By comparison with fasting and almsgiving, I’m nervous about the topic of prayer. This isn’t because I think it isn’t important, or even because I don’t do it. Part of the problem is that writing about prayer is, in our culture, an exercise in putting oneself on display to an extent unparalleled even by writing about sex. One either enters the territory of the kind of spiritual Alan Partridges who slip the word ‘Jesus’ into every other sentence and can be seen sporting P.U.S.H. bracelets (Pray Until Something Happens, apparently), or else one discloses something uniquely personal. This last thought wouldn’t be entirely wrong were it not for the word ‘uniquely’, as though prayer were something solely between me and God, with the rest of the human race, or even the Church, not getting a look in. The personal is not the same as the private. But we can’t, or I should say I can’t, entirely escape the world that formed us, and so I feel uncomfortable writing about prayer.
More than this, there’s two ideas I find floating around whenever I try to articulate anything about prayer, both suggesting an inadequacy in my own practice. One, more often encountered amongst non-Catholics (the Christian Union from my student days spring to mind), tells me that prayer should be like talking to my friends, as informal and unforced as a chat in the pub. Well, it doesn’t feel very much like that when in the day’s first caffeine-lightened haze I thumb through a breviary. Another, ecumenical in its adherents, suggests that prayer is an inward, deeply profound business, hidden from the mass of humanity, and above all difficult. Thus the abundance of techniques and books about something called ‘spirituality’. In an unhealthily pious younger phase I tried, and failed, to learn some of these techniques.
Neither view is entirely wrong. After all, on the one hand, ‘I call you friends‘, and on the other, prayer would be difficult, were it not – considered as a technique, as something we might do, with a bit of practice – impossible.
Those friends in the pub are the same kind of thing as me. They are part of my world, sharing my concerns and my language. I can work on my friendships with them, learning about them, sharing myself with them, engaging in shared activities, and forming over time a common history. God, on the other hand, is not the same kind of thing as me, or any kind of thing. God does not inhabit the world, he is not one of the things I can encounter as a find my way around it. I certainly can, as human beings have down through history, believe that God exists and want to worship him or win his favour. There is nothing wrong with that, but it is neither friendship nor conversation. It remains true, of course, that God without whom I cannot exist is, in St Augustine’s phrase, closer to me than I am to myself. But that isn’t a basis for the kind of equal relationship that deserves the name ‘friendship’ and is a precondition for what Christians call ‘prayer’. I cannot be friends with the air I breathe.
And so it would have remained had God not shown us that his own life was a form of friendship, of loving exchange between the Father and the Son, in the Holy Spirit. He showed us this in the life of Jesus, in his relationship with the one he called Father, and his gift of the Spirit. Jesus was the first human being to pray, in the strict sense of that word, because in his prayer to the Father the eternal conversation of God’s being spoke in human words. In fact, there is an important sense in which Jesus’ prayer is the only prayer, the human prayer of the Son to the Father. We, the ones he calls his friends, come to share in that prayer. By our baptism we join the conversation.
Thus Herbert McCabe:
All our prayer, whether the Mass itself or those reflections from the Mass that we call our prayers, is a sharing in the sacrifice of Christ and therefore a sharing in the life of the Trinity, a sharing that is the Spirit. All our prayer is, in a very precise sense, in Spirit and in truth. For us to pray is for us to be taken over, possessed by the Holy Spirit which is the life of love between Father and Son.
The point he’s making in the piece from which this quote comes is that a customary dichotomy between (private) prayers and the Mass is an utter mistake. Prayer is first what happens when I gather with a bunch of people, young and old, earnest and distracted, late, irritating, and whatever else the Church in its wonderful mess might be, here is prayer, because here Christ prays sacrificially to the Father under the sacramental signs. So, in particular, prayer is never private, simply because it is only as one of us, the Body united to the Head, that I can pray at all, by participation in that one and only prayer.
We, or I (as one of us), continue this participation in what McCabe writes about as ‘the reflections that we call our prayers’. Like conversations with those pub friends these are more diverse in form than either of the characters from my first paragraph suppose. Friends meet together ritualistically (‘every first Saturday evening, see you there’), engage in idle asides, phone one another to ask for help, or to share good news, and sometimes deliberately mark out significant periods of time to spend together every once in a while. In a similar way we have the liturgy of the hours, the rosary and similar devotions, our informal prayers, and even those techniques.
And yet it’s never quite the same as those pub friendships. Our relationship to the Father is altogether more secure, founded as it is on utter self-giving love. It is, meanwhile, not comprehensible in the way my human friendships can sometimes be. I do not understand the divine life in which I participate; Aquinas says that we are united to God in this life ‘as to one unknown’. So even the mystery-merchants who glory in the fact that prayer is deep and difficult have a point. One suspects sometimes that such people consider this depth an unconditionally good thing, a sign of the praying person’s membership of a spiritual elite. This is to end the story prematurely: ‘For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.’ I do not yet know the nature of this uniquely wonderful friendship in which I share, and which grounds my very being. My unknowing, though, is not the destination but the journey.
So, I think, it’s probably good that I feel inadequate, and to an extent unsatisfied, by prayer. What we now call ‘prayer’ isn’t our ultimate destiny. Just as the Mass anticipates, even whilst making present, the banquet of the Kingdom, so our sharing at the moment in Christ’s prayer speaks of what will one day be, when he is all in all.