A Paper from a
Western Canadian Theological Conference, published in Dr. M. Treschow, ed.,
The Lord is Nigh: The Theology and Practice of Prayer (Kelowna, B. C.
Sparrow's Editing, 1997), pp. 74-78. +
Prayer as Human Desire
Like as the hart desireth the water-brooks:
so longeth my soul after thee, O God.
My soul is athirst for God, yea, even for the living God:
when shall I come to appear
before the presence of God? (Psalm 42:1-2)
Regarded from the standpoint of human psychology, and as a phenomenon of
universal religious practice, prayer appears to be simply the articulation
of human desires, human longings and human aspirations. "My soul is athirst
for God," cries the Psalmist, and it is indeed that thirst, that desire for
God, which≠-whether acknowledged or merely implicit≠-underlies and impels
every quest of the human spirit.
"All men by nature desire to know," says
Aristotle at the beginning of his Metaphysica.
But what is it that they desire to know? They long to know the reasons of
things, the causes, the truth of things; finally to know that truth by which
and in which all things have their truth. Thus Dante, in the Paradiso,
compares the intellect's desire to a wild beast's racing to its den, where
alone it can find rest.
What are all our sciences, what are all our fragments of knowledge but
droplets from that fountain of which we long to drink in all its fulness?
"My soul is athirst for God, yea, even for the living God."
is our quest for happiness, but a desire for the good; and what is that good
we seek≠-whether knowingly or not≠-but some participation in the pure and
perfect good which is God himself? What is our quest for liberty, but our
longing for God's own city, the heavenly Jerusalem, which is above, and is
free, and is the mother of us all? "My soul hath a desire and longing to
enter into the courts of the Lord: my heart and my flesh rejoice in the
living God" (Ps. 84:2). What is our quest for beauty, but a longing for that
pure and perfect beauty which belongs to Sion; and what are all our
fragmentary images of beauty, whether in music, or painting, or sculpture,
or poetry, or whatever human arts, but pallid reflections of the
unimaginable beauty of the countenance of God? "My heart hath talked of
thee, Seek ye my face: thy face Lord, will I seek. O hide not thou thy face
from me: nor cast thy servant away in displeasure" (Ps. 27: 9).
Desire takes so many forms, and speaks with so many different voices. High
up in the mountains of central Italy, in Abruzzo, there is a tiny, isolated
hamlet called Bominaco; and near that place, in a solitary spot on a
mountain-side, there is a supremely lovely twelfth-century church, with
frescoes, sculpture and architectural lines of such exquisite beauty as to
move one to tears. The pastor of Bominaco sums up the meaning of the place
in one phrase: "insonne desiderio di Dio": unsleeping desire for God.
It is the soul's thirst, articulated in stone. "One thing have I desired of
the Lord that I will require, even that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life: to behold the fair beauty of the Lord and to visit
his temple" (Ps. 27: 4).
human desire, all human longing and aspiration, expressed in a thousand
different forms, at a thousand different levels, is ultimately desire for
God. Dante makes that point lucidly in the Convivio: Therefore, I say
that not only in the gaining of knowledge and wealth, but in any acquisition
whatever, human desire reaches out, in one way or another. And the reason is
this: the deepest desire of each thing, arising from its very nature, is to
return to its principle. And because God is the principle of our soul, and
has made it like himself (as it is written, "Let us make man in our image
and likeness"), the soul mightily desires to return to him.
so, as a pilgrim who travels along a road he has not been on before believes
each building seen in the distance is the inn, and finding it not so directs
his belief to the next, and so from house to house, until at last he finds
the inn; just so our soul, as soon as it enters upon the new and unfamiliar
road of this life, directs its eyes towards the end, the highest good, and
each thing it sees which manifests some good, it takes to be that end.
And because its knowledge is at first
imperfect, inexperienced and untaught, little goods seem great to it, and
thus it begins its longing first with them. Thus, we see the infant
intensely longing for an apple; and then, later on, for a little bird; and
then, still further on, fine clothes; and then a horse; and then a mistress;
then modest riches; then more; and then still more. And that is because in
none of these things does it find that for which it ever seeks, and it
believes to find it further on.
Prayer is the interpretation, the articulation
of all this desire: the soul's ceaseless desire for God; and prayer is
therefore, indeed, as George Herbert describes it, "soul in paraphrase,
heart in pilgrimage."
Indeed, the desire is itself the substance of the prayer, as St. Augustine
remarks in one of his sermons: "Desire itself prays, even if the tongue be
still. If you always desire, always you pray. When does prayer sleep? Only
when desire grows cold."
St. Thomas Aquinas makes the same point in his commentary on the First
Epistle to the Thessalonians, when he says that "desire itself has the force
; and Richard Hooker sums it up in a comment in the Laws of
Ecclesiastical Polity, where he remarks that "Every good and holy desire
though it lack the form, hath notwithstanding in itself the substance and
with him the force of a prayer, who regardeth the very moanings, groans and
sighs of the heart of man."
The articulation of desire, the articulation
of human longings and aspirations: from the standpoint of human psychology
and universal religious practice, that is the meaning of prayer. It is
homesickness for God. "My soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth after
thee: in a barren and dry land where no water is."(Ps. 63:2). But looked at
only in that perspective-≠the perspective of human aspiration and human
experience≠-it has inevitably a tragic character, because it seeks an end
which human energy and human ingenuity can never attain: it seeks the divine
life, it seeks divine friendship, it seeks to be as God. That is tragic
hubris, the tragic pride of human aspiration, whether one thinks of that in
terms of the biblical accounts of the expulsion from the garden, and the
destruction of the Tower of Babel, or whether one thinks of the fate of the
heroes of Greek tragic poetry; for the divine life and the divine friendship
appear to be, as Aristotle remarks, "a life too high for man."
Remember how the temple of the oracle at
Delphi bore the inscription gnothi seauton, "know thyself"
≠-know that you are a man and not a god, and do not transgress the human
limits. The end of our desire must remain eternally beyond us, as in Keats'
meditation on the figures of the lovers painted on a Grecian urn, poised
there forever in the moment just before the kiss: "Bold lover, never, never
canst thou kiss, Though winning near the goal."
There is, of course, in such a spirituality a terrible hopelessness, perhaps
most fully manifest in the desperate religiosity of the last great pagan
philosophers,12 and perhaps less nobly manifest in some of the bizarre
religious enthusiasms of our own times.
But what is the alternative? To deny the
desire is to reduce the quest for truth to idle curiosity or pedestrian
utility, the quest for happiness to selfish self-indulgence, and the quest
for beauty to the search for emotional "highs". It is to fall into that
pusillanimity of spirit which Dante so marvellously describes as the
vestibule of hell, where life is but the futile pursuit of an empty figment.
"Non ragioniam di lor, ma guarda e passa," says Virgil, "Let us not
speak of them, but look and pass on."
"O turn away mine eyes", cries the Psalmist, "lest they beholdvanity" (Ps.
119:37) - lest they behold emptiness. "My tears have been my meat day and
night, while they say daily unto me, Where is now thy God?" (Ps. 42:3).
Prayer as Divine Gift: The Redemption of Time
such an account of human prayer as human desire, Christian theology would
add another, and more profound, and for Christian prayer altogether crucial
perspective, in the recognition of prayer as divine gift in creation and
redemption, inspired by the divine Word and moved by the divine Spirit. St.
Augustine makes the point in a famous passage at the beginning of the
Confessions. "It is thou, O God, who dost rouse mankind to delight in
praising thee, for thou has made us for thyself, and our hearts are
restless, until they find their rest in thee."14 In another passage, near
the end of the Confessions, he comments more fully on the meaning of
that unquiet heart:
By its own weight, a body inclines towards it own place. Weight does not
always tend towards the lowest place, but towards its own place. A stone
falls, but fire rises. They move according to their own weights, they
seek their own places. Oil poured into water rises to the surface; water
poured on oil sinks below the oil. They act according to their own
weights, they seek their own places. Things out of place are restless.
They find their own places, and then they rest.
My love is my weight (pondus meum amor
meus). Whithersoever I am moved, I am moved there by love. By thy
gift (dono tuo = the Holy Spirit), O Lord, we are set on fire,
and are borne aloft: we burn, and we are on the way. We climb the
ascents that are in the heart....With thy fire, with thy good fire, we
burn and go on, for we go up to the peace of Jerusalem.
The activity of prayer is thus the activity of
love's conversion, the activity of rational will aspiring and ascending
towards its true, eternal good. But what is the impulse, the spring of this
ascent, this pondus, this "weight" of love? It is the natural God-given
desire of the created soul, "the concreated and everlasting thirst for God's
inspired by the fire of the spirit, which burns within the soul. And just as
fire, by the compulsion of its very nature, rises upwards, so the soul
moves to desire, and finds no rest until it finds rejoicing in the final
object of its love.
whereas in the realm of nature all things are created in number, measure and
weight, and by their very natures, by their rising and decline, infallibly
seek the good in ordered and harmonious praise of the creator, human love is
the activity of free and rational will; and therein lies the possibility of
wayward love: a love which fixes upon some finite good as though that were
the absolute and perfect good. Thus, in human life, love becomes distorted,
perverted, and frustrated, and leads the soul to slavery - subservience to
the sensible, to idle curiosity and vain ambition, subject to all the demons
of the present age. And thus, the true freedom of the will is lost; the fire
of love is, as it were, extinguished, frozen in a dark abyss of alienation
and despair, and prayer is dead. But still, somehow, the thirst is there, if
only in a half-recognised sense of emptiness and futility: "Like as the hart
desireth the water, even so my soul longeth after thee, O God."
That text from Psalm 42 is marvellously
illustrated in the great twelfth-century mosaic (just now beautifully
restored) which adorns the apse of the ancient Church of San Clemente, in
Rome. In that picture, the harts come to drink of the streams of paradise
which flow from the Garden of Eden, which is also the hill of Calvary,
surmounted by the Tree of Life, which is also the Cross of Christ. There is
much more symbolic richness in that astonishing mosaic,
but the essential point for us now is just this: It is through the Cross of
Christ that the ancient enmity, the old and ever new alienation, is
overcome, and the streams of grace flow out to renew the spiritual life of
humankind, and give rebirth to prayer.
It is through the Cross of Christ that the
gates of prayer are truly opened. Prayer is, indeed, the articulation of
human desire; but Christian theology sees it as properly much more than
that. By the Cross, we are raised up, no longer just clients, so to speak,
but friends of God; and prayer becomes the conversation, the com-munication
of friends. As St. Thomas remarks, in his meditations of St. John 15
(Jesus' Last Supper Discourse), Our Saviour calls his disciples "friends,"
and to converse together in the proper condition of friendship. Friends
delight in each other's presence, and find comfort there in their anxieties.
We are made friends with God, he dwelling in us, and we in him. We are no
longer servants, but friends, "For ye have not received the spirit of
bondage again to fear, but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby
we cry, Abba, Father" (Rom. 8, 15).
great Puritan divine, Richard Baxter, makes just the same point as St.
Thomas, specifically with reference to the Lord's Supper, wherein, he says,
"we have the fullest intimation, expression and communication of the
wondrous love of God."
In the sacrament of the body and blood of
Christ, we are called to a familiar converse with God.... There we are
entertained by God as friends...and that at the most costly feast. If
ever a believer may on earth expect his kindest entertainment, and near
access, and a humble intimacy with his Lord, it is in the participation
of this sacrifice feast, which is called the Communion.
It is, of course, a token of the intimacy of
divine and human friendship that in the language of prayer, in English as in
many other languages, we are privileged to use the intimate, second person
singular forms, the "thee" and "thou" and "thine" of intimate friends,
rather than the public and formal plurals. Prayer is the conversation of
intimate friends. But the theology of Christian prayer takes us even beyond
the intimacy of friendship: "Your life is hid with Christ in God" (Col.
3:3): "I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me" (Gal. 2:20). We dwell not
only in God's presence, as friends, but we dwell in him and he in us, and
rightly does George Herbert speak of prayer as "God's breath in man
returning to his birth."
Indeed, in prayer we are taken up into the deepest mystery of the divine
life, in the relations of being, knowing and loving which are the Holy
Trinity. Through the gift of the Spirit, the Word of God engraces our hearts
to cry, "Abba, Father," and thus we have our places in that eternal outgoing
and return of the divine Word and Spirit, the divine self-knowing, and the
bond of love which unites the knowing and the known.
our prayer approaches God not from outside, as it were, but from within,
"through Jesus Christ our Lord, in the power of the Holy Spirit"; that is to
say, our prayer is within the knowing and willing of God, with the divine
Providence. In a right understanding of prayer, it can stand in no ultimate
opposition to divine Providence, because its whole point, really, is to
place our life freely within God's will, in knowledge and love; and our
prayers accomplish precisely what God's eternal Providence, the source of
all order in the world, has eternally willed to accomplish by them. They are
the free agents of Providence, the free, rational and willing instruments of
grace. God's grace descends, and ascends again in prayer. As Richard Hooker
beautifully expresses it:
For what is the assembling of the Church
to learn, but the receiving of Angels descended from above? What to
pray, but the ascending of Angels upward? His heavenly inspirations and
our holy desires are so many Angels of intercourse and commerce between
God and us.
God's grace descends, and ascends again in
prayer. Thus prayer is God's gift to us: God's work in us and our life in
God, the redemption of desire. As St. Paul explains, all who are in Christ
are, by God's grace, new creations (2 Cor. 5:17), and our prayer is our
participation in that new life of grace, converting us, setting straight our
love, transforming, transfiguring, "transhumanizing" us (to borrow Dante's
special word, transumanar).
And at this level, when we speak of prayer,
we're not speaking just of particular acts of prayer, or occasional prayer,
but of prayer as a condition of life in continual conversion, continual
reference to God. That is habitual prayer, that state in which, according to
the magnificent Prayer Book collect for the Fourth Sunday after Easter, God
so orders our unruly wills and affections that we love what he commands and
desire what he promises, that so our hearts may surely there be fixed where
true joys are to be found. In that condition of habitual prayer, that state
of being in prayer, as John Donne says, in one of his sermons, "that soul
prays sometimes when it does not know that it prays."
III. Our Life in Prayer
Christ, we are new creations, born anew, no longer at enmity, but friends of
God. Our reconciliation has been accomplished, once for all; for Christ's
sake, we are accounted friends of God. But in another sense, our
reconciliation is not complete, and will not be complete, until we come to
know as we are known and to love as we are loved. Thus, there is the tension
between a justification, divinely-wrought and finished once for all, and a
sanctification, which is being worked out within us day by day. Prayer
reaches out, in faith and hope, across that space.
In that reaching out of prayer, precisely
because it is by faith, trials and temptations, the dark night of doubt,
confusion and uncertainty, are not just unfortunate accidents. In God's good
Providence, they belong to the very life of faith, for faith must be tried,
like precious metal, "which from the earth is tried, and purified seven
times in the fire" (Ps. 12:6; I Peter, 1:7). As St. Ignatius of Antioch puts
it, our desire is crucified: "My love," he says, "my eros is
Perhaps the trials take different forms in one age or another, and different
forms for each of us. Those trials are necessary, and must be embraced.
Indeed, as St. James says, we must "count it all joy, knowing that the trial
of your faith worketh patience. Let patience have her perfect work, that ye
may be perfect and entire (Jas. 1: 3-4).
Certainly, the confusions of the world in
which we live, uncertainties within the Church, and confusions within our
own souls, present us with problems and dilemmas, in which it is surely not
easy to "count it all joy"! But that is precisely the nature of our calling,
and by the grace of God, who gives manna in the desert, and water from the
rock, we are not without resources. As we were reminded this morning, the
Church's time of persecution is God's time of preparation, and it is in
exile that the bride is prepared for her husband. As Thomas Traherne puts
it, "Our very rust shall cover us with gold."
this mixed time, which is both glorious and hard, we are not without
resources. We do possess, in faith, God's word of reconciliation, committed
unto us. We do possess, in faith, God's work for us, God's word to us, made
audible in Holy Scriptures, made sensible in Holy Sacraments, if we will but
attend with minds and hearts obedient and penitent. We do possess, in faith,
the gift of God's Spirit to lead us into truth. We do possess, if we will,
in the community of faith, centuries of wisdom and experience-≠none of it
irrelevant≠-words and images of prayer and sanctity which will come alive
for us, if we will give them (as to the shades in Homer's Hades) the living
blood of our own labours to drink. It seems to me terribly important and
urgent that we do our best to reclaim that great heritage of prayer and
spiritual discipline which is ours especially as Anglicans in our great
tradition of common prayer.
The practice of Christian spirituality, our
life of prayer, presents us, no doubt, with many difficulties. But only one
of these difficulties is, I think, really fundamental; and that is the
demoralizing of the Christian mind and heart, and the demoralizing of the
Christian community, which we bring upon ourselves when we forget our
calling, and fall into a mindless conformity to the spirit of the present
age≠-the ambitio saeculi, as St. Augustine calls it.
Secular ideals, secular methods and measures insidiously invade our
consciousness, and pollute the springs of prayer. We lose heart, and fall
back into a hopeless neo-pagan spirituality.
The only true remedy lies in the steady
cultivation of the Christian virtues of faith and hope and charity,
holding on to the centuries of Christian wisdom, holding fast to our road of
pilgrimage. What is essentially required is the practical upbuilding, among
us and within us, of the life of penitential adoration, the life of habitual
prayer. With such graces, may God now refurbish his house. If this
conference has given us a little bit clearer insight into what that means,
and if it has given us any morsel of encouragement to renew our disciplines
of prayer, it has indeed been blessed by God, to whom be everlasting praise
"Why are thou so full of heaviness, O my soul? and why art thou so
disquieted within me? O put thy trust in God, for I will yet give him
thanks, which is the help of my countenance, and my God" (Ps.
1. Thomas Traherne, "Desire,"
The Oxford Book of Christian Verse, ed. D. Cecil (Oxford, 1940), p.
2. Aristotle, Metaphysics,
I, 1 (980a 21).
3. Dante, Divine Comedy,
Paradiso, IV, 127-129, Dante Alighieri. Tutte le opere, ed.
L. Blasucci (Florence, 1981) p. 631.
4. Dante, Convivio, IV,
12, ed. cit., pp. 176-177, tr. R.D.C.; cf. Augustine, Enarr. in ps. LXII,
5, CCL, 39, 796.
5. George Herbert, "Prayer,"
The Oxford Book of Christian Verse, p. 139).
6. Augustine, Sermon LXXX,
7, PL, 38, 497; cf. A. Cacciari, S. Agostino d'Ippona. La preghiera.
Epistola 130 a Proba (Rome, 1981), p. 48.
7. Thomas Aquinas, Super
epist. s. Pauli lectura, Vol. II (Marietti, 1953), I ad Thessal., 130,
8. Richard Hooker, Of the
Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, ed. J. Keble, Works of Hooker,
(Oxford, 21841) Vol. II, V, xlvii, 2, p. 201.
9. Aristotle, Nichomachaen
Ethics, X, 7 (1177b 25); cf. Metaphysics, XII, 7 (1072b 15-20).
On the impossibility of friendship with God, Nic. Ethics, VIII, 7
(1158b 35-1159a 5).
10. For the history of
interpretation of the maxim, see P. Courcelle, Connais-toi toi-mťme de
Socrate ŗ saint Bernard (Paris, 1974).
11. John Keats, "Ode on a
12. Cf. G. Reale, L'estremo
messaggio spirituale nel mondo antico nel pensiero metafisico e teurgico di
Proclo, introductory lecture in C. Faraggiana di Sarzana, trans.
Proclo. I Manuali (Milan, 1985) pp. v-ccxxiii.
13. Dante, Divine Comedy.
Inferno, ed. cit., III, 51, p. 396.
14. Augustine, Confessions,
15. Ibid. XIII, 9 (tr. R.D.C.).
For a full discussion, see A. DiGiovanni, L'inquietudine dell' anima. La
dottrina dell' amore nelle "Confessioni" di S. Agostino (Rome, 1964).
16. Dante, Divine Comedy.
Paradiso, ed. cit.,II, 19-20, p. 622.
17. For a detailed description,
see L. Boyle, A Short Guide to St. Clements', Rome (Rome, 1972), pp.
18. Thomas Aquinas, Contra
Gentiles, IV, 22; cf. Super Evan. S. Jo. lect., XV, ed. Marietti,
lect. 3, 1-4, pp. 379-382.
19. Richard Baxter, Works,
III, 816, as quoted in J. Packer, A Quest for Godliness (Wheaton,
Ill., 1980), pp. 213-214.
20. George Herbert, Prayer,
ed. cit., p. 139.
21. Richard Hooker, Of the
Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, ed. cit., V, xxiii, p. 115.
22. Dante, Divine Comedy,
Paradiso, ed. cit., I, 70, p. 619.
23. John Donne, Sermon 12,
in G. Potter and E. Simpson, eds., The Sermons of John Donne
(Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1962) Vol. IV, p. 310.
24. Ignatius of Antioch, Ep.
to the Romans, VII, (ed. K. Bihlmeyer, Die Apostolischen Všter (TŁbingen,
1956) I, 16, p. 100.
25. Thomas Traherne, 'Christian
Ethics', in The Oxford Book of Christian Verse, p. 287.
26. St. Augustine,
Confessions, X, 30, 41.
27. Cf. R. Crouse, "Hope which
does not disappoint: The Path to Genuine Renewal," in G. Egerton, ed.,
Anglican Essentials (Toronto, 1995), pp. 286-291.