From “The Soul of Prayer”
by P. T. Forsyth, 1848–1921
We touch the last reality directly in prayer. And we do this not by thought’s natural research, yet by a quest not less laborious. Prayer is the atmosphere of revelation, in the strict and central sense of that word. It is the climate in which God’s manifestation bursts open into inspiration. All the mediation of nature and of things sinks here to the rear, and we are left with God in Christ as his own mediator and his own revealer. He is directly with us and in us. We transcend there two thousand years as if they were but one day. By his Spirit and his Spirit’s creative miracle God becomes himself our new nature, which is yet our own, our destined nature; for we were made with his image for our “doom of greatness.” It is no mere case of education or evolution drawing out our best. Prayer has a creative action in its answer. It does more than present us with our true, deep, latent selves. It lays hold on God, and God is not simply our magnified self. Our other self is, in prayer, our creator still creating. Our maker it is that is our husband. He is another. We feel, the more we are united with him in true prayer, the deep, close difference, the intimate otherness in true love. Otherwise, prayer becomes mere dreaming; it is spiritual extemporising and not converse. The division runs not simply between us and nature, but it parts us within our spiritual self, where union is most close. It is a spiritual distinction, like the distinction of Father and Son in heaven. But nature itself, our natural selves, are involved in it; because nature for the Christian is implicated in redemption. It “arrives.” It is read in a new script. The soul’s conflict is found in a prelude in it. This may disturb our pagan joy. It may quench the consolations of nature. The ancient world could take refuge in nature as we cannot. It could escape there from conscience in a way impossible to us because for us body runs up into soul, and nature has become organic with spirit, an arena and even (in human nature) an experience of God’s will. It groans to come to itself in the sons of God. Redemption is cosmic. We do not evade God’s judgment there and we put questions about his equity there which did not trouble the Greek. If we take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the earth, God still besets us behind and before. We still feel the collision of past and future, of conduct and conscience. If we try to escape from his presence there, we fail; the winds are his messengers, the fires his ministers, wars and convulsions instruments of his purpose. He is always confronting us, judging us, saving us in a spiritual world, which nature does not stifle, but only makes it more universal and impressive than our personal strife. In nature, our vis-a-vis is still the same power we meet as God in our soul.
“The voice that rolls the stars along
speaks all his promises.”
Our own natural instincts turn our scourges, but also our blessings, according as they mock God or serve him. So nature becomes our chaperone for Christ, our tutor whose duty is daily to deliver us at Christ’s door. It opens out into a Christ whose place and action are not historic only, but also cosmic. The cosmic place of Christ in the later epistles is not apostolic fantasy, extravagant speculation, nor groundless theosophy. It is the ripeness of practical faith, faith which by action comes to itself and to its own.
Especially is this pointed where faith has its most pointed action as prayer. If cosmic nature runs up into man, man rises up into prayer; which thus fulfils nature, brings its inner truth to pass, and crowns its bias to spirit. Prayer is seen to be the opening secret of creation, its destiny, that to which it all travails. It is the burden of evolution. The earnest expectation of the creation waits, and all its onward thrust works, for the manifestation of the sons of God. Nature comes to itself in prayer. Prayer realises and brings to a head the truth of nature, which groans being burdened with the passion of its deliverance, its relief in prayer.
“Magna ars est conversari cum Deo.”
(The art of prayer is nature gone to heaven)
We become in prayer nature’s true artists (if we may so say), the vehicles of its finest and inmost passion. And we are also its true priests, the organs of its inner commerce with God, where the Spirit immanent in the world meets the Spirit transcendent in obedient worship. The sum of things for ever speaking is heard in heaven to pray without ceasing. It is speaking not only to us but in us to God. Soliloquy here is dialogue. In our prayer, God returns from his projection in nature to speak with himself. When we speak to God it is really the God who lives in us speaking through us to himself. His Spirit returns to him who gave it; and returns not void, but bearing our souls with him. The dialogue of grace is really the monologue of the divine nature in self-communing love. In prayer, therefore, we do true and final justice to the world. We give nature to itself. We make it say what it was charged to say. We make it find in thought and word its own soul. It comes to itself not in man but in the praying man, the man of Christian prayer. The Christian man at prayer is the secretary of creation’s praise. So prayer is the answer to nature’s quest, as God is the answer to prayer. It is the very nature of nature; which is thus miraculous or nothing at its core.
Here the friction vanishes, therefore, between prayer and natural law. Nature and all its plexus of law is not static, but dynamic. It is not interplay, but evolution. It has not only to move but to arrive. Its great motive power is not a mere instinct, but a destiny. Its system is not a machine, but a procession. It is dramatic. It has a close. Its ruling power is not what it rises from, but what it moves to. Its impulse is its goal imminent. All its laws are overruled by the comprehensive law of its destination. It tends to prayer. The laws of nature are not like iron. If they are fixed they are only fixed as the composition is fixed at H2O of the river which is so fluid and moving that I can use it at any time to bear me to its sea. They are fixed only in so far as makes reliable, and not fatal, to man’s spirit. Their nature is constant, but their function is not stiff. What is fixed in the river is the constancy of its fluidity.
“Still glides the stream, and shall for ever glide.”
The greatest law of Nature is thus its bias to God, its perfective urge to return to his rest. This comes to light chiefly in man’s gravitation to him, when his prodigal comes home to him. The forwardest creation comes to itself in our passion for God and in our finding of him in prayer. In prayer, therefore, we do not ask God to do things contrary to nature, though our request may seem contrary to sections of it which we take for the whole. We ask him to fulfil nature’s own prayer.
The atmosphere of prayer seems at first to be the direct contrary of all that goes with such words as practical or scientific. But what do we mean by practical at last but that which contributes to the end for which the world and mankind were made? The whole of history, as the practical life of the race, is working out the growth, the emancipation of the soul, the enrichment and fortifying of the human spirit. It is doing on the large scale what every active life is doing on the small; it is growing soul. There is no reality at last except soul, except personality. This alone has eternal meaning, power and value since this alone develops or hampers the eternal reality, the will of God. The universe has its being and its truth for a personality, but for one at last which transcends individual limits. To begin with the natural plane, our egoism constructs there a little world with a definite teleology converging on self, one which would subdue everybody and everything to the tributary to our common sensible self. On a more spiritual (yet not on the divine) plane, the race does the like with its colossal ego. It views and treats the universe as contributory to itself, to the corporate personality of the race. Nature is here for man, man perhaps for the superman. We are not here for the glory of God, but God is here for the aid and glory of man. But either way, all things are there to work together for personality and to run up into a free soul. Man’s practical success is then what makes for the enhancement of this ego, small or great. But, on the Christian plane, man himself, as part of a creation, has a meaning and an end; but it is in God; he does not return on himself. God is his endeavour and drift. God works in him; he is not just trying to get his own head out. But God is love. All the higher science of nature which is the milieu and the machinery that give the soul its bent to love and turn it out its true self in love. All the practice and science of the world is there, therefore, to reveal and realise love and love’s communion. It is all a stage, a scenery, a plot, for a denouement where beings mingle and each is enriched by all and all by each. It all goes to the music of that love which binds all things together in the cosmic dance and which makes each stage of each thing prophetic of its destined fullness only in a world so bound. So science itself is practical if prayer end and round all. It is the theory of a cosmic movement with prayer for its active end. And it is an ethical science, at last, it is a theology, if the Christian end is the real end of the whole world. All knowledge serves love and love’s communion. For Christian faith, a universe is a universe of souls, an organism of persons, which is the expression of an eternal will of love. This love is the real presence which gives meaning, and movement, and permanence to a fleeting world of sense. And it is by prayer that we come into close and conscious union with this universe and power of love, this living reality of things. Prayer (however miraculous) is, therefore, the most natural things in the world. It is the effectuation of all nature, which comes home to roost there and settles to its rest. It is the last word of all science, giving it contact with a reality which, as science alone, it cannot reach. And it is also the most practical things in all man’s action and history, as doing most to bring to pass the spiritual object for which all men and all things exist and strive.