Once you admit that ‘prayer’ is merely the word we use to describe the practical way we go about allowing God’s love to enter into our lives, to change us, and through us others, then you have to admit that prayer is the most important thing in our lives.
Nothing is more important than God’s love, because only his love can change human beings decisively and permanently for the better. And if prayer is the only way we can radically open ourselves to that love, which it is, then you have to admit that it is simply the most important thing in our lives.
Our Lives Must be Radically Changed From Within
We may be brimming over with ideas and ideals for ourselves and for humanity, but something further is required if we are going to be more than merely armchair idealists. It is all very well to talk about caring for the deprived and the neglected, stamping out racial prejudice, serving and supporting the Third World, putting a stop to climate change, bringing about justice and peace for all, but it is all eye-wash, pie-in-the-sky unless people’s hearts are radically changed from within by God’s love. This is the only power that can change us, and prayer is the only direct means of conveying that love into our love, his loving into our loving, where they can merge and mix and become as one, making all things possible that were impossible before.
The point I am trying to make is that by and large, all of us know what we ought to do in our day-to-day relationships with others. Our main problem is that we do not do it. Our main problem is not with our heads, but with our hearts! It does not take a spiritual Einstein to name and analyze the perfect qualities that should characterize the ideal other-considering person, but that will not get us very far.
Books have been written trying to analyze the model moral behaviour of Jesus Christ, to put all his actions under a microscope so that we can examine in detail and in slow motion his exemplary dealings with others; but how will this help us to do the same? They may fill us with admiration and inspire us to follow – that is their strong point, but their weak point is that they never show us how!
We Must Allow God’s Love to Possess Us
But once God’s love has made us perfectly human, then perfect human behaviour follows as a matter of course. The Gospels show us how this happened in Christ’s life, and promise that it will happen in ours also if we only allow God’s love to possess us as it possessed Jesus. Our main concern is to be permeated by the love that was the mainspring of his every action; to be penetrated by the same Holy Spirit that was the source of all he said and did.
If you were asked to play the part of Shakespeare’s Henry V and bring him alive for your audience, you will not only have to learn the words he uses and the actions that he performs, but you must also study the man, get to know him, enter into him, come to love him, and then the same spirit who animated him will animate you. Then you will be able to play the part effectively because he will come alive again in you, and his spirit will animate you too from within. When this takes place, you will no longer need to work out artificial gestures and movements; they will happen naturally as if they were your own because they will be your own.
This is how St Paul imitated Jesus Christ so that he was eventually able to say, ‘I live – no it is no longer I who live – but Christ who lives in me’. This is a true imitation of Christ and is how we should imitate him too. This is why the Gospels invite us to do all in our power to allow the same Spirit who animated him to animate us too.
Authentic Christian spirituality then does not begin with a cold, calculated determination to acquire virtue after virtue, as an athlete acquires medal after medal, but with the full-blooded endeavour to facilitate the invasion of our lives by the same love that filled Jesus. When the self-same Spirit that animated every thought, word and deed of his begins to possess us, then the spiritual life has begun in earnest, and that same Holy Spirit will gradually become the principle of all we say and do.’
An Alcoholic Changes Her Life
Anita made no secret of the fact that she was an alcoholic, although she had been dry for about five months. She was only twenty-six when I met her, but she had concertinaed the sufferings of a lifetime into a period of 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 in Glasgow, but he couldn’t do much for her; she was too far gone. On one occasion, he took her along to Alcoholics Anonymous in the centre of the city, but she didn’t want to go again, so nothing could be done.
In the end, things came to a head when she threatened to denounce the priest to the police for sexually assaulting her if he refused to 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 just 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 leader of the centre came out to see her while she was convalescing on Barra. He told me there was nothing they could do for anyone until they became so bad that they reached rock bottom and admitted to themselves that they were alcoholics and were absolutely helpless. He gave me a pamphlet containing the twelve steps of a recovering alcoholic and the first three stand out clearly.
The Twelves Steps
Number one was that they had to admit they were powerless to help themselves, that alone their lives had become unmanageable. Number two- they had to come to believe in a power greater than their own which could restore them to sanity. And number three, they had to turn their lives over to God ‘as they understood him’. The remaining steps amplified these three and emphasized the need to face up honestly to past faults, trying 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 all of us. 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 of all falsity and pretension, to face stark reality. Then we may come to a moment of decision that we might otherwise evade, drifting into a life of superficiality, merely existing on the surface of human experience.
There can be no fresh start, no renewal in the life of any individual, group, or community unless firstly we are able to see and admit our own inadequacy and past failures. Once we begin to see, to experience and 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, 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 not get anywhere at all! Without Me, you will have no power to do anything.’
Something More is Required
Let us be honest. We 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, reach for a drink and slump down in front of the television. You see, if we did believe it, then we would scream out for God’s help; we would go to him; we would find the time to open ourselves to his healing power; we would urgently create space and time in our lives for prayer. 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.
You would hardly meet a Christian, who would not say they desired to come closer to God; to build up a deeper prayer life, to become possessed by him, so like St Paul they could say ‘it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me’.
However, I am not prepared to believe anyone until I see them relentlessly practising prayer day after day; the desire is not enough, any more than our good intentions. Every alcoholic desires to be better is full of good intentions, even high ideals, but something more is required. Something very much more. Now is the time to create space and time in your daily life to receive the only power that can change you decisively and permanently for the better before it is too late.