When Peter arrived from his island hermitage the following day, James Robinson immediately started to question him about the sort of time that we should be giving to prayer each day if we want to make significant progress in the spiritual life. As usual Peter begins by telling James a story.
I heard an interview on the radio given by Artur Rubinstein, the concert pianist, some years ago. Now here is a man who 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! Though, as he explained himself, it was discovered that he had musical genius at the age of three, yet it took him years of practice 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.
The Art of Arts
What right have we to imagine that learning to love, the single most important action upon which our whole happiness depends is an exception to the rule? It certainly is not. Our whole human completion and fulfilment depends more than anything else on mastering the ‘art of arts which is how to learn the self-sacrificial loving that gradually turns everything from black and white into technicolour. What was tedious and a drudgery without it, becomes a joy that permeates all we say and do with delight and delectation. It is in short the spiritual equivalent of the philosopher’s stone. Reaching the heights of achievement in any other form of human achievement might make us into world famous celebrities, fêted; and favoured wherever we go, but it does not guarantee happiness. In very many cases it sadly guarantees the opposite. Yet learning the selfless loving that enables us to go out of ourselves into another and receive their love in return always leads to happiness. Nor is this, the most perfect form of human action, open to the few but to all who have hearts to love with and the God-given grace to persevere in the most vital and virtuous action possible through thick and thin, through hell and high water. Yet it is the tragedy of human existence that so many drift aimlessly through life like half-baked amateurs, ignorant about the true meaning of life, only dabbling and therefore failing in what demands the full potential of the professional. I will concentrate on how the love of God is generated in prayer which is the central action in the spiritual life, because it is here that divine loving is learnt that should, not only accompany human loving, but help to sustain it and bring it to perfection.
Time to do what time was made for
Although we do not like to admit it, even to ourselves, 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 many of us harbour at the back of our minds because it absolves us from the serious effort that we must needs make in prayer. Not even God can force his love on anyone, but only on those who are prepared to show, by their daily endeavour that they are open and ready to receive it.
James interrupted Peter, asking him to clarify what seemed to be a crucial point.
“Can I try to pin you down on the point of time?” he asked, “Setting aside the question of content for the moment, just how much time a day do you think we ought to give to prayer?”
Peter thought for a moment, chewing the inside of his lower lip with his fine, well-preserved teeth. He then began to explain. That is a difficult one to answer, James. Take the example of a pianist. How long should a student practise every day in order to accomplish anything worthwhile, achieving the goal of playing the masterworks of the great composers? An hour a day might be severely overtaxing and put the pianist off the piano for life at the beginning. But after a year or two, it might be the minimum requirement merely to keep intact whatever has been learnt already. I am afraid it is one of those ‘it all depends’ questions. It depends on the individual case. There is no general rule. But one thing I can say: 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 a person rather than prescribe a minimum time. When a wholly new dimension of experience begins to unfold within under the influence of God’s love, the ultimate question will be how to balance the hours to spend in prayer with the obligations to others. Peter gave a rather sad smile, saying that there are few people who have this problem.
At this point James stopped Peter and asked. “Do you believe that as time goes on and prayer prospers, we ought to be able to pray for six hours a day like Artur Rubinstein, or even nine if possible?” Peter answered emphatically that he did not think so, but he then added with a twinkle in his eye, that we ought to be able to pray twelve hours a day, all day in fact, and every part of it. Peter did not wait for James to come back at him with the obvious misgivings that were leaping around in his mind. He immediately explained what he meant. With a fading grin, Peter explained that if all goes well, the prayer that starts and develops at set times ought to spread out gradually and filter through into the rest of the day.
The Prayer without ceasing
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. I do not mean that we will eventually be able to say prayers and fit in all sorts of aspirations whenever there is a breathing space in our day. I am talking about the far more profound prayer that ultimately becomes both consistent and commensurate with everything we do, namely contemplation. I would rather not explain myself further now because there isn’t time, and anyway I would like to explain a number of other things first. But I would like to return to this point later.
“I’m pleased you made that point,” James said, “because I thought for a moment that the ideal you were suggesting was to gradually extend the time set aside for formal prayer, so that it would become longer and longer as we progressed, so that ideally we would be on our knees for the greater part of the day.” Peter replied emphatically that if that is what God created us for, he would not have made us with such bony knees. He would not have needed to give us legs at all, nor arms for that matter. He could have economized all round and built us instead with fat, well-upholstered bottoms to sit on, and large heads with protruding foreheads with which to contemplate all day long.
Contemplation in Action
The idea that we can pray in the streets, on the train, while engaged in our work, while giving ourselves to others, is absolute bunk without the daily prayer of set times. Of course we would all like to be free to pray wherever and whenever we like, but freedom demands discipline. I would like to be free to play the piano whenever and whatever I like, but I am not able to do so because I refused to accept the discipline that my music teacher originally tried to impose upon me. I refused to keep up my regular practice. Artur Rubinstein was only able to play what he chose, when he chose, because he submitted himself to the discipline necessary to attain the full musical freedom that he desired. It is exactly the same with prayer. Of course, it is the ideal to have the facility to pray at will, no matter where we are, no matter what we are doing and as we are doing it, as becomes possible with contemplation. But it is totally impossible unless we accept the discipline required to learn to pray at set times and in specific circumstances. Freedom always demands discipline, and prayer is no exception. It is no good putting a child in a room for an hour a day and telling him or her to learn to play the piano with little music and virtually no instruction. One of the most shattering facts that has emerged from the hundreds of letters that I have received from all over the world is that ninety-five percent of religious and priests who write to me have never had any adequate instruction in prayer at all. I mean deep personal meditation and how it leads to contemplation.
Peter awkwardly dragged himself up off the ground preparing to deliver a parting remark. “But, believe me, there are signs everywhere to indicate that we are on the verge of a decisive breakthrough that will make Newman’s ‘New Spring’ look like a pale autumnal afternoon; of this I am absolutely convinced!”
It was a timely moment to stop for lunch.