« PreviousContinue »
that we did not fully perceive. How long this deceit still hung about us! And though we began at last to be pain, fully aware of our blindness and lukewarmness, our wan: dering and distraction in the very act of praying, yet we never half suspected the right cause. For example, how many of us have felt it easier to maintain at least external reverence in public worship than in private prayer, partly because the eyes of others were upon us, and partly because our attention was stimulated by the devotions of others. When we have gone into our own private room, we have seemed to become altogether changed; our thoughts abroad, our affections cold, and our very body weary of kneeling. On the other hand, many people greatly distress themselves about their prayers : I do not say needlessly, for there is need enough; but their distress is often an obstruction rather than a help. They complain of indevotion, of inability to pray, or to fix their minds. It seems to them to be altogether unreal, and a sort of forced and artificial state of mind.
Now, it is of course impossible to lay down any laws in a matter so mysterious, and so nearly related to the inscrutable workings of the Spirit of God. It is indeed true that sometimes men converted late in life, or after great sins, or by sudden causes, exhibit a wondersul vividness of compunction and a fervent spirit of prayer. But these are exempt cases; and even they often subside afterwards into the condition in which the great majority of men are to be found. For the most part the habit of prayer keeps pace with, or but little outstrips, the habit of patience, meekness, humility, and the like; that is to say, it is matured with the maturing of the spiritual life. And indeed it seems plain that it must be so; for what are the springs of prayer but a sense of sinfulness, a desire of
abasement and of sanctification? But before these cap exist, the moral effects of past sins, by which the edge of the conscience has been blunted and the purity of the affections soiled, must be in part taken away. This is not the work of a day, but of a long season, often of years; and these hindrances must be borne as a deserved chastisement and humiliation. In this way even the matter of our distress becomes a wholesome discipline for our correction. We cannot, without long and persevering endeavors, iinitate our Lord in His prayers, any more than in His patience. We must be first, in some measure, conformed to Him in the perfections of His heavenly life, before our hearts can pour themselves out in fervent intercessions. The most perfect prayers are those of saints and of little children, because in both there is the same freedom from the hard, unconcerned, self-contemplative habit of mind which besets the common sort of Christians, and the same presence of awe, tenderness of conscience, simplicity, and truth. The very weakness of children has the same effect as the strength of saints. Children have not yet learned to know the world, and saints have renounced it, and both are free from its solicitations and intrusions.
2. There is another point to be considered. The spirit of
prayer is a direct gift from God. This great truth has been so abused by the fanaticism and self-delusion of unstable men, that others of a more chastened temper have recoiled into the opposite extreme. They confine it practically, though they would not say so, to the acts of our own minds. To pray is a high grace given to us from heaven. For prayer does not mean the ready utterance which flows from excitement of imagination, or fluency of speech, nor any of the mere intellectual powers with whic men have deceived others and themselves; but from the
depth of contrition and self-reproach, from earnest resolutions of self-chastisement, strong aspirations after perfect holiness and the bliss of fellowship with God. And all these are the gifts of that One Spirit which “ helpeth our infirmities : for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. And He that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because He maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God." After all our endeavors and
it is from Him that we must receive the grace of prayer. “I will pour out upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and of supplications: and they shall look on Me whom they have pierced.” It is in proportion as we receive clearer insight into the depth and ingratitude of sin, into the passion and love of Christ, that we shall learn to pray. “And they shall mourn for Him, as one mourneth for his only son, and shall be in bitterness for Him, as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn.”+
Prayer springs from compunction, and compunction from love to Him whom our sins have pierced ; and to perceive this is the gift of God, sometimes given early in the life of a penitent, but for the most part after years of fear and mortification ; for these perceptions are not emotions raised by our own efforts, nor can we by any intellectual process gain them, or create them for ourselves; they are insights and intuitions of the Spirit freely given from above, and passively received by those who, in truth and sincerity of heart, have diligently waited upon God in prayer. There are, indeed, higher revelations with which He favors those whom He will : but they are not to be * Rom. viii. 26, 27.
+ Zech. xii. 10. 11.-17.
expressed in words, nor to be understood, even if they could be uttcred; nor are they to be sought by us, being too excellent for us; nor to be contemplated and rested in, when given ; nor are they graces that are necessary for salvation, but gifts vouchsafed to few. And even they who receive thein have some counter-token to make such high endowments safe. He who was caught up into the third heaven, lest he should be “lifted up,” had also sent unto him “a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet him.” Let us therefore leave all, even our prayers, in God's hand. Let us not seek high things for ourselves, lest we should not be able to bear them; lest we should fall into the delusion of the enemy, and mistake heated and overstrained fancies for the realities of God's kingdom. To seek after high tokens of God's favor, is to pass a judgment on ourselves that we are such as may expect them, and could receive them in humility and in safety. But they who think so, plainly show that they are not such as could endure them without danger. Such things are rather for those who like Peter, when he saw the miracle of the fishes, said, “ Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord." Yet even he, after that, when he saw soinewhat of his Master's glory, talked of building three tabernacles, not knowing what he said.
Therefore let us be lowly even in our prayers; seeking to be real and sincere, conscious of our infinite spiritual wants, our manifold and exceeding imperfections. It is beyond all our deservings that we should be allowed to speak with Him at all. It is enough for us that we may “make our requests known unto God.” For all that remains let us trust ourselves in His hands. He will show us such things as it is good for us to see in this state of humiliation. Let us, like our Lord, withdraw ourselves at times not only
from the world, but from those dearest to us, from our closest friendships, and most intimate affections, that we may be alone with God. Let us learn how precious are solitary places, and hours when others are sleeping or away; in the night-season, or “a great while before day,” when the earth and heaven are still, and the busy world has not yet come abroad to trouble the creation of God.
And lastly, we may learn that, as the sacrifice of Christ is the one only effectual sacrifice, so is His the only true and all-prevailing prayer. All our prayers are accepted in His, which are the life and strength of all. The intercession of His Church goes up perpetually through Him unto His Father. In itself it is weak and imperfect: but He is the life of His mystical body; and in Him the prayers of saints, the aspirations of pure hearts, the mourning of the contrite, the confessions of penitents, the strong crying of the afflicted, the self-reproaches of convicted sinners, ascend as one intercession, as a sacrifice of a sweet-smelling savor to the throne of God. In the vision which St. John saw, an " angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel's hand."* This is He who "continueth ever,” and “ hath an unchangeable priesthood. Wherefore He is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by Him, seeing He ever liveth to make intercession for them.”+