Although we do not like to admit it, even to ourselves, we still believe that prayer happens suddenly, or never happens at all. We kid ourselves that saints are born or created by an arbitrary decision of God who every now and then suddenly decides to top up humanity’s quota. This is a comforting idea that we harbour at the back of our minds because it absolves us from any serious effort to live in union with God.
An Alcoholic: A Picture of Us All
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 would come to a moment of decision that we might otherwise cowardly evade, drifting into a life of superficiality, merely existing on the surface of human experience. Often when an alcoholic hits ‘rock bottom’, they become serious about changing their lives by surrendering and dedicating their lives to God through hard work, by practising new habits.
A friend of mine made no secret of the fact that he was an alcoholic, although he had been ‘dry’ for five months. He was only twenty-six when I met him, but he had concertinaed the sufferings of a lifetime into a period of about five years. He had been through two marriages and was mixed up with a seedy set of degenerates who led him astray. In the end, he broke down under the strain of his lifestyle and took to the bottle. He used to drink between two and three bottles of whiskey a day. In desperation, he went to a local parish priest, who took him to Alcoholics Anonymous which he also attended. The leader of the centre told him there was nothing they could do for him until he reached ‘rock bottom’ and admitted to himself that he was an alcoholic, and absolutely helpless. Then they could step in and begin to help him to help himself. But, until he faced reality and made this admission, they could do nothing. The hardest part was waiting helplessly looking on until he reached the depths. He was given a pamphlet containing the twelve steps of recovering alcoholics. The first was to admit they were powerless to help themselves and their lives had become unmanageable. The second was to come to believe in a power greater than their own which could restore them to sanity. The third was to turn their lives over to God as they understood him. The other steps amplified these and emphasized the need to face up honestly to past faults and try make amends to those they had caused so much suffering.
Space and Time For Prayer
There can be no fresh start, no renewal in the life of any individual, group or community unless we are able 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, namely that we cannot go a single step forward without God. The Gospel does not say, ‘Without me, you will not be able to get very far.’ It says, ‘Without me, you can do nothing.’ Without me – nothing!
Which of us would belittle ourselves by going down on our knees to pray unless we are in need of help? Without the basic humility of the little child, we cannot even begin. This is why Jesus said it is as difficult for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God as it is for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. Jesus is not just referring to the person with a fat wallet or a big bank balance; he means people who are rich in natural gifts and abilities too, the person with brains or flair, with administrative skills or business insight, with charm or artistic brilliance. None of these riches are evil in themselves – far from it – but they all have the same danger. They can so easily give us a false impression of our own strength, our own importance and personal competence. Who needs God when money will give me all I want? Who needs God’s help when I can do it myself? Riches of any sort obscure the fundamental vision that we are basically weak and incapable of achieving anything lasting or worthwhile without God. We are totally dependent on him for everything. If we do not see this, we are blind, and we will stumble around for a lifetime and never find the right road, never mind enter the Kingdom.
Recognizing our Own Weakness
The recognition of our own weakness is the only way we will come to feel our utter need of God’s help. Building a life of prayer means turning our lifestyle upside down if needs be, to find the necessary daily time for prayer. Prayer is not just a luxury for priests or religious, or people who happen to have spare time on their hands. It is an absolute necessity for everyone who wants to plunge themselves effectively into the mystery of Christ’s life, to be drawn into the endless ecstasy of life and love that unceasingly surges out of the Son towards the Father. We are filled to the measure of our weakness by the Father’s richness. The more we are filled with his fullness, the more we are lifted up out of ourselves in a self-forgetfulness that enables us to pray properly for the first time. The more we are tangibly immersed in the mystery of God’s love, the more we begin to see that all prayer leads to praise, to give glory to him and to lose ourselves in his inexhaustible goodness.
The trouble is we do not believe this, except as a purely academic principle of theology that we scandalously disregard in our lives. We beat our breasts with a sponge, reach for a drink and nibbles, 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, find time to open ourselves to his healing power and urgently create space in our lives for prayer. The space and the time we find in our daily life 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. You might 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 studying French grammar, or tramping around the golf course. You would hardly meet a Christian, let alone a religious who would not say he or she desired to come closer to God, to become possessed by him and to build up a deeper prayer life. But how can this be believed until a person relentlessly practises prayer, day after day The desire is not enough, any more than are good intentions.
Learning to Pray needs Practice
Learning to pray, learning to open ourselves to God, 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, and 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 prayer is an exception, but believe me, it is not. Those who wish to succeed in a particular accomplishment have to give hours of time, even if they have flair or genius. Arthur Rubinstein, the concert pianist was arguably the greatest pianist of the last century and yet at the age of eighty-four he admitted that he needed to practise for six hours a day. In his prime, he practised for nine! Although he was a musical genius at the age of three, it took a lifetime to master the techniques necessary to facilitate and maintain the growth of that genius and to enable him to share it with others on the concert platform. The same could be said of hundreds of great artists, performers, athletes and people from all walks of life who reach the top of their particular branch of human achievement. What right have we to imagine that prayer is an exception to the rule. We are supposed to be dedicated to the mastery of the art of arts and at best we drift aimlessly along like half-baked amateurs dabbling in something that demands the full potential of the professional.
The Oasis will become a Fountain
If we are only prepared to give the same daily time to prayer that would be required to reach a fairly reputable standard on the piano, then, in time, our lives will be dramatically and irrevocably changed. We may start with ten minutes a day and gradually extend that period as we master the preliminaries. But as the months go by, the period will gradually extend so that in the end the problem will be to restrain rather than prescribe a minimum time. If all goes well, the prayer that starts and develops at set times ought to gradually filter through into the rest of the day. In the end, it will become co-extensive with all and everything we do. To begin with, the prayer period will be like a desert, dry, arid and barren. But it will eventually become an oasis in our lives that we cannot do without. However, that is not the end. It is only the beginning. In the end, the oasis will become a fountain that will well up and brim over to irrigate the whole of our lives, as ‘the prayer without ceasing’ transforms our daily spiritual lives enabling us to say with him, ‘It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me’.
David Torkington is the author of Wisdom from the Western Isles – The Making of a Mystic, Wisdom from The Christian Mystics – How to Pray the Christian Way and Wisdom from Franciscan Italy – The Primacy of Love. See www.davidtorkington.com