By Dom Hubert Van Zeller

Springfield, Illinois

Nihil Obstat: Georgivs Smith, S.T.D., PH.D.
Imprimatur: E. Morragh Bernard
Westmonaterii: Die XVII Movembris MCML

First Published 1951

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Mistakes About Religion Generally

If the most universal misconception as regards prayer has to do with the use to which the imagination should be put, the same may be said (roughly) as regards the wider subjects of religion.  Man makes a mental picture of what he thinks the service of God ought to look like, and, fascinated by the artistry of the conception, fails to see what true religion really is.  No sooner does the force of religion strike him than he stumbles out in search of it.  He runs about, groping.  But of course it has been sitting in his lap all the time, and that is where, if he would only calm down and look, he is most likely to find it.

You cannot visualise God correctly.  He is beyond the rim of your experience.  You can adore him, but you cannot picture Him.  Your picture is bound to be true if it is real adoration; your picture is bound to be false if it is really pictured.  So your only chance of conveying the quality of your adoration to the service which you render to God in religion is to eliminate as far as possible your mental images and to concentrate on the service of the will.  If adoration is most perfectly performed when there is little or no material element in its expression, then the nearer religion gets to a willed and not an imagined serviced the better.  But this is one of the most difficult things for people to understand,.

Thus the mother of a family will tell you that she would be able to give herself much more to religion if she had not got the children to look after.  A factory worker will compare her chances with those of a lay-sister, 'I would be very religious,' says the girl in the post office, 'if it were not so impersonal, and if I could serve God in a family.'  Everyone creates an imaginary kingdom of God on earth, and sits outside its walls gazing enviously in its direction.  But the kingdom of God is within you.  Your purpose is to 'seek God and feel after Him...  although He be not far from every one of us.'

Imagined sanctity is no sanctity.  A religion which exists in hypothetical circumstances cannot last out the pressure of actuality.  To presume to a service of God which the present framework of life does not allow is sheer pride.  What sort of a service can it be which has its only reality in someone else's vocation?  How can obedience to God's will (which is all that religion amounts to) rest upon a concept which is not being realised and which may never be?

If the mother looks upon her children as obstacles to the prompt response to grace, she is missing the whole point.  If the children look upon their mother as preventing their development in God's service, they have not yet begun to love God.  If the servant writes off her employers as a sheer waste so far as religious perceptions go, and if the mistress looks upon the maid as hired labour and not as a soul redeemed by Christ, then there is a want of balance.  One's occupation in life, one's associates, one's material surroundings, one's health and strength are there, are real, are the solids, are the substance from which the here-and-now house of God is to be built.  There is nothing concrete in the dream vocation.  There is no true alternative to what is going on all round us.  There are only magic lantern slides which depend for their existence upon a figment of the mind.  The being is absent.  It is at best television.

Religion is God.  Religion is recognising God in His own setting.  The setting is provided by Him, not by man.  Man finds his vocation in God, not in dreaming about God.  'in Him we live and move and have our being;'  we do not find our being in what we would like to become if we had made ourselves.  We are made in the image and likeness of God, not in the image and likeness of a mirage.  Religion is God.  Not an hypothesis or a mode of self-expression, but God.  Just as the Church is not processions or whist-drives or collections for the missions or Roman congregations or Catechism answers -- but Christ, so religion is yielding to that Church, yielding to Christ.

Another mistake is that of looking to religion for something which it is not the primary purpose of religion to provide.  People will take up religion for the consolation which they expect to get out of it in their sorrows.  They turn to God because they feel that human companionship is not to be relied upon, and that possibly a relationship with God may ward off the agonies of loneliness.  Then they find that when the time of trial comes, they have less to draw upon than they had hoped.  So they turn to other sources of possible comfort.  'Religion has let me down,' they say.

If religion is not to be taken up as a drug, nor is it to be indulged in as an aesthetic delight.  Unfortunately some of the best advertisements for religion are at the same time the most misleading advantages which it possesses.  For example, the beauty of the Church's liturgy, the poetry of the Church's symbolism, the very idea of renunciation, wrongly understood, work the wrong way round and spoil the end which these things are meant to serve.  Religion has not been invented either to beguile the sense or to train the emotions in good taste.

Another mistake which people make about religion is to expect it to shed more and more light upon both the truths of faith and the personal problems which come up for decision.  But the whole point of faith would be lost if the intellect could satisfy itself of the reasonableness of religion's propositions.  The mind has to be left in mid-air.  The grounds for belief are there, but not always the demonstrable proofs.  The impulse must come from the will, not always from the intellect.  Love, showing itself in fidelity, drives the soul along the way of religion towards God.  And the moment we have said this, we see there is another possible misconception.

If religion is never intended to provide the finished answer to the appetite of the speculative intellect, nor is it intended to depend for its exercise upon the feeling of love.  What is called 'uplift' may or may not be one of the accidental effects of religion, but it is certainly not meant to be the foundation on which it rests.  The danger of making such an inward awareness of God the basis of one's religion is apparent on the occasions when the awareness gives place to a complete blank.  The gust of the heart is no substitute for the cool driving deliberation of the God-enlightened will.  'My love of God is in such good shape,' says the lazy soul, 'that I can comfortably dispense with knowledge.  I find I can live on a diet of love, so why should I bother with theology?  I take all doctrine for granted.  Give me people with hearts; brains can look after themselves.'  All this sounds so warm and brave and loving.  But it can well be an evasion.  It can even be a heresy.  Contemplation is all very well -- in fact it is the better part and there is no effective substitute for it -- but its fires must be banked up on the slower embers of doctrine.

So it is not enough to grope after truth by means of keeping the desires stirred up in the direction of God; there must be a corresponding respect for the learning which goes to expand His revelation.  Without such balance you get the absurdity of the subjective taking the place of the objective: you get the fact of God being replaced by the feeling of Him.  Besides, as Frank Sheed says in Theology and Sanity, you cannot attain to the maximum of love on the minimum of knowledge.

Most of the mistakes, then, which people make about religion come under one of two heads.  Either they look upon it as something which exists for their own personal convenience -- taking it up for what they imagine they can get out of it instead of what they can give to it -- or else they make the whole thing such a duty, such a routine affair, as to allow no room for following the individual attraction of grace.  For so long as the men can be struck between exaggerated subjectivism on the one hand, and a purely impersonal application on the other, there is not likely to be any real danger of neglecting the light of truth.  The trouble comes when you confine the theory to formulae and practice to sentiment.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Mistakes About Prayer

It is irriating always to be told about your faults.  It is irritating, when you are going for a walk in a public garden, to see notices everywhere telling you not to pick the flowers and not to walk on the grass, and on no account to leave bits of paper lying about and to sit on the chairs onlhy if you are prepared to pay two-pence, and to prevent your dog from pulling up the bulbs.  So in telling you the mistakes which you are liable to make when praying I shall probably irritate you.  Give me the credit for wanting to prevent you from turning the garden into a jungle.  All too easily can this particular garden become a cross between a wilderness and a race course and a site for art-and-craft folk-dancing.

We have already seen that it is a mistake to aim at speed and production.  We have noted also the danger of spiritual choreography, chiaroscuro, and ballet performances.  What follows will be a few notes about other mistaken approaches.

The instruction which Our Lord gave with regard to giving alms -- telling his hearers that their left hands were not to know what their right hands were doing -- might equally be applied to giving praise.  In prayer it is a fundamental error to look for a system of measurement.  We must decide not to sit in one side of our brains and watch what is going on in the other.  To do this can become the greatest distraction of all.  Our aim should be to launch out with our prayer left and right, and trust, not looking to either side, that God is being served by what we are trying to give Him.

The next thing to note is that the externals of prayer are meant to assist the internal and not the other way about.  For example, if it helps our recollection to sit down -- sit.  It can become a distraction to kneel upright in order to fulfil a resolution.  One of the commonest mistakes in prayer is that of keeping to a system or a posture or a resolution for no other reason than that it once worked.  If it does not work now, give it up and try another one.  This is not a free permission to unjustified licence; it is an exhortation to liberty of spirit.  So long as the soul determines to go on with the practice of prayer, the great thing is to follow the attraction of the moment.

From the above arises the further mistake of rejecting the grace of the present and striving after some fictitious grace which is believed to relate either to the past or the future.  We try to recall the fervours of the early stages of our experience; we break our brains in the effort to stretch out to a prayer which we have read about and which we think will solve our problem.

The underlying mistake in all this is to imagine that the ability to pray is something which we can choose -- that it is simply a matter of selection out of many alternatives.  What we have to realise is that prayer is not the kind of achievement which we can recognise; it is not the discovery, appreciated and tabulated, of a demonstrable expression.  We do not find prayer as we would find the kind of furniture polish which suits our paticular tables and chairs.  The danger is that because we have picked up the right commodity at the start, we imagine that it is going to be the right one forever.  Merely because God leads us to a prayer which suits us at the beginning, we have no reason to think that the whole question is how to respond to the grace which God is sending now.  People can go on buying the same furniture polish long after the furniture has been changed.

In actual practice it will be found that the choice of this or that kind of prayer gets one nowhere.  One has to take the prayer one gets.  And even that escapes one.  By forcing an external element in one's prayer one may be able to carry a certain conviction -- for there is no limit to the extent of self-deception -- but the only prayer which is pleasing to God, and which at the same time does the soul any good, is the kind of payer which God sends.  And what is said here of prayer -- the acutal time spent in worship -- goes for sanctity as a whole.  It is not the faintest use going about dressed up in a particular fashion of sanctity which can be seen and which happens to be all the rage at the time.  The only kind of sanctity which is any use is God's kind.  And very often this kind cannot be seen either by the contemporary world which one is always to eager to impress or by oneself.

Directness in Prayer

The word 'directness' instead of  'simplicity' is chosen here because although both may come to much the same thing in the actual practice of prayer, the idea of simplicity is open to other suggestions besides that of non-elaboration.  It is important to realise that just as we should be childlike and not childish in our relations with God, so we should be simple in the sense of direct -- rather than simple in the sense of half-baked.

When the soul is urged to be straightforward with God, the meaning is more than merely the willingness to hide nothing from Him.  Everyone realises that it would be absurd to try and hide anything from God.  It means that one must not sweep up a whole lot of artificialities on one's way to Him.  There are certain devices which help to recollect the mind and focus the attention on God, but these should be dropped as soon as the mind is recollected and the attention fixed.  They are devices only, and not ends in themselves.  Artifice must be recognised as artifice, and not be thought of as truth.  A good many excellent devotions are of the let's-pretend variety, and so long as they are treated as start-you-offs there is no harm in using them.  It is when the whole business of the spiritual life is judged in terms of such things -- whether in respect of their number or their elaborate quality or their immediate usefulness -- that there is an inversion.  It is a substitution of the ladder for the loft, of the key for the door, of the microphone for the music.  And now let us explain what we mean.

For instance:  There  are those who find that it helps in the beginning to perform their various household duties in honor of one particular mystery or in the company of one particular saint.  Thus a man may lay the table with great devotion while imagining himself in the holy house of Nazareth.  A woman may remember the forty holy martyrs of Sebaste every time she approaches the frigidaire.  A certain priest, a learned man, claims that every morning as he vests for Mass he pictures St. Joseph helping him; and that when he proceeds from the sacristy to the altar he does so with his guardian angel walking in front clearing the way of any stray devils who might be around at the time.  'This is,' the priest insists, 'because I am so simple.'  By all means let him make use of the devotion -- it is probably helping him to keep far more recollected than he would be otherwise, and if he feels an attraction for it, it is obviously the right thing for him -- but let him not say that he goes in for the devotion because he is so wimple.   It is not at all because he is so simple.  It is because he is so complicated.

We cannot altogether -- particularly in this over-analysed an analytical age -- help being complicated.  We should try, nevertheless, to be direct.  God is reached more directly by the will than by the memory and the imagination.  We must guard against a too technicolor devotion -- just as we must guard against a too whimsy-whamsy idiom.  Anything that savours of affectation or artificiality must go.  Certainly let us speak to God in our own way and using our own ideas about Him, but let us make quite sure that we are not doing so for our own entertainment instead of for His.  God wants us to be natural, to be ourselves.  If it is natural to visualise angels and saints, if it is sincere to speak to God in baby-language, then these are the means which we are intended -- for as long as the attraction lasts -- to employ.  But the moment we feel drawn to a more direct correspondence, we should pray without images and peculiarities of expression.

Singularity is a great obstacle to the spiritual life, and it is not only in outward things that singularity declares itself.  A soul can strike attitudes before itself, and never is it more in peril than when it does so.  If there can be a delusion in a little thing like building up a too elaborate devotion, there can be a delusion of a far more serious kind in building up a false concept of oneself and of the role one is playing in the sight of God.  Directness in prayer leads to directness out of it.  If one is eccentric, or worse still ego-centric, in prayer, one will be the same all along the line.  In man's dealing with God, the first essential is that of giving worship 'in  spirit and in truth.'  All the more need, therefore, for the soul to go out from itself into God.  While it stays behind with self there will always be an element of untruth, indirectness, artificiality.  And for all this the prayer of the will -- dry and pictureless though it may be -- is far, far safer than the prayer of the imagination. 

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Activity in Prayer

Having considered prayer in activity, we must consider activity in prayer.  This is all the more necessary because the tempo at which most people's lives are lived today is probably swifter than ever before.*  It has communicated something of its pace to the business of prayer.  You would have thought that it might have made for a reaction -- 'at least I can relax and be still when I am before the Blessed Sacrament' -- but apparently it has not.  'The wheels have been going round since the moment I got up,'   is more the prevailing attitude, 'and they insist on keeping it up while I am trying to pray.'

If there is tension outside prayer, there will be a corresponding tension inside prayer as well.  The mind will run busily on.  The thoughts may be holy, but they will be rushed.  Tthe atmosphere will vibrate.  Prayers will rattle.

All this means that we start off at a disadvantage.  We of this generation have to make much more effort to secure calmness in prayer.  The practical question arises as to what is the best way to do it.  Someone has said that just as a man who is about to dive into the water waits until the surface disturbed by the previous diver is smooth again, so the man about to pray must wait until all the surface disturbances have ceased before he plunges into the presence of God.  The only trouble about this is that he may have to wait all day.  There is always something or someone; the surface does not remain smooth for long.  A better idea would be, in this particular kind of diving, for the diver to get into the water the quickest way possible and let it smooth him.  If tranquility is necessary for prayer -- and it certainly is -- then a way must be found not only of stemming the rush of images and distractions but of quietening down the pieties as well.  A distraction is a distraction even if it is about sanctity.  Anxieties are no less anxieties because they happen to be about prayer. You will admit that you have spoiled your prayer by worrying over what you are going to wear at tomorrow's party; you forget that you can spoil your prayer just as much by wondering what you are going to do for Lent.  All these things can be arranged outside prayer time.  When praying, get into the presence of God, and ask Him to shed your worries and wonderings for you.

So it would be a mistake to imagine that in prayer there must be a succession of either holy imaginations, holy reasonings, holy emotions, or holy words.  If holy thoughts suggest themselves, follow them up.  But do not either force them in the first instance, or so follow them up that they become a preoccupation to the exclusion of what Dame Julian calls the 'naked intent and single desire.'  It is the perfectly straightforward and simple act of desiring God and praising Him which you must aim at in prayer.  Anything which militates against this must be pushed aside -- even if it means handling a good thing roughly.  It is the over-activity, the misplaced emotion, the ill-directed idea which must be corrected.  The main thing is the desire for God's glory, and everything must be subordinated to that.

Forget about prayer being a recitation of sentiments suitable to a creature, and think of it as the kind of orientation of heart which it must be gratifying for the Creator to see in His friends.  This gives a wider idea than that which suggest that we pray only when we are saying things to God from a kneeling position.  To keep up a flow of talk may be necessary when dealing with some of our friends (though goodness knows it should not be), but it can hardly be necessary when we are trying to get in touch with God.

Although prayer is a ceaseless output of praise, it is not a feverish output.  There should be no production target, no bustle.  Industrialised activity outside prayer time has done harm to man's natural and supernatural instincts about this.  The soul feels that there must be a nonstop chasing of words as on the conveyor belt in a factory.  But souls must not become machines.  If a simile is to be taken from industry, there should be greater emphasis on the power and the plant than on the various functions of the bolts and plugs.  The powerhouse is God; man is little more than the raw material.  And since the consumer, too, is God, the only thing which souls themselves have to bother about in their praying is to hand over willing instruments to be used for whatever purpose and in whatever way that God may choose.

So if prayer is thought of as output, it must be thought of as intake as well.  In fact there can be no satisfactory output unless there is proportionately more intake going on at the same time.  And for intake there has to be serenity, silence of the more noisy faculties, receptivity.

 'Be it done unto me according to Thy word.'

 'Be still and see the salvation of the Lord."

'Let all flesh be silent at the presence of the Lord.'



* And, this, folks, was written in 1951!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Prayer In Activity

Let it be said straightaway that for anyone to attempt at the beginning of her spiritual course the practice of attending to the presence of God every two or three minutes is to prepare for a nervous breakdown.  The strain of recalling the mind at frequent intervals can only lead to disgust and a great longing to be free of the whole business of the spiritual life.  So for most people a more gradual introduction to the practice of the presence of God -- even a quite different way into it -- must be found.

There are souls who make use of the striking of the clock to remind them, at each successive hour, to make a few ejaculations which will set them off on the next sixty minutes with a shove of recollection.  Again there are souls who, when tempted to irritabililty or uncharity in their interviews with other people, make a habit of putting their fingers on the crucifix of their rosaries.  It steadies them.  The moment they feel like being curt they remember the danger signal, they grope for their rosary, they press the cross, the mood passes.  For those who can follow them, these methods are not to be despised.  But probably very few can.

What happens in a soul's development is more likely to be this:  from the cultivation of set prayer -- in the times, that is, which are put aside for prayer, whether vocal or mental --  the habit is acquired both of living more or less in the presence of God and of meeting each new happening in the day with an ejaculation.

The duties of the moment are performed under a prayer umbrella.  The presence of God is felt to be the natural as well as the supernatural element.  The soul may not be able to maintain its awareness of God for very long -- perhaps not for more than a few second at a time --but there is the general realization that this is the atmosphere most appropriate to its spirit.  The soul would like to be able to make recollection its whole-time business.  But of course there are the children to bathe, the tradesmen to ring up, the flowers to arrange, the clothes to mend...

So in effect the referring of each new duty or chance happening to God is not done so much as a result of making resolutions about it, as from the interior attraction which is gradually being formed by grace.  The desire to live in the presence of God, even if that desire seems to be blocked at every turn, brings its own technique.  It is the attraction rather than the resolution which eventually causes the soul to express itself in ejaculations throughout the day.  Prayer-words spring to the lips -- or even not to the lips at all, but to the mind -- as naturally as swear-words.  Except that these prayer-words (affections) are expressions of something real.

This is not to say that what are called in the textbooks 'forced acts'  are unnecessary.  They are, particularly in the beginning, very necessary indeed.  We have to train ourselves by deliberately wedging into the chinks of our busy days these sometimes rather angular shafts of love.  All that is claimed here is that after a time it should not be necessary to use quite such force.  They become more and more such force.  They become more and more 'affective' -- breathed out from the heart.

Practised in the sort of prayer here described, the soul no longer says: "Heavens, the clock is going to strike in a minute or two; I must think up something to say to God.'  The prayer takes the form -- often not framed in words at all -- of meeting each break in the day as it comes along with: 'This is the will of God; Lord, I unite my will to it.'  When a person interrupts what you rae doing, you recognize a representative of Christ.  When the dog is seen getting under the sofa with tonight's savoury, you at once assume that God wants you to put aside the half-hour which you have been looking forward to (and which you meant to spend with a book in church or doing the stations of the cross):  you realise that He wants you to make another savoury.

To conclude.  To be able to practise prayer in the middle of activity is something which derives more from an atitude of mind than from a multitude of resolutions.  The resolutions help towards cultivating the attitude of mind, but it is the attitude of mind which, without particularly thinking of them, and certainly without causing nervousness and tension, fulfils the resolutions.  And to build up this attitude of mind takes time.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Roughly The Two Methods

You can either pray your way into your working day, or you can work our way into your prayer.  By the first I mean saying a prayer before each duty, and so directing it towards God without further attention to its directly spiritual possiblities.  By the second I mean making a spiritual thing out of the work itself.

The one says:  'This next hour or two is going to be perfectly vile.  I pray, Lord, that I may keep my head, and that You may be praised by what I do.  I shall not be able to think of You, but You won't mind that.' 
The other says:  'If this morning is going to be of any use to God, it must be spent in a way which shows that I accept every moment of it as coming from His hand.  It is not so much that I must sanctify it as that I must let it sanctify me.  It may or may not mean that I shall be able to keep up the presence of God -- probably not -- but it should mean that I spend the time more for Him than for myself or for anyone else.'

Of the two, the second seems to be the more satisfactory.  But more satisfactory still is to practise both.  You can ask God to keep your head for you, and you can have the intention of looking at Him during the actual process of work.  Instead of, on the one hand, launching the work and then not bothering, or, on the other, trusting too much to your power of keeping the arrow fixed in the right direction during it al -- surely the best thing is to pray before-hand and at intervals while it is going on.

But perhaps the question as to whether you should follow one of the two alternatives or deliberately to set about practising both is academic.  What probably happens in most people's experience is that they begin by making their 'morning offering'  (and its equivalents as the various duties come up during the day), and end by so repeating and extending this dedication as virtually to practise a continual recollection.

Certainly the saints referred to God each duty as it came along, and certainly also they performed each duty in a state of more or less sustained reference.  'Yes,' you will say, 'but they were saints, and I'm not a saint.' 
The saints did not start off with the gift of recollection; they practised dedicating their works to God until it became a habit to dedicate their minues to Him.  It is not that they were saints and so could pray like this; it is more that they trained themselves to pray like this and so became saints.

'The fact remains,' you will object, 'that the idea of my dedicating the hundred and one domestic chores to God as they turn up is wildly unpractical.  Even if I could remember to do it with the ones which occur regularly each day -- like correspondence (*ed.note: modern day e-mail and FB!) and cooking and washing up -- I am never going to get into the habit of turning to God and offering to Him the interruptions and surprises and accidents which seem to happen far more often, and which, because of their variety, make any sort of calculated approach impossible.  There's simply no time to think of God when the baby has fallen off a chair and is screaming its head off.  Besides, if I tried dedicating my minutes to God, I would go mad.  It's as much a I can do to dedicate the day to Him.'

The answer to this one will need a separate section -- if not several.

The Next Thing

Having grasped the idea that the circumstances of your life are constituent elements of your vocation, you have now to evolve a technique for coping with these circumstances in such a way as to avoid fatalism and false liberty.  For instance, you may not say:  'If God has destined me to this sort of life, He must not complain if I say no prayers; I loathe the whole thing and am not going to try.'  To throw in your hand is the big temptation of your state.  To do so and put the blame on God only aggravates it.

You may be handicapped psychologically from perfecting the work which circumstances force upon you.  You may be physically unequal to the strain of it.  But there can be no question of your being at a disadvantage spiritually.  So far as prayer goes, you are being given enough grace to render to God the measure which He expects from you.  Once granted that you are responding to Him on the only level which really matters, it is of trifling importance that psychologically and physically you are not suited to the responsibilities of your state.  God can make good these deficiencies in a moment.

It becomes a matter, then, of developing a system of prayer within the framework of your God-given duties.  it will be your system of prayer -- not necessarily anyone else's.  You will have to find a way of communicating with God by means of and not in spite of the calls upon your time and energy and patience.

When you get right down to it, what is the response to God's grace?  It is giving back in terms that He has proposed.  For one person it may be done by singing psalms in choir, for another by nursing the sick; for one by kneeling silently in front of the Blessed Sacrament, for another by reaching small children.  For some it is by being ill, for others by making use of their health.  The whole thing depends upon the terms of God's demand for the individual.  Prayer, if it means expressed praise, is only one form of communication with God. Prayer, if it means directed effort towards God, can cover all forms of communications with God.  Your whole purpose, then, is to work out a way of praying which directs every effort towards God -- and to work out a way of directing efforts so that everything becomes a prayer.

Far from relieving you of your obligations towards prayer, the vocation in which you find yourself imposes new ones.  What you have to remember is that they may be quite new new -- of a different order altogether.  This fact should not appear alarming, it should be stimulating.  All you have to do is lay your soul open to the impulse of grace.  The only serious mistake which are liable to make is to confuse the requirements of your sort of prayer with those of the contemplative nun's.  The effect of both yours and hers have got to be the same; it is the expression which differs.