The Theology of Prayer & Aspiration
by Robert Crouse
Regarded from the standpoint of human psychology, and as a phenomenonof universal religious practice, prayer appears to be simply the articulation of human desires, human longings, and human aspirations. “My soul is athirst for God,” cries the Psalmist, and it is indeed that thirst, that desire for God, which—whether acknowledged or merely implicit—underlies and impels every quest of the human spirit.
“All men by nature desire to know,” says Aristotle at the beginning of his Metaphysica.1 But what is it that they desire to know? They long to know the reasons of things, the causes, the truth of things; finally to know that truth by which and in which all things have their truth. Thus Dante, in the Paradiso, compares the intellect’s desire to a wild beast racing to its den, where alone it can find rest.2 What are all our sciences, what are all our fragments of knowledge but droplets from that fountain of which we long to drink in all its fullness? “My soul is athirst for God, yea, even for the living God.”
What is our quest for happiness, but a desire for the good; and what is that good we seek—whether knowingly or not—but some participation in the pure and perfect good that is God himself? What is our quest for liberty, but our longing for God’s own city, the heavenly Jerusalem, which is above, and is free, and is the mother of us all? “My soul hath a desire and longing to enter into the courts of the Lord: my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God” (Ps. 84:2). What is our quest for beauty, but a longing for that pure and perfect beauty which belongs to Zion; and what are all our fragmentary images of beauty, whether in music, or painting, or sculpture, or poetry, or whatever human arts, but pallid reflections of the unimaginable beauty of the countenance of God? “My heart hath talked of thee, Seek ye my face: thy face Lord, will I seek. O hide not thou thy face from me: nor cast thy servant away in displeasure” (Ps. 27:8–9).
Desire of the Pilgrim
Desire takes so many forms, and speaks with so many different voices. High up in the mountains of central Italy, in Abruzzo, there is a tiny, isolated hamlet called Bominaco; and near that place, in a solitary spot on a mountainside, there is a supremely lovely twelfth-century church, with frescoes, sculpture, and architectural lines of such exquisite beauty as to move one to tears. The pastor of Bominaco sums up the meaning of the place in one phrase: “insonne desiderio di Dio”: unsleeping desire for God. It is the soul’s thirst, articulated in stone. “One thing have I desired of the Lord that I will require, even that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life: to behold the fair beauty of the Lord and to visit his temple” (Ps. 27:4).
All human desire, all human longing and aspiration, expressed in a thousand different forms, at a thousand different levels, is ultimately desire for God. Dante makes that point lucidly in the Convivio:
Prayer is the interpretation, the articulation of all this desire: the soul’s ceaseless desire for God; and prayer is therefore, indeed, as George Herbert describes it, “soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage.”4 Indeed, the desire is itself the substance of the prayer, as St. Augustine remarks in one of his sermons: “Desire itself prays, even if the tongue be still. If you always desire, always you pray. When does prayer sleep? Only when desire grows cold.”5 St. Thomas Aquinas makes the same point in his commentary on the First Epistle to the Thessalonians, when he says that “desire itself has the force of prayer,”6 and Richard Hooker sums it up in a comment in the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, where he remarks that “Every good and holy desire, though it lack the form, hath notwithstanding in itself the substance and with him the force of a prayer, who regardeth the very moanings, groans and sighs of the heart of man.”7
The articulation of desire, the articulation of human longings and aspirations: from the standpoint of human psychology and universal religious practice, that is the meaning of prayer. It is homesickness for God. “My soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth after thee: in a barren and dry land where no water is.”(Ps. 63:1).
But looked at only in that perspective—the perspective of human aspiration and human experience—it has inevitably a tragic character, because it seeks an end that human energy and human ingenuity can never attain: It seeks the divine life, it seeks divine friendship, it seeks to be as God. That is tragic hubris, the tragic pride of human aspiration, whether one thinks of that in terms of the biblical accounts of the expulsion from the garden, and the destruction of the Tower of Babel, or whether one thinks of the fate of the heroes of Greek tragic poetry; for the divine life and the divine friendship appear to be, as Aristotle remarks, “a life too high for man.”8
Remember how the temple of the oracle at Delphi bore the inscription gnothi seauton, “know thyself”9—know that you are a man and not a god, and do not transgress the human limits. The end of our desire must remain eternally beyond us, as in Keats’s meditation on the figures of the lovers painted on a Grecian urn, poised there forever in the moment just before the kiss: “Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss, Though winning near the goal.”10 There is, of course, in such a spirituality a terrible hopelessness, perhaps most fully manifest in the desperate religiosity of the last great pagan philosophers,11 and perhaps less nobly manifest in some of the bizarre religious enthusiasms of our own times.
But what is the alternative? To deny the desire is to reduce the quest for truth to idle curiosity or pedestrian utility, the quest for happiness to selfish self-indulgence, and the quest for beauty to the search for emotional “highs.” It is to fall into that pusillanimity of spirit that Dante so marvelously describes as the vestibule of hell, where life is but the futile pursuit of an empty figment. “Non ragioniam di lor, ma guarda e passa,” says Virgil, “Let us not speak of them, but look and pass on.”12 “O turn away mine eyes,” cries the Psalmist, “lest they behold vanity” (Ps. 119:37)—lest they behold emptiness. “My tears have been my meat day and night, while they say daily unto me, Where is now thy God?” (Ps. 42:3).
Prayer as Divine Gift
To such an account of human prayer as human desire, Christian theology would add another, and more profound, and for Christian prayer, altogether crucial perspective, in the recognition of prayer as divine gift in creation and redemption, inspired by the divine Word and moved by the divine Spirit.
St. Augustine makes the point in a famous passage at the beginning of the Confessions. “It is thou, O God, who dost rouse mankind to delight in praising thee, for thou has made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless, until they find their rest in thee.”13 In another passage, near the end of the Confessions, he comments more fully on the meaning of that unquiet heart:
The activity of prayer is thus the activity of love’s conversion, the activity of rational will aspiring and ascending towards its true, eternal good. But what is the impulse, the spring of this ascent, this pondus, this “weight” of love? It is the natural God-given desire of the created soul, “the concreated and everlasting thirst for God’s own realm,”15 inspired by the fire of the spirit, which burns within the soul. And just as fire, by the compulsion of its very nature, rises upwards, so the soul moves to desire, and finds no rest until it finds rejoicing in the final object of its love.
But whereas in the realm of nature all things are created in number, measure and weight, and by their very natures, by their rising and decline, infallibly seek the good in ordered and harmonious praise of the creator, human love is the activity of free and rational will. And therein lies the possibility of wayward love: a love that fixes upon some finite good as though that were the absolute and perfect good.
Thus, in human life, love becomes distorted, perverted, and frustrated, and leads the soul to slavery—subservience to the sensible, to idle curiosity, and vain ambition, subject to all the demons of the present age. And thus, the true freedom of the will is lost; the fire of love is, as it were, extinguished, frozen in a dark abyss of alienation and despair, and prayer is dead. But still, somehow, the thirst is there, if only in a half-recognized sense of emptiness and futility: “Like as the hart desireth the water, even so my soul longeth after thee, O God.”
That text from Psalm 42 is marvelously illustrated in the great twelfth-century mosaic (just now beautifully restored) that adorns the apse of the ancient Church of San Clemente, in Rome. In that picture, the harts come to drink of the streams of paradise that flow from the Garden of Eden, which is also the hill of Calvary, surmounted by the Tree of Life, which is also the Cross of Christ. There is much more symbolic richness in that astonishing mosaic,16 but the essential point for us now is just this: It is through the Cross of Christ that the ancient enmity, the old and ever new alienation, is overcome, and the streams of grace flow out to renew the spiritual life of mankind, and give rebirth to prayer.
Into the Deepest Mystery
It is through the Cross of Christ that the gates of prayer are truly opened. Prayer is, indeed, the articulation of human desire; but Christian theology sees it as properly much more than that. By the Cross, we are raised up, no longer just clients, so to speak, but friends of God; and prayer becomes the conversation, the communication of friends. As St. Thomas remarks, in his meditations on St. John 15 (Jesus’ Last Supper Discourse), Our Savior calls his disciples “friends,” and calls them to converse together in the proper condition of friendship. Friends delight in each other’s presence, and find comfort there in their anxieties. We are made friends with God, he dwelling in us, and we in him. We are no longer servants, but friends, “For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear, but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father” (Rom. 8:15).17
The great Puritan divine, Richard Baxter, makes just the same point as St. Thomas, specifically with reference to the Lord’s Supper, wherein, he says, “we have the fullest intimation, expression and communication of the wondrous love of God.”
It is, of course, a token of the intimacy of divine and human friendship that in the language of prayer, in English as in many other languages, we are privileged to use the intimate, second person singular forms, the “thee” and “thou” and “thine” of intimate friends, rather than the public and formal plurals. Prayer is the conversation of intimate friends. But the theology of Christian prayer takes us even beyond the intimacy of friendship: “Your life is hid with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3): “I live, yet not I, but Christ liveth in me” (Gal. 2:20). We dwell not only in God’s presence, as friends, but we dwell in him and he in us, and rightly does George Herbert speak of prayer as “God’s breath in man returning to his birth.”19
Indeed, in prayer we are taken up into the deepest mystery of the divine life, in the relations of being, knowing, and loving, which are the Holy Trinity. Through the gift of the Spirit, the Word of God engraces our hearts to cry, “Abba, Father,” and thus we have our places in that eternal outgoing and return of the divine Word and Spirit, the divine self-knowing, and the bond of love that unites the knowing and the known.
Thus our prayer approaches God not from outside, as it were, but from within, “through Jesus Christ our Lord, in the power of the Holy Spirit”; that is to say, our prayer is within the knowing and willing of God, with the divine Providence. In a right understanding of prayer, it can stand in no ultimate opposition to divine Providence, because its whole point, really, is to place our life freely within God’s will, in knowledge and love; and our prayers accomplish precisely what God’s eternal Providence, the source of all order in the world, has eternally willed to accomplish by them. They are the free agents of Providence, the free, rational, and willing instruments of grace. God’s grace descends, and ascends again in prayer. As Richard Hooker beautifully expresses it:
God’s grace descends, and ascends again in prayer. Thus prayer is God’s gift to us: God’s work in us and our life in God, the redemption of desire. As St. Paul explains, all who are in Christ are, by God’s grace, new creations (2 Cor. 5:17), and our prayer is our participation in that new life of grace, converting us, setting straight our love, transforming, transfiguring, “transhumanizing” us (to borrow Dante’s special word, transumanar).21
And at this level, when we speak of prayer, we’re not speaking just of particular acts of prayer, or occasional prayer, but of prayer as a condition of life in continual conversion, continual reference to God. That is habitual prayer, that state in which, according to the magnificent Prayer Book collect for the Fourth Sunday after Easter, God so orders our unruly wills and affections that we love what he commands and desire what he promises, so that our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found. In that condition of habitual prayer, that state of being in prayer, as John Donne says in one of his sermons, “that soul prays sometimes when it does not know that it prays.”22
Glorious & Hard
In Christ, we are new creations, born anew, no longer at enmity, but friends of God. Our reconciliation has been accomplished, once for all; for Christ’s sake, we are accounted friends of God. But in another sense, our reconciliation is not complete, and will not be complete, until we come to know as we are known and to love as we are loved. Thus, there is the tension between a justification, divinely wrought and finished once for all, and a sanctification, which is being worked out within us day by day. Prayer reaches out, in faith and hope, across that space.
In that reaching out of prayer, precisely because it is by faith, trials and temptations, the dark night of doubt, confusion and uncertainty, are not just unfortunate accidents. In God’s good Providence, they belong to the very life of faith, for faith must be tried, like precious metal, “which from the earth is tried, and purified seven times in the fire” (Ps. 12:6; 1 Pet. 1:7). As St. Ignatius of Antioch puts it, our desire is crucified: “My love,” he says, “my eros is crucified.”23 Perhaps the trials take different forms in one age or another, and different forms for each of us. Those trials are necessary, and must be embraced. Indeed, as St. James says, we must “count it all joy, knowing that the trial of your faith worketh patience. Let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire” (James 1:2–4).
Certainly, the confusions of the world in which we live, uncertainties within the Church, and confusions within our own souls present us with problems and dilemmas, in which it is surely not easy to “count it all joy”! But that is precisely the nature of our calling, and by the grace of God, who gives manna in the desert, and water from the rock, we are not without resources. The church’s time of persecution is God’s time of preparation, and it is in exile that the bride is prepared for her husband. As Thomas Traherne puts it, “Our very rust shall cover us with gold.”24
In this mixed time, which is both glorious and hard, we are not without resources. We do possess, in faith, God’s word of reconciliation, committed unto us. We do possess, in faith, God’s work for us, God’s word to us, made audible in Holy Scripture, made sensible in Holy Sacraments, if we will but attend with minds and hearts obedient and penitent. We do possess, in faith, the gift of God’s Spirit to lead us into truth. We do possess, if we will, in the community of faith, centuries of wisdom and experience—none of it irrelevant—words and images of prayer and sanctity that will come alive for us, if we will give them (as to the shades in Homer’s Hades) the living blood of our own labors to drink. It seems to me terribly important and urgent that we do our best to reclaim that great heritage of prayer and spiritual discipline that is ours especially as Anglicans in our great tradition of common prayer.
The practice of Christian spirituality, our life of prayer, presents us, no doubt, with many difficulties. But only one of these difficulties is, I think, really fundamental; and that is the demoralizing of the Christian mind and heart, and the demoralizing of the Christian community, which we bring upon ourselves when we forget our calling, and fall into a mindless conformity to the spirit of the present age—the ambitio saeculi, as St. Augustine calls it.25 Secular ideals, secular methods and measures insidiously invade our consciousness, and pollute the springs of prayer. We lose heart, and fall back into a hopeless neo-pagan spirituality.
The only true remedy lies in the steady cultivation of the Christian virtues of faith and hope and charity,26 holding on to the centuries of Christian wisdom, holding fast to our road of pilgrimage. What is essentially required is the practical upbuilding, among us and within us, of the life of penitential adoration, the life of habitual prayer. With such graces, may God now refurbish his house. If this conference has given us a little clearer insight into what that means, and if it has given us any morsel of encouragement to renew our disciplines of prayer, it has indeed been blessed by God, to whom be everlasting praise and glory.
1. Aristotle, Metaphysics, I, 1 (980a 21).
2. Dante, Divine Comedy, Paradiso, IV, 127–129, Dante Alighieri. Tutte le opere, ed. L. Blasucci (Florence, 1981), p. 631.
3. Dante, Convivio, IV, 12, ed. cit., pp. 176–177, tr. R.D.C.; cf. Augustine, Enarr. in ps. LXII, 5, CCL, 39, 796.
4. George Herbert, “Prayer,” The Oxford Book of Christian Verse, p. 139.
5. Augustine, Sermon LXXX, 7, PL, 38, 497; cf. A. Cacciari, S. Agostino d’Ippona. La preghiera. Epistola 130 a Proba (Rome, 1981), p. 48.
6. Thomas Aquinas, Super epist. s. Pauli lectura, Vol. II (Marietti, 1953), I ad Thessal., 130, p. 189.
7. Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, ed. J. Keble, Works of Hooker (Oxford, 21841) Vol. II, V, xlvii, 2, p. 201.
8. Aristotle, Nichomachaen Ethics, X, 7 (1177b 25); cf. Metaphysics, XII, 7 (1072b 15–20). On the impossibility of friendship with God, Nic. Ethics, VIII, 7 (1158b 35–1159a 5).
9. For the history of interpretation of the maxim, see P. Courcelle, Connais-toi toi-méme de Socrate à saint Bernard (Paris, 1974).
10. John Keats, “Ode on a Grecian Urn.”
11. Cf. G. Reale, L’estremo messaggio spirituale nel mondo antico nel pensiero metafisico e teurgico di Proclo, introductory lecture in C. Faraggiana di Sarzana, trans. Proclo. I Manuali (Milan, 1985) pp. v–ccxxiii.
12. Dante, Divine Comedy, Inferno, ed. cit., III, 51, p. 396.
13. Augustine, Confessions, I, 1.
14. Ibid. XIII, 9 (tr. R.D.C.). For a full discussion, see A. DiGiovanni, L’inquietudine dell’ anima. La dottrina dell’ amore nelle “Confessioni” di S. Agostino (Rome, 1964).
15. Dante, Divine Comedy, Paradiso, ed. cit., II, 19–20, p. 622.
16. For a detailed description, see L. Boyle, A Short Guide to St. Clements’, Rome (Rome, 1972), pp. 26–32.
17. Thomas Aquinas, Contra Gentiles, IV, 22; cf. Super Evan. S. Jo. lect., XV, ed. Marietti, lect. 3, 1–4, pp. 379–382.
18. Richard Baxter, Works, III, 816, as quoted in J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness (Wheaton, Illinois, 1980), pp. 213–214.
19. George Herbert, Prayer, ed. cit., p. 139.
20. Richard Hooker, Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, ed. cit., V, xxiii, p. 115.
21. Dante, Divine Comedy, Paradiso, ed. cit., I, 70, p. 619.
22. John Donne, Sermon 12, in G. Potter and E. Simpson, eds., The Sermons of John Donne (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1962) Vol. IV, p. 310.
23. Ignatius of Antioch, Ep. to the Romans, VII (ed. K. Bihlmeyer, Die Apostolischen Väter (Tübingen, 1956) I, 16, p. 100.
24. Thomas Traherne, “Christian Ethics,” in The Oxford Book of Christian Verse, p. 287.
25. St. Augustine, Confessions, X, 30, 41.
26. Cf. R. Crouse, “Hope Which Does Not Disappoint: The Path to Genuine Renewal,” in G. Egerton, ed., Anglican Essentials (Toronto, 1995), pp. 286–291.
Robert Crouse is professor emeritus of Classics, Dalhousie and King’s Universities, Halifax, Nova Scotia, an Anglican priest of the diocese of Nova Scotia, and canon theologian of the diocese of Saskatchewan. This year, he is also adjunct professor of Classics at Dalhousie University, adjunct professor of Theology at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry, Ambridge, Pennsylvania, and visiting professor of Patrology, Augustinian Patristic Institute, Pontifical Lateran University, Rome. This is a paper from a Western Canadian Theological Conference, published in The Lord Is Nigh: The Theology and Practice of Prayer, M. Treschow, ed. (Kelowna, B.C.: Sparrow’s Editing, 1997), 74–78. The title, “Heavenly Avarice,” is taken from Thomas Traherne’s poem, “Desire.”
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