The perfect life consists in the perfect correspondence to the will of God. He who came to teach us how to live said, “I came down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of Him that sent me”; “My meat is to do the will of him that sent me, and to finish his work”; and St. Paul says of Him, “Even Christ pleased not himself.”
In the hour of His agony, His prayer was, “If it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt.” He would not anticipate by a moment the appointed work of His life. “My hour is not yet come,” He said again and again; but when the hour had come for work or suffering, He never failed. From first to last, His life was the perfect correspondence with His Father’s will. His first word was: “Did you not know, that I must be about my Father’s business?” Almost His last was: “It is finished.”
Therefore, the more truly we desire to follow our Lord’s example and to attain perfection, the more deeply must this principle underlie all our plans and actions. As we lose sight of this, we are almost certain to get astray and set up false standards and unworthy aims.
But such a life involves great self-discipline and constant sacrifice; many an ambition has to be crushed, many an opening for plans that are much to our taste has to be abandoned. Any who would live such a life must have their nature well in hand and be living in close communion with God. It is an easy thing to say, “The perfect life is the perfect correspondence with the will of God,” but it is not easy to carry out in practice, for it is certain to lead us along a rough and difficult path where oftentimes our heart and strength will fail us. If it was so with the Master, we cannot be surprised that it should be the same with the servant.
There are two things especially that any who would live this life will need. First, the ever-increasing knowledge of God’s will; and, secondly, the grace to correspond with it when it is known; first, light and secondly, grace — light for the mind, grace for the will. We may know God’s will for us well enough at any given moment and not have the strength to obey it, or we may at times earnestly desire to follow God’s will and yet not know it. We need both light and grace.
Now, so that we may attain these gifts, it is necessary to be living near God. It is impossible for us to turn suddenly from a distracted or careless life and to find ourselves at once illuminated and strengthened. The knowledge of God’s will is often most difficult to attain, even for those living very near Him; often those who love Him most and are most single-minded are left in doubt as to His purpose for them, and only by constant prayer and self-discipline do they gradually gain the knowledge.
Therefore, if we would not make grievous mistakes and perhaps make shipwreck of our lives, we must endeavor to keep near to God, to learn to know Him better, to understand the tokens of His will and the method of His dealings with us; in a word, to get on terms of loving and reverent friendship with Him.
But this can be done only by prayer. A prayerful life is almost certainly a life of conformity to the will of God; a prayerless life is quite certainly a life of self-will, in which imperfections and sins and the spirit of worldliness cloud the spiritual perception so that it is not even conscious of how far it is separated from God.
And yet, while prayer is the condition of knowing God, there is no practice of the spiritual life more difficult. To pray well, to grow in the knowledge of God, we must pray; and to be able to pray well, we have to learn how to pray, to live through, perhaps, many years in which we seem to gain little fruit and are often scarcely conscious of any progress.
And, moreover, each has practically to learn for himself how to pray. We may gain some encouragement, some little help from others, but the real secret of prayer we must learn for ourselves. How can anyone teach another the form of conversation with a friend? It grows, unfolds, develops of itself; it is intensely personal.
We may learn something from the experience of others as to where dangers lie, as to possible self-deception, the need of perseverance through times of darkness and coldness; but the inmost secret of prayer must be our own. It is the deepest expression of the soul’s personal relationship with God. It is, indeed, in one sense like, but in another unlike, the prayer of anyone else.
If God has given us any power in prayer, we shall find that it is impossible to communicate the secret of that power to anyone else; when we try to tell that, we fail. We may repeat the prayer that we say, and tell of some of the trials and struggles through which we have passed, but we cannot tell just that thing that gives the power and strength to our prayers, for, in fact, it is our relationship to God Himself; it is the expression of all that we mean by our spiritual life.
Yet there are certain dangers that are common to most people, and certain principles on which growth in the life of prayer must be based.
To many persons it seems, when first they begin in earnest the practice of prayer, that the best guide is their own devotion, that in spiritual matters system and rule crush out all spontaneity and life, and that often even the mere attitude of kneeling chills them and makes them formal. They find that they can pray better at work than on their knees, at irregular times of exceptional fervor than at stated times, and that consequently the best rule is to pray when they can pray best. Such persons have a proper dread of formalism, and it seems to them as if system and rule must degenerate into formalism if prayers are to be said at stated times whether there is any fervor of spirit or not. Yet such persons should remember:
- As time goes on, those inspirations and times of fervor, unless carefully disciplined, become less frequent and intense, and at last probably die out altogether. They belong to the early years of spiritual youth; they are given to help the soul in those first arduous struggles with bad habits and sins of the past, but they pass away; they are not a necessary part of the saintly life; they are, moreover, full of imperfections, and those who depend on such states of mind for prayer will find that, as time goes on, they pray less, not more.
- Everything is of value only insofar as it helps to form character. A person whose conversation with God depends mainly on the amount of emotional fervor he experiences will not have much strength of will or determination. The life of prayer cannot be built on anything so unreliable as feelings without being itself unreliable; it is built rather on acts of the will.
The religious character, therefore, is developed, and more is done for God by system and regularity than by all the fervor and excitement in the world. A great part of the discipline of faith is the holding on to God in darkness; one, therefore, who goes on regularly with prayer in coldness and deadness as faithfully as in times of the greatest fervor, thanking God when He makes His presence felt, but not laying too much stress on it, not gauging his progress by it, but believing that it is the will, fighting its way through darkness and almost the chill of death, that is accepted by God; such a person’s character is altogether a more religious one and a stronger one than the other, and moreover we shall find that he has a far deeper and truer knowledge of God. The effort to get nearer God when He seems far off awakens a longing and strengthens the will in a way that one whose prayers depend on emotion can never experience.
The religious character that is ruled by impulse is quite a different one from that which is governed by principle. God can reveal Himself in darkness as well as in light: we are told that “clouds and darkness are round about him” and that He “coverest himself with light as with a garment.” Those, therefore, who will not pray in darkness lose that special revelation that God gives through the darkness, and surely none who have persevered through such times can doubt that God revealed Himself to them then. When the darkness has passed, the soul will find what an increased knowledge and love of God it has gained.
- Devotion is of two kinds, essential and accidental. The word devotion means “consecration,” which is an act of the will — offered, dedicated, devoted. Essential devotion, then, is devotion of the will offered to God and independent of any emotion. He who prays in such a spirit, offering himself to bear whatever God may send, is certainly devout, whatever he may feel, even though his whole time of prayer be spent in nothing but a struggle with distraction. God will not refuse to accept the service of a will that is devoted to Him.
Accidental devotion arises when there flows in upon the will that is thus holding on to God the light and joy and peace that stirs the heart and feelings. This is, after all, but accidental; it is not of the essence of devotion; one may be very devout without it. For the deepest love is the love that has passed down into the will and rules there.
The love that a young couple experience in the first days of their married life is full of passion and feeling; but after they have lived together for years and their lives are woven into one another, those passionate feelings of love have mostly given way to a stronger love that rules the will. They probably feel little of what they used to experience, but now each rules and molds the other’s life. Perhaps it is only when there comes the possibility of a separation that either one realizes how intense their love is.
So it is in prayer. We must not gauge our devotion by what we feel, but rather by what we are ready to endure. Indeed, it often happens that God tries the most advanced by letting them experience a coldness and deadness in prayer such as ordinary people seldom experience, and none could endure in such times if their love for God were not very deep and strong, ruling and sustaining the will.
Now, in considering the act of prayer itself, we must remember that it is composed of a natural and a supernatural element: the act of the person who prays and the help that God gives. Different classes of minds are in danger of laying undue stress on one or the other of these parts as if it comprised the whole, but all true prayer involves both.
Therefore, due consideration must be given to both parts. If the best musician in the world were playing on an organ that was out of tune, he could not produce good music, and if the Holy Spirit were to breathe over our souls in prayer while the strings were lax from damp or carelessness, He could not produce the music that God loves to hear.
Our prayer may fail, therefore, not because God does not help us, but because we have not taken proper care in preparing ourselves; the strings of the mind are out of tune. We shall never get so high as to be able to leave out of consideration our own preparation and discipline. And, on the other hand, if the mind were under perfect control and discipline, we would never be able to pray without the help of God’s Holy Spirit. The organ may be in perfect tune, but it needs the hand of the musician to draw out its powers.
When we come to our prayers, we must place ourselves beneath His influence. “The Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought.”3
Let us consider these two elements then, the natural and the supernatural.
The mind must be prepared.
So many of our prayers are poor and unworthy because the mind is not properly prepared; one kneels with the best disposition, but the mind has got into a morbid condition, and the whole time of prayer is lost in a kind of unhealthy self-examination; or it is absorbed in some matter that it has allowed to take possession of it, and the time is spent without ever rising to God. Or again, no sooner does one kneel than it seems to be the signal for the imagination to break loose and bring before the mind everything he has thought, said, or done, and everyone he has seen during the day.
It is important, therefore, that we should remember that the instrument with which we pray is that with which we do all our other mental work; when we turn it to God, we shall find that it has the same defects and the same powers that it has at other times, only that we become more conscious of the defects in times of prayer.
No wonder it is difficult to pray if there is no effort made to discipline or concentrate the mind at other times; how can the mind that is left relaxed and unguarded all through the day be recollected in prayer?
Prayer is not the only time to struggle against distractions; the more orderly, methodical, disciplined, and concentrated our minds are during our daily life, the more we shall be able to direct them to God in prayer.
There is nothing, therefore, that we do during the day that may not prove a help or hindrance in times of prayer. In reading, working, and thinking, we are unconsciously training our minds for prayer. If it is the same mind that we use for all our ordinary work that we use in prayer, the same and no other, we shall find the same laxity, the same distractedness, the same slipshod and careless ways, the same habit of losing ourselves in daydreams at prayer that we experience in all our mental life.
It is a good thing, therefore, to remember that prayer is not the time to train the mind, but that in prayer we shall reap the fruits of the carelessness or watchfulness of our ordinary life.
Prayer calls for common sense.
Again, it must be remembered that the mind is a very delicate instrument, and is very easily put out of order, and that spiritual work does not exempt people from natural laws. We need, therefore, care and common sense just as much in spiritual as in temporal things; a person may suffer very considerably in his spiritual life from lack of the exercise of a little common sense.
- In learning to pray, it is therefore most important not to overburden oneself at first with too many prayers. Leave plenty of room to grow, be content at first to say such prayers as are suited to a beginner. If you would ever be able to spend a long time in prayer, you must begin with short times; the mind must be seasoned. Do not let prayer hang over you as a burden. It may be an admirable exercise in humility to confess to oneself how short a time one is able to pray; the mind must grow into the life of prayer, but it will never do this if it is allowed to be overweighed with a burden of prayer beyond its strength.
- Again, do not leave your prayers to be said when the mind is too wearied to think. If you are obliged to be up late, say the greater part of your prayers earlier in the evening. It is a fatal thing to go to one’s room at night tired out and burdened with the dread of a considerable time to be spent in prayer, much of which, experience has taught, will be a mere struggle with sleep. One will never learn to pray by such methods; the mind needs in prayer the exercise of all its powers, and prayer should be said when the mind is fresh and in full vigor.
The times of prayer, therefore, should be arranged so that the natural instrument is at its best, not at its worst, and it should be always borne in mind that God does not give His grace to help us to do what nature can do of itself. You have no right to expect God to help you to say your prayers when you are tired, because you have not taken the trouble to say them in proper time.
- There must be, if there is any life in prayer, adaptability. One of the chief conditions of life is the capacity of adapting inward to outward relations. It is the same with prayer. Prayers in sickness will not be the same as in health if they are the utterances of a living soul: and in times of special trial or temptation, prayers will not be those of one’s ordinary life. The soul, in proportion as prayer becomes a reality, will instinctively adapt its prayers to special circumstances, not indeed changing lightly the form of prayer, but having that liberty of spirit that makes a rule not a hindrance but a help, not the destroyer but the developer of life.
But there is also the supernatural element in prayer. We must, indeed, discipline and train our minds, and fulfill our part; but prayer is not a mere straining of the mind toward God. We must pray as members of Christ: “He hath made us accepted in the beloved.”
We pray not as those who have nothing to depend on but their own efforts, but as those whose acceptance is already assured if they have faith to realize their great privileges. We Christians speak, as it were, with the lips of Christ. We know that in proportion as we believe in and use our great privilege, God cannot reject us.
Our own powers may be very limited, the sense of our sins may dismay us, but we draw near with the life of our Lord within us, “members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones,” and we know that God will hear the voice of His own Son.
Yet this sense of membership in Christ must be developed not merely at the times of prayer; it must be the effort of our daily life, the aim of our self-discipline. For it is on this that our Lord’s promise depends: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, you shall ask what you will, and it shall be done unto you.” And as members of Christ we have the assistance of the Holy Spirit, “who helpeth our infirmities.” We kneel, but, notwithstanding all our watchfulness and care, our hearts are cold, and our words come falteringly; but we persevere, and then at times — not always consciously, but at times — we feel the breath of the Spirit breathing through us and kindling our devotion, and words come to our lips, or longings too great for words well up within our hearts and reach to God.
We feel, in one way, that what we say and long for is our own; it has the color and temper of our minds. But again we feel it is not our own; it is greater and stronger than we are. And then we know that it is partly ourselves, partly the Spirit of God — that the music that thrills us is the breath of the Spirit breathing through the instrument that we have striven so hard to prepare.
Such moments we must cherish and recall in times of darkness; they enable us to feel and to know that we are not alone in our efforts to pray, but that there is One who helps our infirmities, and who, when He sees fit, at any moment can make His power to be felt, even though when we are least conscious of it He is still with us.