from Ven. Archbishop Sheen's LIFT UP YOUR HEART, 1950
Prayer and Meditation
Web Master's Note: The chapter on meditation and prayer is perhaps Ven. Fulton J. Sheen's most profound work. It is our privilege to present it here for your perusal and thought that it might bear much fruit in prayer ...
This is probably the most talkative age in the history of the world - not only because we have more mechanical devices to diffuse our talking, but also because we have little inside our minds which did not come there from the world outside our minds, so that human communication seems to us a great necessity. As a result, talk is deified as a means of solving all problems. Even the young - who have not yet studied the philosophy of human rights - are called upon to solve the problems of the world in their "progressive" classrooms. There are few listeners, although St. Paul tells us that "faith comes from hearing." If the bodies of most of us were fed as little as the mind, they would soon starve to death. Hyperactivity and love of noise and chatter characterize our age, as a compensation for the modern man's profound distrust of himself. Not knowing clearly what he is, the American of today tries to become important by what he does - for the more anxious a man is, the more active he becomes.
Expectant fathers walk like caged beasts in the waiting rooms of maternity hospitals. The rocking chair, it has been said, is a typical American invention; it enables man to rest as he is restless, to sit in one place and still be on the go. In the days of a truly Christian civilization, man was active because of his body - he worked to eat. In the post-Christian era, man is active because of his mind - he works to stop thinking. The external necessity of labor is less exigent and cruel than the inner compulsion to "work off" anxiety. Man keeps in futile motion partly to escape having to ask himself two questions: "Why am I here?" and, "Where am I going?"
Because of his inner chaos and division, man cannot endure chaos around him - he longs for uniformity in everything. Having lost his internal unity through union with God, he tries to compensate by seeking an exterior unity with other human beings in the collective. Life becomes standardized. Today nearly all newspapers have the same standards of what is news. Mass opinion is created by the few magazines which are most widely sold. Our proper internal likeness to others through Divine Grace has given way to an external likeness brought about by slavish imitation. Mechanized opinion, imitation of our cheap "celebrities," dependence on "they say" or "they are wearing" for our guidance dwarf the modern man's individuality. The one who lives close to God cares not if he is unlike everybody else; but as one loses unity with Divinity, he develops a fear of being alone. He hopes (falsely) to derive some sense of protection from similarity to others.
Another result of our loss of inner peace is the replacement of quality by quantity. Having lost Grace, a quality of the soul that makes us God-like, a compensation is sought in the worship of quantity. Thus we boast of the "biggest," the "highest," the "greatest." The biggest university becomes the best university. Educators cease to be interested in the discovery of truth that unifies and strive only for a colossal accumulation of unrelated facts. As Pliny said: "Not being able to make our values beautiful, we make them huge." The greatness of our civilization is sometimes reckoned in terms of New York's Babels towering against the sky; we forget that Egypt built her greatest pyramids on the eve of her decline. [Emphasis in bold added here and infra.]
Finally, as the soul becomes impoverished through want of God-likeness, the body seeks compensation in excessive luxury and show of all sorts. Inner nakedness is atoned for by a new ornateness of dress. A rich boy can dress poorly and still be known as rich; a poor boy who wants to be known as rich must wear the semblance of wealth. A truly learned man does not have to talk about all the books he has read to be known as educated; but the sophomore who wants to be a member of the intelligentsia must intersperse his conversation with: "What! You never read that?" It is so with spirituality, too - the soul that has put on Christ does not need to pray publicly in the market places, to draw attention to its piety, as the Pharisees do. The show-off in any area is the man who lacks the quality he so carefully pretends to have. Those who love publicity are always people who do not want their real selves to be known to anyone; they have to advertise a legendary self. When these starved souls are told that they cannot take their various masks and pretenses with them, we seem to hear them say: "Well then, we will not go." The "act" which they put on has come to them to seem more precious than any truth or any reality.
No human being is happy when he is as externalized as most men are today. Everyone wants peace of soul, knowing that he cannot be happy on the outside unless he is happy on the inside. As a Chinese said: "Americans are not happy; they laugh too much." He may have seen the million photographs we show of people laughing, with nothing to laugh at but with a grim desire to create the illusion that they are having fun.
More important than an analysis of our excessive "outwardness" is its cure; for no one is happy in such extrinsic posturings. As one looks back to the Gospel, one finds Our Divine Lord warning us against such forms of ersatz peace, against standardization and conformity to the world. He said: "If the world hates you, be sure that it hated Me before it learned to hate you. If you belonged to the world, the world would know you for its own and love you; it is because you do not belong to the world, because I have singled you out from the midst of the world, that the world hates you." (John 15:18-19.) Against Colossalism, He warned in the parable of the man who built bigger and bigger barns, only to have an Angel tell him that that very night his soul would be required of him. Our Lord cautioned against hyperactivity when He told Martha that she was busy about too many things. The night He suffered His Agony, He rebuked Peter for substituting action for prayer, when, instead of watching a silent hour, he drew his sword. We have been amply warned - yet it is possible that those who today claim to be God's servants are sometimes so busy in their projects for the Kingdom of God that they forget the Kingdom of God itself.
All these externalizations are signs that we are trying to escape God and the cultivation of the soul. The very fact that anyone becomes disquieted when noise and excitement cease proves that he is in flight from his true self. Gregariousness, the passionate need to lose oneself in a crowd, the urge to identify oneself with the tempo of New York and Hollywood, is a strong proof that one is seeking distraction from the inner self, where true joy alone is found.
One of the most powerful means of overcoming the externalization of life is to find support in prayer and meditation. But as soon as prayer is suggested, there are those who will immediately retort: "Praying does no good." This statement has an element of truth in certain cases: not theological truth, but psychological. When it is said by those who are unwilling to curb their promiscuous habits or to tame their carnality, then the statement, "It does no good to pray," is true - but only of themselves. Their prayers are ineffective, not because God refuses to hear them, but because they refuse to fulfill the first condition of prayer, namely a longing to revise their natures to accordance with God's laws. To have any effectiveness, a prayer for help must express an honest desire to be changed, and that desire must be without reservation or conditions on our part. If we pray to be delivered from alcoholism, and yet refuse to stop drinking, that fact is an acknowledgment that we did not really pray. In like manner, the man who prays to be delivered from sexual perversions and excesses - and that very day deliberately exposes himself to such pleasures - has destroyed the efficacy of the prayer by a reservation. All prayer implies an act of the will, a desire for growth, a willingness to sacrifice on our own part; for prayer is not passive, but is a very active collaboration between the soul and God. If the will is inoperative, our prayers are merely a list of the things we would like God to give us, without ever asking us to pay the price they cost in effort and a willingness to change. Prayer is dynamic, but only when we cooperate with God through surrender. The man who decides to pray for release from the slavery of carnal pleasures must be prepared, in every part of his being, to utilize the strength which God will give him and to work unreservedly for a complete freedom from the sin. In dealing with other men it is possible to have one's cake and eat it, but with God that is impossible.
Sometimes - even when the will is operative - a prayer seems worthless because we approach God with a divided will. We want Him, but we want something else incompatible with Him. We are demanding that the laws of the universe be lifted, so that He will give us the reward of perfect trust in Him, while we continue to place half our trust in other things. In such a case, we keep one hand behind our back; we hold on to something that would compensate us if God should fail. We prepare a substitute satisfaction to fall back on if He does not come through - such as a comfortable bank account, when one is praying for guidance from Divine Providence. Human friendships are often broken for want of a complete and total confidence; and Divine Friendship does not bestow all of its gifts, either, when complete trust in Him is wanting. Faith precedes the answered prayer.
It is not difficult to understand why many people do not pray, at all. As a workman can become so interested in what he is doing as not to hear the noonday whistle, so the egotist can become so self-infatuated as to be unconscious of anything outside of himself. The suggestion that there is a reality beyond him, a power and an energy that can transform and elevate him, strikes him as absurd. Just as there are tone-deaf men who are dead to music and color-blind men who are dead to art, so the egotists are Deity-blind, that is, dead to the vision of God. They say they cannot pray, and they are right, they cannot. Their self-centeredness has paralyzed them. There is also some truth in their statement that they "do not need prayer," because they do not want to be any better than they are - their purpose is to remain unchanged, and this stultification can be accomplished by themselves alone. Animals do not need prayer, either, for none of them has a capacity for self-transcendence, which man has. A man is the only creature in the world who can become more than he is, if he freely wills to grow. The man who boasts that he is his own creator need never acknowledge dependence on God; he who affirms that he has never done anything wrong has no need of a Saviour. Before such egotists can pray, their selfishness must be corrected. Many refuse to correct it - not because they fear what they will become if they do, but because they cannot face the surrenders they would have to make before they could be elevated to a higher level of peace and joy.
There must always be a relationship between the gift and the recipient - there is no point in giving anyone a treasure he cannot use. A father would not give a boy with no talent for music a Stradivarius violin. Neither will God give to egocentrics those gifts and powers and energies which they never propose to put to work in the transformation of their lives and souls.
Some object that, inasmuch as God's Will will always be done, it can make no difference whether we pray; this is like saying: "My friend will either get better or worse; what good will it do to send for a doctor and give him medicine?" In the physical order medical power takes into account the physical factors within a sick body; in the spiritual order God's Will makes allowance for our desire to do better. It is true that in answering a prayer, God will not do what He did not will, merely because we asked Him; but He will do that which without our prayer He would not do. God will not make the sun shine through a dirty window - but the sun will shine through the window if it is clean. God will not do what we can very well do for ourselves; He will not make a harvest grow without our planting the seed. It is a conditional universe in which man lives - to bring about an effect we wish, we must proceed along the road to it through its cause. If a boy studies, he will know; if he strikes a match, it will ignite. In the spiritual order we have the words of Our Lord: "Ask, and the gift will come; seek, and you shall find; knock and the door shall be opened to you." (Matt. 7:7.) But there must be the preparation for God's help through the asking, and the seeking, and the knocking. Millions of favors are hanging from Heaven on silken cords - prayer is the sword that will cut them. "See where I stand at the door, knocking; if anyone listens to my voice and opens the door, I will come in to visit him, and take my supper with him, and he shall sup with Me." (Apoc. 3:20.)
This text reverses the order that many people think to be the law of prayer. They assume that when we pray we ring God's doorbell and ask for a favor. Actually, it is He Who rings our bell. [Ibid.] "I stand at the door, knocking." God could do much more for any soul if its will were more conformable - the weakness is always on the receiving end. Broadcasting stations wish to send programs into the home, but the programs do not become available unless a listener tunes in to them.
Many blessings and favors come to those individuals and families which put themselves wholeheartedly in the area of God's love -their lives are in sharp contrast to those who exclude themselves from that area of love. In the raising of a family, if the economic is made a primary concern and the Providence of God secondary, it is not to be expected that there will be the same showering of gifts and care on God's part as in a family where Providence comes first. The parents who trust God can tap a source of power and happiness which the other family does not make available. As human friends give us more in proportion as we trust them, and less in proportion to our mistrust, so it is with the Divine Friend. Those who make it possible for God to give more through their trust in Him receive more. In those families where the economic is a primary goal and where prayers are still said, it is very likely that the prayer will be like that of the prodigal: "Give me ..." In the other family, where Providence is primary, the prayer is more likely to be that of the prodigal after his conversion, when he said to the father: "Make me. ..." In proportion as we pray to be more faithful and loving sons of God, there will be a corresponding bestowal of those gifts which a Heavenly Father can give to His children - whom He loved so much He died for them.
The essence of prayer is not the effort to make God give us something - as this is not the basis of sound human friendships -but there is a legitimate prayer of petition. God has two kinds of gifts: first, there are those which He sends us whether we pray for them or not; and the second kind are those which are given on condition that we pray. The first gifts resemble those things which a child receives in a family - food, clothing, shelter, care, and watchfulness. These gifts come to every child, whether the child asks for them or not. But there are other gifts, which are conditioned upon the desire of the child. A father may be eager to have a son go to college, but if the boy refuses to study or becomes a delinquent, the gift which the father intended for him can never be bestowed. It is not because the father has retracted his gift, but rather because the son has made the gift impossible. Of the first kind of gifts Our Blessed Lord spoke when He said: "His rain falls on the just and equally on the unjust." (Matt. 5:45.) He spoke of the second kind of gifts when He said: "Ask, and the gift will come."
Prayer, then, is not just the informing of God of our needs, for He already knows them. "You have a Father in Heaven Who knows that you need them all." (Matt. 6: 32.) Rather, the purpose of prayer is to give Him the opportunity to bestow the gifts He will give us when we are ready to accept them. [Ibid.] It is not the eye which makes the light of the sun surround us; it is not the lung which makes the air envelop us. The light of the sun is there if we do not close our eyes to it, and the air is there for our lungs if we do not hold our breath. God's blessings are there - if we do not rebel against His Will to give.
God does not show Himself equally to all creatures. This does not mean that He has favorites, that He decides to help some and to abandon others, but the difference occurs because it is impossible for Him to manifest Himself to certain hearts under the conditions they set up. The sunlight plays no favorites, but its reflection is very different on a lake and on a swamp.
A person's prayer often keeps step with his moral life. The closer our behavior corresponds with the Divine Will, the easier it is to pray; the more our conduct is out of joint with Divinity, the harder it is to pray. Just as it is hard to look in the face of someone whom we have
grievously wronged, so it is hard to lift our minds and hearts to God if we are in rebellion against Him. This is not because God is unwilling to hear sinners. He does hear them, and He has a special predilection for them, for as He said: "I have come to call sinners, not the just." (Mark 2: 17.) "There will be more rejoicing over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine souls that are justified and have no need of repentance." (Luke 15:7.) But these sinners were the ones who corresponded with His Will and abandoned their rebellion against it. Where the sinner has no desire to be lifted from his evil habits. then the essential condition for prayer is wanting.
Everyone knows enough about God to pray to Him, even those who say that they doubt His existence. If they were lost in the woods, they would have no assurance whatever of anyone nearby who might help them find their way - but they would shout, nevertheless, in the hope that someone would hear. In like manner, the sceptic finds, in catastrophe and in crisis, that though he thought himself incapable of prayer, he nonetheless prays. But those who use prayer only as a last resort do not know God very well - they hold Him at arm's length most of the time, refusing Him the intimacy of every day. The little knowledge of God that such people possess does not become fruitful or functional, because they never act upon that knowledge: the Lord ordered that the unproductive talent be taken away. Unless a musician acts upon the knowledge that he already has of music, he will not grow either in knowledge or in love of it. In this sense, our conduct, behavior, and moral life become the determinants of our relations with God. When our behavior is Godless, licentious, selfish, egotistic, and cruel, then prayer is an extraneous thing - a mere attempt at magic, an attempt to make God serve our wishes in contradiction to the moral laws He has laid down.
The man, who thinks only of himself says only prayers of petition; he who thinks of his neighbor says prayers of intercession; he who thinks only of loving and serving God, says prayers of abandonment to God's Will, and this is the prayer of the Saints. The price of this prayer is too high for most people, for it demands the displacement of our ego. Many souls want God to do their will; they bring their completed plans and ask Him to rubber-stamp them without a change. The petition of the "Our Father" is changed by them to read: "My will be done on earth." It is very difficult for the Eternal to give Himself to those who are interested only in the temporal. The soul who lives on the ego-level or the I-level and refuses to be brought to the Divine-level is like an egg which is kept forever in a place too cool for incubation, so that it is never called upon to live a life outside of the shell of its own incomplete development. Every I is still an embryo of what a man is meant to be.
Where there is love, there is thought about the one we love. "Where your treasure-house is, there your heart is too." (Matt. 6:21.) The degree of our devotion and love depend upon the value that we put upon a thing: St. Augustine says, Amor pondus meum; love is the law of gravitation. All things have their center. The schoolboy finds it hard to study, because he does not love knowledge as much as athletics. The businessman finds it hard to think of heavenly pleasures because he is dedicated to the filling of his "barn." The carnal-minded find it difficult c' to love the spirit because their treasure lies in the flesh. Everyone becomes like that which he loves: if he loves the material, he becomes like the material; if he loves the spiritual, he is converted into it in his outlook, his ideals, and his aspirations. Given this relationship between love and prayer, it is easy to understand why some souls say: "I have no time to pray." They really have not, because to them other duties are more pressing; other treasures more precious; other interests more exhilarating. As watches that are brought too close to a dynamo cease to keep time, so, too, hearts that become too much absorbed in external things soon lose their capacity to pray. But as a jeweler with a magnet can draw the magnetism out of the watch and reset it by the sky, so, too, it is possible to become de-egotized by prayer, and be reset to the Eternal and to Love Divine. Though prayer is a duty, it is not well done unless the greatest motivation for it is love. The lover always has an overwhelming desire to fulfill the will of the beloved; human hearts find prayer unrewarding if they have too many other desires and wishes besides that of fulfilling God's Will, which is always our perfection. Some would like to please themselves without displeasing God: they do not want to be on "outs" with God, as a clerk does not want to be on "outs" with his boss. When there is such little love as this, religion and prayer are regarded as mere correctives, as something negative and restraining to our wishes. Such people ask of prayer and religion only that they keep them out of mortal sins - restrain them to moderate avarice, to moderate selfishness, and to moderate intemperance. If the heart and mind are lifted to God in such moods of mediocre hopes from Him, it is not to find out what God wants, but to tell Him what we want Him to do - so much, no more.
We pray as much as we desire to, and we desire to in ratio with our love. But the capacity for prayer belongs to every soul, and even those who do not acknowledge any love of God pray under stress. Our Divine Lord told two parables, sometimes badly interpreted as saying that
God is reluctant to grant favors but may be persuaded by our repeated pleading; actually, the stories do not have that meaning.
"Suppose one of you has a friend, to whom he goes at dead of night, and asks him, Lend me three loaves of bread, neighbor; a friend of mine has turned in to me after a journey, and I have nothing to offer him. And suppose the other answers, from within doors, Do not put me to such trouble; the door is locked, my children and I are in bed; I cannot bestir myself to grant thy request. I tell you, even if he will not bestir himself to grant it out of. friendship, shameless asking will make him rise and give his friend all that he needs." (Luke 11: 5-9.)
"And he told them a parable, showing them that they ought to pray continually, and never be discouraged. There was a city once, he said, in which lived a judge who had no fear of God, no regard for man; and there was a widow in this city who used to come before him and say, Give me redress against one who wrongs me. For a time he refused; but then he said to himself, Fear of Cod I have none, nor regard for man, but this widow wearies me; I will give her redress, or she will wear me down at last with her visits. Listen, the Lord said, to the words of the unjust judge, and tell me, will not God give redress to his elect, when they are crying out to him, day and night? Will he not be impatient with their wrongs? I tell you, he will give them redress with all speed. But ah, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith left on the earth?" (Luke 18:1-8.)
The real meaning of the parables is this: if a grumpy man, selfishly interested in his rest - or a scoundrel judge - will grant favors to those who solicit them, then how much more will God do good things for us if we ask? Prayer is not the overcoming of a reluctant God, but an identification of our needs with the highest kind of Willingness to help. In the parables the tardy selfishness of one man is set against the prompt liberality of God, and the unrighteousness of another man is contrasted with the righteousness of God. A second meaning lies in the stories: they tell us that prayer is natural in time of crisis, for one of them deals with a physical and the other with a social catastrophe. The suggestion is clearly made that if the neighbor were not in need of bread and the widow were not in need of justice, they would not have pled. He who says that he cannot pray or will never pray is stating only an opinion, held in times when no grave crisis troubles him. He is not revealing his basic impulses. An atomic bomb dropped on any city would make millions pray who had denied such a possibility. George Herbert said: "He that will learn to pray, let him go to sea." And Abraham Lincoln said: "I have been driven many times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go; my own wisdom and that of all around me seemed insufficient for that day."
If God sometimes seems slow to answer our petitions, there are several possible reasons. One is that the delay is for the purpose of deepening our love and increasing our faith; the other is that God is urging us. God may defer for some time the granting of His gifts, that we might the more ardently pursue, not the gift, but the Giver. Or we may be asking Him for something He wants us to learn we do not need.
Jacob once asked God to bring him home safely, promising that he would give ten per cent of his income for an altar as a thanksgiving. Later on, after Jacob had wrestled with the Angel, he forgot what favor he had wanted to get from God; he merely said, in the joy of communion with Deity: "I have seen God face to face." The greatest gift of God is not the things we think we would like to have, but Himself. And as all love grows, it asks less and less, seeking only to give and give. God, likewise, does not always give us what we want, but He always gives us what we need. Often this is a gift so great and generous that we should never have asked for it because, until it came, we did not know of it.
Our Lord never promised safety to His Apostles; He promised persecution: "You will be hated by all men because you bear My name." He did not promise them health or comfort; He promised strength to bear their trials. St. Paul prayed that the thorn in his flesh - some kind of illness - should be taken from him. This request was made three times and never granted; yet his prayer was answered. He received the answer: "My grace is enough for thee." And so, although the illness continued, St. Paul did not rebel against the God Who did not cure him, but rather said: "More than ever, then, I delight to boast of the weaknesses that humiliate me, so that the strength of Christ may enshrine itself in me. I am well content with these humiliations of mine, with the insults, the hardships, the persecutions, the times of difficulty I undergo for Christ; when I am weakest, then I am strongest of all." (II Cor. 12:9-10.)
A little girl at Christmas once prayed for a thousand dolls. Her unbelieving father on Christmas Day said: "Well, God did not answer your prayers, did He?" And she answered: "Yes, He did. God said no." This was the humble acceptance of His will of the truly faithful. The three youths in the fiery furnace, who were condemned to death because they would not fall down before the false image which Nabuchodonosor had erected, prayed that God would deliver them - but they were also prepared to accept whatever His Will might be. Their prayer ended: "For behold our God, Whom we worship, is able to save us from the furnace of burning fire, and to deliver us out of thy hands, O king. But if He will not, be it known to thee, O king, that we will not worship thy gods, nor adore the golden statue which thou hast set up." (Dan. 3:17-18.)
A higher form of prayer than petition - and a potent remedy against the externalization of life - is meditation. Meditation is a little like a daydream or a reverie, but with two important differences: in meditation we do not think about the world or ourselves, but about God. And instead of using the imagination to build idle castles in Spain, we use the will to make resolutions that will draw us nearer to one of the Father's mansions. Meditation is a more advanced spiritual act than "saying prayers"; it may be likened to the attitude of a child who breaks into the presence of a mother saying: "I'll not say a word, if you will just let me stay here and watch you." Or, as a soldier once told the Curé of Ars: "I just stand here before the tabernacle; He looks at me and I look at Him." Meditation allows one to suspend the conscious fight against external diversions by an internal realization of the presence of God. It shuts out the world to let in the spirit. It surrenders our own will to the impetus of the Divine Will. It turns the searchlight of Divine Truth on the way we think, act, and speak, penetrating beneath the layers of our self-deceit and egotism. It summons us before the Bar of Divine Justice, so that we may see ourselves as we really are, and not as we like to think we are. It silences the ego with its clamorous demands, in order that it may hear the wishes of the Divine Heart. It uses our faculties, not to speculate on matters remote from God, but to stir up the will to conform more perfectly with His Will. It cultivates a truly scientific attitude toward God as Truth, freeing us from our prepossessions and our biases so that we may eliminate all wishful thinking from our minds. It eliminates from our lives the things that would hinder union with God and strengthens our desire that all the good things we do shall be done for His Honor and Glory. It takes our eyes off the flux and change of life and reminds us of our being, the creatureliness, the dependence of all things on God for creation, moment-to-moment existence, and salvation. Meditation is not a petition, a way of using God, or asking things from Him, but rather a surrender, a plea to God that He use us.
Meditation has two stages - withdrawal from worldly consideration, and concentration on the Nature of God and His Incarnate Son, Jesus Christ. Meditation uses three powers of the soul: the memory, the intellect, and the will. By memory we recall His Goodness and our blessings; with the intellect we recall what is known of His Life, Truth, and Love; by the will we strive to love Him above all else. When we study, we know about God; when we meditate, we know God's Presence in ourselves, and we capture the very heart of our existence. So long as the ego or the I stands aloof from God, we are unhappy. But when our personality becomes lost in God's, so that His Mind is our mind, His desires are our desires, His loves are our loves - then the I realizes itself in self-forgetfulness. In the words of St. Paul: "And yet I am alive; or rather, not I; it is Christ that lives in Me." (Gal. 2: 20.)
For meditation the ear of the soul is more important than the tongue: St. Paul tells us that faith comes from listening. Most people commit the same mistake with God that they do with their friends: they do all the talking. Our Lord warned against those who "use many phrases, like the heathens, who think to make themselves heard by their eloquence." (Matt. 6:7.) One can be impolite to God, too, by absorbing all the conversation, and by changing the words of Scripture from "Speak, Lord, Thy servant hears" to "Listen, Lord, Thy servant speaks." God has things to tell us which will enlighten us - we must wait for Him to speak. No one would rush into a physician's office, rattle off all the symptoms, and then dash away without waiting for a diagnosis; no one would tune in the radio and immediately leave the room. It is every bit as stupid to ring God's doorbell and then run away. The Lord hears us more readily than we suspect; it is our listening to Him that needs to be improved. When people complain that their prayers are not heard by God, what often has happened is that they did not wait to hear His answer.
Prayer, then, is not a monologue, but a dialogue. It is not a one-way street. but a boulevard. The child hears a word before he ever speaks it - his tongue is trained through the ear; so our soul, too, is trained through its ear. As Isaias the Prophet said: "He wakeneth in the morning, in the morning he wakeneth my ear, that I may hear him as a master." St. Paul tells us that the Spirit will tell us for what things we ought to pray; as the Spirit brooded once over the formless waters, so now it brings spiritual expression to the voiceless void of our hearts. If our tongues are crude in their petitions, it is because our ears have been dull in their hearing of the faith. One of the important details of the Sacrament of Baptism is the opening of the ear: the priest touches it and says, as Our Lord did to the deaf man, "Ephepheta; be thou opened." The words imply that once a soul is brought into the state of Grace, the ears which were closed are open to the Word of God. There is a more sublime philosophy than we suspect in our saying that we learned our prayers from our mothers' lips. Prayer is arduous when it is only a monologpe, but it is a joy when our self-absorption gives way to the act of humbly listening.
The best exposition of the steps in meditation is found in the account of Easter Sunday in the Gospel. The disciples on that day were most forlorn. In their sadness they fell into talk about Our Lord with a traveler whom they had met by chance on the Emmaus road. This marks the first stage of meditation: they spoke about Our Lord, not realizing He was present. This is followed by Our Lord's disclosure of His presence - we listen, then, as the disciples did when He began to unfold to them the meaning of His Passion and Death. Finally, there comes a stage of communion - signified by the breaking of bread at supper in the Gospel; at this point the soul is united to God, and God to the soul. It is a moment one reluctantly abandons, even when the day is far spent and fatigue is great.
Besides the joy it brings in itself, meditation has practical effects on our spiritual lives. First, it cures us of the habit of self-deception. Man is the only creature on earth capable of self-reflection; this possibility exists because he has a rational soul. Since the soul is also spiritual, it has a longing for the infinite; we sometimes seek to slake our infinite thirst in the waters of the world - which have a glamour for us that is lacking in the things of God - and when this effort temporarily provides us with pleasure, we deceive ourselves. Meditation enables us to hold the mirror up to our souls, to perceive the fatal disease of self-love in the blinding light of the Radiant Christ. Because talk is a principal cause of self-deception, our friends dupe us with their flattery, and much of our inward conversation with ourselves is apt to be pitched on a note of self-justification. The silence which meditation demands is the best cure for this; in silence the workmen of the soul clear away its rubbish, as trash collectors clean our cities in the quiet night. Anyone awake at night sees his sins more clearly than in daylight; this is because the soul is now beyond the distraction of all noise. Sleeplessness is thus more of a burden to those with a sense of guilt than to the innocent, who, like the psalmist, can raise their night thoughts to God in prayer. Meditation provides an artificial quiet by shutting out the din of day. It replaces the criticism of others, which is probably our mental habit, by a self-criticism which will make us less critical of others. The one who sees the most faults in his neighbor is the one who has never looked inside his own soul. Unjustified criticism of others is self-flattery - for by finding others worse than ourselves, we become comparatively virtuous; but in meditation, by finding ourselves worse than others, we discover that most of our neighbors are better than ourselves. The poorer a man is, the greater the fortune of which he dreams; so, the humbler we are in our meditation, the higher the ideal to which we aspire. As there is no egotist who is not also a self-deceiver, so no one accustomed to meditate has any illusions as to his own grandeur. The clearer we see our souls in relation to God, the less egocentric we become.
There is a definite correlation between knowing God and knowing oneself: God cannot be known unless we know ourselves as we really are. The less a man thinks of himself, the more he thinks of God. God's greatness does not depend objectively on our littleness; but it becomes a subjective reality to us only if we are humble. As we make ourselves "gods," we perceive God less and less. The consciousness of our need for help in being good is the condition of knowing Goodness Itself.
Meditation also improves our behavior. It is often stated that it makes no difference what we believe, that all depends on how we act; but this is meaningless, for we act upon our beliefs. Hitler acted on the theory of Nazism and produced a war; Stalin acts on the ideology of Marx and Lenin and begets slavery. If our thoughts are bad, our actions will also be bad. The problem of impure actions is basically the problem of impure thoughts; the way to keep a man from robbing a bank is to distract him from thinking about robbing a bank. Political, social, and economic injustices are, first, psychic evils - they originate in the mind. They become social evils because of the intensity of the thought that begot them.
Nothing ever happens in the world that does not first happen inside a mind. Hygiene is no cure for immorality, but if the wellsprings of thought were kept clean, there would be no need to care for the effects of evil thinking on the body. When one meditates and fills his mind for an hour a day with thoughts and resolutions bearing on the love of God and neighbor above all things, there is a gradual seepage of love down to the level of what is called the subconscious, and finally these good thoughts emerge, of themselves, in the form of effortless good actions. Everyone has verified in his own life a thousand times the ideomotor character of thought. Watching a football game, the spectator sees a player running with the ball; if there is a beautiful opening around right end, he may twist and turn his own body more than the runner does, to try to take advantage of the chance. The idea is so strong that it influences his bodily movements - as ideas often do. Thoughts of fear produce "goose-pimples" and sometimes make the blood rush to the hands and feet. God has made us so that, when we are afraid, we should either fight or run.
Our thoughts make our desires, and our desires are the sculptors of our days. The dominant desire is the predominant destiny. Desires are formed in our thoughts and meditations; and since action follows the lead of desires, the soul, as it becomes flooded with Divine Promptings, becomes less and less a prey to the suggestions of the world. This increases happiness; external wants are never completely satisfied, and their elimination thus makes for less anxiety. If a man meditates consistently on God, a complete revolution takes place in his behavior. If in a morning meditation he remembers how God became a humble Servant of man, he will not lord it over others during the day. If there were a meditation of His Redemption of all men, he would cease to be a snob. Since Our Lord took the world's sins upon Himself, the man who has dwelt on this truth will seek to take up the burdens of his neighbor, even though they were not of his making - for the sins the Lord bore were not of His making, either. If the meditation stressed the Merciful Saviour Who forgave those who crucified Him, so a man will forgive those who injure him, that he may be worthy of forgiveness. These thoughts do not come from ourselves - for we are incapable of them - nor from the world - for they are unworldly thoughts. They come from God alone.
Meditation effects far more profound changes in us than resolutions to "do better"; we cannot keep evil thoughts out of our minds unless we put good ones in their place. Supernature, too, abhors a vacuum. In meditation one does not drive sin out of his life; he crowds it out with love of God and neighbor. Our lives do not then depend on the principle of avoiding sin, which is a tiresome job, but on living constantly in the climate of Divine Love. Meditation, in a word, prevents defeat where defeat is final: in the mind. In that silence where God is, false desires steal away. If we meditate before we go to bed, our last thought at night will be our first in the morning. There will be none of that dark brown feeling with which some men face a meaningless day; and in its place will be the joy of beginning another morning of work in Christ's Name.
As a third largesse, meditation gives us contact with new sources of power and energy. "Come to me, all you that labour and are burdened; I will give you rest." (Matt. 11 :28.) No one has sufficient knowledge and power to carry him through all the difficulties and trials of living. We think we have sufficient wisdom when we give advice to others; but we learn we do not have it, when we have to live on our own intellectual fat. The more an orchestra plays, the more it has to be tuned up; the farther an airplane flies, the more it needs to be serviced. When our spiritual batteries run down, we cannot charge them by ourselves, and the more active the life is, the greater the need to vitalize its acts by meditation. But each meditation must be personalized - brought from the realm of thought and reduced to a lesson we ourselves are able to apply. No man is better because he knows the five proofs for the existence of God; but he becomes better when that knowledge is permitted to transform his will. Purity of heart is therefore the condition of prayer; we cannot be intimate with God, so long as we cling to unlawful attachments. The needed purity must be fourfold: purity of conscience, so that we will never offend God; purity of heart, so that we keep all our affections for God; purity of mind so that we preserve a continual consciousness of God; and purity of action so that we keep our intentions selfless and abandon our self-will.
Once our helplessness is rendered up to the Power of God, life changes, and we become less and less the victims of our moods. Instead of letting the world determine our state of mind, we determine the state of soul with which the world is to be faced. The earth carries its own atmosphere with it as it revolves about the sun; so the soul can carry the atmosphere of God with it, in disregard of turbulent events in the world outside. There is a moment in every good meditation when the God-life enters our life, and another moment when our life enters the God-life. These events transform us utterly. Sick, nervous, fearful men are made well by this communion of creature with Creator, this letting of God into the soul. A distinguished psychiatrist, J. D. Hadfield, has said: "I attempted to cure a nervous patient with suggestions of quiet and confidence, but without success, until I had linked these suggestions on to that faith in the power of God which is the substance of the Christian's confidence and hope. Then the patient became strong."
It is never true to say that we have no time to meditate; the less one thinks of God, the less time there will always be for Him. The time one has for anything depends on how much he values it. Thinking determines the uses of time; time does not rule over thinking. The problem of spirituality is never, then, a question of time; it is a problem of thought. For it does not require much time to make us Saints; it requires only much love.
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