048 Prayer and Spiritual Formation

Having been blessed by the writings of Thomas Dubay (especially Fire Within), I was delighted to find one of his early volumes, Pilgrims Pray (New York: Alba House, c. 1974). Dubay, who’s devoted his life to studying, writing and speaking on the contemplative life, discusses prayer from a fundamentally “biblical” stance (p. 11). In his judgment, “Biblical men who were alive in the Lord God breathed prayer as they breathed air. . . . . Everything spoke to them of the Most High” (p. v).

They did so because, as Dostoevsky knew, “to live without God is nothing but torture” (p. 4). The tortured estate of modernity stands exposed in items as varied as its mechanistic cosmology, noisy music, penchant for violence, mindless chit-chat, trivial amusements–all told, the anguish of tortured souls. It’s the torture of souls alienated from the deepest of realities. It’s the torture of souls who’ve never learned to pray.

Yet deep in our hearts we long to find “a homeland whose existence and character we can learn only at the lips of the God who is both fountain and fulfillment” (p. 40). Creation, seen sacramentally, surrounds us with symbols which, rightly read, enable us to enter into the Creator’s Presence. “In prayer a person celebrates reality, he sings to existence, he affirms the goodness of creation. Especially he celebrates, sings to, affirms the Creator of creation” (p. 258).

So Dubay calls us to pray. “Prayer is presence to Presence, a being silent before the Silent, a listening to the Word” (p. 4). This will demand daring to be different from those around us. “We need not lose a shred of healthful modernity, but we do need to become a new creation (Gal 6:15), thoroughly divinized (2 Pt 1:4), entirely Christified” (pp. 14-15). We’re called to be saints, not “abnormal,” as often portrayed, but as fundamentally normal, attaining the true norm for which we’re created.

With Christ, we must, if we want to pray, cultivate silence and solitude. “Just as scholars withdraw into libraries, so saints withdraw into protracted solitudes” (p. 232). The Gospels record the routine visits Jesus made to solitary places–mountains, especially–where he prayed (Mk 1:35; 6:46; Lk 5:16; 6:12; 9:18, 28; 21:37). In Dubay’s view, such times prove Jesus’ commitment to contemplative prayer. So too Vatican Council II urged Catholic religious to consider Jesus’ example: “‘contemplating on the mountain'” (p. 97). There He waited on the Father, “the first norm of the new creation, the first born of many brothers . . . the primordial norm proclaiming the perduring relevance of private, prayerful solitude” (p. 32).

Thus there is a properly mystical aspect to Christian prayer, contemplative prayer. Dubay notes the marks of such mysticism. Though it shares some commonalities with non-Christian mysticism, in the Christian tradition it’s unapologetically orthodox in its theology. First, it’s noetic, granting perceptions which are often wordless and nonconceptual but still truthful, granting a truth discerned in the darkness or sensed in the subtleties of love.

Second, it’s transcendent, coming to us from above, the gift of the Spirit, lifting us into another realm of reality. “God gives prayer by speaking his word, his fecundating word” (p. 146). “Sacred Scripture is a long account of one reality: God’s saving self-disclosure to man” (p. 211). We certainly take some initiative, preparing ourselves to pray, but in prayer we mainly listen to God’s Word, receiving as a Gift His Goodness and Grace.

Third, it’s spiritually deepening, helping one “center” in reality, discovering the personal communion established for us by Christ. Taking time to center down, we find in leisure “an open receptivity to drink reality” (p. 173). There’s a still point, in the center of our soul, where we touch the eternally real, where the floods of sense data drain away and leave us on the rock of permanence.

Fourth, it provides an inner sense of integration and personal wholeness, which in turn makes for the moral goodness possible only when one is inwardly cleansed, purified from sin. While much praying of the “gimmee” sort has little bearing on the holiness of the petitioner, the contemplative prayer Dubay enjoins opens our hearts to the cleansing power of the Holy Spirit. “One prays as well as he lives. No better” (p. 237). Holy living and holy praying go together. That’s why “Prayer is our supreme operation. We cannot be greater than when we are immersed in Beauty, Love, Joy. The health that is required for prayer is not health of body. It is before all moral health, moral goodness–an acceptance of God’s truth and a sincere effort to live it” (p. 237).

Then fifthly, the mystical experience is ineffable, beyond one’s ability to clearly describe. Just as lovers refer to their beloved as “too marvelous for words,” joy cannot be logically reduced to major and minor premises. Nor can it be subjected to chemical analysis in a test tube. Joy comes in the morning, like the soft light of dawn, slipping into our lives with the softness of daybreak. “One filled with the Spirit is filled with wonder, joy. For him a grain of sand can be thrilling, whereas for the man immersed in sin nothing is thrilling, not even his sin” (p. 218).

Jesus illustrated a truth all Christian mystics discover, that “Only the silent celebrate deeply” (p. 17). “It is good to wait in silence for Yahweh to save” (Lm 3:26). In prayer we find the realm described by Gerard Manley Hopkins as the “‘silence which stands open and listens for eternity'” (p. 21). Or, in the words of Isaiah: “Listen, listen to me, and you will have good things to eat and rich food to enjoy. Pay attention, come to me; listen, and your soul will live” (Is 55:1-3).

In prayer we annul the antithesis to celebration: boredom. How often do we hear people (particularly young people) say “I’m bored.” It’s an existential ennui, evident on the visages of kids wandering in shopping malls, weighing heavily on their elders enduring yet another commute. To Dubay, “Existential boredom is an insensitivity to reality. The person has somehow been desensitized; he has lost the child’s youthful freshness in re-sponding to everything. He sees nothing of marvel in a blade of grass, a crystal, a star, a human face. He can react enthusiastically to nothing. We have basic dullness bordering on intellectual death” (p. 45).

But those who pray, from earliest days to the present, discover the real source of enthusiasm, for prayer us in the One who is Pure Act. Prayer is where the action is! To link up with God, whose silent working moves the universe, is to find the joy of joining Him in His creative and redemptive endeavors. Praying to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit, allows us access to the Triune One whose Being structures and sustains all that is.

Consequently, the Christian Church is composed of priests, intercessors, prayer-ers who realize the fundamental truth about Reality. Christ’s Church is, first and last, “not a group of social workers but an assembly of praisers” (p. 66), united in glorifying God. Certainly the saints and martyrs who validated our Faith loved their neighbors, “but they did not dream that dealing with a human person is communing with God. Rather they communed with God about their neighbor” (p. 72).

It’s tempting for us to invert the biblical declaration that “God is love,” and declare “love is God,” thus reducing the Creator to one of our inner moods. Similarly, it’s tempting to reduce the Christian life to loving others, doing deeds of kindness, while refusing to let God be God, ignoring the transcendent realm of the Holy One.

As baptized believers we are “sons in the Son and inherit the favor the Father bestowed on His Son.” So prayer, in the words of Cahal Brendan Daly, “‘is the highest exercise and supreme fulfillment of our baptism. The baptized People of God are before and above all a praying people'” (p. 68). At our best we sit quietly at the feet of Jesus, like Mary, refusing to be “busy with many things” as was her sister Martha. At our best, we relish contemplative celebrations, rightly preferring feast days to work days.

“Never do we read in the sacred word that labor is the purpose of human existence” (p. 265). The hard-driving, consumer-driven model of modernity is hardly the biblical hero. “What we do read is just the opposite: man is made to drink Beauty. All else is orientated to that The final issue of human life, the reward of all the good one does is to be filled with the very goodness of God: ‘For me the reward of virtue is to see your face, and, on waking, to gaze my fill on your likeness’ (Ps 17:15)” (p. 265).

This is not to say we’re not to work, however! Amazingly enough “The greatest doers in twenty centuries of Church history have typically been the greatest pray-ers” (p. 180). When you begin listing the likes of St Augustine, St Gregory Great, Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, John Wesley and Mother Teresa, you understand the great works done by folks who pray a great deal.

Nor should one think that praying eliminates stress and suffering. Those who pray often go through great times of testing. Many times the purgation of prayer involves ascetic discipline. Mortifications and fastings, setbacks and sufferings, frequently deepen the quality of one’s prayer life. But the ultimate joy is worth it! Like the pain of an athlete lifting weights, the discomforts attending the life of prayer merely increase the level of enjoyment at its goodness.

The length of this review reveals the high regard with which I respond to Pilgrims Pray. For a readable book which is deeply immersed in Scripture and Church Tradition, it has few equals.

* * * * *

Perhaps only folks like Frank Carver and I (reared on the high plains and inclined to contemplative ways) will relish Kathleen Norris’ Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (New York: Houghton Miflin Company, c. 1993), but I think the book can nourish all Christian pilgrims. Norris is a published poet who, with her husband, left New York to settle in Lemmon, South Dakota, occupying the home of her deceased grandmother.

Dakota tells how she settled in, finding a place for herself, a spiritual base she’d never found in the busyness and rat-race pace of New York City life. She discovered how important it is to have a geography conducive to spirituality. She learned to revere the bond between silence, “the best response to mystery” (p. 16), solitude, simplicity, prayer, listening (“the first word of Benedict’s Rule), to the awakening of one’s awareness to God. Indeed, “the Plains have been essential not only for my growth as a writer, they have formed me spiritually. I would even say they have made me a human being” (p. 11).

And her writing brings us into her world, discerning transcendent truths symbolized in the rugged grandeur of western Dakota landscape. “The land and sky of the West often fill what Thoreau termed our ‘need to witness our limits transgressed.’ Nature, in Dakota, can indeed be an experience of the holy” (p. 1). In the openness–in fact the “emptiness”–of space on the high plains, Norris found her face to face with permanent things.

The great Spanish philosopher, Jose Ortega y Gassett, said “Tell me the landscape in which you live, and I will tell you who you are.” Dakota landscape appears stark faceless to the cavalcades cruising down the interstate highways which carry traffic across the region. People have, throughout this century, slowly deserted the area, finding it impossible to earn a living. Norris documents this process, providing portraits of pioneers’ descendants who have lost the will to preserve a toehold on the “home place.” The heat and cold, the thunderstorms and blizzards, make Dakota (to many) unattractive. One cannot long live there without losing humanistic, Promethean pretenses, for the elements of the Plains often overwhelm puny man!

Yet this austere region, so “lifeless” at first glance, has the potential to enliven one’s soul. Those who live there sometimes share the wisdom of a young rancher, “a third-generation Dakotan who says ‘the land lives'” (p. 128). Certainly it lived for the Sioux who still hang on in various parts of Dakota. As Paula Gunn Allen said, “‘What makes an Indian an Indian,’ she explains, is a deep connection to the land, built over generations, ‘that imbues their psychology and eventually their spirituality and makes them one with the spirit of the land'” (p. 128).

Earlier in life, Norris had abandoned her adolescent faith when a German professor of religion, who’d studied under Bultmann, taught her Sunday school class in Hawaii. As she remembers, “I needed liturgy and a solid grounding in the practice of prayer, not a demythologizing that left me feeling starved, thinking: If this is religion, I don’t belong” (p. 92). So she left and never visited a church for 20 years, living a thoroughly secularized life before returning to Dakota.

Once there, however, she sensed a hunger for spirituality. She hungered for something of the fulfilling faith her grandmother had lived by. So she slowly involved herself in the local church, even taking on “preaching” assignments in time. “Step by step, as I made my way back to church, I began to find that many of the things modern people assume are irrelevant–the liturgical year, the liturgy of the hours, the Incarnation as an everyday reality–are in fact essential to my identity and my survival” (p. 133).

Still more: she discovered, in Benedictine monasteries scattered throughout the Dakotas, a ancient way of life more nourishing and satisfying than the godless years of her urban past. Benedict’s Rule provided cohesion for the communities, proving the durability of permanent things. Theology took on life, full of practical activities, proving its truth in personal experience. Better than most of us, monks face reality, especially the reality of death which is so evident on the plains, charting the course for pilgrims of the Absolute.

Yet for all their devotion, their serious vocation, the monks delighted Norris with their “contemplative sense of fun” (p. 215). They fully enjoy life! As St Bernard of Clairvaux said, speaking of the monastic life, “‘It is . . . a good sort of playing which is ridiculous to men, a very beautiful sight to the angels . . . it is a joyous game'” (p. 207).

Through the Benedictines Norris discovered the riches of the Ancient Fathers, especially the Desert Fathers and Mothers who followed the example of St Anthony, who answered a question concerning his lack of reading material by saying: “‘My book, O philosopher, is the nature of created things, and any time I wish to read the words of God, the book is before me'” (p. 132). In that desolate place, his biographer, St Athanasius says, “‘Anthony, as though inspired by God, fell in love with the place'” (p. 132). So too Dakota provides the place which, if it’s loved, affords one access to God. Indeed, “like mystics, monastic people have often been a counterweight in a religion that has often denigrated nature” (p. 184).

Norris discovered that “A person is forced inward by the spareness of what is outward and visible in all this land and sky. The beauty of the Plains is like that of an icon; it does not give an inch to sentiment or romance. The flow of the land, with its odd twists and buttes, is like the flow of Gregorian chant that rises and falls beyond melody, beyond reason or human expectation, but perfectly” (p. 157).

Dakota is a finely crafted literary work, full of wisdom and beauty. It stands as a witness to the incurable longing of the human heart for transcendent reality. It reveals the importance of creation in directing one’s mind to ultimate truths. As Melissa Pritchard wrote, in her Chicago Tribune review, it’s “a contemplative book, a book of stories, a book of prayer, a book to be read meditatively and well. It is a gift of hope and balance, a place to begin.”

* * * * *

Upward Call: Spiritual Formation and the Holy Life, cooperatively written by Wesley Tracy, Dee Freeborn, Janine Tartaglia, and Morris Weigelt (Kansas City: Beacon Hiss Press of Kansas City, c. 1994), provides a fine introduction to the spiritual life. In brief, the book develops this thesis: “The essence of the Wesleyan doctrine of holiness has to do with the restoration of the image of god in humanity expressed in Christlikeness, and the goal of spiritual formation is to bring the believer to such Christlikeness that it is appropriate to speak of Christ being formed in the believer’s heart” (p. 9).

The book divides into four sections: 1) finding the path, preeminently the points where one encounters God in His sanctifying fullness; 2) finding resources for the journey: solitude–

“generally the most fundamental in the beginning of the spiritual life” (p. 97}); worship–recognizing bona fide differences in style; sacraments; scripture; prayer; simplicity–“the urge to acquire is the besetting sin of this age” (p. 102); 3) finding companions on the way–living life in communion, participating in the koinonia of the ecclesia; and 4) finding ways to serve others on our journey through self-surrender, love and service.

Though the book focuses on what disciples can do to closely follow Christ, it’s predicated upon a preliminary change of heart. Importantly, Tracy insists the spiritual journey must begin with cleansing from sin. “Many who write and speak in the field of spiritual development give no evidence that they are aware of the devastating consequences of sin” (p. 26). Yet, as John Wesley taught, there is a gracious remedy: God’s Holy Spirit will free us from sin’s bondage and enable us to enter into a cleansed communion with Him. “While some traditions talk about the ‘whitewash job’ the Atonement accomplishes, Wesley takes the biblical promises of sanctification literally” (p. 39). It’s Grace, not cultivating the spiritual disciplines, which frees us to follow the Upward Call.

The writers certainly have their distinctive visions and styles, but the volume is well-edited and reads as a coherent whole. The chapters are short, well-crafted, often graced with powerful citations, ending with study questions suitable for use in group discussions.

Upward Call is designed to introduce believers to the spiritual disciplines, those ancient exercises which have forever enabled folks to develop intimacy with God. Rightly read and followed, it would lead to drinking ever more deeply of the mystical fountains available in the works of Thomas Merton, Thomas Traherne, Evelyn Underhill, Teresa of Avila, et al.