From “Beginning to Pray”
Let us think of our prayers, yours and mine; think of the warmth, the depth and intensity of your prayer when it concerns someone you love or something which matters to your life. Then your heart is open, all your inner self is recollected in the prayer. Does it mean that God matters to you? No, it does not. It simply means that the subject matter of your prayer matters to you. For when you have made your passionate, deep, intense prayer concerning the person you love or the situation that worries you, and you turn to the next item which does not matter so much, if you suddenly grow cold, what has changed? Has God grown cold? Has he gone? No, it means that all the elation, all the intensity in your prayer was not born of God’s presence, of your faith in him, of your longing for him, of your awareness of him; it was born of nothing but your concern for the subject of your prayer, not for God. How can we feel surprised, then, that this absence of God affects us? It is we who make ourselves absent, it is we who grow cold the moment we are no longer concerned with God. Why? Because he does not matter so much.
There are other ways too in which God is “absent.” As long as we ourselves are real, as long as we are truly ourselves, God can be present and can do something with us. But the moment we try to be what we are not, there is nothing left to say or have; we become a ﬁctitious personality, an unreal presence, and this unreal presence cannot be approached by God.
In order to be able to pray, we must be within the situation which is defined as the kingdom of God. We must recognise that he is God, that he is king, we must surrender to him. We must at least be concerned with his will, even if we are not yet capable of fulfilling it. But if we are not, if we treat God like the rich young man who could not follow Christ because he was too rich, then how can we meet him? So often what we would like to have through prayer, through the deep relationship with God which we long for, is simply another period of happiness; we are not prepared to sell all that we have in order to buy the pearl of great price. Then how should we get this pearl of great price? Is that what we expect to get? Is it not the same as in human relationships: when a man or a woman experiences love for another, other people no longer matter in the same way.
To put it in a short formula from the ancient world, “When a man has a bride, he is no longer surrounded by men and women, but by people.”
Isn’t that what could, what should happen with regard to all our riches when we turn to God? Surely they should become pale and grey, just a general background against which the only figure that matters would appear in intense relief? We would like just one touch of heavenly blue in the general picture of our life, in which there are so many dark sides. God is prepared to be outside it, he is prepared to take it up completely as a cross, but he is not prepared to be simply part of our life.
So when we think of the absence of God, is it not worthwhile to ask ourselves whom we blame for it? We always blame God, we always accuse him, either straight to his face or in front of people, of being absent, of never being there when he is needed, never answering when he is addressed.
At times we are more “pious” (very much in inverted commas), and we say piously “God is testing my patience, my faith, my humility.”
We find all sorts of ways of turning God’s judgment on us into a new way of praising ourselves. We are so patient that we can put up even with God!
What we must start with, if we wish to pray, is the certainty that we are sinners in need of salvation, that we are cut off from God and that we cannot live without him and that all we can offer God is our desperate longing to be made such that God will receive us, receive us in repentance, receive us with mercy and with love. And so from the outset prayer is really our humble ascent towards God, a moment when we turn Godwards, shy of coming near, knowing that if we meet him too soon, before his grace has had time to help us to be capable of meeting him, it will be judgment. And all we can do is to turn to him with all the reverence, all the veneration, the worshipful adoration, the fear of God of which we are capable, with all the attention and earnestness which we may possess, and ask him to do something with us that will make us capable of meeting him face to face, not for judgment, nor for condemnation, but for eternal life.