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COMMENT FOR THE WEEK

I

A critic with discriminating insight has objected to Voltaire's writings on the ground that nothing could possibly be quite so clear as Voltaire makes it.

A book on prayer readily runs into danger of the same criticism. For, like every other vital experience, prayer in practice meets obstacles that a theoretical discussion too easily glosses over and forgets. Even when prayer is defined as communion with God, and our thought of it is thereby freed from many embarrassments, as a kite escapes the trees and bushes when one flies it high, there remain practical difficulties which perplex many who sincerely try to pray.

For example, real communion involves the vivid consciousness that someone is present, with whom we are enjoying fellowship. Now a man may believe that God is, may desire earnestly to speak with him, and may not doubt in theory the possibility of such communion; but in practice he may utterly fail to feel the presence of God. In spite of his best efforts he may seem to himself to be talking into empty space. The sense of futility—such as comes to one who finds that he has been speaking in the dark to nobody, when he supposed a friend was in the room-may so confuse him that, theory or no theory, prayer becomes practically valueless. He cries with Job, not in a spirit of scepticism, but in great perplexity and in genuine desire for the divine fellowship, “Behold, I go forward, but he is not there; And backward, but I cannot perceive him” (Job 23:8). The practice of God's presence is not so simple as words sometimes make it seem.

One obvious reason for this sense of God's unreality, which often makes helpful prayer impossible, lies of course in character. Isaiah was dealing with a universal truth when he said: “Your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you” (Isaiah 59:2). One has only to consider that frivolous American who in the Rembrandt room of the Amsterdam Gallery looked lackadaisically around and asked: “I wonder if there is anything here worth seeing"; one has only to recall the women who climbed an Alpine height on an autumn day, when the riot of color in the valley sobered into the green of the

pines upon the heights, and over all stood the crests of eternal snow, and who inquired in the full sight of all this, “We heard there was a view up here; where is it?" to see that there is a spiritual qualification for every experience, and that without it nothing fine and beautiful can ever be real to any one. “Mr. Turner,” a man once said to the artist, “I never see any sunsets like yours.” And the artist answered grimly, “No, sir. Don't you wish you could?” How clearly then must the sense of God's reality be a progressive and often laborious achievement of the spirit ! It is not a matter to be taken for granted, as though any one could saunter into God's presence at any time, in any mood, with any sort of life behind him, and at once perceive God there.

Let some debauché from the dens of a city walk into a company where men are chivalrous and women pure, and how much will the debauché understand of his new environment? Stone walls are not so impenetrable as the veil of moral difference between the clean and unclean. So spiritual alienation between God and man mal-es fellowship impossible. Of all the evils that most surely work this malign result in man's communion with the Father, the Master specially noted two: impurity—“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”; and vindictiveness, the unbrotherly spirit that will not forgive nor seek to be forgiven—“If therefore thou art offering thy gift before the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee, leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way, first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer they gift” (Matt. 5:23, 24). No one can be wrong with man and right with God. In Coleridge's "Ancient Mariner,” one of the most vivid pictures of sin's consequences ever drawn, the effect of lovelessness on prayer is put into a rememberable verse:

“I looked to heaven and tried to pray,

But or ever a prayer had gush't,
A wicked whisper came and made

My heart as dry as dust.”

Most of us have experienced that stanza's truth. The harboring of a grudge, the subtle wish for another's harm, the envy that corrupts the heart, even if it find no expression in word or deed—such attitudes always prove impassable bar

riers to spontaneous prayer. When, therefore, any one encounters the practical difficulty that arises from the sense of God's unreality, he may well search his life for sinister habits of thought, for cherished evils dimly recognized as wrong but unsurrendered, for lax carelessness in conduct or deliberate infidelity to conscience, for sins whose commission he deplores, but whose results he still clings to and desires, and above all for selfishness that hinders loving and so breaks the connections that bind us to God and one another.

II

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The sense of God's unreality, however, does not necessarily imply a wicked life. There are other reasons which often hinder men from a vivid consciousness of God. All of us, for example, have moods in which the vision of God grows dim. Our life is not built on a level so that we can maintain a constant elevation of spirit. We have mountains and valleys, emotional ups and downs; and, as with our Lord, the radiant experience of transfiguration is succeeded by an hour of bitterness when the soul cries, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). Cowper tells us that in prayer he had known such exaltation that he thought he would die from excess of joy; but at another time, asked for some hymns for a new hymnal, he wrote in answer, "How can you ask of me such a service? I seem to myself to be banished to a remoteness from God's presence, in comparison with which the distance from the East to the West is vicinity, is cohesion.” Of course we cannot always pray with the same intensity and conscious satisfaction. “I pray more heartily at some times than at others," says Tolstoi ; and even Bunyan had his familiar difficulties: “O, the starting holes that the heart hath in the time of prayer! None knows how many bye-ways the heart hath and back lanes to slip away from the presence of God.” The first step in dealing with this familiar experience is to recognize its naturalness and therefore to go through it undismayed. When Paul said to Timothy, “Be urgent in season, out of season," he was giving that advice which a wise experience always gives to immaturity: Make up your mind in advance to keep your course steady, when you feel like it and when you don't. This difficulty of mocds has been met by all God's

people. The biography of any spiritual leader contains passages such as this, from one of Hugh Latimer's letters to his fellow-martyr, Ridley: “Pardon me and pray for me; pray for me, I say. For I am sometimes so fearful, that I would creep into a mouse-hole; sometimes God doth visit me again with his comfort. So he cometh and goeth.”

A man who surrenders to these variable moods is doomed to inefficiency. He is like a hip that drifts as the tides run and the winds blow, and does not hold its course through them and in spite of them. Matthew Arnold goes to the pith of the problem, so far as duty-doing is concerned :

“Tasks in hours of insight willed
May be in hours of gloom fulfilled.”

And the same attitude is necessary in the life of prayer. Of course we cannot always pray with the same sense of God's nearness, the same warmth of conscious fellowship with him. Plotinus said that he had really prayed only four times in his life. Lowell, in his “Cathedral," writes,

“I that still pray at morning and at eve
Thrice in my life perhaps have truly prayed,
Thrice, stirred below my conscious self, have felt
That perfect disenthralment which is God."

The heights of fellowship with God are not often reached even the record of Jesus' life contains only one Transfiguration-but this does not mean that the value of prayer is only thus occasional. As Dean Goulburn put it, “When you cannot pray as you would, pray as you can.” A man does not deny the existence of the sun because it is a cloudy day, nor cease to count on the sun to serve him and his. Moods are the clouds in our spiritual skies. A man must not overemphasize their importance. Surely he should not on account of them cease to trust the God who is temporarily obscured by them.

Moreover, a man need not passively allow his moods to become chronic. Many a life, like an old-fashioned well, has latent resources of living water underneath, but the pump needs priming. Into a man's prayerless mood let a little

the pump.

living water from someone else's prayer be poured, and water from the nether wells of the man's own soul may flow again. For such a purpose, collections of prayers like the Bishop of Ripon's "The Communion of Prayer" or Tileston's "Great Souls at Prayer" are useful; and books of devotion such as St. Augustine's “Confessions.” They often prime

Indeed, prayer itself is a great conqueror of perverse moods. You are not in the spirit of prayer and therefore will refuse to pray until your mood chances to be congenial? But clearly Dr. Forsyth's comparison is apt: "Sometimes when you need rest most you are too restless to lie down and take it. Then compel yourself to lie down and to lie still. Often in ten minutes the compulsion fades into consent and you sleep, and rise a new man ... So if you are averse to pray, pray the more.

III

Deeper than the difficulty of passing moods lies the problem of those who habitually fail to feel the presence of God. In many cases the trouble is temperamental. Some men seem by their native constitution to be specially designed for religion. They are geniuses in the realm of spirit, as a Beethoven is in music or a Raphael in art. The unseen is real to them; they are immediately aware of its presence, sensitive to its meaning, responsive to its appeal. When they speak of prayer their vivid experience of God demands for its expression poetry rather than prose. “Orison,” they cry with Mechthild of Magdeburg, "draws the great God into the small heart; it drives the hungry soul out to the full God. It brings together two lovers, God and the soul, into a joyful room.” To temperaments of this quality the practice of God's presence is as spontaneous as any human love and quite as real.

But what of one who is not thus gifted? He is perhaps of a practical temperament, a man of action rather than of meditation. Even in human relationships he is not demonstrative, and is more given to revealing his loyalty and affection by concrete deeds of service than by radiant hours of communion. He stands perplexed before the exalted moods of the mystic. He cannot so strain himself as to reach them. He feels out of his element when he reads about them. When

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