We know so very little about praying. It is a mystery which, we sus¬pect, must lie secluded somewhere deep in the recesses of the heart. Like other mysteries of human life : the birth of a new being, the love that burgeons and comes to flower, the ordeal that has its climax in death, and what follows upon death. All this evokes mixed feelings in a man. Longing alternates with fear, and love with awe. Until these values are turned into a personal value, unless they have been assimilated and so become a personal acquisition, the individual remains a self divided. He feels, simultaneously, impulse and counter-impulse. He is attracted and he is repelled.
It always has been difficult, of course, to write about prayer¬more so today than ever before. Until a man has accepted prayer as the mysterious and yet deepest centre of his being, it must always be hard for him to utter on the subject. He may enthuse; but his words will have a spurious and hollow ring. Or he may speak critic¬ally, even mordantly, of prayer; but the very vehemence of his reaction will betray the hidden need, aching like an incurable wound inside him.
That dialectic is a typical mark of the Church, in our time. If some are abandoning prayer, as many others are seeking to enquire and learn about it. This situation is an inevitable and even a healthy one. It means, primarily, two things : first, that we still lack the ability to pray. Second, that at long last we are aware of the fact.
One of the Fathers-a monk of the very early period-confronted his pupils with a hard question which they all attempted to answer. When it came to the turn of the last one to speak, he said : ‘I don’t know’. The monk commended him for it. He had made the right answer .
We try so often, do we not, to find an easy solution to the questions with which life is continually confronting us. To save face or quieten conscience we come up with something or other but it is not the right answer at all. We are satisfied too quickly. The disciple of that old monk spoke the truth : he did not know and was humble enough to admit his ignorance. The proper response was lowly awe in face of the mystery. So too for us: the first and most fundamental truth about prayer is to know that we are unable to pray. ‘Lord, teach us how to pray’ (Luke 11:1).
In time past-and not so very long ago at that-this was not so obvious. We used to feel a certain assurance. In the Church as well. The Church’s structures formed a solid edifice. There was nothing ambiguous about the rules and injunctions. Sometimes we felt we were well rid of the need to do our own thinking. The thinking was done for us. But in recent years we have seen a definite process of evolution in our society. Even the Church has been due for a face lift. The second Vatican Council set people’s minds in a whirl. Aggiornamento, experimentation, renewal, the words have a familiar ring to every ear. Instead of living out their Christianity in strictly personal terms, people now are looking for ways of giving more prominence to the communal aspect. Helping one’s neighbour-the fact of our common humanity is the centre of attention. And prayer what purpose does that serve? And can we still pray?
People have always wondered about prayer; and invariably, when they thought they had the answer, it has turned out to be inadequate. The main question used to be : ‘What is prayer?’ But now, all of a sudden, we no longer know whether we are still praying. We used to know that, at least. There was no doubt about praying, as such. Prayer was then one practice, one exercise, among the rest, prescribed and sometimes dished up according to rule, like other spiritual exercises. There were prayer-methods in plenty. People tried to be faithful, often with real openheartedness, to what was called with more or less emphasis on the possessive pronoun their meditation. And they would talk about prayer succeeding or, conversely, being a failure. Whatever it turned out to be it must surely, on occasion, have been authentic prayer the vocabulary of prayer at that time had a very triumphalist complexion. Prayer appeared to be an exercise in which, besides grace, a lot of human ingenuity and resource were called for.
But nowadays everything has suddenly become quite different : no longer are we able to say whether we are still engaged in prayer or even whether we still believe in the possibility of prayer. In the old days prayer may have been far too easy; now it has all of a sudden become unspeakably difficult. Was it prayer at all, then? And how or where are we to pray now?
Was it in fact prayer? Most of us do not know what to reply to such a question. The set phrases, methods, instructions (including the rubrics attached to every conceivable form of prayer) that were in vogue some thirty years ago have fallen into disuse, are ignored or at any rate have been fundamentally altered, in certain cases completely replaced, even, by something else. Prayers are no longer reeled off. There is a prevailing attitude of distrust towards set prayers ‘tacked on from outside’ and towards the formalism they may engender. But people have come to be equally afraid of interior prayer, so called; and most of them no longer have any time for it. Those who do find the time are for the most part unable to achieve an interior peace and quiet.
As a taciturn and withdrawn temperament might be supposed to assist the process of acquiring and maintaining such tranquillity, the question still arises-tinged indeed with suspicion and sometimes with irony as to what is in fact achieved by the resolve to pray. The cold walls of our own total seclusion? The storms that rage within a frustrated mind and heart? The unattainable object of wants and desires, projected into infinitude, yes, and into heaven itself? A meagre consolation for having lost the courage to endure and cope with the sober realities of everyday life as an ordinary average human being? A cheap gesture of resignation because everything and everybody lay too heavy a charge upon us? Is prayer, then, a flight into unreality, into dream, illusion, romanticism? The truth is, we are at our wits’ end. We have lost the scent of prayer altogether. We are caught in the blind alley of an illusion. Many of us have touched zero-point.
Thank God! For now we can make a new start. That zero-point can mean a reversal, a turn of the tide. For this is the saving grace of our time, in the Church of today : that we are now at our wits’ end. That the props have suddenly collapsed. That now at last we can see how little of the facade remains or indeed was ever there at all. And that now the Lord can build everything up again, from scratch. There has come down to us from one of the early Fathers of the Church a profound saying : ‘Prayer is as yet imperfect where the monk continues to be conscious of it and knows that he is at prayer.” One thing is sure : few venture to think they have this knowledge. And that in itself is a sign of grace.
The hunger for prayer
Here then, is the paradox of a crisis which could yet prove to be a fruitful one. Although the practice of prayer in its various forms may be in decline, never was the hunger for prayer greater than it is now, more especially among the young.
The great cultural changes we are living through today have sparked off something in many people. But what? For the most part they do not even know themselves. They feel an impulse, a hunger for an inner experience. It is a driving force within them. They cannot just dig in and do nothing. They have to make some dis¬covery. But of what? Could drugs be the answer? A freer approach to sex-will that liberate them? They are giving it a try; but the sheer monotony of it soon serves to demonstrate how hollow all this is. It is like the fate of the mayfly, who briefly glimpses the daylight and then dies. But the hunger persists-an unsatisfied and ever more insistent hunger.
It is the youngsters in particular who feel this. Often enough, their way of expressing this impulse, this drive, is to take themselves off to foreign parts. We can no longer provide them with the answer. At any rate, that is what they think. One comes across them here, there and everywhere; and they are often easy to recognize. They go off to Taize, pitch their tent, join with the brothers quite spontaneously in prayer and open up their feelings and experiences to one another. For an experience, that they will have. And to find it they will put a great deal behind them, will journey on from one experience to another. Forgetting what is behind, they press on ... and on.
Here and there in this world some corners are left where prayer fills the whole atmosphere, as it were. There are still some people for whom praying is like drawing breath. Anyone who has toiled under the blazing sun of Mt. Athos will never be able to forget the praying monks whom he is bound to have met there, their faces aflame and their glance like fire : penetrating, yet so infinitely gentle and utterly tender. Men who out of the profoundest depths of the self, are outgoing towards everything and everybody, who are able to discover the inner fire in people and things-the ‘hidden heart of things’ (Isaac the Syrian)-who expose their deepest core in measureless love and understanding.
Besides the solitaries who pray, you can also find groups who pray together. In Russia and Romania the night offices are crowded, the churches packed still today with young and old together.
The hunger for prayer sometimes sends these seekers out to the Far East. At this very moment hundreds of young people from the West are staying in the ashrams of India and Japan, with the idea of being initiated and directed by a guru in the techniques of meditation. In the western hemisphere too, techniques such as Zen and Yoga are claiming much attention. People will go to any trouble or expense to achieve control of mind and body. They want to be free, to free themselves to be the recipients of spiritual ex-perience. These techniques are really a form of ascesis, the purpose of which is to direct a person’s attention away from what is super¬ficial and unrewarding in order to concentrate it on the very heart of things. First and foremost, on the innermost, essential core of the person himself. He has to attain a degree of harmony with his deepest ‘I’ and at the same time with other human beings and with the world as a whole. Finally, with God as well. That is, at any rate for the believer. This experience is a genuine process of self¬realization. It is fairly unusual and is best likened to a rebirth. In Zen it is known as illumination. The experience also confers a certain interior contemplative vision in consequence of which every¬thing else is seen from a new standpoint.
This natural ascesis is undoubtedly of great value. It shows us to what extent body and mind affect each other. But is this actually prayer? Is not prayer something that God has given us in Jesus Christ? Certainly, Christian prayer is a more profound, more pevasive activity: calling upon the Father by the Son, thanking and extolling God the Father and praising Him together with Jesus. Body and mind, liberated by this exercise, come to spontaneous expression in it. Immediately, the individual has an inner sense of who it is to whom he has turned with his entire being. Words come to him of their own accord. Where they come from he does not know; but he recognizes them as his words. He may even just be silent. Silence, which is not a lack of words but transcends them, surpasses them, is a new form of dialogue in which we know only that the whole person is present. Presence in the most potent sense of the word, a being present in love that really does yield a knowledge of the other. And suddenly, out of the silence may arise at last a cry prompted in us by the Spirit. Our heart uncloses to exclaim Abba, Father !
PRAYING-BUT WITH WHAT?
The main reason why prayer (and talking about prayer) seems so difficult nowadays is that we simply do not know what we are to pray with. Where in our body are we to locate the organ of prayer? Our lips and our mouth recite prayers, our intellect practises reflection and meditation, our heart and mind are lifted up to God. With this language we are familiar; but what is it we intend to convey by these concepts? Lips, mouth, intellect, heart and soul? What do we actually pray with?
The organ of prayer: our heart
Each person has been given by the creator an organ primarily designed to get him praying. In the creation story we read how God made man by breathing into him his living spirit (Gen. 2:7) and St. Paul goes on-man became a living soul (I Cor. 15:45). Adam was the prefiguration of Him who should come : Jesus, the second Adam, after whose image the first man had been created. This means that being in relation with the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, is a fundamental part of our nature. The living spirit of God is the fount of prayer in us.
In the course of the centuries this organ has acquired very diverse names in various cultures and languages; but in fact they all signify the same thing. Let us agree to call it by the oldest name it has ever had-a name that in the Bible occupies a central place : the heart. In the Old Testament the heart denotes the inward man. The New Testament builds on this notion and perfects it.
The Lord it is who probes the heart and loins (Jer. 11:20), nothing is hidden from Him : Lord ‘you examine me and know me, you know if I am standing or sitting ... God, examine me and know my heart, probe me and know my thoughts’ (Ps. 139). The heart is what we yearn with : God grants the desire of the heart (Ps. 20:4). According to the Bible even a man’s character is localized in this centre : out of the heart proceed thoughts, sins, good and bad inclinations : envy and malice, joy, peace and pity. The heart may also express the whole person, for instance, in Joshua’s injunction to the Israelites regarding the occupation of the promised land ‘... take great care to practise the commandments and the Law which Moses the servant of Yahweh gave you : love Yahweh your God, follow his paths always, keep his commandments, be loyal to him and serve him with all your heart and soul’ (Josh. 22:5).
But a part of the chosen people do not heed this call and turn their heart away from the Lord : ‘... this people approaches me only in words, honours me only with lip-service while its heart is far from me’ (Isa. 29:13). The Israelites have hardened their hearts (Ezek. 2:14). Time after time God raises up prophets who will persist in speaking of this apostasy : ‘But now, now-it is Yahweh who speaks-come back to me with all your heart, fasting, weeping, mourning. Let your hearts be broken, not your garments torn’ (Joel 2:12), for the Lord cannot countenance such disloyalty. He loves Israel with an everlasting love, is a jealous God. And the prophets show us how even the heart of God is turned and his mercy (heart’s compassion) is aroused (cf. Hosea 11: 8). Never will His love desert His people : ‘I did forsake you for a brief moment, but with great love will I take you back. In excess of anger, for a moment I hid my face from you. But with everlasting love I have taken pity on you, says Yahweh, your redeemer!’ (Isa. 54: 7-8).
At the very moment when the Jewish people are in deepest misery the Babylonian exile the prophet Ezekiel announces a new covenant : ‘I shall pour clean water over you and you will be cleansed; I shall cleanse you of all your defilement and all your idols. I shall give you a new heart, and put a new spirit in you; I shall remove the heart of stone from your bodies and give you a heart of flesh instead. I shall put my spirit in you ...’ (Ezek. 36:25-27).
Only a heart of flesh can really beat, can give life to the whole body. Only into such a heart can the Spirit make his entry; and the heart, at one time closed to the superabundance of grace, opens up again to His loving design : his Will, the Word, the Spirit.
He of whom Moses wrote in the Law-and the prophets also Jesus, the son of Joseph of Nazareth, brought us this New Covenant. God Himself has intervened to open up the human heart and make it once more receptive to His Word (Acts 16:14). Ascended now into heaven, He has sent us another Paraclete (‘Advocate’: John 14:16), who consoles, strengthens and encourages, the Anointing who teaches us everything (I John 2:27), the Holy Spirit who will remind us of all that Jesus has said to us (John 14: 26). ‘If your lips confess that Jesus is Lord and if you believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, then you will be saved’ (Rom. 10:9). Heart and lips, inward surrender and outward confession, beat here to one and the same rhythm. And here, eventually, prayer is born.
The beatitudes sum up in a few sentences the spiritual Law of the New Covenant : ‘How happy are the poor in spirit; ... happy those who mourn; ... happy the pure in heart : they shall see God’ (Matt. 5:3-12). When nothing any longer clouds and darkens the heart, it can be wholly opened to the Light; for God is Love and God is Light.
It will perhaps be clear by now that the heart, in the ancient sense of the word, is not the discursive intelligence with which we reason, nor the ‘feelings’ with which we respond to another person, nor yet the superficial emotion we call sentimentality. The heart is something that lies much deeper within us, the innermost core of our being, the root of our existence or, conversely, our summit, what the French mystics call ‘the very peak of the soul’ (‘la fine pointe de fame’ or ‘la cime de 1’esprit’). In our everyday life our heart is usually concealed. It hardly reaches the surface of our consciousness. We much prefer to stay put in our outward senses, in our impressions and feelings, in all that attracts -or repels us. And should we opt to live at a deeper level of our personal being, then we usually land up in abstraction : we reflect, we combine, we compare, we draw logical conclusions. But all this time our heart will be asleep-not beating yet to the rhythm of the Spirit.
Jesus was often reprimanding us: our hearts are blind, obdurate and closed (Mark 8:17). They are sluggish and slow (Luke 24:25), full of darkness, weighed down with pleasure and sorrows (Matt. 13:15). Our hearts must be circumcised. ‘Circumcise your heart then, to love the Lord your God and serve Him with all your heart and your soul’ (Deut. 10: 12-22). Then love of God and of our neighbour will be the fruit, for a sound heart produces good fruit (Matt. 7:17). It is a main enterprise for every individual to find the way back to his heart. He is an explorer, moving into that unknown, inner region. He is a pilgrim in search of his heart, of his deepest being. Everyone carries within him to repeat the marvellous expression used by St. Peter in his first letter-’the hidden man of the heart’ (3:4). That ‘man’ is our deepest and most real being : he is who and what we are. There God meets us; and it is only from there that we in our turn can encounter people. There God addresses us; and from there we too are able to address people. There we receive from Him a new and as yet unfamiliar name, which He alone knows and which will be our name for ever in his Love; and only thence are we at length able to name another’s name, in the selfsame Love.
But so far we have not reached that point. We are only on the road towards our heart. Still, the marvellous world that awaits us there makes taking the greatest trouble worthwhile.
In a state of prayer
For our heart is already in a state of prayer. We received prayer along with grace, in our baptism. The state of grace, as we call it, at the level of the heart, actually signifies a state of prayer. From then on, in the profoundest depths of the self, we have a continuing contact with God. God’s Holy Spirit has taken us over, has assumed complete possession of us; he has become breath of our breath and Spirit of our spirit. He takes our heart in tow and turns it towards God. He is the Spirit, Paul says, who speaks without ceasing to our spirit and testifies to the fact that we are children of God. All the time, in fact, the Spirit is calling within us and He prays, Abba Father, with supplications and sighs that cannot be put into words but never for an instant cease within our hearts (Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6).
This state of prayer within us is something we always carry about, like a hidden treasure of which we are not consciously aware-or hardly so. Somewhere our heart is going full pelt, but we do not feel it. We are deaf to our praying heart, love’s savour escapes us, we fail to see the light in which we live.
For our heart, our true heart, is asleep; and it has to be woken up, gradually-through the course of a whole lifetime. So it is not really hard to pray. It was given us long since. But very seldom are we conscious of our own prayer. Every technique of prayer is attuned to that purpose. We have to become conscious of what we have already received, must learn to feel, to distinguish it in the full and peaceful assurance of the Spirit, this prayer rooted and operative somewhere deep inside us. It must be brought to the surface of our consciousness. Little by little it will saturate and captivate our faculties, mind and soul and body. Our psyche and even our body must learn to answer to the rhythm of this prayer, be stirred to prayer from within, be incited to prayer, as dry wood is set ablaze. One of the Fathers puts it as tersely as this : ‘The monk’s ascesis : to set wood ablaze.”
Prayer then, is nothing other than that unconscious state of prayer which in the course of time has become completely conscious. Prayer is the abundantia cordis, the abundance of the heart, as the saying goes in the Gospels : ‘For a man’s words flow out of what fills his heart’ (Matt. 12:34; Luke 6:45). Prayer is a heart that overflows with joy, thanksgiving, gratitude and praise. It is the abundance of a heart that is truly awake.
One condition is therefore that our heart comes awake; for as long as it remains asleep, our search for the organ of prayer in ourselves will be in vain. We can try to come at it in various ways; but the result will often be disconcerting. Some will put most reliance on their imagination; but there is a considerable risk of their ending up distracted and full of daydreams. Others may try through their religious feeling, but soon get bogged down in sentimentality. Yet others resort more to their intellect and try to arrive at clearer insights; but their prayer remains arid and cold and eventually ends up outside the sphere of their concrete living. Imagination, feeling and intellect are not of the Evil One. But they can only bear fruit when, much deeper within us, our heart comes to awakening and they, fed by the flame of this spiritual fire, themselves begin to glow.
Each and every method of prayer has but one objective : to find the heart and alert it. It must be a form of interior alertness, watchfulness. Jesus himself set ‘being awake’ and ‘praying’ side by side. The phrase ‘be awake and pray’ certainly comes from Jesus in per¬son (Matt. 26:41; Mark 13:33). Only profound and quiet concentration can put us on the track of our heart and of the prayer within it.
All the time watchful and alert, therefore, we must first recover the way to our heart in order to free it and divest it of everything in which we have incapsulated it. With this in view we must mend our ways, come to our senses, get back to the true centre of our being as ‘person’, redire ad cor (Isa. 46:8), return to the heart, as people in ‘the Middle Ages liked to say. In the heart, mind and body meet, it is the central point of our being. Once back at that central point, we live at a deeper level, where we are at peace, in harmony with everything and everybody, and first and foremost with our own self. This ‘reversion’ is also ‘intro-version’, a turning inward to the self. It engenders a state of recollection and interiority. It pierces through to our deepest ‘I’, to the image of God in us. To that ontological centre where we are constantly springing from God’s creative hand and flowing back into His bosom. Praying teaches us to live from within, from the life within us. As was said of St. Bruno, every man of prayer has a cor profundum, a bottomless heart.’ The parable of the prodigal son has been interpreted by several of the Fathers in that sense (Luke 15:11-32). The younger son demands his share of the estate and leaves for a distant country, where he squanders his money on a life of debauchery. ‘When he had spent it all, that country experienced a severe famine and now he began to feel the pinch ... Then he came to his senses (literally : he turned in to his self) and said : “How many of my father’s paid servants have more food than they want.”‘ Pope Gregory the Great applies the passage to St. Benedict, the father of western monasticism, whose life as a monk he thus describes : ‘Had the prodigal son been with himself, whence then should he have returned to himself? Conversely, I might say of this venerable man (Benedict) that he dwelt with himself (habitare secum), for watching constantly over himself, he remained always in the presence of his Creator. He examined himself incessantly and did not allow his heart to divert its gaze to outward things.” The passage shows us where St. Benedict’s tranquillity came from. He does not seek to escape in an activity that will keep him away from his true work, but keeps on turning to his heart.
There lies his true work : the battle with everything that would distract him from his sole Good. A twelfth-century Carthusian monk could say, therefore : Nothing makes the monk wearier than not working (Nihil laboriosius est quam non laborare)4 and so continuing always free for prayer, finding his rest in Jesus and in his Word. Again, the same Carthusian says : in this way he comes to be quietus Christo, still and tranquil before Christ. This was Benedict’s sole care also : to keep his heart free beneath the gaze of Him who offers both support and love.
To this ascesis-and especially the practice of keeping vigil-as a technique of prayer we shall return later on. Here we shall content ourselves with emphasizing that prayer has already been given us in our heart, albeit in a secret way. One cannot help but recall here the image of the treasure in the field. The application of it to prayer has indeed been made. A twelfth-century Cistercian, Guerric d’Igny, compares the heart to a field. The field of the heart must be dug over : ‘O what precious store of good works, what a wealth of spiritual fruits are hidden in the field of a man’s body and how much more, even, in his heart, if he will but dig and delve it. In so saying I do not mean to affirm with Plato that prior to its dwelling in this body, the soul already had knowledge which having been utterly forgotten and covered beneath a weight of sins is then laid bare by spiritual study (disciplina) and ascesis (labor). But I mean that reason and intelligence, which are peculiar to man, can when as¬sisted by grace become the source of all good works. If thus you will turn in your heart, keeping your body under control, do not despair of finding therein treasures of sufficient worth’ (Sermon 1 for Epi¬phany). There is a treasure, then, hidden in the field of our heart; and like the merchant of the gospel story we must sell all that we have in order to possess that field and extract the treasure from it. From time to time God allows us a glimpse of that treasure. Much effort will be needed to till the field. Our business here is not with exploiting the earth, entrusted by the Creator to the first man-a mandate that is certainly still in force. But still the sweat of our brow is required for exploiting the inner man and cultivating this fallow soil. Yet our toil will be rewarded-and more than that this spiritual labour is itself a joy and gives us true peace.
Anyone whose heart has thus been freed will be able to listen in to it: the heart is at prayer, even without our knowing it. We can surprise our heart, as it were, in the very act of prayer. The spirit of Jesus anticipates us, is stammering our prayer before us. To give ourselves over to this prayer we have to yield ourselves and stop throwing up a barrier between our heart and our ‘I’. We are not our ‘persona’, the image that we take so much trouble to create. Only when we have dropped this mask in the presence of God will we go on to uncover our real ‘I’. And we shall stare in astonishment then; for could we ever have suspected what we were really like and what God had chosen for us? How fine, how beautiful, our true likeness is, which God carries with Him all the time and which He so much longs to show us ! Out of love He has had respect for what we willed and has chosen to wait. This likeness can only be the likeness to his Son, who in advance of us lived out a true son¬ship and was obedient to the Father’s will, right up to death on the cross. From His prayer, from His striving, living and dying, we learn how to pray.
Little by little we must advance on the road to prayer. The tech¬nique is always the same. To rid our heart of its surrounding dross; to listen to it where it is already at prayer; to yield ourselves to that prayer until the Spirit’s prayer becomes our own.
As a, monk of the Byzantine period once taught : ‘Anyone who attends carefully to his heart, letting no other notions and fantasies get in, will soon observe how in the nature of things his heart engenders light. Just as coals are set ablaze and the candle is kindled by the fire, so God sets our heart aflame for contemplation, He who since our baptism has made our heart His dwelling-place.”
Another monk of that period used a different metaphor to say the same thing. He was to an extraordinary degree a man of prayer, someone absolutely carried away by prayer, which was his constant occupation. He was asked how he had reached that state. He replied that he found it hard to explain. ‘Looking back,’ he said, ‘my im¬pression is that for many, many years I was carrying prayer within my heart, but did not know it at the time. It was like a spring, but one covered by a stone. Then at a certain moment Jesus took the stone away. At that the spring began to flow and has been flowing ever since.’