Life as Prayer – Bishop David Walker
Posted by: Bishop David Walker
LIFE AS PRAYER
Bishop David Walker
“God is Spirit.” John iv. 24, (R.V., marg.)
“He is not far from each one of us: for in Him we live and move and have our being.”— ACTS xvii.27-8 (R.V.)
I am speaking to those who are bound together by the link of prayer, who seek communion with one another on an invisible plane and through a common surrender to an invisible love. And I wish to think with you a little about this binding link of prayer— this mysterious yet most real association of human spirits for the furthering of the purposes of God’s creative Spirit.
What, then, is Prayer? In a most general sense, it is the intercourse of our little human souls with God. Therefore it includes all the work done by God Himself through, in, and with the souls which are self-given to Him in prayer. God is Spirit; we, His children, are little spiritual creatures. He is not far from each one of us. His life indwells each person in this room; and the communion of our separate lives with that fontal love and life is prayer. Prayer, then, is a purely spiritual activity; and its real doer is God Himself, the one inciter and mover of our souls.
So, how are we to begin to think about this mysterious, and yet very practical, work of prayer which we are all trying in some way or degree to do? The first step, I suppose, is to try to reach a new and more vivid realization of the Holy Spirit of God— “God Himself as He is everywhere and in all things,” as St. Thomas Aquinas says—ceaselessly at work upon our small and half-grown spirits; creating, illuminating, restoring and spiritualizing us. Now, God’s creative and transforming action does not seem to work as something separate from the souls of men and women, but in and through those souls of men and women. ” We are not,” said Baron von Hugel, “to think of Spirit and spirit, God and the soul, as two separate entities. His Spirit works in closest association with ours.”
A real man or woman of prayer, then, should be a live wire, a link between God’s grace and the world that needs it. In so far as you have given your lives to God, you have offered yourselves, without conditions, as transmitters of His saving and enabling love: and the will and love, the emotional drive, which you thus consecrate to God’s purposes, can do actual work on supernatural levels for those for whom you arc called upon to pray. One human spirit can, by its prayer and love, touch and change another human spirit; it can take a soul and lift it into the atmosphere of God. This happens, and the fact that it happens is one of the most wonderful things in the Christian life. All your prayers, and far more than that, all your generous and loving desires, trials, sufferings, fatigues and renunciations—and of course there is no real life of prayer without all these—can avail for those persons and causes you seek to help. To all of them you are, or should be, agents or transmitters of the transforming, redeeming power of God; and the most real work you ever do should be that which you do secretly and alone.
The Christian fellowship, of which we are always hearing so much, is quite misunderstood, isn’t it? if we think of it merely in terms of outward religious contact. For the real and vital communion between souls is invisible and spiritual—so deeply buried that we can think of it as existing unbroken below the changeful surface of daily life. External contact is at best only the outward sign of a far more profound inward grace—that mysterious interpenetration of all living souls, which is the secret of the Communion of Saints. And the whole possibility of intercessory prayer seems based on this truth of spiritual communion—the fact that we are not separate little units, but deeply interconnected—so that all we do, feel and endure has a secret effect, radiating far beyond ourselves. This is a thought that should help us when outward contacts are difficult or discouraging, or when circumstances limit our apparent “scope.”
With some people this sympathetic contact with others actually reaches the conscious level. By their energy of love and pity they can enter and share the secret joys, needs, griefs and temptations of those with whom they are placed, can knowingly stand by and give them support, and literally bear the weight and suffering of their griefs, sins, and disease. We have all seen a little of this strange faculty in devoted mothers, devoted friends, and sometimes, too, in ministers of religion. In the saints it develops a marvellous vividness and power. That conscious stretching out of the soul may mean much suffering for those who can do it; but it also means a wonderful sense of close communion both with humanity and with God. Such people know for certain that when we pray we are never alone, but enter a vast spiritual society where genuine work is done. By their prayers they can deeply influence those with whom they are in contact. They can fight battles for them in secret, rescue, heal them and give them to God.
For the human soul is one of the instruments through which the “tranquil operations of His perpetual Providence” are performed. It is a living tool of the Holy Spirit which works in the world of prayer. All that it gains in its own secret life of adoration and communion it can and should give again to others in supernatural ways, thus becoming a real distributing centre of God’s creative power. Drop by drop the enabling power of grace comes to us, and keeps on coming, out of the treasuries of the Eternal World— comes to us in our prayers and communions and in every opportunity of patience and sacrifice—and we can rely absolutely on that unfailing supply, provided that we spend it all again generously in redemptive work for the world, and especially for those to whom we are linked in prayer.
What we call ” influence ” is just the faint outward expression, the crude hint, of one of the ways in which the soul can thus work in prayer. Influence is due to the fact that every living personality stretches out tentacles, as it were, to touch and penetrate surrounding personalities; and suggests the immense power which we can thus exercise. Even influence, then, is enough to prove that human souls are truly open to and affected by the moulding action of each other’s love and prayer—that they can take colour, and draw energy and peace, from the personalities among whom they are placed. So, no break with our regular experience is involved in the belief that the spiritual development of men is largely effected by God through those among whom He has placed them.
Each time you take a human soul with you into your prayer, you accept from God a piece of spiritual work with all its implications and with all its cost – a cost which may mean for you spiritual exhaustion and darkness, and may even include vicarious suffering, the Cross. In offering yourselves on such levels of prayer for the sake of others, you are offering to take your part in the mysterious activities of the spiritual world; to share the saving work of Christ. Each soul thus given to your care brings a need which it is your job to meet, and an opportunity which will never be repeated, a duty that no one else can fulfill.
Of course it is in the saints that we see this love, and this intercessory power, acting on highest levels arid effecting marvellous transformations. To learn what they did and do in their prayers is to realize what great untapped sources of power are all about us, ready for us to use if we will pay the price–lose our separate lives that we may find life. Consider such cases as those of St. Catherine of Siena, the young girl of the people whose spiritual transcendency transformed the ecclesiastical politics of her day, and who rescued countless sinners by her love and prayer: or the Cure d’Ars, the humble peasant priest who drew troubled souls from every corner of France and took on himself the burden of their sins; or Elizabeth Fry, going in the power of the Spirit to transform the awful life of the prisoners in Newgate Gaol. These, and countless others, make us realize how dreadfully shallow and careful, how ungenerous and untrusting our own little spiritual operations mostly are. Most of us do not really give our lives. At best we give a working day.
I am sure it was because the saints were so utterly uncalculating in their self-giving, cared for souls in such a divine way, and with such unmeasured love and eager acceptance of suffering, minded about people so much, that they did their great redeeming works of prayer. They show us that real intercession is not merely a petition but a piece of work, involving perfect, costly self-surrender to God for the work He wants done on other souls. Such great self-giving and great results may be their special privilege; still, they are showing us on a grand scale something which each cell of the Body of Christ has got to try to do on a small scale. They prove to us how closely and really all human spirits are connected—what we can do for one another if we only love enough—and how far-reaching is the power and responsibility of every Christian soul. We can only understand their experience by realizing that we are truly parts of a great spiritual organism. The Mystical Body of Christ is not an image, but a fact. We perpetually give and take from each other the indwelling Divine Life, and by our prayers, thoughts and actions affect all within our radius.
” All that you do,” said the great Cardinal Mercier in one of his pastoral letters, “for good or evil, either benefits or damages the whole society of souls. The humblest of souls in the most obscure situation Can, through the degree of virtue at which it lives and the work it is called to do, make its contribution to the general sanctification of the Church.”
If that is literally true, then how much more is it true that the man or woman of prayer can apply all those things to the special needs of the persons or causes that God has placed in his care: and how fragmentary and superficial our outward Christian work will be, unless this interior sacrificial work is going on all the time.
Whenever man’s love and man’s religion transcends the self-regarding stage and anchors itself on God, this sense that the soul is able to work and suffer for its fellows, and in some way share the eternal mystery of the Cross, seems to appear. I think none of us could deny that a strong redemptive and sacrificial element runs right through the best and deepest Christianity. The Christian religion is not just a beautiful system of ethics or a particular kind of belief about God. It is not only a devotion, however pure and loving, to the person of Christ. It does something to human nature which cannot be done in any other way. That sacrificial instinct so deeply planted in mankind, which finds such varied and strange expression as it follows the upward path of evolution—this it is which triumphs in the real inter- cessory life. Self-offering, loving, unconditional and courageous, is therefore the first requirement of true intercessory prayer. The interceding soul must be willing to go with our Lord to Gethsemane and Calvary, and share with Him the crushing weight of the world’s sin, disorder, disease.
That is a tremendous model to set before ourselves, isn’t it But, at any rate, it is a model that helps us most when we need it most. Just because it appeals to what is most heroic in us, it makes us glad and anxious to do such bits of this mysterious divine work as may fall to our share, whatever strain and renunciation they may require. We are here the assistants of that Good Shepherd who gives His life for the sheep.
Now, if we are thus to offer ourselves for and in those sick and helpless sheep, we shall not do it only by deliberately religious deeds and thoughts; for no one, without unhealthy strain, can keep all his deeds and thoughts on the religious level all the time. We shall do it as human beings as well as spiritual beings. That is, by more and more giving spiritual and intercessory value to all the acts and intentions of life, however homely, practical and simple; lifting that whole life, visible and invisible, on to the sacramental plane, turning it into prayer. As every thought and act of all its members really affects the whole spiritual society, so every thought and act of the intercessor can be entinctured with the special grace of his vocation; and really and secretly radiate to affect all those lives with which God has closely bound up his soul.
Therefore physical, mental and spiritual labour, with all the successes and failures, the difficulties, sufferings, demands on patience and humility that go with each kind, can all become the vehicles of our spiritual effectiveness; if every bit is given, by intention, for the good of those who are in our prayer. These things, which can all be the means of raising us towards God, must be the means of raising other souls at the same time. For the real worth of intercessions does not consist in the specific things we ask for or obtain, but in the channel offered by our love and sacrifice to the creative and redeeming love and will of God. We open a fresh path to His Spirit; make straight the way along which He reaches a needy soul, a struggling movement, or a desolate corner of life.
Perhaps the contact will be made through some act of loving service on our part. Perhaps it will be our disciplined spirit of joy and peace which reaches out to those who most deeply need that inner tranquillity. Perhaps the contact will not be made outwardly at all, but secretly in the world of prayer. However it may he made, it is essential to realize that here it is our privilege to minister the supernatural— God, in His richness and wonder; that He is coming through us to other souls in the way in which they can bear it best. The steadfast pressure of the Divine Energy and Love, felt at different levels and in different ways right through creation, is finding in us a special path of discharge.
Surely we need not be surprised if all this costs us a good deal; for real spiritual work taxes to the utmost the limited powers of the natural creature. It is using them on a fresh level, subjecting them to fresh strains. And this means that our preparation for it, if we are beginners, our maintenance in a fit condition for it if we are mature, is an important part of our religious life. It will not be managed merely by suitable reading, church attendance, prayer circles or anything of that kind; but only by faithful personal attention to God, constant and adoring recourse to Him, confident humble communion with Him. And the upkeep of this life-giving contact with the Eternal World, this secret intercourse with the living Christ, is a primary duty which we owe to those for whom we pray. The loving, enraptured vision of God, the limitless self-forgetful confidence in God, the generous desire to give without stint for His purposes – these are the sources of those intercessions which have power.
What quality, then, is it in us that can thus become the agent of the Divine creativity ? Not our intellects, however brilliant; not our faith, however clear and , not our active works, however zealous. We may lack all these; and yet through us God’s work may be done.
There is ultimately only one thing in us that can and will be used by God to carry His love and power from soul to soul, and that is the mysterious thing we call a consecrated personality. This is surely the lesson of the Incarnation a lesson repeated again and again in the history of the Church. Not what Christ did and said, but what He was and is, guarantees God to man, and brings God’s power to man. And similarly, on our own tiny scale, not what we say or do, but what we are, provides the medium through which God reaches those to whom we are sent. Thus we come back again, don’t we? to the point at which we began; that the first duty of the intercessor is communion with that Spirit in Whom our being is. Thus only we build up in ourselves a strong and pure spiritual life; thus we grow, sanctify ourselves for the sake of our work. It is for this work that we must keep the sense of wide horizons; our prayers will not escape religious pettiness unless we can do this. And it is for this that we must have spiritual food and fresh air, and receive in prayer the supernatural sunshine; not so much for the sake of its consoling warmth and light, as for the powerful but invisible chemical rays which give us spiritual vitality. We must keep ourselves sensitive to the Eternal, delicately responsive to God.
This is a thing, we know, which no human creature can achieve by its own anxious efforts. It is given from beyond ourselves; but given to those who look steadily in the right direction, and accept the inward discipline which is the only preparation of peace. Thus adoring, self-oblivious vision, confident and unbroken interior communion with God, secret and tranquil renunciation, remain our first duties; for these are the real source and support of the devoted energies of the true intercessor, and of all those who offer themselves for the furtherance of God’s work in the world of prayer. (Life as Prayer and Other Writings of Evelyn Underhill, Morehouse Publishing, Harrisburg 1991 54-63)