We're making big changes. Please try out the beta site at beta.ccel.org and send us feedback. Thank you!



A critic with discriminating insight has objected to Voltaire's writings on the ground that nothing could possibly be quite so clear as Voltaire makes it. A book on prayer readily runs into danger of the same criticism. For, like every--other vital experience, prayer in practice meets obstacles that a theoretical discussion too easily glosses over and forgets. Even when prayer is defined as communion with God, and our thought of it is thereby freed from many embarrassments, as a kite escapes the trees and bushes when one flies it high, there remain practical difficulties which perplex many who sincerely try to pray.

For example, real communion involves the vivid consciousness that someone is present, with whom we are enjoying fellowship. Now a man may believe that God is, may desire earnestly to speak with him, and may not doubt in theory the possibility of such communion; but in practice he may utterly fail to feel the presence of God. In spite of his best efforts he may seem to himself to be talking into empty space. The sense of futility--such as comes to one who finds that he has been speaking in the dark to nobody, when he supposed a friend was in the room--may so confuse him that, theory or no theory, prayer becomes practically valueless. He cries with Job, not in a spirit of scepticism, but in great perplexity and in genuine desire for the divine fellowship, "Behold, I go forward, but he is not there; And backward, but I cannot perceive him" (Job 23:8). The practice of God's presence is not so simple as words sometimes make it seem.

One obvious reason for this sense of God's unreality, which often makes helpful prayer impossible, lies of course in character. Isaiah was dealing with a universal truth when he said: "Your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you" (Isaiah 59:2). One has only to consider that frivolous American who in the Rembrandt room of the Amsterdam Gallery looked lackadaisically around and asked: "I wonder if there is anything here worth seeing"; one has only to recall the women who climbed an Alpine height on an autumn day, when the riot of color in the valley sobered into the green of the 80 pines upon the heights, and over all stood the crests of eternal snow, and who inquired in the full sight of all this, "We heard there was a view up here; where is it?" to see that there is a spiritual qualification for every experience, and that without it nothing fine and beautiful can ever be real to any one. "Mr. Turner," a man once said to the artist, "I never see any sunsets like yours." And the artist answered grimly, "No, sir. Don't you wish you could?" How clearly then must the sense of God's reality be a progressive and often laborious achievement of the spirit! It is not a matter to be taken for granted, as though any one could saunter into God's presence at any time, in any mood, with any sort of life behind him, and at once perceive God there.

Let some debauche from the dens of a city walk into a company where men are chivalrous and women pure, and how much will the debauche understand of his new environment? Stone walls are not so impenetrable as the veil of moral difference between the clean and unclean. So spiritual alienation between God and man makes fellowship impossible. Of all the evils that most surely work this malign result in man's communion with the Father, the Master specially noted two: impurity--"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God"; and vindictiveness, the unbrotherly spirit that will not forgive nor seek to be forgiven--"If therefore thou art offering thy gift before the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee, leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way, first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift" (Matt. 5:23, 24). No one can he wrong with man and right with God. In Coleridge's "Ancient Mariner," one of the most vivid pictures of sin's consequences ever drawn, the effect of lovelessness on prayer is put into a rememberable verse:

"I looked to heaven and tried to pray,

But or ever a prayer had gush't,

A wicked whisper came and made

My heart as dry as dust."

Most of us have experienced that stanza's truth. The harboring of a grudge, the subtle, wish for another's harm, the envy that corrupts the heart, even if it find no expression in word or deed--such attitudes always prove impassable barriers 81 to spontaneous prayer. When, therefore, any one encounters the practical difficulty that arises from the sense of God's unreality, he may well search his life for sinister habits of thought, for cherished evils dimly recognized as wrong but unsurrendered, for lax carelessness in conduct or deliberate infidelity to conscience, for sins whose commission he deplores, but whose results he still clings to and desires, and above all for selfishness that hinders loving and so breaks the connections that bind us to God and one another.


The sense of God's unreality, however, does not necessarily imply a wicked life. There are other reasons which often hinder men from a vivid consciousness of God. All of us, for example, have moods in which the vision of God grows dim. Our life is not built on a level so that we can maintain a constant elevation of spirit. We have mountains and valleys, emotional ups and downs; and, as with our Lord, the radiant experience of transfiguration is succeeded by an hour of bitterness when the soul cries, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Matt. 27:46). Cowper tells us that in prayer he had known such exaltation that he thought he would die from excess of joy; but at another time, asked for some hymns for a new hymnal, he wrote in answer, "How can you ask of me such a service? I seem to myself to be banished to a remoteness from God's presence, in comparison with which the distance from the East to the West is vicinity, is cohesion." Of course we cannot always pray with the same intensity and conscious satisfaction. "I pray more heartily at some times than at others," says Tolstoi; and even Bunyan had his familiar difficulties: "O, the starting holes that the heart hath in the time of prayer! None knows how many bye-ways the heart hath and back lanes to slip away from the presence of God." The first step in dealing with this familiar experience is to recognize its naturalness and therefore to go through it undismayed. When Paul said to Timothy, "Be urgent in season, out of season," he was giving that advice which a wise experience always gives to immaturity: Make up your mind in advance to keep your course steady, when you feel like it and when you don't. This difficulty of moods has been met by all God's 82 people. The biography of any spiritual leader contains passages such as this, from one of Hugh Latimer's letters to his fellow-martyr, Ridley: "Pardon me and pray for me; pray for me, I say. For I am sometimes so fearful, that I would creep into a mouse-hole; sometimes God doth visit me again with his comfort. So he cometh and goeth."

A man who surrenders to these variable moods is doomed to inefficiency. He is like a ship that drifts as the tides run and the winds blow, and does not hold its course through them and in spite of them. Matthew Arnold goes to the pith of the problem, so far as duty-doing is concerned:

"tasks in hours of insight willed

Can be in hours of gloom fulfilled."

And the same attitude is necessary in the life of prayer. Of course we cannot always pray with the same sense of God's nearness, the same warmth of conscious fellowship with him. Plotinus said that he had really prayed only four times in his life. Lowell, in his "Cathedral," writes,

"I that still pray at morning and at eve . . .

Thrice in my life perhaps have truly prayed,

Thrice, stirred below my conscious self, have felt

That perfect disenthralment which is God."

The heights of fellowship with God are not often reached--even the record of Jesus' life contains only one Transfiguration--but this does not mean that the value of prayer is only thus occasional. As Dean Goulburn put it, "When you can not pray as you would, pray as you can." A man does not deny the existence of the sun because it is a cloudy day, nor cease to count on the sun to serve him and his. Moods are the clouds in our spiritual skies. A man must not overemphasize their importance. Surely he should not on account of them cease to trust the God who is temporarily obscured by them.

Moreover, a man need not passively allow his moods to become chronic. Many a life, like an old-fashioned well, has latent resources of living water underneath, but the pump needs priming. Into a man's prayerless mood let a little 83 living water from some one else's prayer be poured, and water from the nether wells of the man's own soul may flow again. For such a purpose, collections of prayers like the Bishop of Ripon's "The Communion of Prayer" or Tileston's "Great Souls at Prayer" are useful; and books of devotion such as St. Augustine's "Confessions." They often prime the pump. Indeed, prayer itself is a great conqueror of perverse moods. You are not in the spirit of prayer and therefore will refuse to pray until your mood chances to be congenial? But clearly Dr. Forsyth's comparison is apt: "Sometimes when you need rest most you are too restless to lie down and take it. Then compel yourself to lie down and to lie still. Often in ten minutes the compulsion fades into consent and you sleep, and rise a new man . . . So if you are averse to pray, pray the more."


Deeper than the difficulty of passing moods lies the problem of those who habitually fail to feel the presence of God. In many cases the trouble is temperamental. Some men seem by their native constitution to be specially designed for religion. They are geniuses in the realm of spirit, as a Beethoven is in music or a Raphael in art. The unseen is real to them; they are immediately aware of its presence, sensitive to its meaning, responsive to its appeal. When they speak of prayer their vivid experience of God demands for its expression poetry rather than prose. "Orison," they cry with Mechthild of Magdeburg, "draws the great God into the small heart; it drives the hungry soul out to the full God. It brings together two lovers, God and the soul, into a joyful room." To temperaments of this quality the practice of God's presence is as spontaneous as any human love and quite as real.

But what of one who is not thus gifted? He is perhaps of a practical temperament, a man of action rather than of meditation. Even in human relationships he is not demonstrative, and is more given to revealing his loyalty and affection by concrete deeds of service than by radiant hours of communion. He stands perplexed before the exalted moods of the mystic. He cannot so strain himself as to reach them. He feels out of his element when he reads about them. When 84 he prays he reaches no heights of conscious fellowship with God. During the singing of a hymn like "Sweet Hour of Prayer" he feels as unresponsive to the experience from which the hymn arose as Dean Stanley would have felt to the music. The Dean could not recognize even the national anthem save by the fact that the people all arose at the first bar. What shall be said to a man who thus believes in God and tries to do his will, but who is not warmly conscious of fellowship with him in prayer? Something surely must be said, for if prayer is so interpreted that it is left as the possession of those only who are of the emotional and mystic temperament, many of the most useful folk on earth, in whom practical and intellectual interests are supreme--the thinkers and the workers--will feel, themselves excluded from the possibility of praying.

We touch here one of the most crucial matters in our study of prayer. Every man must be allowed to pray in his own way. It is far from being true that the most valuable temperament in religion is the mystical. God needs us all. Some are phlegmatic--stolid, patient, undemonstrative; some are choleric--high-spirited, nervous, passionate; some are sanguine--hopeful, cheerful, light-hearted; some are somber and serious. Even this time-honored classification of the temperaments is not exhaustive. There are as many temperaments as there are men, and each has his own problems and his peculiar way of expressing the spirit of Christ. The first step in useful living for many folk is the recognition of God's purpose in making us on such unique and individual plans. He evidently likes us better that way. John makes a better John than Peter ever could have been, and Peter a more useful Peter than was possible to John. We are so used to school examinations where the whole class must submit to the same tests of excellence that we forget how surely in the moral life we shall have individual tests. Each man is being tried in a private examination. He is not expected to be a Christian in any other man's way. As in Emerson's parable of the mountain and the squirrel, he can be undismayed by the special excellence of another, and can say as the squirrel did to the mountain,

"If I cannot carry forests on my back,

Neither can you crack a nut."


Now this general principle has its special application to prayer. Nothing could be more intensely individual than the prayers of the Bible. Nobody tries to commune with God in any one else's way. Some pray kneeling, like Paul (Acts 20:36); some standing, like Jeremiah (Jer. 18:20); some sitting, like David (II Sam. 7:18); some prostrate, like Jesus (Matt. 26:39). Some pray silently, like Hannah (I Sam. 1:13); some aloud, like Ezekiel (Ezek. 11:13). Some pray in the temple (II Kings 19:14); some in bed (Psalm 63:6), in the fields (Gen. 24: 11, 12,), on the hillside (Gen. 28: 18-20), on the battlefield (I Sam. 7:5), by a riverside (Acts 16: 13), on the seashore (Acts 21:5), in the privacy of the chamber (Matt. 6:6). Moreover all sorts of temperaments are found at prayer; practical leaders like Nehemiah, who in a silent ejaculation of the spirit seeks God's help before he speaks to the king (Neh. 1:3, 5); poets like the writer of the twenty-seventh Psalm, who love communion with God; men of melancholy mind like Jeremiah, "Hast thou utterly rejected Judah? hath thy soul loathed Zion? (Jer. 14:19); and men of radiant spirit like Isaiah, "Jehovah, even Jehovah, is my strength and song; and he is become my salvation" (Isaiah 12:2). There are as many different ways of praying as there are different individuals. Consider the prayer of St. Augustine: "Let my soul take refuge from the crowding turmoil of worldly thoughts beneath the shadow of thy wings; let my heart, this sea of restless waves, find peace in thee, O God." And then in contrast consider the prayer of Lord Ashley, before he charged at the battle of Edge Hill: "O Lord, thou knowest how busy I must be this day. If I forget thee, do not thou forget, me."

We need always to remember, therefore, that there is no one mould of prayer into which our communion with God must be run. Let each man pray as best he can. Let no man make himself the slave of another's methods. Professor George Albert Coe has put a valuable truth into a few succinct sentences: "The tendency . . . is to create an impression that the more valuable forms of prayer are reserved for a special class of persons. This impression, too, is unconsciously fostered by the adulation that is bestowed upon men, often young men, who cultivate a particular type of prayer, and talk a great deal about it. What we need more than almost anything else is to cultivate in timid souls that tend to 86 self-distrust, in critical souls that think before they assert, and in active souls that prefer giving to receiving, a robust respect for their own natural types of prayer."


If we are to deal adequately, however, with the trouble which some habitually and all of us occasionally have in realizing the presence of God, we must do more than tell each man to pray as he can. There are prevalent attitudes among people who try to pray that make the consciousness of God's presence well-nigh impossible. We may note as the first of these that vague groping after a God outside of us which so often ends in the futile feeling of having talked to empty space. Many men, in their earnest desire to enter fully into the Christian experience, strain after realization of God's presence as though by some violence and stress of the will it could be attained. Their souls are mortars, their petitions bombs; they explode themselves toward heaven, and save for the echo of their own outburst they hear no answer whatever. Madame Guyon records that just this was her perplexity until a Franciscan friar gave her this suggestive advice : "Madame, you are seeking without that which you have within. Accustom yourself to seek God in your own heart, and you will find him." This counsel is wise and practical. The presence of God can be experienced only within our own hearts. All the best in us is God in us. Generally, if not always, it is quite impossible to distinguish between the voice of God and the voice of our own best conscience and ideals. They are not to be distinguished. What we call conscience and ideals are God's voice, mediated to us through our own finest endowments.

This does not mean that these voices of God, mediated to us through our best, are infallible. It does mean that God in them is trying to speak to us according to our capacity to understand. If our windows are soiled, the sun's rays are hindered; but that fact is no denial of the truth that whatever light does come through our windows comes from the sun. So God is compelled to minister his blessing to us through our own capacities to receive and appropriate. No man should ever grope outside of his best self to find God.


He should always seek the God who is speaking to him in his best self.

During a dry season in the New Hebrides, John G. Paton the missionary awakened the derision of the natives by digging for water. They said water always came down from heaven, not up through the earth. But Paton revealed a larger truth than they had seen before by discovering to them that heaven could give them water through their own land. So men insist on waiting for God to send their blessing in some supernormal way, when all the while he is giving them abundant supply if they would only learn to retreat into the fertile places of their own spirits where, as Jesus said, the wells of living waters seek to rise. We need to learn Eckhart's lesson, "God is nearer to me than I am to myself; he is just as near to wood and stone, but they do not know it." We need to understand the word attributed to Albert the Great, "To mount to God is to enter into one's self. For he who inwardly entereth and intimately penetrateth into himself gets above and beyond himself and truly mounts up to God." And in learning the meaning of words like these, we shall be coming into the spirit of many a Scripture passage: "If we love one another, God abideth in us" (I John 4:12); "We are a temple of the living God; even as God said, I will dwell in them" (II Cor. 6:16); "If any man . . . open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me" (Rev. 3:20); "The water that I shall give him shall become in him a well of water" (John 4:14).

Any one, therefore, troubled by the seeming unreality of God may well imitate the Psalmist who begins his psalm by saying, "I will cry unto God," and who in the sixth verse says, "I commune with mine own heart" (Psalm 77). The two verses are not in conflict. The only way any one can commune with God is through his own heart: Indeed, we may call those psychologists to witness who discover in the spirit's life the transforming influences of which we have been speaking, and who ascribe them to the "subconscious." Powers of joy and peace, influences the renovate character, change disposition, and inspire service, do appear in human life, they say, but these effects which the New Testament attributes to the Holy Spirit, they ascribe to the "subconscious." There should be no permanent misunderstanding here. The tides that come into New York Harbor come 88 through the Narrows, but they do not start there. You never can get at the secret of the inflow from the sea, which makes the sailing of great ships possible, by saying that the presence of the Narrows explains it. The tides come through the Narrows, not from them. So we cannot solve the mystery of that divine help which great souls know by giving names to substations in our own minds. We must go deeper and farther than that. God himself is trying through our best to find a channel for his Spirit.


The consideration of this vague groping after a God outside of us, leads us to a matter even more important. The elemental trouble with the prayers of those who fail to find God real is often the very fact that they are seeking for God. No one is prepared to experience the presence of God until he sees that God is seeking for him. Paul describes the pagan world as seeking God, "if haply they might feel after him and find him" (Acts 17:27); and many a Christian in this regard is a pagan still. We have turned the parables of Jesus in the fifteenth Chapter of Luke quite upside down. According to our attitude in prayer, the shepherd is lost, and the sheep have gone out on the tempest-driven mountainside to hunt for him. But not so the Master! To him the sheep are wandering, and the shepherd with undiscourageable persistency is seeking them. Without this thought of God as initiating the search, so that our finding of him is simply our response to his quest for us, the endeavor of any man to seek God is of all enterprises the most hopeless. How can the finite discover the Infinite unless the Infinite desires to be found? How can man break up into an experience of God unless God is seeking to reach down into friendship with man? The deepest necessity of a fruitful life of prayer is the recognition that God's search for men is prior to any man's search for God. In the words of one of Faber's hymns,

"'Tis rather God who seeks for us

Than we who seek for him."

Now the search of God for man has always been believed by Christians, but by many it has become a historical matter.


God did seek for man in Christ. This fundamental truth is of the utmost importance for prayer. For, as a matter of fact, whenever a Christian prays he prays to the God whose love for us Christ revealed, and to the knowledge of whom we never should have come without Christ. As Fichte put it, "All who since Jesus have come into union with God have come unto union with God through him." But this belief in God's search for man in Christ is not sufficient for prayer. God is forever seeking each man. The promptings of conscience, the lure of fine ideals, the demands of friendship, the suggestions of good books, the calls to service, every noble impulse in hours when

"The spirit's true endowments

Stand out plainly from the false ones,"

are all the approach of God to us. Prayer is not groping after him. Prayer is opening the life up to him. The prayer-less heart is fleeing from God. Finding God is really letting God find us; for our search for him is simply surrender to his search for us. When the truth of this is clearly seen, prayer becomes real. There is no more talking into empty space, no more fumbling in the dark to lay hold on him. We go into the secret place and there let every fine and ennobling influence which God is sending to us have free play. We let him speak to us through our best thoughts, our clearest spiritual visions, our finest conscience. We no longer endeavor to escape. We find him as run-away children, weary of their escapade, find their father. They consent to be found by him.

"I said, 'I will find God,' and forth I went

To seek Him in the clearness of the sky,

But over me stood unendurably

Only a pitiless, sapphire firmament

Ringing the world, blank splendour; yet intent

Still to find God, I will go seek, said I,

'His way upon the waters,' and drew nigh

An ocean marge, weed-strewn and foam-besprent;

And the waves dashed on idle sand and stone,

And very vacant was the long, blue sea;

But in the evening as I sat alone,


My window open to the vanishing day,

Dear God! I could not choose but kneel and pray,

And it sufficed that I was found of Thee."¹


| Define | Popups: Login | Register | Prev Next | Help |