Dear Donagh, Thanks for your website, I'm finding it a great help, especially some of the questions and answers. I got back an interest lately in praying. I hadn’t prayed really since I was a teenager, twenty years ago or more. I pick up things to read about it, but while I'm reading there’s always a doubt at the back of my mind. Isn’t praying the easy way out? Easy if it works, I mean. Is it even a bit childish like Ask your Dad, instead of doing it yourself? It’s something I want to ask the writer of every book and article I read on prayer. I hope you don’t mind me asking you. Thanks for everything. Lisa.
Dear Lisa, I appreciate your letter and I'm happy that you are asking that question. The question that is always there is the important one. A question, I always think, is like a door. If it’s wide open there’s no curiosity, no discovery. But a real question often seems like a closed door, and for that very reason we have to try it. Prayer is a mysterious attraction, and it is that same attraction that draws you to this door. We have to love our questions!
I hope my answer won't take away your question! That's the trouble with answers. A real answer, I imagine, would lead you deeper into your question. God is an ocean of Being, attracting us mysteriously. "If you would go to sea, embark on a river," wrote Mde Guyon, the 18th-century French mystic. Our questions are the river.
What do you think of this passage by W.B. Yeats? He was telling of an old man, Paddy Flynn of Ballisodare, who was a well-known figure on the streets of Dublin. “He was a great teller of tales,” wrote Yeats, “and unlike our common romancers, knew how to empty heaven, hell, and purgatory, faeryland and earth, to people his stories. He did not live in a shrunken world, but knew of no less ample circumstance than did Homer himself…. He was fond of telling how Columcille cheered up his mother. 'How are you to-day, mother?' said the saint. 'Worse,' replied the mother. 'May you be worse to-morrow,' said the saint. The next day Columcille came again, and exactly the same conversation took place, but the third day the mother said, 'Better, thank God.' And the saint replied, 'May you be better to-morrow.'”
Paddy Flynn would have made a stimulating spiritual director! He didn’t live in a prurient little world of psychological peeping and prying; he was a rag-man living in a world of many dimensions. He had to live by his wits and by God's Providence - both. We all should, I'm sure, but we won't until we have to. God will have to drag us out of our safe places.
Columcille’s responses to Paddy’s mother don’t seem very consoling. But he took her seriously! She should not make God accountable for her health; she was accountable for it herself. He was teaching her to live by her wits, just like her son Paddy. Our Faith proclaims that we are God's children; “God's children: that is what we are” (1 John 3:1). But when we hear the word ‘children’ we think immediately of young children. That is what we are not. A person could be sixty years old and still their parents’ ‘child’ in John’s sense. Our Faith doesn’t sponsor any childishness in adults. It really doesn’t, even though there are many in the Church who have no interest in urging us to an adult faith.
You are right to question whether praying for something is the easy way out. Over the Christian centuries there have been many perspectives on it. Here is yet another.
God is speaking to us through every creature; reality is our Father revealing himself to us. “Every creature is a word of God,” said Eckhart. God's word, God's voice, is not a flattering one; it breaks through our illusions and our selfishness. A thousand times a day, if we try to hear, it says yes and no to us. In this way of looking at it, God is answering our prayer every moment. But we cannot leave it at that. The engagement of a Christian with the realities of life is not an impersonal one. By the instinct of faith we bring our troubles and burdens to God our Father. We could hardly call him Father if we didn’t. Jesus didn’t only pray when he felt ecstatic; he prayed when he was in deep trouble. And he told us, “Ask the Father” (see John 16:23). This asking is not an alternative to engaging ourselves fully in the reality of what we are asking about. We might say, it is the depth of that engagement.
It is hard - maybe impossible - to get the balance right. St Augustine in the 5th century said, “Act as if everything depended on you, knowing that everything depends on God.” It’s not a clever formula, it doesn’t flatten out the question, as many answers do; it leaves it there as a living thing, three-dimensional. It is an instruction on how to go on, rather than an answer. Thomas Merton once said, “We are not meant to resolve all contradictions but to live with them….”
May you never lose the attraction, Lisa. Johann Tauler (a disciple of Meister Eckhart in the 14th century) said that the attraction to God was like the attraction of iron filings to a magnet, or like a hound catching the scent of a hare. Paddy himself would have been impressed!