The Hidden Life of Prayer
The Life of Prayer
-Alfred de Musset.
'The love of Christ is my prayer-book."
"Prayer is the key of heaven; the Spirit helps faith to turn this key."
In one of the cathedrals of Northern Europe an exquisite group in high relief represents the prayer life. It is disposed in three panels. The first of these reminds us of the apostolic precept, "Pray without ceasing." We see the front of a spacious temple which opens on the market-place. The great square is strewn with crowds of eager men, gesticulating, bargaining-all evidently intent on gain. But One, who wears a circlet of thorn, and is clothed in a garment woven without seam from the top throughout, moves silently through the clamorous crowds, and subdues to holy fear the most covetous heart.
The second panel displays the precincts of the temple, and serves to illustrate the common worship of the Church. White-robed ministers hasten here and there. They carry oil for the lamp, and water for the laver, and blood from the altar; with pure intention, their eyes turned towards the unseen glory, they fulfill the duties of their sacred calling.
The third panel introduces us to the inner sanctuary. A solitary worshipper has entered within the veil, and hushed and lowly in the presence of God, bends before the glancing Shekinah. This represents the hidden life of prayer of which the Master spoke in the familiar words, "But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thine inner chamber, and having shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret, and thy Father which seeth in secret shall recompense thee" (Matt. 6:6, R.V.).
Our Lord takes it for granted that His people will pray. And indeed in Scripture generally the outward obligation of prayer is implied rather than asserted. Moved by a divinely-implanted instinct, our natures cry out for God, for the living God. And however this instinct may be crushed by sin, it awakes to power in the consciousness of redemption. Theologians of all schools, and Christians of every type, agree in their recognition of this principle of the new life. Chrysostom has said, "The just man does not desist from praying until he ceases to be just;" and Augustine, "He that loveth little prayeth little, and he that loveth much prayeth much;" and Richard Hooker, "Prayer is the first thing wherewith a righteous life beginneth, and the last wherewith it doth end;" and Père la Combe, "He who has a pure heart will never cease to pray, and he who will be constant in prayer shall know what it is to have a pure heart;" and Bunyan, "If thou art not a praying person, thou art not a Christian;" and Richard Baxter, "Prayer is the breath of the new creature;" and George Herbert, "Prayer...the soul's blood."
And yet, instinctive as is our dependence upon God, no duty is more earnestly impressed upon us in Scripture than the duty of continual communion with Him. The main reason for this unceasing insistence is the arduousness of prayer. In its nature it is a laborious undertaking, and in our endeavor to maintain the spirit of prayer we are called to wrestle against principalities and powers of darkness.
"Dear Christian reader," says Jacob Boehme, "to pray aright is right earnest work." Prayer is the most sublime energy of which the spirit of man is capable.1 It is in one aspect glory and blessedness; in another, it is toil and travail, battle and agony. Uplifted hands grow tremulous long before the field is won; straining sinews and panting breath proclaim the exhaustion of the "heavenly footman." The weight that falls upon an aching heart fills the brow with anguish, even when the midnight air is chill. Prayer is the uplift of the earth-bound soul into the heaven, the entrance of the purified spirit into the holiest; the rending of the luminous veil that shuts in, as behind curtains, the glory of God. It is the vision of things unseen; the recognition of the mind of the Spirit; the effort to frame words which man may not utter. A man that truly prays one prayer," says Bunyan, "shall after that never be able to express with his mouth or pen the unutterable desires, sense, affection, and longing that went to God in that prayer." The saints of the Jewish Church had a princely energy in intercession: "Battering the gates of heaven with storms of prayer," they took the kingdom of heaven by violence. The first Christians proved in the wilderness, in the dungeon, in the arena, and at the stake the truth of their Master's words, "He shall have whatsoever he saith." Their souls ascended to God in supplication as the flame of the altar mounts heavenward. The Talmudists affirm that in the divine life four things call for fortitude; of these prayer is one. One who met Tersteegen at Kronenberg remarked, "It seemed to me as if he had gone straight into heaven, and had lost himself in God; but often when he had done praying he was as white as the wall." David Brainerd notes that on one occasion, when he found his soul "exceedingly enlarged" in supplication, he was "in such anguish, and pleaded with so much earnestness and importunity," that when he rose from his knees he felt "extremely weak and overcome." "I could scarcely walk straight," he goes on to say, "my joints were loosed, the sweat ran down my face and body, and nature seemed as if it would dissolve." A living writer has reminded us of John Foster, who used to spend long nights in his chapel, absorbed in spiritual exercises, pacing to and fro in the disquietude of his spirit, until his restless feet had worn a little track in the aisle.2
One might easily multiply examples, but there is no need to go beyond Scripture to find either precept or example to impress us with the arduousness of that prayer which prevails. Should not the supplication of the Psalmist, "Quicken Thou me, according to Thy word...quicken me in Thy righteousness...quicken me after Thy loving-kindness...quicken me according to Thy judgments...quicken me, O Lord, for Thy name's sake;" and the complaint of the Evangelical Prophet, "There is none that calleth upon Thy name, that stirreth up himself to take hold of Thee," find an echo in our experience? Do we know what it is to "labour," to "wrestle," to "agonize" in prayer?3
Another explanation of the arduousness of prayer lies in the fact that we are spiritually hindered: there is "the noise of archers in the places of drawing water." St. Paul assures us that we shall have to maintain our prayer energy "against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places." Dr. Andrew Bonar used to say that, as the King of Syria commanded his captains to fight neither with small nor great, but only with the King of Israel, so the prince of the power of the air seems to bend all the force of his attack against the spirit of prayer. If he should prove victorious there, he has won the day. Sometimes we are conscious of a satanic impulse directed immediately against the life of prayer in our souls; sometimes we are led into "dry" and wilderness-experiences, and the face of God grows dark above us; sometimes, when we strive most earnestly to bring every thought and imagination under obedience to Christ, we seem to be given over to disorder and unrest; sometimes the inbred slothfulness of our nature lends itself to the evil one as an instrument by which he may turn our minds back from the exercise of prayer. Because of all these things, therefore, we must be diligent and resolved, watching as a sentry who remembers that the lives of men are lying at the hazard of his wakefulness, resourcefulness, and courage.4 "And what I say unto you," said the Lord to His disciples, "I say unto all, Watch! "
There are times when even the soldiers of Christ become heedless of their trust, and no longer guard with vigilance the gift of prayer. Should any one who reads these pages be conscious of loss of power in intercession, lack of joy in communion, hardness and impenitence in confession, "Remember from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works."5
Oh, whispering waves below!
Was earth, or heaven. or I the same,
A year, a year ago!
"The stars have kept their home on high,
The waves their wonted flow;
The love is lost that once was I,
A year, a year ago."6
The only remedy for this sluggish mood is that we should "rekindle our love," as Polycarp wrote to the Church in Ephesus, "in the blood of God." Let us ask for a fresh gift of the Holy Spirit to quicken our sluggish hearts, a new disclosure of the charity of God. The Spirit will help our infirmities, and the very compassion of the Son of God will fall upon us, clothing us with zeal as with a garment, stirring our affections into a most vehement flame, and filling our souls with heaven.
"Men ought always to pray, and "-although faintness of spirit attends on prayer like a shadow-"not faint." The soil in which the prayer of faith takes root is a life of unbroken communion with God, a life in which the windows of the soul are always open towards the City of Rest. We do not know the true potency of prayer until our hearts are so steadfastly inclined to God that our thoughts turn to Him, as by a Divine instinct, whenever they are set free from the consideration of earthly things. It has been said of Origen (in his own words) that his life was "one unceasing supplication." By this means above all others the perfect idea of the Christian life is realized. Intercourse between the believer and his Lord ought never to be interrupted.7
"The vision of God," says Bishop Westcott, "makes life a continuous prayer." And in that vision all fleeting things resolve themselves, and appear in relation to things unseen. In a broad use of the term, prayer is the sum of all the service that we render to God,8 so that all fulfillment of duty is, in one sense, the performance of Divine service, and the familiar saying, "Work is worship," is justified. "I am prayer," said a Psalmist (Psa. cix. 4). "In everything, by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving," said an Apostle.
In the Old Testament that life which is steeped in prayer is often described as a walk with God. Enoch walked in assurance, Abraham in perfectness, Elijah in fidelity, the sons of Levi in peace and equity. Or it is spoken of as a dwelling with God, even as Joshua departed not from the Tabernacle; or as certain craftsmen of the olden time abode with a king for his work. Again, it is defined as the ascent of the soul into the Sacred Presence; as the planets, "with open face beholding," climb into the light of the sun's countenance, or as a flower, lit with beauty and dipped in fragrance, reaches upwards towards the light. At other times, prayer is said to be the gathering up of all the faculties in an ardor of reverence, and love, and praise. As one clear strain may succeed in reducing to harmony a number of mutually-discordant voices, so the reigning impulses of the spiritual nature unite the heart to fear the name of the Lord.
But the most familiar, and perhaps the most impressive, description of prayer in the Old Testament, is found in those numerous passages where the life of communion with God is spoken of as a waiting upon Him. A great scholar has given a beautiful definition of waiting upon God: "To wait is not merely to remain impassive. It is to expect-to look for with patience, and also with submission. It is to long for, but not impatiently; to look for, but not to fret at the delay; to watch for, but not restlessly; to feel that if He does not come we will acquiesce, and yet to refuse to let the mind acquiesce in the feeling that He will not come."9
Now, do not let any one say that such a life is visionary and unprofitable. The real world is not this covering veil of sense; reality belongs to those heavenly things of which the earthly are mere "patterns" and correspondences. Who is so practical as God? Who among men so wisely directed His efforts to the circumstances and the occasions which He was called to face, as "the Son of Man who is in heaven? "Those who pray well, work well. Those who pray most, achieve the grandest results.10 To use the striking phrase of Tauler, "In God nothing is hindered."
The cultivation of the habit of prayer will secure its expression on all suitable occasions.
In times of need, in the first instance; almost everyone will pray then. Moses stood on the shores of the Red Sea, surveying the panic into which the children of Israel were cast when they realized that the chariots of Pharaoh were thundering down upon them. "Wherefore criest thou unto Me?" said the Lord. Nehemiah stood before King Artaxerxes. The monarch noted his inward grief, and said, "Why is thy countenance sad, seeing thou art not sick? This is nothing else but sorrow of heart." That question opened the door to admit the answer to three months' praying; and the hot desire that had risen to God in those slow months gathered itself into one fervent ejaculation, "So I prayed to the God of heaven."
Again, one whose life is spent in fellowship with God will constantly seek and find opportunities for swift and frequently-recurring approaches to the throne of grace. The apostles bring every duty under the cross; at the name of Jesus their loyal souls soar heavenward in adoration and in praise. The early Christians never met without invoking a benediction; they never parted without prayer. The saints of the Middle Ages allowed each passing incident to summon them to intercession-the shadow on the dial, the church-bell, the flight of the swallow, the rising of the sun, the falling of a leaf. The covenant which Sir Thomas Browne made with himself is well-known, but one may venture to refer to it once more: "To pray in all places where quietness inviteth; in any house, highway, or street; and to know no street in this city that may not witness that I have not forgotten God and my Saviour in it; and that no parish or town where I have been may not say the like. To take occasion of praying upon the sight of any church which I see, or pass by, as I ride about. To pray daily, and particularly for my sick patients, and for all sick people under whose care soever. And at the entrance into the house of the sick to say, "The peace and the mercy of God be upon this house." After a sermon to make a prayer and desire a blessing, and to pray for the minister." And much more of a like nature.
Once more, one who lives in the spirit of prayer will spend much time in retired and intimate communion with God. It is by such a deliberate engagement of prayer that the fresh springs of devotion which flow through the day are fed. For, although communion with God is the life-energy of the renewed nature, our souls "cleave to the dust," and devotion tends to grow formal-it becomes emptied of its spiritual content, and exhausts itself in outward acts. The Master reminds us of this grave peril, and informs us that the true defense against insincerity in our approach to God lies in the diligent exercise of private prayer.11
In the days of the Commonwealth, one of the early Friends, "a servant of the Lord, but a stranger outwardly," came into an assembly of serious people, who had met for worship. "And after some time he had waited on the Lord in spirit he had an opportunity to speak, all being silent; he said by way of exhortation, 'Keep to the Lord's watch.' These words, being spake in the power of God, had its operation upon all or most of the meeting, so that they felt some great dread and fear upon their spirits. After a little time he spake again, saying, 'What I say unto you, I say unto all, Watch.' Then he was silent again a little time, but the whole meeting, being sensible that this man was in some extraordinary spirit and power, were all musing what manner of teaching this should be, being such a voice that most of the hearers never heard before, that carried such great authority with it that they were all necessitated to be subject to the power."12
Soldier of Christ, you are in an enemy's country; "Keep to the Lord's watch."