May 6, 2009

When I Can no Longer Pray

“When I can no longer pray, I play!” Bl. Elisabeth of the Trinity

Blessed Elisabeth was a Carmelite nun who died in 1906 at the age of 26. Although one of the first to read the Story of a Soul by her contemporary Therese of Lisieux, Elisabeth differed from her older sister in several ways – one of which was her career as a pianist and witness as a lay person in the world before her entrance into Carmel.

In a certain sense, this childhood exclamation about playing piano when she could not pray indicates that prayer is never really impossible, it just takes different forms. Sometimes we just are not able to gather ourselves together to put our hearts into formal times of prayer. Then we offer what we can. If all we can offer is playing the piano – or whatever else is good, beautiful and true – this is exactly what pleases the Lord.

Prayer, music and spiritual growth were all closely related for Elisabeth. As a teenager, she was a recognized pianist who loved Tchaikovsky, Chopin and many other great composers. Someone asked her how she was able to be so composed in front of audiences at such an early age. She explained that all she did was turn her mind to God and the music flowed through her. This contemplative approach would characterize her whole life. Indeed, her writings have a musical quality about them – it was as if she continued to let this music flow even when she was not at the piano. It just took a new form.

When she could no longer play piano after entering the Carmelite monastery in Dijon, she focused on interior music, the music of the heart. She imagined her emotions and thoughts are like the strings of a harp. It takes effort to keep one strings in tune, but when one does, the Holy Spirit plays the most beautiful melodies, melodies she considered a real song of praise. For her, the purpose of the spiritual life is to become the praise of God’s glory, praise that takes up what she calls the great song, “canticum magnum.”

She asserts that this song is what Christ sung in his heart as he suffered on the Cross. Elisabeth learning to sing this song means completely drinking in the Father’s will. This goes beyond merely doing something external. It refers to a complete surrender of heart. Precisely because it involves the fullness of the his humanity, the music of Christ’s heart is a sacrifice of praise pleasing to the Father and at the same time, these interior movements are redemptive, bringing men and women back to God. Now, without God, such a song of the heart is impossible. But because we are joined to Christ by faith, the Lord’s song is our song. He himself gives us the music. Elisabeth’s contemplation of this interior movement of Christ stands behind her own petition inviting Jesus to come into her heart as “Adorer, Restorer, and as Savior.”

This sort of identification with Christ has roots in the writings of St. Paul who believed that he no longer lived his own life, but that even now Christ lives within him. The life of Christ is a life filled with the Holy Spirit, a life driven by grace-filled motives, by that divinely inspired desire to fulfill with every once of humanity one has the will of the Father. In the theological current of Elisabeth’s time, theologians insisted that through faith and the Holy Spirit, deep affections in the heart of Christ can be communicated into the heart of the believer in such a way that the believer and Jesus become of one mind and one heart. The music which flowed from the very heart of Christ was the same music that Elisabeth wanted to flow through her heart as well.

This stands in the face of the tendency of some to reduce the Christian life to the mere observance of a moral code. Catholic saints and mystics have consistently taught that living faith is the true font of Christian Charity. For them, interior likeness to Christ by grace precedes any true imitation of His life through our actions. In fact, without the grace of Christ, imitating Him is impossible.

It can be so very difficult to remain faithful to our dedication to the Lord and in our love for one another. Any effort will fail if we are only concerned about the externals and think we can be self-reliant. Imitation of Christ and faithfulness to the love He has called us to demands that we rely on Him alone. The interior life He alone can give informs not only how we relate to God and ourselves, but also how we are to live with others. Elisabeth herself would beg the Lord to come into her especially at those moments she felt weak and vulnerable, incapable of going on.

St. Paul was a great teacher for her on this point. His conviction that the strength of the Lord was sufficient, that this strength reaches perfection in our weakness gave her great hope. In his teachings, we are conformed to the Crucified God, the One who loves unto the end. Since the Lord loves in the face of abandonment, betrayal, anguish, and great thirst, so too can we also love and believe in love.

Sometimes it does indeed feel like prayer is impossible – but it is always possible. We just need to offer it in a different way. In those more distressing moments when God seems most absent, when it is most difficult to lift our hearts to him, we can still act and live believing that the power of his love is mysteriously at work, making all things new – even when we cannot understand how. So when one kind of prayer seems impossible, when we just do not know what to say or what to ask for – we can always offer ourselves in silence and in faith to Holy Spirit and let him play on our heart strings. This is the music of Christ’s song echoing through us for the glory of God and for those whom he has entrusted to our hearts.