Chapter 1 - INTRODUCTION.
PRAYER is the substance of eternal life. It gives back to man,
in so far as he is willing to live to capacity—that is to say, to give
love and suffer pain—the beatitude without which he is incomplete; for
it sets going, deepens and at last perfects that mutual in dwelling of
two orders which redeems us from unreality, and in which the creative process
reaches its goal There is, as Bremond has said, even m the poorest and
crudest prayer “a touch of Pentecost.” It awaits and expects the action
of the Spirit, acknowledges the most mysterious and yet the most certain
reality of our experience; the intercourse of the Transcendent God with
fugitive man, and of fugitive man with the Transcendent God. Yet
all our attempts to describe this mysterious reality are like the scientists’
attempts to describe the universe; at worst diagrammatic, at best symbolic
and allusive. It eludes definition, refuses to be caught in the meshes
of the mind. We cannot say of it on God’s side, “Lo! there the beginning”;
nor on man’s side, “Lo! here”; because it comes not with observation, but
emerges unperceived from that deep ground of being where we do not know
ourselves apart from Him. There, beyond thought, the pressure and
invitation of God is experienced by the creature, and thence there filters
into consciousness some response to the Unseen; an act of loving attention,
a submission, a supplication. Here is the beginning of prayer, and
hence it spreads to include at last every level of our being, every aspect
of our existence, and bring into conscious expression its fundamental relation
This is a conception of prayer which we easily forget; for the cheap
fussiness of the anthropocentric life has even invaded our religion.
There too, we prefer to live upon the surface and ignore the deeps.
We seldom pause for that awed recognition of pure Being, so steadying and
refreshing to the soul, which is the raw material of the interior life.
Yet the true growth and development of humanity seems to depend on this
constant re-orientation towards the Holy, this deep thrust of the spirit
to the unchanging sources of its life. When a seed germinates, first
the radicle pushes down into the nourishing earth; its delicate exploring
tip penetrates that dense and hidden world, seeking and finding food.
After that, the plumule unfolds and emerges into the light and air.
Thus it should be with the spirit of man. The small seed of transcendental
life in him, which the vicissitudes of circumstance will feed, maim or
kill, according to the dispositions of the soul, must thrust its rootlet
down into the world of spirit before it pushes its plumule up. Prayer
must precede action. A deep adherence in our ground to absolute Beauty
and Love is the only condition under which we can manifest beauty and love;
and so redeem the world’s ugliness and sin. But we have come to believe
that we can ignore this spiritual imperative, have the shoot without the
root; Christian action without Christian contemplation, the fruitful ideology
without contact with the Idea. The parable of the Sower is
there to warn us of the inevitable result; and indeed the whole of the
New Testament, once we have discarded our utilitarian prejudices
and learnt to look at it with innocence of eye, decisively announces the
priority of the spiritual, the mysterious greatness of prayer.
Christ, whose earthly life was both a correction and a completion of
human life, taught above all else, by example as well as precept, this
supreme art and privilege of the borderland creature. For Him, man
was a being set in the world of succession and subject to its griefs and
limitations; yet able in his prayer to move out to the very frontiers of
that world, to lay hold on the Eternal and experience another level of
life. How different such a doctrine and practice were from those
of his own or any other time, is shown by the demand of the disciples who
had witnessed His nights of solitary prayer in the hills: “Teach us how
to pray.” Those who asked this were good and pious Jews, who already
accepted the worship of the Name and practice of daily prayer as a normal
part of life. But now they realized how far beyond these orderly
acts of worship and petition was that living intercourse with the living
Father, which conditioned every moment of Christ’s life; His link with
the Unseen Reality from which He came and the source of His power in the
world to which He was sent. Here for the first time they saw prayer,
not as an ordered action, or a religious duty, not even an experience;
but as a vital relation between man in his wholeness and the Being of God.
Here was one who knew in the full and deep sense how to pray; and in the
light of His practice, they perceived the poverty and unreality of their
The New Testament has preserved for us, in our Lord’s reply to His followers,
a complete description of what Christian prayer should be; its character
and objective; its balance and proportion; its quality and tone.
As we explore this description and try to realize all that is implied in
it, we find the whole world of prayer, its immense demands and immense
possibilities, opening before us. Yet in accordance with that steady
hold on history, that deep respect for the tradition within which He appeared,
which marks the whole of Christ’s teaching, the description was given—
as the answer to those who asked for the secret of Eternal Life was given—in
words which were already familiar to the askers: in seven linked phrases
which were a part of Jewish prayer, and can be traced to their origin in
the Old Testament. It is as if we went to a saint and asked him to
teach us to pray, and he replied by reciting the Quinquagesima Collect.
We can imagine the disappointment of the disciples—”We knew all this before!”
The answer to this objection is the same as the answer to the Lawyer: this
do and you shall live. You already have all the information.
Invest it with realism, translate it into action: phrases into facts, theology
into religion. I am not giving you a set formula for repetition,
but seven complementary pictures of the one life of prayer.
There is a drawing by William Blake, called “The Prayer of the Infant
Jesus,” which seems to show us the response by anticipation to the disciples’
petition “Teach us how to pray.” The Child who kneels upon the bed
in the centre of the picture is already a Master of prayer.
The radiance of the Uncreated Light, breaking the surrounding darkness,
falls upon Him. In His tiny figure, perfect in poise and happiness,
human nature—and in human nature all creation—is brought into filial
relation with God: a whole poured out in love towards a Whole.
Round Him are His pupils visible and invisible; for Love incarnate
has its own lessons to teach, even to discarnate spirits. The angels,
humbled and exultant, kneel in awe before the mystery of the Word, uttering
from within His own creation the praise of the ineffable Name. Behind,
with closed eyes and folded hands, devout and recollected, are the earthly
forms of Mary and Joseph. Above them their immortal spirits, already
citizens of the world of supernatural prayer, bend their piercing gaze
upon this Child, who knits together the worship of heaven and earth.
On all, men and angels, lies a great silence in which the Divine Wisdom
begins, from within humanity, His redeeming work.
If, looking at this picture, we consider the seven clauses of the Lord’s
Prayer, we shall find here the link which binds them all together; so that
they become seven moments in a single act of communion, seven doors opening
upon “the world that is unwalled.” For these seven clauses represent seven
fundamental characters of the one indivisible relation between the spirit
of man and the Eternal God; they are seven lessons in prayer, forming together
a complete direction for the conduct of our inner life. We begin
to realize this, when we consider each separately, and see something of
what each of them involves.
(1) Our Father which art in heaven: the sublime invocation which establishes
our status before God, not merely as His creatures and slaves but as His
children. We are the sons and daughters of the Eternal Perfect, inheritors
of the Abiding; we have in us the spark of absolute life.
(2) Hallowed be Thy Name: selfless adoration, awestruck worship as
the ruling temper of our life and all we do.
(3) Thy Kingdom come: devoted and eager cooperation with His transforming
and redeeming action; the defeat of evil and the triumph of love as the
first object of our prayer.
(4) Thy Will be done: active self-abandonment to the mysterious purposes
and methods of God, and complete subordination to His design, as the perpetual
disposition of the soul.
(5) Give us this day our daily bread: confident dependence on God for
all the necessities of life. “Without thee I cannot live.”
(6) And forgive us our trespasses, our debts—the too much and the too
little—the major types of disharmony with love: the prayer of filial penitence.
(7) Lead us not into temptation: the acknowledgment of our creaturely
weakness and trust in His prevenient care.
And then the great affirmation which embraces and justifies our faith,
hope and charity: “Thine is the Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory.” We
ask this of you, for only you can do it: no lesser power, no lesser love,
“Lover of souls, Great God, I look to thee.”
It is too often supposed that when our Lord said, “In this manner pray
ye,” He meant not “these are the right dispositions and longings, the fundamental
acts of every soul that prays,” but “this is the form of words which, above
all others, Christians are required to repeat.” As a consequence
this is the prayer in which, with an almost incredible stupidity, they
have found the material of those vain repetitions which He has specially
condemned. Again and again in public and private devotion the Lord’s
Prayer is taken on hurried lips, and recited at a pace which makes impossible
any realization of its tremendous claims and profound demands. Far
better than this cheapening of the awful power of prayer was the practice
of the old woman described by St. Teresa, who spent an hour over the first
two words, absorbed in reverence and love.
It is true, of course, that this pattern in its verbal form, its obvious
and surface meaning, is far too familiar to us. Rapid and frequent
repetition has reduced it to a formula. We are no longer conscious
of its mysterious beauty and easily assume that we have long ago exhausted
its inexhaustible significance. The result of this persistent error
has been to limit our understanding of the great linked truths which are
here given to us; to harden their edges, and turn an instruction which
sets up a standard for each of the seven elements of prayer, and was intended
to govern our whole life towards God, into a set form of universal obligation.
This is a sovereign instance of that spiritual stupidity with which
we treat the “awful and mysterious truths” religion reveals to us; truths
of which Coleridge has rightly said, that they are commonly “considered
so true as to lose all the powers of truth, and lie bedridden in the dormitory
of the soul.” (Table Talk, 28th June, 1834) But when we “centre
down,” as Quakers say, from the surface of human life to its deeps, and
rouse those sleeping truths and take them with us, and ask what they look
like there—in the secret place where the soul is alone with God and knows
its need of God—then, all looks different. These great declarations
disclose their intensity of life, their absolute quality; as a work of
art which has hung respected and unloved in a public gallery glows with
new meaning when we bring it into the home or the sanctuary for which it
was really made. Seen thus, the Paternoster reminds us how rich and
various, how deeply rooted in the Supernatural, the Christian life is or
should be, moving from awestruck worship to homely confidence, an yet one:
how utterly it depends on God, yet how searching is the demand it makes
on man. “Every just man”, says Osuna, "needs the seven things for
which this prayer—or this scheme of prayer—asks.” (The Third Spiritual
Alphabet. Treatise 13) Taken together they cover all the
realities of our situation, at once beset by nature and cherished by grace:
establishing Christian prayer as a relation between wholes, between man
in his completeness and God who is all.
And we note their order and proportion. First, four clauses entirely
concerned with our relation to God; then three concerned with our human
situation and needs. Four hinge on the First Commandment, three hinge
on the Second. Man’s twisted, thwarted and embittered nature, his
state of sin, his sufferings, helplessness, and need, do not stand in the
foreground; but the splendour and beauty of God, demanding a self-oblivion
so complete that it transforms suffering, and blots out even the memory
of sin. We begin with a sublime yet intimate invocation of Reality,
which plunges us at once into the very ground of the Universe and claims
kinship with the enfolding mystery. Abba, Father. The Infinite
God is the Father of my soul. We end by the abject confession of
our dependence and need of guidance: of a rescue and support coming to
our help right down in the jungle of life. Following the path of
the Word Incarnate, this prayer begins on the summits of spiritual experience
and comes steadily down from the Infinite to the finite, from the Spaceless
to the little space on which we stand. Here we find all the strange
mixed experience of man, over-ruled by the unchanging glory and charity