Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Four short extracts from Bishop Forester's Letters on the Subject of Prayer

I am so glad you found my talk a help rather than a hindrance. What you say is absolutely true: “Adoration is not our love of God but God’s love in us. Our prayer is real not because we say ‘Lord, Lord’, but because the Holy Ghost cries ‘Abba, Father.’” That is why there must be a process of self-emptying: our acts, even of love, must give way to, make room for the divine act. We can only experience the Infinite when we have ceased to experience the finite. ¶This is true. But to empty ourselves is not to despise ourselves. On the contrary, we must exult in this strange creature which God has created with the capacity to reach up to its Creator. Even fallen nature is a wonderful thing since we can conceive God; redeemed nature is still more wonderful since we can possess Him—or, to speak more accurately, we can know that He possesses us. I doubt if there can be true devotion without a sense of awe and marvel at all creation, including ourselves. I mention this because you seem to be tempted in that direction. You should not have a low opinion of yourself for the simple reason that you should not have an opinion of yourself at all. . . .
Please do not ask me about “states of prayer.” Just as you commit a sin of pride moment you think how humble you are, so prayer ceases the moment you becomes self-conscious about it. That “states of prayer” exist objectively I have not the least doubt, but the person who prays can never know his own state. The moment he thinks he does he has gone done to the bottom of the ladder and will probably stay there. We adore; but woe betide him who picks up a mirror to see himself at it! All he will see is his own void.
No, of course the theocentricity of prayer does not make it anti-social. On the contrary. All our pious self-exhortations and resolutions to love our neighbour might help us to be reasonably polite to him and exercise well-intentioned hyprocrisy, but they cannot make us love him because they remain mere human acts. But real prayer, in which we forget our neighbor as ourselves in order to adhere to God, will so perfect us that, to our own surprise, we shall suddenly distinguish in that neighbour something lovable and before unseen. This is the operation of grace.
I must have expressed myself badly. I regard meditation as highly important, particularly in the form of spiritual reading—in which it is not our own thoughts we think. There is no sanctity without ascetics, that is to say without disciplining the body and senses by mortification and disciplining the mind and imagination by meditation. But meditation is not prayer. It is directed towards self-perfection, whereas prayer is directed towards the adoration of God. Moreover, it not properly handled, meditation can become the most insidious of all distractions: we can become self-satisfied with the piety of our own thoughts. On the whole, meditation should be in depth, fathoming a very simple thought. One should avoid flitting from one pious thought to another. Take St Thais, for example. Upon her conversion this holy penitent went to Abbot Paphnutius for spiritual guidance. “Just sit facing East,” said he, “and repeat nothing but the words “Thou who hast made me have mercy on me—Qui plasmasti me, miserere mei.’” This she did for three years until she became a paragon of prayer. A trifle austere, perhaps, but the nature of the advice is sound.

—Bryan Houghton, Mitre and Crook, 1979, pp. 170–172.