I. Prayer as Human Desire
Like as the hart desireth the water-brooks:
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, whichwhether acknowledged or merely implicitunderlies
and impels every quest of the human spirit.
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)
"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."
What is our quest for happiness, but a desire for the good; and what
is that good we seekwhether knowingly or notbut 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.
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).
All 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.
And 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 of prayer" ; 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 perspectivethe perspective
of human aspiration and human experienceit 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).
II. Prayer as Divine Gift: The Redemption of Time
To 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.
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 own realm," 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.
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.
But 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).
The 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
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.
Thus 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
In 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 crucified." 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."
In 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 experiencenone
of it irrelevantwords 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 agethe 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 and glory.
"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. 46:6-7).
1. Thomas Traherne, "Desire," The Oxford Book of Christian
Verse, ed. D. Cecil (Oxford, 1940), p. 273.
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),
7. Thomas Aquinas, Super epist. s. Pauli lectura, Vol.
II (Marietti, 1953), I ad Thessal., 130, p. 189.
8. Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity,
ed. J. Keble, Works of Hooker, (Oxford, 21841) Vol. II, V, xlvii, 2, p.
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-méme de Socrate à saint Bernard
11. John Keats, "Ode on a Grecian Urn".
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)
13. Dante, Divine Comedy. Inferno, ed. cit., III, 51,
14. Augustine, Confessions, I, 1.
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,
17. For a detailed description, see L. Boyle, A Short
Guide to St. Clements', Rome (Rome, 1972), pp. 26-32.
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.
23. John Donne, Sermon 12, in G. Potter and E. Simpson,
eds., The Sermons of John Donne (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1962) Vol. IV,
24. Ignatius of Antioch, Ep. to the Romans, VII, (ed.
K. Bihlmeyer, Die Apostolischen Väter (Tübingen, 1956) I, 16,
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.