What We Know to Be True

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life.

1John 1:1

The testimony of a first-hand experience of God is what is most needed in our witness to the world today.  Without the conviction that comes from a direct knowledge of God the most we can offer in the marketplace of spiritual ideas is one more belief system among many others.  What makes Christianity unique though, is that it is much more than a theory about the spiritual life.  It is a living relationship with the very Creator of that spiritual life.

Father Matta El-Meskeen, also known as Matthew the Poor, lived his life in the prayer-birthed experience of God.  Recognizing the importance of such a witness for the world, he moved as a young man to the Tunisian desert in order to more profoundly seek God for himself.  He believed that what he learned of God in the experience of his own life could become a light that testifies to the reality of this same possibility in others.  In his book The Orthodox Prayer Life, he speaks of his motivation he had for becoming a hermit.

So many books tell about Christ; so many preachers speak about Christ; but so few people live and speak with Christ.  What had attracted me to the solitary life and absorbed my mind was the idea that once I had found Christ this knowledge would be turned into prayer for the whole world.

More than a theology to believe in, the gospel is an action of the Holy Spirit that we observe from the vantage point of our own lives.  Prayer introduces us to the immediacy of God which then becomes the certainty from which we bear witness that such an experience is also possible for others.  It also becomes the motivation for our own continued pursuit of God.

There is a story of the desert fathers that wonderfully illustrates the tenacity that this first-hand experience produces in us.  One of Abba Hilarion’s disciples asked him a question about monks who give up on the spiritual quest.  The Abba replied with a story,

Consider the hunting dogs which chase after hares.  Imagine one of these dogs sees a hare in the distance and immediately gives chase.  The other dogs that are with him see this dog run off and take off after him, even though they have not seen the hare. They will continue running with him, but only for a time.  When at length the effort and struggle exhaust them, they give up the chase and turn back.  However the dog that saw the hare continues chasing it by himself. He does not allow the effort or struggle to hinder him from completing his long course. Nor does he allow the turning aside of the other dogs behind him to put him off. He goes on running until he has caught the hare he saw.

The way this story applies to the value of first-hand knowledge is obvious.  It also suggests the strong motivation that the experience of God provides for us to remain in the chase.  Because we are certain of what we have seen, even when we have lost sight of our target, we do not lose hope that it actually exists.

 

The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us.

1John 1:2

Losing Our Reflection

If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers;

John 15:6

“Without prayer, we lose sight of the meaning of our existence and the purpose of life.” So writes the desert hermit, Father Matta El-Meskeen. “We also risk losing the glory of our image,” he adds, “so that we no longer resemble God in the same way as when we pray.” The unknown author of The Cloud of Unknowing teaches similarly that, “If we neglect prayerful contemplation we will sink ever deeper into unawareness.” And Jesus also warns us, in His parable of the vine and branches, of the loss we will suffer if we do not remain attached to His love.

We all stray at times from the practice of prayer and there are many reasons why we do. But they all stem from a misplaced confidence in our own sufficiency. As Father Matta observes, “a person who does not pray is one who is content with their own condition.” Paradoxically, the withering that results from neglecting our prayerful dependence on God is what serves most to reveal the true poverty of our God-less existence. Concerning those who willfully or inadvertently stray from the vine, Father Matta writes,

Without their awareness, the ties that bind them to the earth and the flesh increase. Their ego remains the principle source of all their desires and ambitions. As for their relationship with Christ, it remains only superficial and outward. It has no real power to change or amend things.

Without the light of daily prayer we no longer grow in truth as we should, but are left unpruned and uncultured, like a wild olive branch. Since we are not turning the soil of our lives through prayer, our ground becomes fallow, and the progress of conversion stalls. As Father Matta writes,

The inward light of prayer exposes the blemishes and defects of our daily conduct. If a man does not pray, he can never be changed or renewed. And he who is not changed or renewed can have no genuine or effective relationship with Christ.

Jesus could not have made it easier for us to understand the dynamics of spiritual life. It is quite simple—if we do not remain in the vine we will wither. But the Lord also gave us hope that the opposite is equally true, “If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit” (Jn. 15:5). Through prayer, the meaning of our existence and purpose in life will be renewed daily. It will restore the imago dei within us so that our lives will more truthfully reflect the grace of God. And it will keep us in fruitful relationship with the love of Christ so that we will continue to be transformed in our conversion.

Prayerful Inquiry

(Noah) sent out a dove to see if the water had receded from the surface of the ground. But the dove could find nowhere to perch because there was water over all the surface of the earth; so it returned to Noah in the ark. He reached out his hand and took the dove and brought it back to himself in the ark.  He waited seven more days and again sent out the dove from the ark.  When the dove returned to him in the evening, there in its beak was a freshly plucked olive leaf! Then Noah knew that the water had receded from the earth.

Gen. 8:8-12

We don’t have to read very far in the Bible to see how the use of “go-betweens” in our relationship with God is an acceptable practice that the Lord Himself often seems to encourage.  By “go-betweens” I mean tangible aids in discerning God’s will through the interpretation of our circumstances, where these are offered as vocabulary for divine communication.

We read, for example, the famous story of Gideon’s fleece.  Gideon, in seeking assurance of God’s will, discerns according to whether the dew falls on his fleece or not that a certain action is what God would have him do (Judges 6).  We see this also in the book of Acts where the casting of lots is used as a means of choosing a new apostle to replace Judas.  Perhaps we’ve all set up similar transactions with God at times.  “If you do this Lord, I will take it as a sign that You are confirming Your will with me.”

Noah, as well, is versed in this language.  In the story of the deluge, Noah has been drifting for several weeks on an endless sea.  He has no way of knowing how much longer he will be confined to the ark.  Perhaps he is running out of food, space, or patience so he sends out a “fleece” in the form of a dove to see if there is any hope for change.  Is there land out there?  Is this journey nearing an end?  The dove, having found no place to rest, returns to the ark and Noah must accept that the answer is no.

Though the dove’s return is, undoubtedly, a disappointment, Noah sees it as only a temporary setback in his discernment process.  A week later, he sends the dove out again to search for land.  Such fleeces are a form of prayerful inquiry—a means of exploring, with God, possible alternatives to our present life.  As it was for Noah, they represent prayers of reconnaissance through which we seek clarity in the discernment of God’s will.  They are “soundings,” from which we await an echo of confirmation or assurance from God.

In querying his circumstance as he does, Noah models for us a valid form of prayerful inquiry whenever we are uncertain about the shape of our lives.  We too, at times, might consider putting “feelers” out in a certain direction just to see what the Lord might do (1Sam 14:6).   In what areas of your life do you find yourself longing for change—for the waters of your circumstances to recede and reveal new land to you?  What are the “doves” that you have sent out in search of possible places to land?  How do these serve as a vocabulary of hope in your relationship with God?  And what happens to your disposition when they return empty, or not at all?

Noah’s resolute faith serves as a helpful model for us when we too face disappointing yields.  It validates our persistent inquiries regarding God’s will for our lives.  It also models the hope we are encouraged to maintain until the waters of our unwanted circumstances have receded.  Our gentle, but persistent, probing into God’s purposes will feel much more empowering to us than sitting below deck and waiting for the ark to ground itself.

Standing In The Light

Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.    Heb. 4:13

The prologue of John’s gospel teaches us that the light of Christ shines on every person born (Jn 1:9).  And we will experience either comfort or discomfort depending on how we feel about what that light reveals.  As we open our lives to God, Christ’s light inevitably exposes more and more of who we are.  It is therefore important for us to consider the quality of faith we will need in order to continue presenting ourselves to its increasing scrutiny.

Already, in the dim light by which we presently see ourselves, we find ourselves often  resisting the implications of what is exposed.  Like our original parents we are quite adept at the art of misdirection—using whatever is at hand to conceal, even to ourselves, the uncomfortable truths of our being.  How much more will this be the case as the glare of God’s light increases?  How long will it take before we feel it necessary to reach for whatever fig leaves we can find to cover ourselves with?  How soon will we too cry out for the rocks to fall on us and hide us from the face of “Him who sees all” (Rev. 6:16)?  Long before God has occasion to pronounce judgment on us it is we who will more likely disqualify ourselves out of fear of the discrepancies that His light so clearly and indisputably reveals in us.

Such will be the natural response of all but the most arrogant and self-justified among us.  There are many of our race who rashly choose to dismiss God in order to justify themselves (Job 40:8).  They refuse to accept the conviction of the Holy Spirit that calls them to repent.  But for those who cannot deny the truth of what is revealed, rather than inspire diffidence, the reality of our sins can easily tempt us to dismiss ourselves long before God has had opportunity to address us.  It is a natural response to the fear of having our shadows brought to light.  As Jesus tells Nicodemus, we resist coming into the light because we do not want our deeds exposed ( John 3:20).

Left to ourselves, when confronted with negative truth, we will either cling to the lie of self-justification, or else we will disqualify ourselves long before we come to recognize the merciful intent of God’s exposing Light.  By presuming to be our own judges we will eclipse God’s mercy with our own self-judgment.

But there is another recourse, and that is the one offered through the accepted sacrifice of Christ.  To the degree that we believe Jesus’ words—that His blood is shed for the continual forgiveness of our sins (Mat. 26:28)—we will be confident to welcome His light, regardless of what it exposes of our poverty.  Though increasingly aware of the disqualifying truth it reveals in us, we will nevertheless boldly approach God in full confidence, not of our own merit, but that of Christ’s finished work on the cross.

Scripture gives us great assurance for such confidence in the fact that all authority to judge has been given to Jesus, who has expressly stated that His intention is not to condemn the world but to present us to Himself as without blemish (Jn 3:17, Eph. 5:27, Col. 1:22).  Our confidence rests solely on the grace of God.  In faith, we accept the sufficiency our Lord’s sacrifice and, in celebration of this truth, we join the chorus of those who praise God for the far-reaching atonement of His mercy.

That Which Distracts us From Prayer

Catch for us the foxes, the little foxes that ruin the vineyards
Song of Solomon 2:15

Distractions are a normal, through frustrating, part of our maturing ability to pray.  Eventually, we learn to ignore them—to realize that they are on the surface and that the place of prayer comes from a deeper place, in the temple of our hearts.  But we also grow in our assurances that the Lord is nevertheless working, encountering us at a deeper level in the soul, even through what is happening in our thoughts.

Thomas Green, in his book Drinking from the Dry Well, compares our unruly thoughts during prayer to children at an adult party.  He writes,

They don’t grasp what is going on between the adults (i.e. the soul and the Lord) and so they clamour for attention.  And the more we attend to them, the more demanding they become.  Like spoiled children they know they can get our attention by making noise.  On the other hand, if we ignore them they will eventually quiet down, since they learn that they won’t gain anything by their antics.

There will always be distractions in our prayers since our imaginations are always active.   Even when we sleep they fill our minds with data.  It is a natural process that we cannot stop by simply willing it so. But as we come more before the Lord, our thoughts become easier to ignore.  As Thomas Green writes, “As we cooperate with the stillness we are being invited to, the Lord tames and purifies our faculties of prayer.”

Teresa of Avila, in the fourth mansion of her Interior Castle, speaks of a “prayer of recollection” where the Lord Himself brings all the faculties to quiet and enables the pray-er to be totally centered on Him.  But this is a gift from God, which only comes to us occasionally.

Sometimes what we call distractions might actually be a dialogue in which the Lord is revealing, through our own thoughts, what He wishes to say or make known to us.  Green writes,

Our “distractions” are often related to the demands of our active life.  And they may well be inspirations from God concerning our choosing and acting.  The distinction we need to make in prayer is whether we are listening to the Lord or merely talking to ourselves.

If the objective of prayer is to bring all that takes place within us into relationship with the Lord, even our thoughts can serve as vehicles for this encounter.  If, however, our imagination sends us back to ourselves we have lost the basic intent of our prayer.  As Green says,

If I become all wrapped up in a discussion with myself about my problems and concerns—if the Lord is forgotten in the process—then these concerns are a distraction from our intent in prayer, which is to be with God.  But, if I bring these thoughts to the Lord and talk to him about them, then they are not really side trips.  They become the very substance of our encounter with Him.

The advice Green offers is that we first acknowledge our distractions and then intentionally translate them into the language of prayer.  He writes,

This is why I have not found it helpful to try to block out all the distractions in my prayer.  As I have learned over the years, it is better to begin the prayer by surfacing all my concerns, bringing them into the prayer and then handing them over to God saying, “Lord, these are my concerns as I come before you today.  If you wish to speak to me about them, fine.  But if not, let them pass away.”

Such an approach is a much more effective way of dealing with distractions than our struggling to stop them.  As we grow in our attraction to God we will find it easier to ignore whatever tempts us away from our first love.  In the meantime we are assured that God is sanctifying our prayer, and encouraging us always to choose the better focus for our attention.

Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.
Luke 10:42