certain and most steadfast way in which you can also ‘feel with the Church’ in prayer is by becoming immersed in that highest form of prayer: the Divine Liturgy of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. It is the Heart of the Church and her greatest Mystery. From here all the wellsprings of prayer draw their source and power. Here are some of the ways in which I can practically indicate to you how the form of the Liturgy guides one’s understanding of prayer:

· The Heart of the Liturgy is timeless. We enter into it, we do not produce it.

The Mass is essentially a fragment of time through which Eternity pours in hidden radiance. The priest celebrates Mass, he does not create it. Through the instrument of the ministerial priesthood, God makes present to us the Sacrifice of the Cross. We can therefore well & truly say that the Mass is a Sacrifice, as well as not being ‘another sacrifice’.

How does this relate to prayer? In prayer, we approach God in the hidden secret of our being. We need not create feelings of devotion, we need not kindle ourselves the Sacred Flame, we need not forge for ourselves the Divine Sanctuary. Through the Sacraments of Initiation we have all received in mystery the fullness of Christ. Through the Holy Paraclete, Uncreated Light dwells in our hearts! This is poignantly illustrated in the Invitatory Psalm of the Divine Office, the psalm which begins every priest/religious’ day:

O that today you would listen to His Voice!
Harden not your hearts as at Meribah
as on that day at Massah in the desert

You see at Meribah & Massah the Israelites despaired of sustenance in the desert, and demanded tangible provision. Their arrogant restriction of the manner in which the Most High should reveal Himself caused them to ignore the Voice. Their hearts were hardened. And yet, throughout this, God was yet with them; He had never departed.

Similarly, we often think that God is not present in prayer because we cannot ‘detect’ Him in any of the ways we have set out for Him to act in. We do not feel stirred in our emotions, vague happy feelings, tingling senses & curious movements of the intellect. Lofty visions are not granted to us, and we do not feel celestially lifted.

As well we should not, for in doing so He would indulge our arrogance and submit our souls to self-inflicted bondage. We create in our minds an image of God that is incomplete, curtailed and truncated for our understanding. The perception of God becomes more important than the fact that He is Being Itself. The focus of worship falls from Heaven into the heart of Man. We think less of the great I AM, and more of that which we are feeling.

The writer of the mystical treatise
The Cloud of Unknowing phrases this as follows:

Thus you can see that we should direct our whole concern towards this humble stirring of love in our will; and (if it is courteous and becoming to say so) we should have a heedlessness about all other feelings of sweetness and pleasure, bodily and spiritual, however delightful or however holy they may be. If they come, welcome them; but do not rely too much on them … Perhaps, too, you may be moved to love God for their sake, something you will recognize by the fact that you are excessively discontent when they are missing. …. Yet in some people it is uncommon for their love to be without such pleasures, while in others such sensations of sweetness and pleasure are present only rarely. All this is as God disposes and ordains, according to different people’s welfare and needs.
I think it summarizes things nicely. In prayer we approach God in faith, and hope, and essentially Love. Sensory experiences and tangible devotions are secondary to this aim. It helps us little if we see visions and receive raptures & ecstasies if we do not live a life of holy & divine love. As it is written: If I have not love … I am nothing.

Nevertheless, just we cannot demand tangible evidence of His Presence, we can also not forbid it. When we enter into prayer, we must relinquish all that we are to the One. If we are continually fidgeting in His Presence trying to find out where our prayer is headed, we will never come to rest, and even unintentionally, our hearts will be hardened.

I hope I have not made things to complicated here at the onset of things. I know it all sounds a bit overwhelming, as if you have to lay out expansive theological foundations before you can even start praying. Let me tell you unequivocally: that is not so. For you see, we do not encounter in prayer a mere Force, Being or Spirit. We encounter a personal Lord & Lover, who wishes in all things to draw us unto Himself. We need never fear of losing our way if we submit to the Shepherd of our souls. Did He not declare unto us: I am the Way? We have therefore no reason for despair. He Himself is Guide & Path.

The Liturgy reveals us as we truly are, not as we wish to be

Every single Mass starts with a penitential silence. After the exhortation for repentance (e.g. Brethren, to prepare ourselves before the Sacred Mysteries, let us call to mind our sins), there is silence. In this space, we strip ourselves of all the wayward attentions and affections, and we approach the Sapphire Throne with boldness and dread. We do not come with a veneer of piety or devotion. We come just as we are, in the entirety of our being. But because we know that we stray so often and so quickly from the Way, we confess our faults and cry Kyrie eleison! Christe eleison! Kyrie eleison!

We therefore do not come to the Holy Mass in a fashioned form, a happy mask. We must come in the fullness of that which we are in the silence of hearts. We come to Him in utter sincerity & honesty. Only then can there be any real Communion.

Similarly, in prayer, we must never parcel away some part of us before we devote time to prayer. Come! With all your distractions, your sins, your wayward affections, your sense of inadequacy, your fears and dreams, Come!

It is significant that canonized in the Holy Writ we have the Psalms, which fundamentally is the prayer journal of the Chosen Nation. In it we do not find merely happy thoughts and pious imaginings. We find anger, hate, failure, despair, melancholy, jubilation, timid fear, and exultant joy. Nothing can be hidden from the Face of God. Bring all of you, therefore, before the Divine Countenance. Our forefathers, after they had sinned, clothed themselves in created things and hid from His Face. Let it not be so with you. Come!

The Liturgical Year is not uniform. There are different seasons.

Beginners in prayer often mistakenly think that prayer will always be delight (since God in His Bounty often gives many consolations at the beginning of the endeavour to pray). They are therefore quickly disappointed when visible signs of His Presence disappear and the very sky seems unresponsive and grey. Yet the Liturgy teaches us exactly this, that there are different seasons in the spiritual life. Some of them will bubble over with joyous exultation, as the manifold alleluia’s of Eastertide proclaim. Others will be times of mourning, of lament & sorrow, as in Lent & Advent, when no Gloria is heard. There will even be times when all is still, and it seems He is completely gone, as in the utter Silence of Holy Saturday. And then there are the vast swathes of Ordinary Time, where we face the challenge of coming anew to worship, not merely being carried by custom and habit.

So do not expect all times of prayer to be the same. The entire point is to come to the point where God lives His Life in you, not where you have crafted a life of your own with His posterior approval.

In the Liturgy, that which is mere matter is transfigured.

One of the movements in the Mass, the Offertory Procession is often forgotten in between the scramble for collection money. But the Offertory Procession reveals a spiritual reality for me. It becomes clear once you realize the nature of the consecrated building itself. Remember how you only enter the church with the Sign of the Cross and Holy Water? This is a figure of Baptism, through which we are incorporated into the Mystical Body, of which the consecrated church is the figure also. In a certain sense, one passes a threshold when entering the church; you pass from a merely earthly plane into a consecrated space where Eternity enters time through a Divinely instituted channel.

Therefore the procession from the altar (in the innermost part of the church) signifies God’s reaching out into the world. The procession returns with the bread & wine (mere ‘work of human hands’) straight into the most sacred space in the church. The profound reality beneath this is humbling and emboldening. God uses that which seems lowly, and transfigures it into the very Body & Blood of the Second Person of the Trinity. Similarly, God endeavours in us to bring us always to a greater Christ-likeness, a journey which ultimately culminated in the Beatific Vision, where we will behold Him as HE IS, and therefore we will be (in a startling phrase!) be ‘like Him’.

Therefore in prayer, God may well use many things that seem otherwise quite mundane to lead us along the hidden path of prayer. Imagination is one example. My own experiences of God transfiguring imaginative journeys in the works of Tolkien, CS Lewis & Ursula le Guin would fill many pages. As I have said before, my journey to the true Church was sealed once I beheld Elves in the starlit woods of Middle-Earth. He used the seemingly ordinary gift of imagination, and used it as a channel of Grace.

That great Counter-Reformation saint, Ignatius of Loyola, similarly greatly used imaginative techniques in his Spiritual Exercises. The Exercises encourage the use of imagination in the meditation of Gospel texts. One is encouraged to place oneself in the scene described in the Sacred Text, and see how things play out around you. I have found this greatly helpful; it has brought me to a renewed love of the Gospels.......

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