Delia Smith FAITH Magazine September-October 2006
The person who truly wants to pray is the person who truly wants to know God more intimately. In the beginning it’s probably best to abandon the word prayer altogether. Prayer is something God does. We are merely on the receiving end and since He transcends our world it is a total waste of time even trying to figure out what he may or may not do from a purely human perspective.
This is difficult because, as human beings, we like to be in the know and have a grip on things. One of the greatest writers on prayer, St. John of the Cross - a Doctor of the Church - is quite specific: ‘to come to a knowledge you have not you must come by a way you know not’. It’s therefore much better and far more liberating to abandon trying to figure it out and simply concentrate on getting on with it and actually doing it.
What, then, must we do? Begin by getting right down to the radical nitty-gritty and quite simply exchange the word prayer for another word: time. It really is starkly simple: if you truly want to know God and experience that close familiarity you were created for then you must give him more of your precious time. Time is not negotiable here and it cannot be evaded.
It’s far easier to evade the word prayer because ‘it’s not my thing’ or’ I don’t understand it’ or ‘I’m not into that kind of realm’. But you can’t talk your way around time. It’s there staring you right in the face and will reveal in the depth of your being what it is you really want. And, if right in those hidden depths it’s God you want, then you will quite certainly find the time. Understanding that time is all you need can be quite liberating - no qualifications needed here, just a willingness to become silent and still in the presence of God each day and - as we mentioned last time - ‘be taught by God Himself’.
yes, you will need a massive amount of trust because you will not be in charge of all this and won’t know what God is up to. This kind of absolute trust can at first be a rather wobbly affair. Being still and silent within what the unknown author called ‘ the cloud of unknowing’ and not having a clue what’s going on needs enormous trust - but this also will be given. The Psalmist in psalm 90 is spot on when he talks of living in the shelter of God under the shade (darkness) or shadow of his wings yet understanding ‘my refuge, my stronghold, my God in whom I trust’. Here in the darkness we very gently and slowly begin to perceive something of the unconditional love ‘that created us and sustains us’ and that we cannot ‘live truly and fully until we commit ourselves to Him’.
What was hitherto a notional understanding becomes a full-blown, deadly serious reality. We all start out like Thomas the Twin: however hard we struggle and try, we find it hard to believe in the risen presence of Jesus in our world today. It can only be a notional thing until we can at the deepest spiritual level touch it and then absolutely know it—‘my Lord and my God’.
None of this can be acquired by our own efforts, all is pure gift. Our part is to stand back, look at our lives and what we do with our time. When Pharaoh was faced with the God of Moses, wanting to lure the Hebrews out of slavery into the desert, his response was to ‘make them work twice as hard so they have no time to listen’. Doesn’t that ring all kinds of bells? Are we not slaves too? If our lives are far too busy, pressured and stressful to find real prime time for God, the answer is surely, yes. Where on earth are we going to find time in our overcrowded, busy lives to hike off into the desert every day?
This is the crossover point. This is make-you-mind-up time, where we have to fight for it, work for it and move mountains for it. When you do step back and take a close look, you will find dozens of low-key activities that occupy time: watching a soap of TV for half an hour, going to the gym, reading the paper, talking on the phone, working on a computer. Isn’t it strange that doing any of these things, which are all good and part of normal life, aren’t actually a big deal. We don’t even think about it. Why then should it be such a very big deal to give half an hour to being still and silent in the presence of God? ‘He who loses his life, will find it’. So why not just lose a little bit each day? That is all we are required to give to this, the most important relationship we will everhave. The author of The Cloud of Unknowing calls this work. You simply have to work at creating time and God will do the rest.
Why books and articles on prayer (this one included) are so often not very helpful is because the bottom line is you have to do it, know it. Again: ‘to come to a knowledge you have not, you must go by a way you know not’. Let’s end with more words from this great master and teacher:
O you who were created for union with God himself and whom he is ever attracting to himself, what are you doing with your precious lives, with your time? ... O terrible human blindness. So great a light about you and you do not see it, so clear a voice sounding and you do not hear it. (St. John of the Cross. Spiritual Canticle 39)