Living Alone

Chapter 9

Remembering Others in Prayer

Prayer is the way in which the soul is infused by the power of the Holy Spirit. If one continues to pray in confidence and strength despite all outer diversions and inner discouragements, there will be a gradual change in one's disposition. The effect is neither rapid nor magical - growth, whether physical or spiritual, takes time and is unobtrusive when viewed on a day-to-day basis - but as one's life proceeds so one becomes dimly aware of an inner composure and tolerance to events that would previously have disturbed one's equilibrium. One reacts less abruptly to the insensitive intrusion of other people into one's thoughts and private life; one becomes less jealous when one hears of another's success in one's own chosen field; one responds with greater calm in the face of unpleasant circumstances that before would have shattered one emotionally to the extent of preventing one from working properly or being decently aware of other people in the neighbourhood. St Paul says to his disciples in Philippi: "I wish you all joy in the Lord. I will say it again: all joy be yours. Let your magnanimity be manifest to all" (Phil. 4.4-5). This magnanimity is the fruit of intensive prayer. When the Spirit of the Lord is upon one, one thinks less about oneself and one's own safety and more about other people. This concern for others follows a healthy attitude to oneself. In this respect there is a profound difference between being self-centred and centred in the self. The self-centred person is aware of himself almost to the exclusion of other people. Everything he does has the final aim of exalting himself at the expense of others whom he uses quite unashamedly for his selfish purposes. And yet that person does not know himself, for if he did he would not need to strive so obsessively to establish and protect his own image in the world, an image that he erroneously identifies with his true being. The more he attains the more insecure he becomes, because he is entrapped in defending and maintaining that which is by its very nature ephemeral. By contrast, a person who is centred in the self projects his true identity wherever he finds himself and in whatever activity he is engaged. He knows himself for what he is - both a mere speck in the horizon of infinity and a living soul with God at its centre. In other words, he has no illusions about his insignificance as a personality but is constantly aware of the uniqueness of his contribution to the world as a servant of God. Being centred in his own being, he can radiate that unique presence to everyone and everything around him in an attitude of benediction. This is the way of blessing that we have previously touched upon.

One can know that inner self with the intimacy that comes of long familiarity best by the practice of long, devoted prayer. As one enters the secret place of the Most High, so one ceases to identify oneself with anything other than the Spirit of God set deeply in the soul. And this Spirit is universal. No living creature is without God's Spirit-indeed, that Spirit pervades the whole created universe so that nothing is outside its range or beneath its sustaining power and love. When we are in the Spirit that is of God we are truly in communion with all that lives, a communion that is not simply theoretical and theologically correct, but one also that binds us to everything that lives and suffers in ties of the strongest concern. This concern shows itself in self-giving love. St Paul says: "Then throw off falsehood; speak the truth to each other, for all of us are the parts of one body" (Eph. 4.25). This "membership one of another" is established at the level of soul or true self for on the plane of the physical body we are clearly separate and divided. As we enter into the full domain of personality, so we leave behind the primitive, separative view of ourselves - a view that sees the person purely in terms of outer attributes so that one is judged as being superior or inferior to someone else. Instead we see ourselves in a mature light as living human beings in fellowship with each other and united in the Spirit of God, by whom the whole created universe is sustained. By that Spirit we are brought together into one body when we enter into the life of Christ, an entrance (a full baptism in essence) made definitively when we give of ourselves to the world as sacrifices for truth and service. Then we are fully members of the divine community whose head is Christ, and we become potent bearers of the Holy Spirit, transmitting that Spirit to all for whom we pray in unfailing fidelity. "For where two or three have met together in my name, I am there among them" (Matt.18.20).

This faithful remembrance of our fellow men is the basis of intercession, the interposing of oneself between God and the world seen in the form of the other person. It is the most immediately compelling part of one's prayer life because it is at once rigorously demanding, loving and far-reaching in its effects. Even a feeble prayer life may be sustained during fallow periods by the thought of other people's needs, those less fortunate than we are ourselves. Even when one feels completely exhausted and is assailed by the most testing agnosticism about the efficacy of one's prayer, or about prayer in general, a remembrance of those close to one will spur on one's prayer life. It is a fact of life that when all rational argument and psychological considerations point to the futility of spiritual exercises and the non-existence of a supersensual reality, the experience of the living God suddenly breaks in on one and shatters the intellectually unassailable edifice of unbelief that has temporarily held one imprisoned. Before the blast of the Holy Spirit, who blows where he wills so that no one can forecast his impetus or decree where he shall go, the rational limitations that proud men have erected of what is possible in our little world disintegrate in the fire of reality. Disappointment of our immediate worldly prospects may be necessary before we can experience the life-giving force of God's presence that reveals to us a completely different view of reality. When the rational is extended through the non-rational and the sensual illuminated by the supersensual, the life of prayer is shown to be the most real manifestation of God's grace in our lives. All things are indeed possible to those who believe: this is not a comment on the credulity of the masses to the claims of a charlatan, but a prediction of the work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of all who are open to the love of God in the moment at hand. It is in this respect that only those who can accept the Kingdom of God as a little child can enter it. When we have put away from ourselves all barriers of thought, whether of belief or non-belief, of naļäve credulity or hard scepticism, of desire for substantiation or pride in our own independence, and have entered the eternal present with chaste heart and innocent mind, the glory of God comes to meet us and we partake of the divine nature in which we were fashioned and to which we are destined to arrive in the presence and form of Christ. It is in this spirit alone that we can appreciate the promise of Jesus that the door is always opened to those who knock, that the seeker always finds what he is looking for, that he who asks always receives (Matt. 7.7). Our own arrogance occludes the power of God from our lives; complete silence in trusting love opens the door of the soul into which the living God can at last enter and re-create the creature in the form of his living Son.

The person living alone may be aware of a special responsibility, almost a vocation, towards praying for other people. Such intercessory prayer may be a solitary act or else may take place among a group of those with like mind. In fact, praying for others has both a solitary and a communal component. One cannot add one's power of concern to a group until one is inwardly attuned to the divine presence. On the other hand, the prayers of a group of loving people extend God's purpose in the world much more effectively than does the intercession of a single person, no matter how dedicated he may be. God's purpose is that we should all come to wholeness, to be healed and integrated as people. This is an essential preliminary event in the healing and integration of society. In this respect the spiritual life stresses the balance that must be struck between the growth into sanctity of the individual and the healing of the community. Those who live alone will have their efforts directed primarily to their own spiritual development, whereas the person who lives in a community will be concerned more about healthy relationships among people. There is a tendency nowadays to exalt the communal side of the Kingdom of God above the inner spiritual unfolding of the person, which is sometimes derisively dismissed as cultivating one's own soul in the luxury of a private domain while the world and its problems are insidiously dismissed from one's attention. In fact, the spiritual development of the individual is an essential precondition for the healing of society, but personal sanctity can never develop effectively or authentically except in the context of social concern. As I grow in spiritual strength, so I take with me all those around me with whom I communicate in a day's work. They are filled with the Spirit of God that radiates increasingly from me, while I, in giving myself unstintingly to my neighbour, am filled ever more generously with that Spirit. In the spiritual life the more one gives in the name of God, the more one receives from him. As St Paul puts it: "The life I live is no longer my life but the life that Christ lives in me" (Gal. 2.19). The one who lives alone has if he makes the most of his time, an especially great opportunity for growing into spiritual awareness. The corresponding responsibility for him is to make this gift of awareness available to his fellows by the practice of prayer and service. Indeed, when a person on his own sees the opportunities for spiritual growth that his way of life offers, he praises God for the privilege of being allowed to enjoy the divine favour and presence. Those who have no time for prayer have no time for life - and all too often it is those who are encumbered with the pressing needs of others on all sides that bow down before the apparent inevitability of a life devoid of silence with God. They may have to suffer a severe loss or bereavement before they can find time to speak to God in prayer. When all outer appurtenances are shriven from one, then alone may one have the undisturbed opportunity for communing with the source of all life who is also the sustainer of the life within one.

The two essential requirements for effective intercessions are a love of God and a love of one's fellow men. To intercede means in effect to be the instrument of God by which his Spirit may be conveyed to those in need. It is, I have no doubt, God's will that all people should be made whole, that indeed the intermediary law of decay and death that ends all mortal life should yield to the transfiguration of all matter into eternal spiritual substance. The presage of this final cataclysmic transformation was shown in the resurrection of the physical body of Jesus to full spiritual radiance - glimpsed during his transfiguration and finally witnessed at the time of his resurrection. But for this healing to occur the will has to be made active. It has to affirm its own compliance in the work of transfiguration. In our world, God acts through his creatures, namely human beings. These are blessed with the gifts of intellectual understanding and spiritual vision that have been, as far as we can tell, withheld from the remainder of the animal creatures of our planet. The will of the human being is free to act according to the inner judgement of the true self. Unfortunately only a few people can function at that deep level of authenticity for any considerable length of time. When we act at the level of ego consciousness, the will is deflected by every outside stimulus and inner impulse. It is no wonder that many psychologists deride the concept of a free, independent will, and in respect of most people this scepticism is soundly based. But when the elements of the personality have been controlled by a more authoritative centre of consciousness, which is the true self, or soul, the will is no longer as subject to the fluctuations of inner emotional conflict or the vicissitudes of external events as it was previously. At last it can assume some mastery over the personality and act with responsibility and freedom. This fulfilled acting of the will is achieved during contemplation, when the inner gaze of the person is directed to the transcendent God who also, paradoxically, is at home in the soul's centre.

It is at this stage that the human will can, at least to some extent, know the divine will and work together with it rather than in opposition to it - a train of events that reverses the usual antagonism of good and evil tendencies in the personality that St Paul so bitterly lamented in Romans 7.14-25, as we have already noted, and finds its original description in the myth of the Fall described in Genesis 3. When the will can bring the mind to inner stillness in the act of contemplation, it can make the person ready to listen to God and play his part in the process of universal healing. It therefore follows that the act of intercessory prayer is one in which we remember the person in need with tenderest solicitude in the depths of silent communion, so that the Spirit of God can touch the soul of that person and effect such healing as is appropriate. The degree of healing attained depends on the will of the person to receive love - not everyone wants to be healed - and the degree of sickness. In the most impressive examples of healing that follow prayer, the improvement is slow, progressive and complete. Dramatic answers to intercessory prayer, though very acceptable when they take place, are not always long-lasting. A slow, integrated healing of the whole personality is ultimately preferable to a sudden dramatic cure that may leave the person spiritually and mentally unprepared. "The end-result of such imperfect healing is often a relapse into ill-health once again, possibly of a type different from the original complaint.

In the periods of prayer that should mark our special communion with God, it is wise to intercede for others after we have prayed for ourselves in confession and petition. It may seem somewhat selfish to think about our own needs first, but in fact until we have started to get ourselves in order, our concern for other people is likely to be of little avail. Jesus instructs us, in his lightness born of innate godliness, to remove the plank from our own eyes first before we meddle officiously to remove specks from the eyes of other people. As he reminds us, only when our own vision is clear can we see properly to help other people (Matt. 7.3-5). This advice obvious enough on a physical level, is even more true spiritually. If we are to pray effectively for other people, we have to get ourselves out of the way, so that the Holy Spirit is not deflected by our wishes and prejudices, nor coloured by our own inadequacies. Of course, if this injunction were to be taken literally, none of us would ever be fit to pray for others! But fortunately even making an attempt at one's own inner cleansing through confession and petition allows us to be a fit instrument on whom God's grace can work and from whom his Spirit may flow to those in need.

In praying for others it is most important to be centred on the love of God in one's heart and the person in need in one's inner eye. Love should flow from the intercessor to the person prayed over. It is of no consequence that this person is often unknown to us, a mere name in fact. God knows him - and this is enough. Indeed, it is often more efficacious to pray for someone who is a stranger than for a close friend or relative. The reason is that in interceding for an unknown person we can remain non-attached, and allow the work of the Holy Spirit to proceed unhindered by our emotional interference. On the other hand, when we pray for someone close to us, our own passionate desire for his recovery according to our own understanding and demands tends to interpose itself between God's will and what he knows is best for our loved one. If we are unwise enough to try to "broadcast" improving thoughts telepathically to the one for whom we are praying, we may do positive harm, for then we will be usurping the place and function of God. Since few of us have much insight into our own character and its problems, it is hardly surprising that, when we decree what is best spiritually or psychologically for someone else, the results are likely to be disastrous. The correct attitude for intercession is a trusting calm with which to co-operate with God, to which is added a deep concern for all who are in need of prayer. In that state of watchful calm one seems to know the other person merely by articulating his or her name in the deepest recesses of the mind. In the words of Psalm 42.7: "Deep calls to deep in the roar of thy cataracts, and all thy waves, all thy breakers, pass over me." One does not need to visualize that person so much as to commune with his soul in the depths of one's own soul, an inner action impossible to describe rationally any more than the experience of God or of falling in love can be discursively analysed. It is known because it changes one's life and adds a new meaning to existence.

When one is deep in prayer, especially the prayer of intercession, it is not unusual for a light, sometimes a warm glow, to appear before one's closed eyes (it is usual to close one's eyes in prayer so as to avoid visual distractions from outside). This light may be pure white or it may have a more definite colour; in my experience it often has a deep blue tint. I mention this simply to allay disquiet in the newcomer to prayer who may encounter this psychico-spiritual phenomenon and be alarmed or entranced by it. It is not to be confused with the uncreated light of God's emergent energies that rarely presents itself to the saint in prayer. At any rate it is at the very least harmless and at most an added grace to the life of prayer. This light may help us in directing our love to those for whom we pray. But it must not be sought after, for then it could become the end of prayer instead of a grace of the internal life. In the deepest contemplation there is no such light, only bliss. Above all, one should not purposely invoke light in prayer for this, like telepathic interference with the one prayed over, enters the realm of magic. God is subtly excluded and the psychic power of the ego is substituted. In this respect magic is the use of occult, psychic forces for selfish purposes. Its end is invariably deleterious, no matter how well motivated the practitioner believes himself to be. The heart, as Jeremiah reminds us, is the most deceitful of all things, and desperately sick (Jer.17.9). Only when the heart, the emotional pivot of the personality, is chastened and cleansed by the power of the Holy Spirit does it cease to do evil and start to do good.

When one is rapt in prayer the soul, that deep seat of consciousness, is lifted up to God in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. The essential action of the will is to keep the person in a state of watchful, alert silence. In other words one does nothing in order to be everything. One is not "taken over" by the Spirit of God as in a state of trance. One is inspired and transfigured by that Spirit so as to become a real person, something eventually of the measure of Christ's stature. Then one can work in confident collaboration with God through the power of his Spirit, in company, I have no doubt, with the full Communion of Saints and the Ministry of Angels. These intermediary powers are fearlessly affirmed in the Christian creeds and liturgies (the angelic host is acknowledged magnificently in the context of the Eucharist together with all the company of heaven), but their objective existence seems to be real to the few rather than the many. When we are in rapt contemplation, giving of ourselves unstintingly to God's service, our spiritual eyes may be opened, as they were to Elisha's servant (2 Kings 6.7), and the vast spiritual concourse of heaven, where all dwell in peace and union with God, may be shown to us. Needless to say, such a revelation is not to be looked for; the will of God and the service of our fellow creatures are what should be perpetually in our minds. These are the objects of our searchings, not the intermediary psychico-spiritual realms. But what may be shown to us in the course of our spiritual work is an added grace which has the benefit of lightening the burden of mundane unbelief that we, as citizens of the world, have inevitably to bear.

As our personalities are opened to the divine energies that flow from the Holy Spirit, so our souls are united in the love of God with those whom we call to mind by name. The Holy Spirit will then lighten the darkness of all for whom we pray. It is not necessary for those who are the object of our intercession to know that they are being prayed for, but nevertheless this awareness of prayer can be of enormous support to a believer who is very ill, or has recently undergone a major surgical operation, or is emotionally distraught because of some personal tragedy. What is needed is that the person who is prayed for should not be obstructive to the love of God. That conscious co-operation is not essential for efficacious prayer is testified to in the remarkable effects that may be seen in young children (and also loved animals) who are ill and subsequently recover. In these instances, though the one prayed for could not even begin to understand what was being done to him by the power of God working through devoted human instruments, there would be no emotional or intellectual barrier to that power as it pervaded the deepest recesses of the mind. On the other hand, people who are full of resentment and bitterness of soul - and some such may be found among conventional church-goers who feel that they deserve preferential treatment from the Almighty because of their loyalty to his cause - may positively inhibit the healing power of God entering them. Until such a person has relented of his rebellious attitude and is prepared to enter the future devoid of all preconceptions and demands for justice - in fact like the little child who alone can receive the Kingdom of Heaven - the healing power of love will not be able to penetrate his soul, which lies deeply hidden behind dense clouds of antagonism, indignation and anger. It is important to realize that while it is contingent on us to love everyone, we cannot force anyone to accept our love. Only patience and self-effacing persistence will make our message of reconciliation eventually acceptable to one whose heart is hard and unyielding. This stoniness of heart, about which Ezekiel speaks so forcibly, is sometimes due to suffering and injustice borne by the person in his earliest childhood, with the result that he is now incapable of receiving anything with trust; he believes that everyone who shows an interest in him wants to take advantage of him and betray him.

The obdurate hostility that confronts us in some people, though a serious barrier to effective intercessory prayer, should not, however, deter us from praying assiduously for them. No one is eternally beyond the power of God's redeeming love, but only a long ministry of patience and forbearance can prevail in the presence of strong negative emotions. God himself stands patiently at the door of many souls and knocks for admittance. If he has had to wait for many years to be welcomed into the personality, we should not be too disappointed at our own initial poor showing! But we must persist in faith.

In remembering others in prayer the mind is focused in calm acceptance on the name of the person in trouble. It is unnecessary, indeed unproductive, to muster up feelings of concern and love. The love that is real comes from God, not ourselves, and irradiates our souls with such warmth that it flows from us to others when we confront them simply and without affectation. The act of focusing need not take long; it is the intensity of prayer that matters far more than the length of time taken. A contemplative can be in communion with the whole world within a few seconds, whereas one unschooled in the inner life can spend hours shifting around in body and mind, and still be as far from his centre, the secret place within, as he was when he started. When there are a fair number of people to be prayed for, it is particularly important not to expend too much time on any one of them, but rather to apportion a period of, say, ten to fifteen seconds to each. Of course, no one in prayer would measure time in this way, but the indication from the Spirit of God would be towards intensity and brevity rather than diffuseness and length of time. Jesus reminds us in another context not to go on babbling to God like the heathen, who imagine that the more they say, the more likely they are to be heard. In fact our Father knows what our needs are before we ask him (Matt. 6.7 - 8). In the same way, when we are in rapt prayer, God's Spirit goes to those in need as soon as we remember them; it is not necessary to persist for minutes on end in the communication. On the other hand, the use of long lists of names placed impersonally on a table is not to be recommended, since the human contact is severely diluted in the process. The name should be enunciated as that of the unique person whom it represents; it should be regarded in love and reverence. It is indeed a privilege to intercede for another person.

Some people will require intercessory prayer for many months, others for only a few days. When one appears to forget a name it usually means that the Holy Spirit is telling one that special prayer is no longer necessary. Indeed, it is contingent on those who ask for our prayers to keep us informed about their progress or that of their loved one in danger. If they lack the interest and courtesy to perform this small act of acknowledgement, they prove themselves unworthy of the prayers that they have requested. The reward in store for those that give of their services to others in prayer and other spiritual labour is not financial; it is the joy of seeing "a brother who was dead and has come back to life who was lost and is found" (Luke 15.32). This work will continue as long as we are alive, and it becomes a central activity for all who live alone. By it more than in any other way, one ceases to be alone any longer, but instead becomes the centre of an ever-enlarging circle of associates, friends and brothers.

Furthermore, one should remember people who are in need as often as possible, not only during periods of silence given over specially to communion with God but also when one is alone in the day's activity. Whenever one remembers a person in concern and loving tenderness one is praying for him. To give of oneself in intense solicitude to one's brother is a authentic act of prayer. But such unobtrusive prayer at street-corners (in contrast to the ostentatious prayers so derided by Jesus as an act of hypocrisy in Matthew 6.5) comes best from the lips of the mind and soul of the one who is schooled in the interior spiritual life. When we remember our friends in need in the depths of prayer, we will continue to bear them in mind even when we are about the day's tumultuous business.

Intercessory prayer should also embrace the larger concerns of the world, especially world peace. But first let us remember individual people before we move on to the greater world. It is far easier to pray for people whom we know than for vast organizations that cannot but remain anonymous blocks of humanity to us until we have entered deeply into the spirit of intercession. When we are at peace in ourselves following the prayers of confession and petition, and are one with our neighbours in intercession, only then will our hearts be so open and our souls so vibrant with love that we will be able to embrace whole peoples, organizations and nations in our solicitude before God. We should also remember that our prayers, always vitally important, for peace among the world's nations will ring more true and have greater effect when we are at peace in ourselves and with our families, colleagues and neighbours than when we are at loggerheads with our little world and in turmoil within ourselves. It is once more a matter of clearing our own sight before we endeavour to show other people the way. It is, I believe, for this reason that so much intercessory prayer formulated with moving eloquence during religious services of various kinds seems to make so little impression on the world's precarious situation. We seem to hope, in a regression to childish ways of thought, that God will somehow be induced to act on our behalf if we speak fulsomely enough to him in prayer. In fact, he acts through us, his agents, in this world of matter. Only as we are healed, can we participate in the healing of the nations of which we ourselves are members. Our help indeed comes only from the Lord, Maker of heaven and earth (Psalm 121.2), but we have to play our part in bringing that help down to the realm of practical life and international peace.

Intercession plays, I believe, a greater part in bringing about world peace than we shall ever grasp. Only when the minds of the people, and especially their rulers in whom is invested terrifyingly great power of life and death, are filled with thoughts of love and reconciliation instead of fear and revenge, will the nations turn from preparations for war to the activities of peace. Only when the heart is moved from the isolation of self-preservation to the openness of self-giving on behalf of others will the person progress from warlike activities of extermination to the life-giving practice of creative art and social reconstruction. Those of us who pray day by day, tirelessly devoted to the service of God and our fellow men, are acting on the deepest level to change the fundamental attitude of those who govern states and nations. On the work of intercession may depend the future survival of our world. The little ones who live alone act with the great contemplative communities in this work of transfiguration.

Chapter 10