“To fail to live a life of prayer is to imperil our Chrsitian lives and witness”
God has chosen us as his men. We have been blessed by the experience of faith and devotion. We have been trained extensively in the Scriptures, the spiritual life, and theology. We are recipients of the grace of God and are assigned to a work that keeps us close to holy things and deeds of service. Each of these blessings places a special responsibility upon us. We have been given much, and certainly God expects much from us.
On the other hand, God has left us in the midst of the world. We are affected by all the fears and clamors of the world. We are exposed to all the fleshly temptations that are common to men. And we face a whole complex of temptations special to, or at least heightened by, our vocation.
We are constantly exposed to situations that tempt us to self-righteousness and Pharisaism. Most of us manage to avoid the gross and scandalous sins. We are generally faithful in performance of external religious duties. In comparison to most of the people we meet we are well informed in matters of religion. Our people sometimes feed our pride with praise or flattery. We have all, doubtless, preached on the parable of the Pharisee and the publican; but I suspect that most of us have at times needed more to hear than to preach such a sermon.
We yearn for popularity. We may dress this yearning with all sorts of supporting rationalizations (“If people like us, they may be drawn to Christ and his Church”). Nevertheless, some of our hunger to be liked is self-seeking and prideful. And it sometimes leads us to avoid speaking the Word of God bluntly and harshly when bluntness and harshness are called for.
We are tempted to use people rather than serve them. Here, too, the line between wisdom and sin is narrow. To give people the opportunity to serve and give is good. But if we think of newcomers to the church as tools or as feathers in our caps, then we are using them as things, and this is a grievous sin.
Our constant association with holy things and deeds of service is likely to make them commonplace. To master one’s vocation, to work in it calmly and proficiently, is one thing. But to work indifferently or cynically is something else.
Finally, there is the blasphemous sin of using God rather than serving him. What minister has not known the temptation to think up a pious, perhaps scriptural argument to persuade people to do what he wants them to do for his own (as distinct from God’s) reasons?
This, then, is our dilemma. Our lives should be lived in God’s service. Yet we often find ourselves to be as great sinners as those we are called to serve. We share Peter’s guilt, the timid denial in word or deed of Christ. Can we, like Peter, face this guilt and return through penitence to loyalty? We share Thomas’ guilt in our lack of faith. Can we, like Thomas, face the guilt and return through penitence to faith? We share Judas’ guilt, the naked betrayal of Christ. Can we, unlike Judas, return to a living Christ and in him live, not die?
The answer, since the Gospel is good news, is “Yes, we can!” We can join in Peter’s threefold cry, “I love you!” We can join in Thomas’ awestruck cry, “My Lord and my God!” In penitence we can find the grace to praise and adore God. By petition we can touch the rebuilding power of the Holy Spirit. By intercession we can share this power with others. In thanksgiving we can acknowledge the Source of that power.
The parson’s life is like a rocky plain. It is thickly covered with obstacles—good works, busy works, idiocies, and plausible evasions. We read of other men who walked through such rocky plains without being blocked by the obstacles—Brother Lawrence, William Law, St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, the Curé d’Ars. But most of us are not such athletes of God. We find the role of mystic or contemplative hard to adopt. Yet we must, for our very souls’ sakes, find some way to build a road through the rocky plain, blasting out of the way the rocks of distraction, temptation, and rationalization.
We need to set times for prayer, clearing these times of all postponable interruptions. We need some order and plan that will enable us to make good use of such cleared time by quickly entering into a close relationship with God. There are doubtless great souls who live always conscious of that relationship—but most of us are not such great souls. The order and plan may be provided by disciplines imposed by the church, such as the required use of offices of prayer like those in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. Rich mines of daily devotional material are found in such works as The Private Devotions of Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, Frank Laubach’s Letters by a Modern Mystic, and John Baillie’s A Diary of Readings. Or disciplines may be imposed by spiritual directors. Or we may, lacking such external sources of spiritual discipline, have to create our own personal disciplines from scratch, as we are led by the Holy Spirit. In any case, there will always remain a large measure of self-discipline, for church and directors ordinarily impose only the minimum, not the maximum, rule of life, and men of our vocation dare not be content with minimums.
One word of warning. As we set out to clear times for prayer, we must keep firmly in mind the Christ-ordained system of priorities. Jesus could and did free himself often from the immediate burdens of busyness to meditate and pray. On the other hand, he told us the parable of the Good Samaritan, which speaks directly to the sin of the clergyman who is too wrapped up in his ecclesiastical business to involve himself in emergency human needs. Church business can be scheduled so as to leave time free. The postponable, even in the area of human need, can be postponed. There were doubtless some sick people looking for Jesus when he went to the Mount of the Transfiguration. But Jesus seems to be saying to us that we must always be ready to drop our ministerial and devotional tasks to meet serious human emergencies.
Once we have cleared a road on our cluttered, rocky plain, we must work hard to stay on the road and to keep it in repair. Blessedly, as we walk the road of prayer, we can be praying for, among other things, the grace to keep prayer life in order.
But there is more to prayer than scheduled acts of devotion. We need to be opportunistic about time, seizing spare moments for acts of prayer and meditation. I knew an Episcopal priest who was grateful that the streets of his town crossed a busy railroad on grade. While waiting in his car for the crossing gates to lift, he used the time for intercessions.
The content of prayer is more important than its form. Particularly dangerous is psychological prayer, the kind that is in fact though not in form addressed to self rather than to God. There is a subtle but real distinction between prayer that humbly asks God for grace and strength and wisdom, and prayer that says no more than, “Now, self, you buckle down and do your job better.” In the latter, a salutation to God and a close in Christ’s name may mean no more than the worldling’s “Goodbye” means “God be with you.”
God is a person. Thus all private prayer must be personal. It must be loving and natural, though naturalness should not be equated with slanginess. It should be individual, for in our own prayer life our role is not that of a devotional cheerleader. It should be inclusive; there is nothing in life that cannot with profit be discussed with God. It must be honest, for God knows our hearts as well as our words. It must be humble, for we speak always as unworthy in the presence of the divine majesty. It should be hopeful, for we have assurance that every prayer is heard and answered. And always we must speak in faith, for our own doubts do not affect the reality of him who hears.
Prayer is less a means to an end than part of the end. Our eternal destiny is communion with God. In this life—the only part of eternity with which we can now deal—we can at any moment pray. There are rewards flowing from such communion, but none of them approaches the value of the communion itself.
If we fail to live active and full devotional lives, we may become blind worldlings leading the blind to destruction. If we reject communion with God, we are alone, without faith, hope, or love. To fail to live a life of prayer is to imperil our Christian lives and witness.
There are two opposite errors common to those who seek to build good devotional lives. Pride, over-ambition, and shallow enthusiasm may cause our lives to become junkyards littered with the wrecked hulks of broken resolutions. On the other hand, despair, sloth, or quitting can keep us off the road to God as effectively as gross carnal sins.
Against both perils, spiritual direction can provide protection and antidotes. There are people (not all of them clergymen) gifted in the direction of the spiritual lives of others. The minister, who inevitably does some such work himself among his flock, needs not less but more than others the help such gifted Christians can give. Often those who can serve a minister best are outside his own chain of command or perhaps outside his own denomination. Such directors can be found. And they will never, if they are truly called to this work, refuse to help. Seek out such a helper, for he is God’s human instrument to give you wise and objective counsel in an area where self-diagnosis and selftreatment are often unavailing.
Not all prayer is talking to God. Meditation, or mental prayer, is far more a matter of listening to God. Whether you find formal meditation disciplines helpful or find a freer way better, make time in your prayer life for quiet listening. And for a special invigoration of spiritual life, there is great value in an occasional retreat with silence, worship, prayer, and counsel, not just a so-called conference. For the sanction of the retreat we have our Lord’s example, as in his going alone to a mountain to pray.
To sum up: We need to pray. We find it hard to pray. We shall have to walk the road of penitence in entering upon the full life of prayer. We shall have to face and deal with external and interior obstacles. Plans, order, removal of obstacles, and spiritual direction will help us into a spiritual life of continual growth.
You are God’s man. Live close to him!
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