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SERMON XVII.

PRAYER A MARK OF TRUE HOLINESS.

ST. MARK i. 35.

“And in the morning, rising up a great while before day, He went out, and departed into a solitary place, and there prayed.”

THE Evangelists seem especially guided to record, for our instruction, the private devotions of our Lord: they speak of them with a frequency and a particularity which shews how large a portion of His life was spent in prayer to God. We read in one place, “When He had sent the multitudes away, He went up into a mountain apart to pray: and when evening was come, He was there alone.”165165   St. Matt. xiv. 23. Again: “And He withdrew Himself into the wilderness, and prayed.” Again: “And it came to pass in those days, that He went out into a mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God.”166166   St. Luke v. 16; vi. 12. And again: “And it came to pass about 327an eight days after these sayings, He took Peter and John and James, and went up into a mountain to pray. And as He prayed, the fashion of His countenance was altered, and His raiment was white and glistering.”167167   St. Luke ix. 28, 29. Now all these things bring vividly before us His habitual communing with His heavenly Father, before daybreak, all night long, in solitary places, on the mountain, in the wilderness; they teach us that a large part of His earthly life He spent in prayer. Now, there are many points of instruction suggested to us by this; but that to which I desire to refer is, the mysterious fact that He did pray Who is One with the Father and the Holy Ghost. Why should He who was sinless, perfect, and in need of nothing, pray? In one word, because, although as God He hears the prayers of men, yet as Man it was an act proper to His true humanity.

Let us consider, then, the reasons why in this He must needs have been as we are.

1. First of all, without doubt, He prayed for the furtherance of that work which His Father had given Him to do. It is remarkable, that the occasions of retirement and prayer mentioned by the Evangelists are those which precede the miracle of walking on the water, the going forth to preach, the choice of the apostles, the transfiguration, the 328temptation of Peter, and His own betrayal in the garden. Thus far His prayers seem to have reference to His work; and He Himself declared of the lunatic whom His disciples could not heal, “this kind goeth not out but by prayer and fastings.”168168   St. Matt. xvii. 21. It is plain, then, that His praying was no mere conformity to our necessities, no economy to serve only as an example for us; but a real supplication for such things as the work He had taken in hand demanded. What those things may be, it is not for us to imagine. For Himself, nothing could be needed. There was in Him virtue to move mountains, and to suspend the laws of the world. It may be, that His prayers were for those on whom and in whose favour His miraculous powers were to be exerted, inasmuch as their efficacy depended on the moral state of those who were to be subjects of His grace. In one place we read, “He did not many mighty works there because of their unbelief.” To the two blind men He said, “According to your faith be it unto you.”169169   St. Matt. xiii. 58; ix. 29. His prayers, then, it may be, were for those on whom His power and His words should fall, that they might be disposed by the Spirit of God for the reception of His saving grace; or, as in the choice and mission of His apostles, that they might be true and faithful messengers of the kingdom of 329heaven. So also in His prayer for the unity of His Church at the last supper; and in His supplication on the cross, “Father, forgive them; they know not what they do:” what were these, but the beginnings of His all-prevailing intercession for us before the throne of God? The whole world, from its first sin to its last judgment, lay before Him; and the subtilty of Satan, the power of death, the misery of mankind, were ever on His soul. All holy Himself, yet in the midst of so great a fall of God’s creation, how could there lack matter for continual prayer? Amidst the contradiction of sinners, and the deadness of the unbelieving, with the foresight of the great sin of the world which should be committed in His own Passion, with the whole career and probation of His Church through this perilous world, before His prophetic intuition, we may in some little measure understand what yearning desires of love and sorrow moved Him to all but unceasing intercession.

2. But His prayers were not altogether for others. Deeply mysterious as it is, they were offered also for Himself. We should hardly dare to say so, if holy Scripture were not most plain and explicit. For instance, when He entered for the last time into Jerusalem, He said, “Now is My soul troubled: and what shall I say? Father, save Me from this hour: but for this cause came I unto 330this hour.”170170   St. John xii. 27. And at the last supper: “Father, the hour is come; glorify Thy Son.” Again: “And now, O Father, glorify Thou Me with Thine own self with the glory which I had with Thee before the world was.”171171   St. John xvii. 1, 5. And in His agony in the garden: “O My Father, if it he possible, let this cup pass from Me: nevertheless not as I will, but as Thou wilt. . . . He went away again the second time, and prayed, saying, O My Father, if this cup may not pass away from Me, except I drink it, Thy will be done. . . . . And He left them, and went away again, and prayed the third time, saying the same words.”172172   St. Matt. xxvi. 39, 42, 44. “And being in an agony He prayed more earnestly: and His sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground.”173173   St. Luke xxii. 44. It is, no doubt, of this awful passage of His life in particular, though perhaps not exclusively, that St. Paul writes, “Who in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto Him that was able to save Him from death, and was heard in that He feared; though He were a Son, yet learned He obedience by the things which He suffered.”174174   Heb. v. 7, 8. And in that last agony we read expressly, as if in answer to His prayers, “there appeared an angel 331from heaven, strengthening Him.”175175   St. Luke xxii. 44. Wonderful humiliation of the Son of God, to faint, to be in an agony, to pray, to be strengthened by an angel! Into this deep and hidden conflict of soul we can not penetrate; but from it we may learn the awfulness of sin and death, which could thus afflict the Word made flesh; and the mighty strength of prayer, which stayed up His soul, and drew from heaven an angel to uphold Him in the hour of darkness. It was a property of His true humanity that He should derive strength through prayer; and a part of His humiliation for us that He should need to pray.

3. And once more. He prayed while He was on earth, because prayer was the nearest return to the glory which He laid aside when He was made Man. It was, if we may so speak, His only true dwelling, rest, home, delight. We read of His weeping, and His being wearied, of His being troubled in spirit; but we never read that He rested, except upon the brink of a well by the wayside; nor that He slept, except in the ship.

Most utterly sad and desolate His outward lot in this world. “Foxes had holes, and the birds of the air had nests; but the Son of Man had not where to lay His head.”

Prayer and converse with His Father in heaven 332was the only shelter into which the world could not break. Where He prayed was holy ground, and for the time was altogether His own. And to the mountain and the solitude He with drew, leaving all, even the disciple whom He loved, that He might hold converse with His Father in heaven. It is remarkable that the public tokens of love which were given Him from heaven were all in acts of prayer. At His baptism, St. Luke writes, “Jesus also being baptised and praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon Him, and a voice came from heaven, which said, Thou art My beloved Son; in Thee I am well pleased.”176176   St. Luke iii. 21, 22. At His transfiguration we read that He “went up into a mountain to pray. And as He prayed, the fashion of His countenance was altered, and His raiment was white and glistering. And, behold, there talked with Him two men, which were Moses and Elias: who appeared in glory, . . . and a cloud overshadowed them; . . . and there came a voice out of the cloud, saying, This is My beloved Son: hear Him.”177177   St. Luke ix. 28-31, 35. What may have been the visitations of His Father’s love and consolation in His secret communion with Him, we cannot so much as conceive. Without doubt they were times of unspeakable bliss; when 333the light of God’s countenance, and the fulness of His Father’s love, were shed abroad in His soul. What must have been the communing of the Word made flesh with His heavenly Father; what mingling of eternal love, what perfect unity of will! And may we not believe that He, by whose Spirit the prophets spake of old, foresaw at all times, but specially in seasons of retired communion with God, the full mystery of love, the abolition of sin and death, the perfect reconciliation of God and man, the company of the elect, the holiness of the saints, the glorious martyrdom of His servants, the perfection of His Church, the new creation of God? If in His hours of agony the darker shadows of the future hung upon Him, may we not believe that in His hours of prayer the brighter lights of His invisible kingdom shone full upon His soul?

Now, from this view, we may learn, first, that a life of habitual prayer is a life of the highest perfection; and that our prayer will be more or less perfect in proportion as our state of holiness is more or less advanced. The most perfect example of prayer is His who was most perfect in holiness. None prayed such fervent, frequent, unwearied prayers as He who was without sin.

There is something at first sight paradoxical in saying, that prayer is the beginning of conversion to God, and also the highest token of perfection. 334Yet so it is. Prayer is the very breath of the regenerate life. Without it no spirit of man can live. Prayer is also the nearest approach to the work of saints unseen, to the heavenly glory, to the beatific vision. It is well to bear this in mind; for in what do people more deceive and distress themselves than in the duty of prayer? Sometimes we see people living on in a full belief that they do pray, when we have every reason to believe that they have never so much as realised the very idea of what prayer is; for instance, persons of a correct life, with cold affections, strong understandings, watchful against what they call enthusiasm and excited feelings; or again, those who take the tone of the world, live in society, busy themselves with it usages and events; people of an external life, who live out of their own hearts, having their attention drawn away from themselves, and their thoughts active about this visible world. Now, such people are often exemplary in their regularity at all stated duties of religion; and they go through them with such a sufficiency of outward care and punctuality, that there appears nothing to be supplied. But, after all, something seems perceptibly wanting within. Perhaps it may be expressed in fewest words as the want of realising their own personal relation to God, and the nearness of His presence to them in acts of prayer. 335But we have no need to speak of others. Who is there that does not know what this means? Who is there that has not passed through such a state of dangerous insensibility; and has become conscious now, in looking back, for how many years his prayers were really mere recitations, without realising the awful directness of our approach to God? And yet all the time we were as unconscious of it as if there were nothing that we did not fully perceive. How long this deceit still hung about us! And though we began at last to be painfully aware of our blindness and lukewarmness, our wandering and distraction in the very act of praying, yet we never half suspected the right cause. For example, how many of us have felt it easier to maintain at least external reverence in public worship than in private prayer, partly be cause the eyes of others were upon us, and partly because our attention was stimulated by the devotions of others. When we have gone into our own private room, we have seemed to become altogether changed; our thoughts abroad, our affections cold, and our very body weary of kneeling. On the other hand, many people greatly distress themselves about their prayers: I do not say needlessly, for there is need enough; but their distress is often an obstruction rather than a help. They complain of indevotion, of inability to pray, or to fix their 336minds. It seems to them to be altogether unreal, and a sort of forced and artificial state of mind.

Now, it is of course impossible to lay down any laws in a matter so mysterious, and so nearly related to the inscrutable workings of the Spirit of God. It is indeed true that sometimes men converted late in life, or after great sins, or by sudden causes, exhibit a wonderful vividness of compunction and a fervent spirit of prayer. But these are exempt cases; and even they often subside after wards into the condition in which the great majority of men are to be found. For the most part the habit of prayer keeps pace with, or but little outstrips, the habit of patience, meekness, humility, and the like; that is to say, it is matured with the maturing of the spiritual life. And indeed it seems plain that it must be so; for what are the springs of prayer but a sense of sinfulness, a desire of abasement and of sanctification? But before these can exist, the moral effects of past sins, by which the edge of the conscience has been blunted and the purity of the affections soiled, must be in part taken away. This is not the work of a day, but of a long season, often of years; and these hindrances must be borne as a deserved chastisement and humiliation. In this way even the mat ter of our distress becomes a wholesome discipline for our correction. We cannot, without long and 337persevering endeavours, imitate our Lord in His prayers, any more than in His patience. We must be first, in some measure, conformed to Him in the perfections of His heavenly life, before our hearts can pour themselves out in fervent intercessions. The most perfect prayers are those of saints and of little children, because in both there is the same freedom from the hard, unconcerned, self-contemplative habit of mind which besets the common sort of Christians, and the same presence of awe, tenderness of conscience, simplicity, and truth. The very weakness of children has the same effect as the strength of saints. Children have not yet learned to know the world, and saints have renounced it, and both are free from its solicitations and intrusions.

2. There is another point to be considered. The spirit of prayer is a direct gift from God. This great truth has been so abused by the fanaticism and self-delusion of unstable men, that others of a more chastened temper have recoiled into the opposite extreme, They confine it practically, though they would not say so, to the acts of our own minds. To pray is a high grace given to us from heaven. For prayer does not mean the ready utterance which flows from excitement of imagination, or fluency of speech, nor any of the mere intellectual powers with which men have deceived 338others and themselves; but from the depth of contrition and self-reproach, from earnest resolutions of self-chastisement, strong aspirations after perfect holiness and the bliss of fellowship with God. And all these are the gifts of that One Spirit which “helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. And He that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because He maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God.”178178   Rom. viii. 26, 27. After all our endeavours and prayers, it is from Him that we must receive the grace of prayer. “I will pour out upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and of supplications: and they shall look on Me whom they have pierced.” It is in proportion as we receive clearer insight into the depth and ingratitude of sin, into the passion and love of Christ, that we shall learn to pray. “And they shall mourn for Him, as one mourneth for his only son, and shall be in bitterness for Him, as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn.”179179   Zech. xii. 10.

Prayer springs from compunction, and compunction from love to Him whom our sins have pierced; and to perceive this is the gift of God, sometimes 339given early in the life of a penitent, but for the most part after years of fear and mortification; for these perceptions are not emotions raised by our own efforts, nor can we by any intellectual process gain them, or create them for ourselves; they are in sights and intuitions of the Spirit freely given from above, and passively received by those who, in truth and sincerity of heart, have diligently waited upon God in prayer. There are, indeed, higher revelations with which He favours those whom He will: but they are not to be expressed in words, nor to be understood, even if they could be uttered; nor are they to be sought by us, being too excellent for us; nor to be contemplated and rested in, when given; nor are they graces that are necessary for salvation, but gifts vouchsafed to few. And even they who receive them have some counter-token to make such high endowments safe. He who was caught up into the third heaven, lest he should be “lifted up,” had also sent unto him “a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet him.” Let us therefore leave all, even our prayers, in God’s hand. Let us not seek high things for ourselves, lest we should not be able to bear them; lest we should fall into the delusion of the enemy, and mistake heated and overstrained fancies for the realities of God’s king dom. To seek after high tokens of God’s favour, is to pass a judgment on ourselves that we are such 340as may expect them, and could receive them in humility and in safety. But they who think so, plainly shew that they are not such as could endure them without danger. Such things are rather for those who like Peter, when he saw the miracle of the fishes, said, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” Yet even he, after that, when he saw somewhat of his Master’s glory, talked of building three tabernacles, not knowing what he said.

Therefore let us be lowly even in our prayers; seeking to be real and sincere, conscious of our infinite spiritual wants, our manifold and exceeding imperfections. It is beyond all our deservings that we should be allowed to speak with Him at all. It is enough for us that we may “make our requests known unto God.” For all that remains let us trust ourselves in His hands. He will shew us such things as it is good for us to see in this state of humiliation. Let us, like our Lord, withdraw ourselves at times not only from the world, but from those dearest to us, from our closest friend ships and most intimate affections, that we may be alone with God. Let us learn how precious are solitary places, and hours when others are sleeping or away; in the night-season, or “a great while before day,” when the earth and heaven are still, and the busy world has not yet come abroad to trouble the creation of God.

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And lastly, we may learn that, as the sacrifice of Christ is the one only effectual sacrifice, so is His the one only true and all-prevailing prayer. All our prayers are accepted in His, which are the life and strength of all. The intercession of His Church goes up perpetually through Him unto His Father. In itself it is weak and imperfect: but He is the life of His mystical body; and in Him the prayers of saints, the aspirations of pure hearts, the mourning of the contrite, the confessions of penitents, the strong crying of the afflicted, the self-reproaches of convicted sinners, ascend as one intercession, as a sacrifice of a sweet-smelling savour, to the throne of God. In the vision which St. John saw, an “angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel’s hand.”180180   Rev. viii. 3, 4. This is He who “continueth ever,” and “hath an unchangeable priesthood. Wherefore He is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by Him, seeing He ever liveth to make intercession for them.”181181   Heb. vii. 24.

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