May 22, 2009

Holy Spirit and the Gift of Prayer

Prayer is meant to be a heart to heart - my heart with the heart of Christ in the heart of the Church. It involves intense thinking and even more intense affectivity, at once very personal and extremely interpersonal. To enter the heart of God is a journey that takes us into our own hearts and the hearts of all those whom the Lord loves. In the beginning, imagination, thought, feeling and intuition are helpful aids. But as we go deeper, anything we can naturally do falls silent. In the stillness of our weakness, limits and imperfections, we discover a divine power at work. It is not the kind of thing we can generate by willing it. Rather, our job is to accept it as a gift. It is the unfolding of the greatest gift of all - the Gift of the Holy Spirit Jesus promises to lavish on those He loves.

Sometimes prayer is approached as an intellectual exercise - I try to force myself to think pious thoughts or at least those kinds of thoughts that people say I ought to think when I pray. I tried to do this and it is a very dry, disatisfying experience. It seems to me that many people give up on prayer because they think that this is all there is. While it is true that thinking can be important for prayer -- thinking without heart is just cold.

On the other hand, emotive prayer not rooted in the truth is a betrayal of the heart. If prayer is just emotion stirred by prosaic associations, we have not really gone beyond ourselves and into the heart of God. Instead, however good we might feel, we are locked in the merely therapeutic. Yes, St. Bernard might concede that in such prayer we love ourselves for our own sakes and we might even be able to love God for our own sakes. But this prayer does not lead us to love God or ourselves for God's own sake. It is not really a heart to heart.

The fact is that prayer is not a matter of simply thinking or feeling - it reaches out for something greater than these limited activities can achieve on their own. This is because the truth is more than mere thought and affection. But prayer can produce beautiful thoughts profoundly beyond the power of any natural intellect to comprehend and stir affections so deep that there are no words that can express them. This is what happens when prayer is a heart to heart with the Living God. He not only wants us to share our thoughts with Him, but He wants to share His divine thoughts with us. He not only suffers with us our own misery, but when we are ready He yearns to share that for which His Heart aches.

The psalms witness to this kind of prayer. Whenever they are prayed, they are a living testimony to the heart of God. St. Anthanasius insists that the psalms teach us how to feel in the same way the rest of the Scriptures teach us how to think. This is because God has chosen to reveal Himself: what He thinks, feels and lives. But he not only wants to share his affection and thoughts, He yearns that we let His divine thoughts and the movements of his heart to transform the way we see Him, ourselves and the whole world around us.

This is why prayer is so vital for the Christian life. As long as we are limited by merely human concerns and natural ways of seeing things, we lack the vision and strength to live out the will of God. But when we grow in prayer and familiarize ourselves with the priorities of God's heart, a supernatural power is communicated to us and we participate in his very life through faith. This experience is described in so many beautiful ways by those who have plummeted the depths of prayer. John van Ruusbroeck describes this as "the divine impact", John of the Cross describes a joyful discovery of the reflection of the Bridegroom, and Elisabeth of the Trinity speaks of a simple and loving movement. The source of such prayer is not our own creaturely activity - it is actually produced in us by the gift promised to us by Christ before He ascended into our heavenly homeland. Jesus constantly pours out his heart to the Father that we might recieve this the Gift of the Holy Spirit. The Father never ceases to answer the prayer of His Son by sending the Holy Spirit always anew into the hearts of those who believe in Jesus. The divine counselor is come upon us who constantly teaches us all things, who St. Paul says actually prays inside our hearts with "sighs too deep for words" This Advocate ushers us into our true homeland: communion with the Holy Trinity available to us right now in this present moment which is eternity "begun and still in progress."

The gift of this kind of prayer is what was lavished on the Church at Pentecost. The Holy Spirit is constantly coming to us in new and unexpected ways - inebriating us in the love of God. He never ceases to reveal the depths of Christ heart to those who are open to his interior promptings. All that is required of us is what has always been required of those who want to know the living God - an open and obedient heart, ever ready to respond, "Let it be done to me according to your word."