02 September 2009

Possessing God and Being Possesed by God

Here’s another beautiful instruction on prayer by Dom Augustin Guillerand. In this particular writing, he really gets into the interior life and teaches us how to move towards God, forming a union in which we can only ask of God what He wills us to ask for, which is Himself.

Saint John Damascene's definition of prayer is well known. “Prayer,” he says, “is asking God for what is fitting.” We must probe this thought thoroughly, draw from the words their substance, separate its parts and, having done so, restore them to the deep life of this substance which sustains them and gives then life.

This definition of prayer falls, then, into two parts which are, as it were, its matter and form. Prayer is an asking, but an asking of God, and consequently bears the impress of Him to Whom it is addressed.

We can ask God only for what He wants us to ask of Him, and He can will only what is conformable to His will. Now since God is one of the ‘terms’ of prayer -- that is, we pray to Him -- and since He is infinite Order, prayer is a request essentially “ordered,” in other words consonant with the order of God Himself. What is that order? It is what He is -- Being Himself: that Being from Whom, by Whom, and for Whom all things are (cf. John 1:3 & Colossians 1:16). He is our Beginning and our End (Revelation 1:8). He is the Light of our mind and the strength of our will. He is Truth, Goodness and Beauty unalloyed, the source of all joy and the ocean of all life.

What is “fitting,” therefore -- what we must ask God for -- is Himself; to be united with Him, to be transformed in Him: to possess Him and to be possessed by Him. We should ask to enter, by grace, into such intimate relations with Him as unite us to Him; to become His sons by a communication as complete as possible of His Spirit of Love; to share in that joy and in that life which is His joy and His life: in short, to share in joy itself and Life itself. The Scriptures are full of this prayer, which is constantly bubbling up like water-springs on a high mountain. “The Lord is the portion of my inheritance, says the Psalmist (Psalm 15 [16]:5)… For what have I in heaven, and besides Thee what do I desire upon earth… Thou art the God of my heart, and my portion for ever” (Psalm 72 [73]:25, 6).

In the case of the intelligent being, to possess is to see the object of one's love and to find one's complete happiness in it. What we see enters into us by an image, which makes the object present to us -- we say expressly it “re-presents” it to us. This presence allows us to contemplate it, and that contemplation in turn engraves in us the features of what we see. Once engraved, these features are like a continual presence, which perpetually renews our joy.

There is another kind of knowledge and presence which brings neither possession nor pleasure. The object is within us, but it is not part of ourselves. We do not make use of it, nor have we any desire to profit by it. We are content with the image, but we experience no conscious need for any immediate, direct contact with the reality it represents. We do not love that object, for it is not our ‘good'. We do not seek to be united with it, or to be transformed in it; we are content merely to know what it is and that it exists; but that knowledge awakens in us no desire for a more intimate union with it, or for mutual self-surrender. We rightly love what is “good,” but that object does not seem to be our good.

On the other hand, we recognize God as our supreme Good, and we long for the closest union with Him, for the most complete possession and consequently for that clear, direct vision which brings joy -- an intuitive vision, a direct contact with His Being giving Himself, to which we respond by the total gift of our self to His total gift of Himself. This is what we ask for before everything else, and anything else we ask for is ordered towards this. It cannot be otherwise, because the one has always the end in view, the other only the means to that end. Our whole purpose is to arrive at that end.

Now there are two kinds of means which lead to this desired union. The one clears the way of obstacles, the other puts us in touch with the object of our love. We pray to God to keep us from all that might separate us from Him or delay our union; at the same time, we ask for what will bring about that union. It is vices and sins that separate, temptations that can hold us up. To obtain the mastery of them, therefore, should be the first object of our prayer, and we must not make light of this. Those who are proud or only and more often simple and inexperienced, content themselves with asking for union; many, indeed, try to live that union immediately. It does not occur to them that there is danger here. The enemy's blows, they say, cannot touch them. They consider themselves immune, whereas they are simply ignorant and blind. It would be an exaggeration to say that they are endangering their salvation, but they are very much exposed to mark time, and to become paralyzed.

The first act of light is to be separated from darkness (cf. Genesis 1:4): God divided the light from the darkness, and to light up all that it touches. It shines and is visible; it lights up the way and the end only in so far as it separates itself and the other objects from the night. When it emerges from the darkness and wrests a soul from it, the light reveals to that soul the love that has given it being and action. It is now that the Holy Spirit makes His power felt. He draws the soul to Himself, and awakens a reciprocal movement toward union. He causes virtues to flourish in the soul, communicating His own dispositions to it, and becomes the hidden cause of all its activity. He prays in it, adores in it, utters cries of love, and pours Himself forth in the most wonderful colloquies and unspeakable groanings (cf. Romans 8:26), repeating unceasingly: “Abba, Father” (Romans 8:15 and Galatians 4:6).

Saint Augustine's definition of prayer suggests the same thought: “Prayer is a devout movement of the soul towards God,” he says, thus putting into words what must have been most certainly his own form of prayer. In all movement there are two terms -- the one from which we set out, the other towards which we tend. When we pray, one of the terms does not exist: it is ‘nothingness’, or rather it is a being who exists solely by him towards whom it tends. To let our gaze, therefore, rest on this nothingness as on an end, is foolish. By not looking at ourselves we are, by that very fact continually moving in the direction of our true end, which is God, and our prayer is continuous and one which realizes our divine Master's command “to pray always” (cf. Luke 18:1 and 21:38).