If we did not put our worries to God, they would stand between him and us in the course of our meeting, but we have also just seen that the next move, which is essential, is to drop them. We should make that in an act of confidence, trusting God enough to give him the troubles we wish to get off our shoulders. But then, what next? We seem to have emptied ourselves, there is nothing much left, what are we going to do? We cannot remain empty, because if we do we shall be filled by the wrong things, by feelings, thoughts, emotions and reminiscences and so on. We must, I believe, remember that an encounter is not meant to be a one-sided discourse on our part. Conversation means not only talking but hearing what the other has to say. And to achieve this we must learn to be silent; although it seems trifling it is a very important point.
I remember that one of the first people who came to me for advice when I was ordained was an old lady who said: 'Father, I have been praying almost unceasingly for fourteen years, and I have never had any sense of God's presence.' So I said: 'Did you give him a chance to put in a word?' 'Oh well,' she said. 'No, I have been talking to him all the time, because is not that prayer?' I said: 'No, I do not think it is, and what I suggest is that you should set apart fifteen minutes a day, sit and just knit before the face of God.' And so she did. What was the result? Quite soon she came again and said: 'It is extraordinary, when I pray to God, in other words when I talk to him, I feel nothing, but when I sit quietly, face to face with him, then I feel wrapped in his presence.' You will never be able to pray to God really and from all your heart unless you learn to keep silent and rejoice in the miracle of his presence, or if you prefer, of your being face to face with him although you do not see him.
Quite often, having said what we have to say and having sat for a certain time, we are at a loss: what shall we do? What we should do I believe is to start on some set prayers. Some find set prayers too easy, and at the same time see a danger of taking for actual praying the repetition of what someone else has said in the past. Indeed, if it is just mechanical it is not worth doing, but what is overlooked is that it depends on us whether it is mechanical or not, by paying attention to the words we say. Others complain that set prayers would be unreal because it is not quite what they would express, it is not theirs. In a sense it is unreal, but only in the same way in which the painting of a great master is unreal for a schoolboy, or the music of a great composer is unreal for a beginner, and yet that is just the point: we go to concerts, we visit art galleries to learn what real music or real painting is, to form our taste; and that is partly why we should use set prayers, to learn which feelings, which thoughts, which ways of expressions we should employ, if we belong to the Church. It also helps in time of dryness, when we have very little to say.
Apart from the stripped, naked, reduced-to-bone person which we are when we remain just alone, we are also in the image of God and the child of God that is in each of us is capable of praying with the loftiest and holiest prayers of the Church. We must remember that and make use of them. I suggest we add to the exercises we have been doing, a period of silence, a few minutes- three or four minutes- which we shall end with a prayer:
'Help me, O God, to see my own sins, never to judge my neighbour, and may the glory all be thine!'
Before I enter into the subject of 'Unanswered Prayer', I would like to pray to God that he might enlighten both me and you, because it is a difficult subject, yet such a vital one. It is one of the great temptations which everyone may meet on his way, which makes it very hard for beginners, and even for proficient people, to pray to God. Many times people pray and it seems to them that they are addressing an empty heaven; quite often it is because their prayer is meaningless, childish.
I remember the case of an old man telling me that when he was a child he prayed for several months that he would be given by God the amazing gift which his uncle possessed- that of every evening taking his teeth out of his mouth, and putting them into a glass of water- and he was terribly happy later on that God did not grant his wish. Often our prayers are as puerile as this, and of course they are not granted. Quite frequently when we pray we believe that we are praying rightly, but we pray for something which involves other people, of whom we do not think at all. If we pray for wind in our sails, we do not realise that it may mean a storm at sea for others, and God will not grant a request that affects others badly.
Besides these two obvious points, there is another side to unanswered prayer which is more basic and deep: there are cases when we pray to God from all our heart for something which, from every angle, seems to be worthy of being heard, and yet there is nothing but silence, and silence is much harder to bear than refusal. If God said 'No', it would be a positive reaction of God's, but silence is, as it were, the absence of God and that leads us to two temptations: when our prayer is not answered, we either doubt God, or else we doubt ourselves. What we doubt in God is not his might, his power to do what we wish, but we doubt his love, his concern. We beg for something essential and he does not even seem to be concerned; where is his love and his compassion? This is the first temptation.
There is another: we know that if we had as much faith as a mustard seed, we could move mountains and when we see that nothing budges, we think, 'Does that mean that the faith I have got is adulterated, false?' This again is untrue, and there is another answer: if you read the gospel attentively, you will see that there is only one prayer in it that was not answered. It is the prayer of Christ in the garden of Gethsemane, and yet we know that if once in history God was concerned for the one who prayed, it was then for his son, before his death, and also we know that if ever perfect faith was exemplified, it was in his case, but God found that the faith of the divine sufferer was great enough to bear silence.
God withholds an answer to our prayers not only when they are unworthy but when he finds in us such greatness, such depth- depth and power of faith- that he can rely upon us to remain faithful even in the face of his silence.
I remember a young woman with an incurable disease and after years of the awareness of God's presence, she suddenly sensed God's absence- some sort of real absence- and she wrote to me saying, 'Pray to God, please, that I should never yield to the temptation of building up an illusion of his presence, rather than accept his absence.' Her faith was great. She was able to stand this temptation and God gave her this experience of his silent absence.
Remember these examples, think them over because one day you will surely have to face the same situation.
I cannot give you any exercise, but I only want you to remember that we should always keep our faith intact, both in the love of God and in our honest, truthful faith, and when this temptation comes upon us, let us say this prayer, which is made of two sentences pronounced by Jesus Christ himself:
'Into Thy hands I commend my spirit,
Thy Will, not mine, be done.'
Whatever I have tried to give as an outline of the main ways in which we should approach prayer, does it mean that if you do all I have suggested you will be able to pray? Indeed not, because prayer is not simply an effort which we can make the moment we intend to pray; prayer must be rooted in our life and if our life contradicts our prayers, or if our prayers have nothing to do with our life, they will never be alive nor real. Of course we can deal with that difficulty and make an easy escape by excluding from our prayers everything that, in our life, does not fit into the framework of prayer- all those things we are ashamed or uneasy about. But it does not solve anything satisfactorily.
Another difficulty which we meet constantly is to fall into daydreaming, when our prayer expresses a sentimental trend and is not the expression of what our life is basically. There is one common solution for these two difficulties; that of joining together life and prayer, making them one, by living our prayer. To help us along this line, set prayers, of which I have already spoken, are most precious because they are an objective, hard outline of a way of praying. You may say that they are unnatural, and it is true in the sense that they express the life of people who are immeasurably greater than we are, of real Christians, but that is just why you can make use of them, trying to become the sort of people for whom those prayers are natural.
You remember Christ's words: 'Into Thy hands I commend my Spirit.' Of course it is not within our own experience, but if we learn from day to day to become the sort of person who is capable of pronouncing these words sincerely, in all honesty, we will not only make our prayers real, but we will make ourselves real, with a new reality, the true reality of becoming the sons of God.
If you take, for instance, the five prayers which I have suggested and if you take one after the other, each of the petitions of these prayers, and if you try to make each of them in turn the motto, the slogan that will direct the day, you will see that prayer becomes the criterion of your life; it will give you a framework for it, but also your life will stand in judgment, against you or for you, giving you the lie when you pronounce these words, or, on the contrary, affirming that you are true to them. Take each sentence of each prayer and make it the rule of one day after the other, so for weeks and weeks, until you become the sort of person for whom these words are life.
We have to part now; I have immensely enjoyed being with you, although I do not see you, but we are united in prayer and in our common interest for the life of the spirit. May the Lord God be with each of you and in our midst for ever.
And before we part, I would like us to say together one short prayer that will unite us before the throne of God:
O Lord, I know not what to ask of thee; thou alone knowest what are my true needs. Thou lovest me more than I know how to love myself. Help me to see my real needs which are concealed from me. I dare not ask either a cross or consolation. I can only wait on thee. My heart is open to thee. Visit and help me for thy great mercy's sake, strike me and heal me, cast me down and raise me up. I worship in silence thy holy will and thine inscrutable ways. I offer myself as a sacrifice to thee. I put all my trust in thee. I have no other desire than to fulfill thy will. Teach me how to pray, pray thou thyself in me. AMEN.
Source: Bloom, Anthony Metropolitan 1966, Living Prayer, Templegate Publishers, Illinois, pp. 118-125.