I asked Peter what is needed to induce someone like me to start to pray and pray regularly. Peter continued from where we had left off that morning.
Above all, it is the realisation of your desperate need for the only love that can permanently help you. The more you experience this need, and the more acutely you become aware of what only God’s love can do for you, then the more readily and the more speedily will you turn to him. The most accurate translation of the first of the Beatitudes is not so much, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’, but rather, ‘Blessed are they who experience their need of God’. It is only these who will come to know and experience the infinite loving in which the Kingdom of Love consists, beginning even here and now in this life. There are many reasons why a person reads the scriptures, but as a prelude to Christian meditation, there is only one reason, and that is to come to know and love Jesus Christ personally. It is for this reason that we turn to the Gospels and most particularly to those passages that introduce us to the person of Jesus. It is this knowledge that leads to the love that will eventually lead to union with him, and through him with God the Father.
Introducing Anita Doyle
Peter suddenly stopped, cocked his head on one side, fixed his gaze and furrowed his brow as if he were trying to recall something relevant from the past. He then asked intently if I had ever met Anita Doyle who visited Barra from Edinburgh where I was living at the time. As I had never met her, Peter described the six months she stayed on Barra during which she made no secret of the fact that she was an alcoholic. She had been dry for about five months and at only twenty-six years when I met her, had concertinaed the sufferings of a lifetime into a period of about five years. She had been through two marriages and been mixed up with a seedy set of degenerates who led her astray. In the end she cracked up under the strain of her lifestyle and took to the bottle. She used to get through between two and three bottles of whisky a day. In desperation she went to a local parish priest, but he could not do much for her; she was in such a bad state. On one occasion, he took her along to Alcoholics Anonymous in the centre of the city, but she refused to go again, so even they could not help her. In the end, things came to a head when she threatened to denounce the priest to the police for sexually assaulting her if he did not buy her more drink. This seemed to be the last straw. She was brought up in a strict Irish home, so the way she behaved towards the priest shook her into the realization of how low she had sunk. She smashed every bottle she could lay her hands on and rushed off screaming for help to Alcoholics Anonymous.
The twelve steps for recovery
The leader of the centre came out to see her while she was convalescing on the island. He told me there was nothing they could do for anyone until they reached rock bottom, faced reality and admitted to themselves that they were alcoholics and absolutely helpless. Only then could a sponsor step in and begin to help them to help themselves. He gave me a pamphlet containing the twelve steps of a recovering alcoholic. I cannot remember them all, but the first three stand out clearly in my mind. Number one was that they had to admit they were powerless to help themselves, and that their lives had become unmanageable. Number two was that they had to come to believe in a power greater than their own which could restore them to sanity. And number three was they had to turn their lives over to God ‘as they understood him’. As far as I can remember, the other steps amplified these and emphasized the need to face up honestly to past faults and to make amends to those whom they had caused so much suffering. It struck me at the time that Anita’s predicament, the predicament of the alcoholic, is but a dramatic blown-up picture of us all. The fact that our perilous plight is not so obviously dramatic is a mixed blessing. If it were, it would at least force us without undue delay to see ourselves stripped naked of all falsity and pretension, to face stark reality. Then we may come to a moment of decision that we would otherwise evade, drifting into a life of superficiality
Without Me, nothing
There can be no fresh start, no renewal in the life of any individual, group or community, unless we are able first to see and admit our own inadequacy and past failures. Once we begin to see, to experience and to admit our weakness, then we can begin to appreciate the fundamental principle of the spiritual life, that we cannot go a single step forward without God, not a single step. The Gospel does not say, ‘Without me you will not be able to get very far.’ It says, ‘Without me you will go nowhere at all.’ ‘Without Me, nothing!’ Instead of pausing to let his point sink in, Peter continued instantly with hardly a pause for breath.
Let us be honest. We just do not believe this, except as a purely academic principle of theology that we scandalously disregard in our day-to-day lives. We beat our breasts with a sponge and slump down in front of the television. If we did believe it, then we would scream out for God’s help. We would go to him and find time to open ourselves to the healing power of his love in prayer that would be the daily source of our strength and consolation. The space and the time we find in our daily life for prayer is the practical sign of our sincere acceptance of our own weakness, and of our total belief in God’s power, which can alone help us.
Like everything else love must be learnt
After a moment’s silence I asked Peter if he believed that the actual time we devote to prayer is of vital importance. I asked, knowing it to be true, but also knowing it was another of those truths with which I had but a nodding acquaintance. Peter’s answer was emphatic. ‘But of course!’ He was anxious to continue, pleased that I had given him the opportunity to press home something he obviously felt very strongly about. He then spoke intimately but emphatically.
You may say you would like to be a concert pianist, or speak fluent French, or become a scratch golfer, but I will only believe you mean it when I see you practise for several hours a day. I will take you seriously when I see you hard at it, day after day on the piano, or swotting up on French grammar or tramping around the golf course in all weathers. You would hardly meet a Christian, let alone a Religious who would not say they desire to come closer to God, to build a deeper prayer life, to become possessed by him. However, I am not prepared to believe them until I see them relentlessly practising prayer day after day. The desire is not enough, any more than are good intentions.
Learning to love God in prayer, learning to open ourselves to receive his love is like anything else: it needs practice and it takes time. There is no accomplishment of any worth that I know of that you can attain merely by desiring to have it. We think nothing of spending hours a day and working for years to get a degree, pass an examination or attain certain qualifications. We quite rightly accept as a matter of course that the time we give and the energy we expend is necessary. Somehow we seem to think that learning to love is an exception, but believe me, it is not. Anybody who wants to get anywhere at all in their particular accomplishment has to give hours of time, even if they have flair or genius. Even in a relationship that begins with love at first sight, if this love is going to last for a lifetime and deepen as the years pass by, it means learning how to love day after day. What is true of human love is equally true of the love of God that is learnt in prayer.
True happiness is the by-product of selfless loving
The happiness and fulfillment that comes from an ever deepening union with the one we love, is always the by-product of giving of ourselves to and for them, with ever increasing selflessness. Exactly the same is true of loving God. Helen of Troy was the first person to be credited with saying that we have been made to love and to be loved, and our human fulfilment and happiness in this world depends on this love more than anything else. A thousand years later Jesus Christ of Nazareth said the same, but he introduced us to another love too, the love of God. This love not only helps us to generate and sustain human love and bring it to fulfillment in this life, but in the next life too. Like no other religion conceived before or after his coming, everything depends on love, the love that unites us with one another and the love that unites us to God. Both must grow, develop and come to fulfilment simultaneously. That is why every marriage depends on the selflessness that is learnt in prayer as well as the selflessness that is learnt in giving oneself to another day after day. The early Christians called this daily dying to self the Cross. This was the Cross they were called upon to take up if they would follow Christ. Practising this selflessness both inside and outside of prayer would lead then to ‘the prayer without ceasing’. Every time would become the time to act selflessly which is the essence of all love, whether it is learnt in a serious prayer life or in a serious married life. It was the quality of the love that was generated in their married lives, and the quality of love that was generated in their prayer life that was never seen before, that converted the ancient pagan world to a Christian world in such a short time. The same can happen again to-day if only we start speaking to the world, not in empty words, but in the love that can be seen made flesh and blood in all we say and do.
Before I had time to ask any questions, Peter was in his boat and on his way in less than two minutes. Why all the haste I thought? It was only later that I found out that he had a cow called Daisy that demanded to be milked every afternoon at five o’clock precisely.