25 August 2010

Getting Out of the Way of Ourselves

There are no sterile prayers, there are only dried-up souls. The prayer of a dried-up soul is not a prayer; it is not a raising up of the mind to God. Such a soul is not living in God’s presence, on His heights. It remains preoccupied with itself, and may well die in that state. Only the lips mutter words, which could be prayers; or the arms are outstretched in a gesture which could be mistaken for one intended for God. But there is nothing of spiritual depth accompanying these external manifestations, which are deceptive. ‘With their lips [they] glorify Me, but their heart is far from Me’ (Isaiah 29:13).

Nothing displeases God more than such a deception. Elsewhere He calls it ‘absolutely execrable’, and that I understand. This particular lie destroys human integrity; it gives to the body and soul that are substantially one, two divergent movements. By it we are debased lower than our real selves. Saint Augustine compared it to the lowing of cattle, but even that is an understatement. A lowing or bellowing is the cry of a beast; prayer which is feigned is the word of a being divided in himself and reduced to a dried-up shell: it is not the prayer of a man.

The prayer of a proud man is not much better. Such was the prayer of the Pharisee in the Temple (cf. Saint Luke 18:10). He was not looking at God, he was looking at himself, and he expected God to do the same. The condemnation of the meek and humble Saviour of this ‘other’ is well known. It showed all too clearly what our Lord thought of such an attitude, which the commentators on the Gospel do not always make enough of. Our Lord's words were devastating: ‘I say to you: this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other’ (Saint Luke 18:14). The prayer of the Pharisee followed the line of his thought. He assumed a place of preference on earth, and seemed to think he would occupy the same in heaven. The contrast between himself and the publican, the only representative of the human race present, showed up his superiority. Jesus took up the comparison but, with one word, turned the tables on the proud Pharisee. But what a word! He is now simply one who knew not how to achieve his being by freeing himself from himself and entering into the truth of God. You thought you were rich and had need of nothing, and knew not that you were wretched and miserable, poor and blind and naked (cf. Revelation 3:17).

Yet humility is not diffidence. On the contrary, it is the very opposite. Humility is so fine a combination that it is not easy to define it exactly. Perhaps the best definition of it is that it is the same as truth. Humility is an equation; it is a just relationship, perceived, accepted and loved of the reality. And that reality is that God is essential Being, whereas we exist only in Him. The soul that keeps in this place, that is, remains in the presence of Being Himself, in order that the latter may communicate His own life to it and thus cause it to be, is true and consequently humble.

Since the fall, the truth is that man no longer lives in God's presence; he has turned away from Him, and only God can turn him back. The prayer of a diffident soul speaks only half that truth. It forgets the other half, so important and so comforting. Such a soul, says Saint James, is ‘like a wave of the sea, which is moved and carried about by the wind’ (Saint James 1:6). God cannot impress His likeness upon it; it is not the perfect mirror in which He can reproduce and so give birth to His Son in us. What we must do when we pray is to place ourselves at our Lord's Feet, and like children say: ‘Our Father’.

~ Dom Augustin Guillerand~