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SHORT DEVOTIONS A HINDRANCE TO PRAYER.
“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.”
WE are not to suppose, because we read this only once in the Gospels, that it was only this once in His life that our blessed Lord spent all the night in prayer. The history of His words and deeds, as it is written by the Evangelists, does not profess to give all that He said or did. Indeed, St. John expressly declares, “There are also many other things which Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written.”182182 St. John xxi. 25. We have but a small part in the four Gospels; and yet that part is so recorded as to contain, imply, and extend over all the rest. If we may reverently use a phrase of so critical a sound, 343it may be said that they contain the perfect idea and outline of His character, together with such instances as express the whole habit and principle of His life. Therefore these words of St. Luke may be taken to imply, not only that He passed that particular night alone in prayer, or in an oratory183183 ἐν τῇ προσευχῇ τοῦ Θεοῦ. on the mountain, as the words may mean, but that such was His wont: that long retirement and protracted communing with God were habitual to Him. Now the point I would notice is, the great length of time He thus gave to prayer; and we will consider how far it has the force of an example or precept to us. Many people will say, that it applies to us, if at all, in a very remote and restricted way; and the arguments they bring are not without a show of reason. But a little deeper thought will convince us that the reverse is true. We will, however, take the chief objections, and weigh them one by one.
1. It is commonly said, that such prolonged acts of prayer issued from the perfection of His divine Person; that they were, so to speak, attributes of One who was without sin, and in unbroken fellowship with God. It cannot be denied that there is truth in this. We know that angels, who “excel in strength,” serve God without intermission; and the heavenly hosts, in their adoration, “rest not day 344and night.” In fact, it may be said that sustained devotion is a perfection—an endowment of those who are delivered from the power of sin. And a powerful argument comes in aid of this, from the sensible fact of our distraction and weariness in prayer, which seem to be universal, and to cleave to us, even to the best of men, to the end of life. But does not this objection put out of sight the most important truth of all? It is indeed most true, that the sustained and blissful communion which He held with His Father—a converse with out the wandering of a desire or thought, a fellowship of consolation, strength, and peace—that this, indeed, is beyond our reach. Few attain, even in kind, an approach to it; and they seldom; and many never. They who enjoy it are admitted to it only for a while and at seasons; with long intervals, and uncertain returns. In this, indeed, the example of our Master finds but a restricted counterpart in us. Yet it does not take off the force of it. His prayers were blissful as He was perfect; but ours are necessary because of our imperfections. We must not, however, suppose that His prayers were only adorations, because from one who stands in need of nothing. It is a mystery of faith, how He that filleth all should pray as if needing of another’s fulness; yet it is only the mystery of the Incarnation in its consequences. It 345is akin to His temptation and His agony, in which He was ministered to and strengthened by angels. And we are expressly told that He prayed “with strong crying and tears,” “and was heard in that He feared.”184184 Heb. v. 7. His prayers were uttered out of the depths of His sinless infirmities, and had their answers from on high; but in what way we know not, nor shall do well too curiously to seek. This brings His example nearer to us. His nights of prayer, then, were not simple exercises of His exceeding spiritual strength; they were also the earnest cleaving of man to God. And if the infirmities of a sinless being drew Him so mightily to God, how much more ought the sin that is in us to drive us to the Divine Presence for healing and for strength! The contrast of our weakness with His perfection gives us no discharge from His example: rather, it adds a greater force. It brings out a farther and deeper reason, which makes the law of prayer to us the very condition of life. If we do not pray, we perish. It is no answer to say we are weak, and can not continue in prayer as He. That very weakness is in itself the necessity which forces us to pray. His perfect prayers are only the standard we must aim at—the pattern of what our prayers should be. If ours are unlike His, so much the greater need to give ourselves to greater devotion: the more unlike, 346the more need there is to pray. All that can be made of this objection, then, is this: Such is our sinful and weak state, that His perfect devotions are beyond our strength. And the conclusion that follows is, therefore, not that we may contentedly aim at a lower rule, but that we ought all the more to humble, and train ourselves upon a discipline which leads to His perfection. In a word, the very objection which pleads the difficulty of following His example, proves the necessity which constrains us to follow it.
2. Again, it is often said, “There can be no doubt that more time ought to be given by us all to the duty of prayer. Well were it if we were able to follow, in all things, the example of our Lord; but this is plainly impossible. We are entangled in the world, burdened by its duties and its employments; our time is not our own; it is very hard to get an unbroken hour. There is always some thing demanding our whole attention: business, labour, the claims of others, the harmless usages of society, the charities of life, the cares of home, the service of the sick and poor, the instruction of children, and the like. In a word, it is impossible for those who live an active and a busy life to find time for long private devotions.”
From the tone in which some people speak, one would think that our blessed Master had lived 347a leisurely and unimpeded life; that He had no thing else to do but to live alone in retirement and solitude, in prayer and contemplation: and this of One, whose whole life was toil, amid crowds and multitudes, hungry and wayworn, full of calls and interruptions. Certainly the life of our Lord exhibits to us the most perfect example of constant employments. If any thing in it be prominent, it is the multitude of works, the never-ending service of all that came or sent for Him, in sick chambers, in homes of sorrow, in synagogues, in Pharisees’ houses, in the Temple, in the mid-stream of men. It were rather true to say, that hardly any man’s life was ever yet so broken in upon, and taken from him by labour, and care, and the importunity of others, as His; and yet He is to us the perfect example of devotion. It was the toil of the day that turned His night into a vigil. That which we plead as excuse was the very cause why “He went out into a mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God.” In which He teaches us, that whatever else we forego, we may not forego our prayers; whatever else is at our will to give up, this is not; however necessary we may think other things, this is the thing needful above all; our work must be done, and yet our devotions must not be left undone. Our Lord’s example in this is especially pointed and instructive to those who are wont to plead their worldly 348duties in excuse. He has abolished this plea before hand; He has exposed its untruth by anticipation; and, moreover, He has taught us that here again the very reverse of this excuse is the truth. They who live in the world are so far from being released from stricter habits of private devotion, that they, above all, need them most. The busier their daily thoughts, the greater need of recollection at night. The more closely the world presses upon them all day long, the more need is there for them to break loose from it, and to give themselves up again to God, when the day is done. What else remains to them? If the world has indeed the dominion of their days; if so long as light lasts, their whole activity and all its powers must be given to trade, or merchandise, or studies, or official employments, or the practice of courts, or even to ministries of healing, as physicians and pastors; what remains to them, but to reclaim from the hours when at last the world is at rest some of the time on which it keeps so tyrannous a hold? Verily these are they who, most of all men, have need to “redeem the time, because the days are evil.”185185 Ephes. v. 16. It is indeed true, that multiplicity of labours and employments makes retirement very hard to obtain; but it makes it all the more necessary. All activity not controlled by the presence of God, has in it a tendency to withdraw 349the mind from Him, and to render it less open towards Him, less susceptible of passive impressions, and less conscious of an unseen presence. So, again, all excitements, not only of a worldly and corrupting sort, as pleasure, gaining, ambition, and the like, but even the purer kinds, are adverse to devotion. A highly intellectual habit of thought, such as students or professional men usually live in, has a very subtil effect on the mind: it makes it over-active; so that the stillness and fixedness necessary in prayer are irksome and peculiarly difficult. Also it tends to dry up and to deaden the affections, on which devotion is chiefly engrafted. This is true even of pastors, in the study of divine truth, and in the exercise of their spiritual ministry. Over-activity often leads to indevotion, and busy care about others to forgetfulness of our own soul. And if this be true of us, how much more of those whose lot is cast in the world, and whose scene of toil is among the snares and secularities of life! But into this I will not go farther now; we shall have need to come back to it hereafter. All that it is necessary to say is, that the common excuse made by even well-meaning people for their low habits of devotion, is no excuse at all: rather, all the force it has is on the other side, in the way of warning and admonition. Alas for the man that is too busy to pray; for he is too busy to be saved.350
3. But once more. It may be said, “All this proves too much; for if it prove any thing, it proves that we ought to give up our natural rest and our night’s sleep, and to break the common habits of a regular life in a way that health and sound discretion, and almost the humility which avoids singularities and extremes, would equally forbid.” It may be asked, “Do you literally mean, that we ought ever to ‘continue the whole night in prayer?’ for if not, do you not give up the argument and the example; and then what measure of time will you fix?” It may not be amiss to say, that better men than ourselves, and that in all times, have seen reason to take these words even to the letter; and their lives have been a witness to their sound discretion, and to their humility. The very name of vigil, which the Church puts into our mouths, has some deeper and fuller meaning than we are wont to give it. This is an age of metaphors and accommodations: words once realities are now but figures, symbols of vague notions. Now-a-days a vigil is the evening before a Feast, in which men used in early times to watch and pray; and it stands for the duty of watchfulness. We have grown to be great masters of defining by glosses, and parables. This at least may be said: there are many of us who would think it reasonable and discreet to spend a whole night in study, or writing, or in conversation, 351or in the levities of the world, or in travelling; who have done and still do this, and yet have never passed a night in contemplation and prayer, and would think it extravagant to do so. My object in saying this is, to shew in what unequal scales even fair and religious people weigh these things. Is it not true, that people who would, without a word, travel many nights together for business or amusement, would positively resent the notion of spending even a few hours of Christmas or Easter Eve in prayer and self-examination? However, it is enough for the present purpose to say, that whosoever would live a life of prayer, must spend no small part of every day in praying. There is no art or science, no practice or faculty of which the human mind is capable, that demands for its acquirement so much time as a habit of prayer. One of the chief reasons why we find it so hard to pray, one of the chief causes of all our distraction, wandering, and indevotion, is, the infrequency and shortness of our prayers. It is indeed true, that prayer is in one sense a gift of God: He pours out on whomsoever He will “the spirit of grace and supplications;”186186 Zech. xii. 10. “the Spirit also 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 352uttered.”187187 Rom. viii. 26. Nevertheless, the same is equally true of purity and humility; they both are gifts of grace, yet subjected to the conditions of our nature, and to be made our own by discipline and in time. So it is with prayer. And, indeed, if we will but consider what the act of prayer is, we shall see that, of all the spiritual powers of the regenerate soul, it is the highest and most nearly akin to perfection. It is no less than speaking with God under a consciousness of His presence, with kindled desires, and a submitted will. It implies the presence and energy of faith, love, and repentance. Such as we are, such our prayers will be. It is the unfolding of ourselves in God’s sight; and there must needs go before it and with it a knowledge of ourselves, founded on habitual self-examination. And for this, stated and not short seasons of silence and retirement in the presence of God are absolutely needed.
Now what is actually the state of most people? They pray twice in the day. Their prayers are, for the most part, certain fixed and ever-recurring forms of devotion; in themselves good, but necessarily general both in confession and petition. These prayers are said over with more or less of attention, desire, feeling, and emotion. They take, it may be, a quarter of an hour in the morning, 353and the same at night. They are often not preceded by conscious preparation, nor followed by prescribed acts of reflection. They are parentheses in the day, which will not read into the context of life, but are entered and left by a sensible transition of the mind. To this, perhaps, is added, in most cases, a reading of the Bible once in the course of the day. With some there lingers still the remains of an excellent and most significant practice of reading the appointed Psalms and Lessons—a memorial of better times, and an unconscious act of unity, in spirit and intention, with those who daily pray before the altars of the Church. Now the time spent in these habits is half an hour in prayer, and perhaps the same in reading. If to this be added family prayers, a quarter of an hour in the morning, and the same at night, I believe we shall have taken no unfavourable sample of the measure of time given to their daily prayers by persons even of a serious and religious character. It cannot be doubted that such people would pass for devout persons; nor will I, which God forbid, gainsay their claim to be so esteemed. But what does it come to, after all? One hour and a half in every twenty-four. And how are the rest allotted? Nine or ten to sleep and its circumstantials, two or three hours spent over food; four or five, that is, whole mornings 354and whole evenings, given up to conversation, visits, amusements, and what the world calls society; the rest consumed in various employments of various degrees of nearness to, or remoteness from, the presence and thought of God. Now, assuredly, if this world were not a fallen world, if all its spontaneous daily movements were in harmony with the will of God and the state beyond the grave, there would be no harm in resting upon those movements, and in being borne along with them. But if it be indeed a world fallen from God; and if in its fairest forms it be still, at least by privation of righteousness, sinful in His sight, then to live in it as if it were not fallen cannot but estrange us from real communion with Him. An hour and a half of better thoughts in every day will not disinfect our hearts, and counterwork the perpetual and transforming action of the world in all the rest of our time. In this point, busy and toilworn people have an advantage over the more leisurely; for business and labour are a part of the fall, and have in them chastisement and humiliation. There is great danger, in cases like that which I have taken, lest such minds, though in many ways blameless and pure, should be strangers to the deeper things of God, and to the realities of compunction and devotion.
To the case I have supposed, one more point 355may be added: I mean, attendance at the daily prayers of the Church. Measured by time, this adds somewhat more than another hour in the day; but after all, what is it? Not so much as three hours for God, and one-and-twenty for ourselves. Alas for us! what would they judge of us, those saints of old, who wore the very stones with their perpetual kneelings? What would they say of our distribution of time? Would they acknowledge us among the number of those that pray? What would they answer to our complaints of wandering and distraction, and unseasonable thoughts, and unconsciousness of God’s presence? Would they wonder that it is so with us? I trow not. Should we not hear: “In the evening, and morning, and at noonday will I pray, and that instantly, and He shall hear my voice.” “Seven times a day do I praise Thee, because of Thy righteous judgments.” “Mine eyes prevent the night-watches, that I might be occupied in Thy law.” “My soul waiteth for the Lord more than they that watch for the morning: yea, I say, more than they that watch for the morning,” “My voice shalt Thou hear betimes, O Lord: early in the morning will I direct my prayer unto Thee, and will look up.”188188 Ps. lv. 17; cxix. 164, 148; cxxx. 6. “At midnight will I rise to give thanks unto Thee, because of Thy righteous judgments.” 356“I have thought upon Thy name in the night-season, and have kept Thy law.”189189 Ps. cxix. 62, 55.
I will add only two remarks, and then conclude.
1. First, it is plain that there can be no exact measure of time fixed for our prayers. If any were fixed, we should be in great danger of forming a mechanical habit, and of resting in it when mechanically fulfilled. It is the very character of our trial that we are under a law of liberty. It were easier to many to recite a prescribed number of prayers in a prescribed space of time, than to say one prayer with devotion. This is a wholesome and necessary admonition to those who have the blessing of the daily prayers of the Church. The salt which alone can keep the daily service from corruption is increased prayer in private. If this “have lost its savour, wherewith shall it be salted?” In such frequent, prolonged, public, and, I may say, familiar approaches to God, there is great danger of forming a hard, business-like in sensibility in the very act of praying. No time, then, can be exactly prescribed. The end alone can measure what is needful. And that end is, the fellowship of a wakeful and collected mind with God. No time that fails to attain this, be it short or long, is enough. But though no mea sure of time can be fixed for all, yet one thing 357it is safe to say: we ought all of us to be longer on our knees before God than we are at present. And longer we should be, if we truly knew our own state, or if we had so much as a moment’s clear perception of the awfulness of God’s presence, or of the bliss of perfect prayer. This at least may be said, that to hurry suddenly into His presence, and to hurry out of it again, is no sign of our so much as understanding the first idea of worship. There is something irreverent in these sudden transitions; as if our minds were always meet to approach Him, and there were nothing needed but a momentary act of our will. Our prayers cannot fail to be full of distraction, if we enter upon them without first setting ourselves, by acts of conscious recollection, in His presence. What, after all, is the key of our distractions, but the fact that we so faintly realise the presence of God when we are upon our knees? Another practical rule is this: we may be sure that we do not give time enough to prayer, so long as either the ordinary habits of our life continue to thrust themselves in upon our devotions, or our habits of devotion fail to check and sanctify the ordinary habits of our life. Till we reach this point, we shall be in no danger of giving too much time to our prayers; and that is a sufficient and a safe practical answer, and a good rule to go by.358
2. The other remark I would make is, that there are peculiar difficulties and temptations at tending a habit of prayer, by which people are often greatly distressed. The more they endeavour to prolong their acts of prayer, the more sensible they become of the instability and levity of their minds. Many feel this in respect to the prayers of the Church, especially when the Holy Communion is administered. But perhaps the commonest form of this trial is in the daily service. Really earnest people, who delight in being, day by day, before the altar, and would not forfeit the prayers of morning and evening for any inducement, do nevertheless sometimes go through the whole service with a perfectly absent mind. At the beginning of every prayer they resolve to unite their desires to it throughout, and at the end come to themselves again, and perceive that all has been a blank before them. This is very disquieting, and fills them with painful and mistrustful thoughts. It is indeed a matter for compunction and humiliation. It is a token of their great spiritual infirmity. But it is a good thing to be made painfully aware of it. And this is one of the benefits resulting from the length of the prayers, and from the habit of daily service. It acts as a detector to test and exhibit their true internal state. With shorter and less frequent services they 359might have gone on for ever without finding out their secret indevotion; and all the while it would be no less real, though undiscovered. It is good to be convicted, lest we deceive ourselves. And the use we should make of the offices of the Church when we cannot follow them is, to chastise our indevotion by them, and to strengthen the habits of silence, reverence, and attention, which are the basis of a devout spirit. Even though, through our weakness or our sin, we fail to sustain our conscious and direct prayers, yet frequent and stated returns to God’s presence lay the foundations of obedience, and obedience is the very source of fervent prayer. In the relaxed state of our spiritual discipline, it is good to have this undesigned, though somewhat austere rule. There is another part of our public worship, which, though not intended, supplies a highly beneficial practice of devotion. I mean, the great length of time while the Holy Sacrament is being distributed to communicants. Some people strongly and inconsiderately complain of this. But it is a blessed and wholesome thing to be so encompassed, as it were, by the presence of God, that for a while we can employ ourselves in nothing but prayer and meditation. In our busy, excited, intellectual, distracted life, it is a good thing to have even our mental activity for a while forcibly suspended, and our minds left wholly without support 360or stay, except in the thought of God. It is good to have even religious books withdrawn for a time; for manuals of devotion often divert the mind from its own personal acts, and substitute the thought of devotion for the reality. While the Body and Blood of Christ are being given to His people at the altar, we can do nothing but turn inwardly upon our own consciousness of His presence with us, and of our actual state before Him. Let us, then, look upon all trials and difficulties in prayer as no more than we must meet in the discipline of every part of a holy life. And let us be thankful that we are in any way brought to know how far we are fallen from God, how unmeet for the inheritance of the saints in light, whose ministry of love and worship has no intermission; only let the consciousness of our distractions in prayer make us pray oftener, and more; for by prayer alone can they be overcome. There is no other cure. Let us, in spite of all, cleave to this, and we shall find all well at last, when we shall no longer worship Him under the veil of His unseen Presence, but before the Throne, where our “eyes shall behold the King in His beauty.”361
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