Living Alone

Chapter 8

Prayer in Solitude

If, as A. N. Whitehead asserted, religion is what a man does with his solitariness, the view of life that is articulated in our thoughts and aspirations when we are completely alone reveals uncompromisingly our response to the reality of death and the nature of God. "As a man thinks in his heart, so is he" (Prov. 23.7); it is in the silence of aloneness that the heart's sincere utterance makes itself heard by the whole personality, for then its articulation is the motive force that informs the will and drives the person onwards. Jesus says that where our treasure is, there will be our heart also (Matt. 6.21). The deepest aspiration of the person indicates the seat of his emotional response and the core of his moral nature; the heart in this respect is that aspect of the total personality which responds emotionally to the springs of moral judgement that well up from the depths of the soul and infuse one's life with a meaning that transcends the ephemeral glitter of immediate gratification.

The one treasure that outlasts the changes of the present scene and survives the disillusionment and impoverishment of age is that eternal enlightenment whose source is God, From him alone issues inspiration that never dims, being everlastingly replenished by the power of his Spirit. Our solitariness reveals the true springs of action that energize us; it carries us through the outer distraction of surface life to the ultimate truth. This truth comprises two elements: our own intrinsic nothingness, and the seed of eternal life that lies deeply implanted within us. This seed is the Spirit of God in every man, Christ in us, the hope of a glory to come. Prayer is the way to the knowledge of that glory within which is to change the whole person into something of the stature of a perfect human being, seen in the likeness of Christ. Those of us who live on our own, unburdened by the demands on our time and emotional energy by the presence of others around us - and here I allude especially to the proximity of family commitments that can effectively consume all the time and inner serenity of those on whom constant imposition is made - have a responsibility as well as a heaven-sent opportunity to explore the inner world of the spirit by the action of prayer. It is our duty as well as our privilege to infuse the world around us with the radiance that follows prayer. Only thus can the Stygian darkness that envelops so much human action and understanding be lightened. If the inner eye of spiritual discernment could be cleared, we would at last see the power of God that sustains the world. Then we would begin to work in harmony with the divine presence instead of beating the air blindly in trying to achieve what we in our ignorance, see as our own best interests. As Psalm 127 reminds us: "Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders will have toiled in vain. Unless the Lord keeps watch over a city, in vain the watchman stands on guard. In vain you rise up early and go late to rest, toiling for the bread you eat; he supplies the need of those he likes" (verses 1-2). Prayer is our reaching out to God as well as our response to him whereby he and we, working in unity, can build that house which is at once the inner chamber within the soul of each one of us and also the edifice of the world. Prayer is the way in which we stand perpetual watch over the world in the presence of God. It is the communion of the soul with God in which the mind ascends to the divine presence and is filled with good things, even tidings of eternal life.

The prerequisite for prayer is silence. As I have already indicated, silence is mandatory before we can listen to another person speak to us, not only with his voice but, even more significantly, with the whole personality that flows out from him as a psychic emanation. Once we have grasped the message by hearing, seeing and feeling, and integrated it into a composite whole by the combined power of intellect and intuition, we can begin to communicate at a deep level with the other person. In the same way when I am silent before God in contemplation, which is the deepest, most formless most intense mode of meditation, I can begin to converse spontaneously with him and listen to what he is telling me. We know that silence in the secret place where we are alone to ourselves, where, in the depths of the soul, a communion with God is eternally celebrated. When we are still to the clamour of the world outside and the mind within, when no further noise or images impinge themselves upon us, when distractions cease to hammer on the door of consciousness, a silence descends on us that is a true balm to the soul: it is no negative void but rather the impulse of a positive wave of love that pervades the whole personality and lifts it spiritually to a new revelation of meaning and purpose. This radiation is of God and reminds us of our divine origin and our sacred purpose, which is to return to God with all the material universe that we have lifted up to him in selfless service. That service is consummated in love that God has showered on us, and we, in our turn, give back to him with the impress of our own devotion and sacrifice that charges the love of God with our own dedication.

"Blessed art thou, Lord God of our father Israel, from of old and for ever. Thine, O Lord, is the greatness, the power, the glory, the splendour, and the majesty; for everything in heaven and on earth is thine" (I Chron. 29.10-11). Indeed, whatever we choose to give God is his own already, and yet we give him something more whenever we give in thanks and praise. We give ourselves renewed in his love and consecrated by our strengthened wills.

Prayer in solitude starts when the silence of wonder descends on us when, during the sacrament of the present moment, we are lifted above the turmoil of the world around us and see, with supersensual vision, the timeless peace that lies at the centre of the whirl of constant agitation which we call mortal life. This descent of the heavenly silence comes unsolicited as an act of pure grace from God, but, as we grow into spiritual maturity, so we are able to call upon that silence with increasing assurance and be filled with peace whenever the clamour of mundane chaos threatens our composure. We cannot create the silence, which is of God, but we can call upon God in prayer, and his free gift is made immediately available to us. This is, in essence, the way of prayer in solitude: a calling upon the name of God in silence and waiting in calm assurance for his response. This response is a deeper, heavenly peace in which the shattering silence of eternity breaks upon the secret place within and informs it of a meaning beyond articulate formulation. Just as we can communicate with greater ease with one another when we know the other better, so we are able to speak to God in the depths of self-knowledge when we are more open to the silence of his presence during the course of each moment in time.

Prayer in solitude is a spontaneous, heartfelt giving of oneself to God in the silence of the moment. This silence sustains the vortex of clamour and activity that both punctuate each moment and shatter its sanctity into fragments of disorder and chaos. But when the silence that lies at the heart of activity is touched and blessed, the outer activity ceases to be destructive. Instead it becomes a dedicated act of the world to God, and everything about it is lifted up from mortal transience to eternal glory, from death to immortality. Thus it comes about that the heart of prayer is communion with God now, when we are engaged in our present toil. Then it can be raised up in dedication to him, and our work too can find its place in the fabric of the temple on high that is not made with hands but is part of the eternal abode God has destined for all his creatures. The plan of the temple of eternal life is in the mind of God, but the units of its structure depend on the contribution made by God's creatures. Each thought plays its part in the eternal world that is our destined home when we have, in the company of Christ, helped to raise up that which was mortal to immortality, that which was chaotic to perfect order.

Thus prayer is a ceaseless dialogue between the soul and God. Its ground is contemplation, a rapt worship in silence of God who reveals himself to us as love, and its response is praise. The praise that issues without restraint from the lips of the one who prays is a spontaneous acclamation of the glory of God. In the words of the Gloria, "Glory be to God on high and in earth peace, goodwill towards men. We praise you, we bless you, we worship you, we glorify you, we give thanks to you for your great glory." The praise is no fulsome flattery aimed at pleasing, placating or frankly bribing God, as is sometimes believed by those who are uninformed about the spiritual life. It is an uninhibited utterance of joy that creation is as it is, and its Author, though beyond description, is nevertheless available to commune personally with the individual soul. We praise God for himself alone, and for what he has done in the redemption and sanctification of his creation by the incarnation of Christ and the down-pouring of the Holy Spirit. And then we utter the prayer of thanksgiving for the munificence of God in our own lives. Whereas praise is directed to God alone, thanksgiving brings in our own gratitude for what he has done for us personally. It is a response of the soul to its own healing in God. This constant praise and thanksgiving issues from the aware soul at all seasons of its life. It knows that the sufferings of the present time bear no comparison with the splendour, as yet unrevealed, which is in store for us all (Rom. 8.18), that nothing in death or life, in the realm of spirits or superhuman powers, in the world as it is or the world as it shall be, in the forces of the universe, in heights or depths, indeed nothing in all creation, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8.38-39).

This is the dialogue of the unburdened soul with God: unceasing acclamation which issues forth in paeans of praise and thanksgiving. When God is the centre of our thoughts, we cease to be alone, and instead become a focus of healing that draws in an ever-mounting procession of people who need spiritual assistance. And once again prayer is the only authentic way in which assistance can be directed to those who are in need, because it is the Holy Spirit in us that directs the work and not our own unaided, arrogant minds.

But what do we actually say to God in our solitude? In fact we say nothing to him until we have heard in hard attention what he has to tell us. It is a well-known insight of the spiritual life that the foundation of prayer is God: Dame Julian of Norwich says that he is the "ground of our beseeching". He speaks to our inner self and through that inner self to the mind and emotions, when we are still and open to his discourse. The Holy Spirit speaks eternal truth to us in wordless conversation so that we begin to see the extent of our deficiency, the magnitude of our lack. Truth assails us when we are open to his dissecting logic and inexorable driving power. In the early stages of a person's prayer life this dialogue with God's Spirit, who leads him into all truth such as he can bear at any one time, usually takes place at a moment of desolation. When all outer support has been removed, one is open to the voice, still and small in intensity but uttering a shattering commentary on all one's past life and attitudes, that comes from on high. The futility of so much of our activities, the lack of self-control, the harm we do to those around us by thrusting our emotional burdens on them, the dishonesty of our basic attitudes and the duplicity that punctuates our relationships with other people come clearly into focus. At last we have to confront the truth of our condition: we are the authors of our own present unhappiness, and only a complete change in attitude can effect a change in our outer circumstances. It is salutary to remember that when we acknowledge this insufficiency, this selfish attitude to life, to God, we are not telling him anything he does not know. Jesus reminds us that he knows our needs long before we have put them into articulate formulation (Matt. 6.8), and therefore there is no need to repeat these needs vainly to him so that they may be better heard and acknowledged. Indeed, it is he who is telling us. When we can at last confront our own complicity in the deception of our lives and confess it openly to God, we are in fact telling ourselves in abject humility the extent of our lack of goodness.

In other words, when we make a confession to God, we are asserting in clear consciousness our guilt and inadequacy, so that nothing is kept hidden any longer. Once a frank confession is made, so that the whole personality is involved and the will activated, a change in attitude follows, and this is in due course accompanied by a commensurate change in one's life. The belief in the forgiveness of sins that plays a fundamental part in the Christian insight into the nature of God - and was made historically manifest once and for all in the atoning sacrifice of Christ - depends on our acceptance of God's grace that comes to us without reservation or qualification. Jesus tells us to knock in the full assurance that the door will be opened, to seek in the knowledge that we will find, to ask as an inevitable preliminary for the answer to come to us (Matt. 7.7). But we must play our part in this transaction by asking, seeking and knocking. In terms of the forgiveness of sins this means that when we make our confession we must vow ourselves to spare no effort to lead a new life in the future. The proof that a sin has been forgiven lies in its future disappearance from our lives; when sin is forgiven, we sin no more. One must qualify this radical statement with the observation that the healing of the personality is seldom instantaneous, and there may well be future relapses despite the most sincere intentions of goodness and selflessness. But each relapse brings with it a more alert awareness of the fall from grace, a more rapid confession and a more complete restoration of inner integrity as time goes on. This gradual journey towards sanctification seems to be right not only in terms of the slow process of organic growth that God has ordered for his world and the creatures that inhabit it, but also because relapses humble us and make us more compassionate towards our fellow men. Eventually we may begin to grasp the depth of Jesus' command that we should not judge or condemn other people (Matt. 7.1-2), for in doing this we judge and condemn ourselves. We are indeed all members one of another, and no one can ascend to any considerable height on the spiritual ladder without taking his brothers along with him. Our own slow progress is a measure of the darkness of the world around us, and even if we grow to a small degree of inner sanctity we are helping to lighten the burden of those with whom we come into fellowship in our everyday activities. We attain a greater degree of sanctity when we carry out our daily duties unselfconsciously and with concern for other people than when we strive consciously for holiness. In such an approach to spirituality we resemble far too closely for comfort the Pharisee, who in Jesus' central parable was further from a proper relationship with God than was the despised tax-gatherer (Luke 18.9-14).

A confession to God about our sinful attitudes and actions leads inevitably to a prayer of petition that the deficiencies in our character may be healed, and that we may grow in love and service to our fellow men. Again to ask is to be heard by God - since he is the source of our petition - but we must play our part in the transaction. We have already quoted the opening verse of Psalm 127 to the effect that God is the source of all building and watching; nevertheless no house is built on prayer if it remains unconsummated by human dedication, sweat and toil. Edifices do not materialize from the heavens; they arise from the earth by the slow labour of men, who consecrate their souls and bodies to the work of planning and construction. Faith precedes good works, inasmuch as works which proceed from the human will without the prior enlightenment that comes from God are never totally good. As St Paul reminds us:

When I want to do the right, only the wrong is within my reach. In my inmost self I delight in the law of God, but I perceive that there is in my bodily members a different law, fighting against the law that my reason approves and making me a prisoner under the law that is in my members, the law of sin. Miserable creature that I am, who is there to rescue me out of this body doomed to death? God alone, through Jesus Christ our Lord! Thanks be to God! In a word then, I myself, subject to God's law as a rational being, am yet, in my unspiritual nature, a slave to the law of sin (Rom. 7.21- 25).

The reason why the law of sin triumphs over our better nature is because of the recalcitrant quality of the ego; it believes it has the good of the world at heart when in fact it is centred in justifying itself and gaining power for itself. Only when the ego is transfigured by the grace of God does it cease to do evil and start to do good; it relinquishes its dominant role in the personality and takes on its proper place as servant of the Most High, whose abode in us is in the secret place of the soul.

The proof that God's grace has touched us, that we are at last in a right relationship with God through faith, is that our character radiates the warmth of unaffected love and that works of equal love issue forth from us. As St James says:

What use is it for a man to say he has faith when he does nothing to show it? Can that faith save him? Suppose a brother or a sister is in rags with not enough food for the day, and one of you says, "Good luck to you, keep yourselves warm, and have plenty to eat", but does nothing to supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So with faith; if it does not lead to action it is in itself a lifeless thing (Jas. 2.14-17).

He proceeds to point out that faith which is real and not merely theoretical is proved by the deeds that accompany it. Thus the faith that justifies man before God has its outer manifestation and proof in the works that herald it. Faith divorced from deeds is lifeless as a corpse.

The life of prayer issues forth in a way of action dedicated to God. When his Spirit infuses our soul, we turn to him and become as he is. The uncreated light of God pours into the personality; as we confront it and are purified by it, so we are transformed from glory to glory by the Lord who is Spirit (2 Cor. 3.18). There is therefore no special time for prayer but rather a perpetual life of prayer. This means that when we are closest to our own authentic nature we are closest to God, and the divine name is on the lips of the soul. This name resounds in majesty through the soul and its echo reverberates in the marrow of the body as well as in the corridors of the mind. In this way the whole personality resonates to the glory of God, and the aspirations of the soul cry out in the prayer of Christ that we may all be one as he and the Father are one. Prayer transforms the human soul into something of the stature of Christ by freeing it from personal striving and leading it to the foothills of sincere, silent communion with God. When our petitions and confessions have come to their close, the silent contemplation of the soul continues and we stand naked before the glory of God. In such ecstasy our nakedness is as appropriate as would be the most glorious apparel, should we adorn ourselves with it for God's greater glory.

Since prayer cannot be limited to any scheme devised by the human will, but is the spontaneous outflowing of the soul in unending thanksgiving to God's loving presence within it, there is no certain or dogmatic scheme of praying. Nevertheless it is necessary, especially in the early part of a person's spiritual life, to set aside certain periods each day when the soul can commune without distraction with God. When we know him as an unfailing presence deep within us as well as the source of all creation immeasurably above us, we shall always be with him in clear consciousness and our work will be his work also. The object of special times of silence is to celebrate and strengthen the bond that links the conscious mind with God. In my experience the most effective time of willed silent communion with God is in the early morning shortly after arising from one's sleep. It is then that the mind is most alert, refreshed and free from disturbing emotions and anxious thoughts. Furthermore, if the mind is opened to the blessing of God in the silence of peace and acceptance early in the day, it will retain something of that blessing as it descends to the atmosphere of the market-place and is sullied by the psychic emanations of the many distraught, unhappy people whom one meets in a day's work. Prayer should be practised during periods set aside later in the day and in the evening also.

No one can instruct another person how exactly he ought to pray. At the most one can establish a few guide-lines so as to lead the aspirant to silence and peace within. Then one should retreat unobtrusively from the holy ground of the soul, and leave the aspirant in the far more expert care of the Holy Spirit. It is for this reason that one should always be wary of recommended techniques of praying. They can all too easily become an end in themselves so that the person begins quite unconsciously to worship prayer rather than God. The few real masters of the spiritual life whom it falls to one's good fortune to meet in the course of a lifetime are noted for their humility and their spiritual radiance. They appear to know even less than the aspirant, because they have put all conceit and pedantry behind them, and have become a pure transparent glass through which the light of God penetrates to the core of all whom they meet and counsel. Indeed, the true counsellor knows nothing except the presence of God within, who leads him as well as those who have come to him for help to a truth far greater than the summation of all human wisdom. To abandon all known paths of human expertise in the explosive silence of God is the way of wisdom. Its end is a new life in God in which the separative human nature is transfigured and brought to a full participation in the divine reality of unitive love.

As regards guide-lines for entering the inner silence of the soul, the most that can be said is that the whole personality should be filled with something that leads one to God. If that which edifies the soul is contemplated, the disturbing thoughts and disruptive emotions that play so dominant a part in everyday life will be gradually dispelled. The first step in attaining an inner emptiness from all personal desire is to fill the body and mind with all that is good and noble that comes from a source beyond itself. From a Christian point of view this source of goodness and nobility is the Bible. A slow reading, not so much in a spirit of discursive analysis as in meditative absorption, of a Psalm, or the Beatitudes of Christ, or one of the many healing miracles, to mention only a few of the treasures of this unsurpassed book, will bring the mind into alignment with the true self as one enters into the secret place and closes the door to worldly distraction. Variations on the theme of biblical meditation include the celebrated "Jesus Prayer" of the Eastern Orthodox tradition, in which one repeats inwardly with the drawing in of the breath, after the words of the publican in Jesus' parable, "Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner" (Luke 18.13). Eventually this sentence centres on the single word "Jesus" which is drawn into the heart in a spirit of deep devotion and reverence. In this way the holy name is admitted into the depth of one's soul and all other considerations are excluded from one's attention. Another variety of biblical meditation is the use of the rosary with which to meditate on the mysteries of the life and death of Christ. The method of using the Bible that is selected depends essentially on the temperament and tradition of the person; one way is no more correct or "spiritual" than another. Those who are natural contemplatives can enter into the stillness of the secret place of the Most High simply and unfailingly by lifting their hearts, souls, minds and bodies heavenwards in rapt worship of the One who is beyond all names, concepts and attributes. This is mystical prayer, and the various ways of entering the silence through the use of the Bible or by the charismatic gift of tongues find their common end in the entry of the whole person into absolute quietness.

In this quietness the divine presence is revealed at the centre of the created universe. He is the centre and the periphery, the height and the depth, the totality and that which transcends all outer forms and physical limits. In his indwelling he transcends all forms; in his transcendence he lies closer to the heart of every creature than the creature does to himself. In this state of all-absorbing knowledge that is the peak of every intimate relationship in which the self is magnified in the love it shares with the other, God is all and in all. He is beyond form and substance - indeed no thing; and yet everything that exists owes its being to him that is beyond definition. "By love may he be gotten and holden, but by thought never" as we read in The Cloud of Unknowing. It is to the unknown presence that is closer to us than our own identity, more easily available to those who wait in faith than any human relationship, that we offer ourselves in body and soul in contemplative prayer. It is to his service that we dedicate ourselves to be a living sacrifice for all the world. It is in losing ourselves as we know ourselves in worldly consciousness that we find ourselves as we are in the form of eternal beings. This is where prayer has its own validity, where the soul communes in the closest intimacy with God, where all human assertiveness and arrogance are not simply excluded but are also ultimately re-admitted in order to be re-created, transfigured and glorified. No wonder the wise spiritual director does not instruct anyone how to pray but simply remains silent in abject humility as that person enters into living fellowship with God and is transformed into a full human being in that transaction. "Take off your shoes, for the place on which you stand is holy ground" (Exod. 3.5). That place is every place where the presence of God is known; it is here and now whenever we are fully aware. We read in Genesis 28.10-22 how God came to Jacob in a dream at a certain place between Beersheba and Haran: angels of God were ascending and descending a ladder extending from the ground up to heaven. God also was there standing over Jacob, the God of Abraham and Isaac his father. When Jacob awoke, he was amazed that God was in that place and he never knew it. But God is in every place; it is our feeble, barely used powers of perception that exclude his presence from our gaze. All ground is holy to those whose gaze is directed inwardly to the centre of the soul and heavenward to the eternal presence of the Most High, who both transcends and comprehends all physical dimensions. The movement inward to the soul is also heavenward.

When we know God we can never be lonely again, because his presence is unconditional and eternal. With him alone we can converse freely, and he sustains us even when we traverse the valley of the shadow of death. When God is at the centre of our lives, everything we do is invested with a meaning that far outshines any immediate significance of the moment. Prayer is the great adventure of the soul into the limitless reality of the divine. It starts in the silence of contemplation, and as the love of God pours into the soul, so our whole being responds in a prayer of praise and thanksgiving. Then we come to see how far we are from God because of our own sinful nature. Like Isaiah in the Temple who saw the Lord seated on a high throne with his train filling the sanctuary, when we confront God we are aware of our own separation from him through the selfishness of our private vision of life. This awareness of sin is in essence an acknowledgement of how continually we fall from the mark of excellence that God has implanted in the depths of the soul. We nurture an attitude that exalts the satisfaction of the ego above all things, so that the more profound intimations of excellence that inform the soul are repeatedly bypassed and ignored. We use other people as things rather than revere them as human beings created in God's image, and our communications with them are all too often predatory, being concerned with what we can get from them rather than how best we may serve them. But just as Isaiah was cleansed from on high by the angelic host that surrounded the Lord, so we too are cleansed as we ascend the mountain of contemplation which is a replica of the mountain where Jesus was transfigured and spoke to the spirits of Moses and Elijah. As we confess our sins and make petitions for the strength to master the inadequacy that lies at the root of our selfish attitude to life, so we are forgiven and strengthened for what lies ahead of us. The prayer from the depth of a chastened heart proceeds in contemplative silence, and is a real communication of the soul with God. It is a deeply felt offering of the self to God in unconditional service, the end of which is a renewed, healed person that has emerged triumphantly from the pit of suffering.

But the summation of that renewal and healing is no longer purely personal; it now assumes a communal importance. Therefore the prayers of confession and petition find their conclusion in the prayer of intercession for all the world.

Chapter 9