During the first few years I spent in the choir of St. Mary’s Orthodox Church, I wrestled mightily with the intricacies of Byzantine chant. When I had a couple of other basses surrounding me I could follow along all right, but when I had to hold up the part on my own it was usually a disaster.
One Pentecost Sunday, facing a very complex hymnology, I began to panic when none of the other basses appeared. I was sure I was going to screw everything up. In my corner of the choir there is a big icon of St. Nicholas on my right, a much smaller one of St. John the Evangelist lower down and a large icon of St. Vladimir behind me. In the Eastern tradition an icon is a quasi-sacramental presence of what it representsso I looked at the three icons surrounding me, chose St. Nicholas and pleaded for help. A soft but clear voice came to me: You picked the wrong one, pal. I can’t sing for beans.
This was as close as I have ever come to a supernatural experienceand it is also pretty typical of the kind of relationship I have with God and his kingdom (in all fairness to St. Nicholas, another bass showed up during the second antiphon).
There are a few people I know who live in constant contact with the supernatural. They discover the hand of God in everything. All sorts of mysterious and wonderful things happen to them. They believe and they see, and I have no reason to doubt their authenticity. Such is not my lot, however. I usually have no clue as to what is going on and have given up trying to make sense out of it. I figure the best I can do is to roll with the punches more or less gracefully. There are many mansions in the house of the Father. I have the quiet conviction that God wants me to walk with him in twilight and poverty, in doubt and weakness, in communion with all those who find it difficult to believe and hope and pray, with those who are scandalized by his silence. My place is there with the poor, the ordinary guynot to preach or set an example but as a co-sufferer and partner in their obscurity.
The other day I received a pamphlet offering all sorts of books, cassettes and videos on meditation and contemplation, drawing upon different traditionsChristian, Jewish, Sufi, Hindu, Celtic (druidic) and others. All these time-tested techniques and theories certainly have their value for persons with the leisure and setting to put them into practice. I am not one of them. After a day of often hard and usually boring physical work I am pretty much wiped out, and any attempt to establish the silence recommended by the how-to books would be interrupted by snoring. I would like very much to get away to a monastery or a solitary place for a prolonged retreat, but that too is a luxury I cannot afford. So I have to do the best I can with what I have, trying to weave prayer into the texture of my daily life.
Psychologically my relationship with God varies. There are better days, when we seem to get along well. Occasionally I get mad at him. I get bored with God often. Sometimes I wonder if I have any relationship with him at all and whether this whole business is not one big illusion. This worm of disbelief lurks in the back of my mind. I know it is there, and I cannot ignore it no matter how hard I try.
The apparent inefficacy of our prayers does not help eithernot just my personal prayer but the prayers of the church and the prayers of Jesus himself while on earth. For two millennia we have been supplicating God for the coming of his kingdom and for our daily bread, for peace and unity; but we experience kingdoms of evil and famine, wars and divisions. He who promised that we could move mountains with the faith of a mustard seed remains silent in spite of the importunities and insistence of his children. It is almost as if they were given vipers instead of bread. There is no way of sugarcoating this. Karl Barth once wrote that disbelief should not be taken seriously. This is good advice. I try to follow it, though it is not easy.
In this context I have doubts about the reality of my so-called prayer life. It is one thing to have ideas about God and play intellectual games with them or have poetical intuitions concerning the mysteries of faith. It is quite another thing to be truly in relationship with the living God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. I am afraid that much of my contemplation is simply a monologue with myself. For one thing, there is far too much noise. I find myself scheming, organizing my life, watching myself live, imagining what could happen, what might happen. Other people populate my mind too, some beneficially, others less so. Is there, beneath all this, a zone of silence and simplicity open to the Immortal One? I honestly don’t know.
Near the end of his life, Charles de Foucauld wrote how everything had become difficult and painful for him, even to tell Jesus he loved him. He no longer felt anythingbut that, finally, was unimportant. When one wants to love God, one loves him and when one wants to love God above all things, one loves him above all things. I think the same can be said about prayer. Whatever might be our psychological predispositions at a given time, the desire to pray is in itself a prayer. There are so many factors, both inside and outside ourselves, that impede concentration and make sustained attention difficult. For instance, we are not always mindful of the theological virtues. The masters of the mystical life often stressed the importance of being ready to leave behind all our ideas of God, all our sentiments, in order to enter into the life of God in his thrice-holy mystery. And there is the whole weight of genetic sin, of inherited hang-ups and complexes: social sin, the hypocrisies and lies in which we live, breathe and have being; our personal sins, our cowardice, the habits we cannot shake, the vulnerabilities that just won’t go away; the mystery of evil which finds its complicities in us.
In the midst of all this, it is difficult to find points of reference. For my part, I have discovered nothing better than Foucauld’s simple truth, phrased a bit differently: When one desires to pray, one prays. When one desires that prayer be the center of one’s life, it is. In this I find a certain peace amid all the apparent difficulties and failures.
But how serious and authentic is this will to pray? Here I feel the need to translate it into something concrete and objective. My solution is not very original, nor what would be expected of a guy usually considered a wild-eyed radical. I have been reciting the Divine Office daily, come hell or high water, for the last 12 years in Latin, according to the Tridentine rubrics as reformed by Pius X. (That just happens to be the only breviary I have.) It is not just my prayer; it is the prayer of the church into which I enter. There is the old notion that the prayer of the church compensates for our personal distractions. This gives a setting to my day and is a constant reminder to renew my desire to pray. I do not pretend to hold this up as a method for anyone elsebut it works for me.
Helpful, too, has been my rediscovery ofand subsequent immersion inthe spirituality of the Eastern churches. On the one hand, the mysticism of the East has enabled me to see my own traditions in a new light and to discover things there I would not have imagined. And, on the flip side of the coin, my Western heritage allows me to appreciate better the riches of Orthodoxy. I thus have the best of both worlds. Being able to breathe with both lungs (as Pope John Paul II put it) has made a wonderful difference. It is a grace I wholeheartedly desire for the universal church.
When all is said and done, my prayer life is not for me to know or discern. St. Paul, in 1 Cor. 4:3-5, is very succinct: It matters little to me whether you or any human court pass judgment on me. I do not even pass judgment on myself. Mind you, I have nothing on my conscience, but that does not mean that I am declaring myself innocent. The Lord is the one to judge me, so stop passing judgment before the time of his return. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and manifest the intentions of hearts. At that time everyone will receive his praise from God.
I am not afraid of this judgment of Christ on the day of his revelation, for his judgment will be just and true, and I thirst for truth and justice. Surely I shall discover that his holiness is far greater than anything I could have imagined and that my nonconformity to his image is far more pathetic and tragic than I ever suspected. But I shall also discover the magnificence of his mercy, which surpasses all understanding and which I can only begin to measure by the illuminated realization of my misery. Jesus knows of what clay he has fashioned meand has promised that anyone who comes to him will not be cast out.