The Still Hour
Ch. 8: Indolence in Prayer
Key Thought: "We lose many prayers for the want of two things which support each other, - speciﬁcness of object, and intensity of desire."
Ye Said Also, Behold What a Weariness Is It! Mai., 1 :13
Indolence in Prayer
We offer many dead prayers, through mental indolence. This fact is often forgotten, that prayer is one of the most spiritual of the duties of religion, spiritual as distinct from corporeal! Do we not naturally seek darkness in our devotions? Why is it, that to pray with open eyes seems either heartless or ghastly ? So, too, do we seek stillness and solitude. Only a Pharisee can pray at the corner of a street. A truly devout spirit learns to sing from its own experience —
'Blest is the tranquil hour of morn,
And blest that hour of solemn eve,
When, on the wings of prayer upborne,
The world I leave.'
Physical enjoyment is as much a drag upon the spirit of worship as physical pain. "We want nothing to remind us of our corporeal being, in these hours of communion with Him who seeth in secret. We worship One who is a Spirit. A soul caught up to the third heaven in devout ecstasy, cannot tell whether it be in the body or out of the body.”
These well-known phenomena of prayer suggest its purely mental character. They involve, also, the need of mental exertion. 'We may pray with the intellect without praying with the heart; but we cannot pray with the heart without praying with the intellect.'
True, there is, as we shall have occasion to observe, a state of devotional culture which may render prayer habitually spontaneous, so that the mind shall be unconscious of toil in it, but shall spring to it rather as to its native and wonted atmosphere of joy. This is the reward of practiced effort in all things. But who can number the struggles with a wayward spirit, which must create that high deportment in devotion?
True, there may be hours when the mind is alert, from other causes; when the fountains of the soul are unsealed by a great sorrow, or a great deliverance; when before we called, God has heard us, and the Spirit now helps our infirmities, so that thought is nimble, sensibility is fluent, and the mouth speaketh out of the abundance of the heart. Yet such unforeseen and gratuitous aids to mental elasticity, are not the law of devotional life. In this, as in other things, no great blessing is given thoughtlessly, and none can be received thus. The law of blessing, allies it in some sort with struggles of our own. True, God's condescension is nowhere more conspicuous than in His hearing of prayer. No ponderous intellectual machinery is needful to its dignity; no loftiness of reasoning, no magnificence of imagery, no polish of diction; no learning, no art, no genius. In its very conception, prayer implies a descent of the Divine Mind to the homes of men; and with no design to lift men up out of the sphere of their lowliness, intellectually. Bruised reeds, smoking flax, broken hearts, dumb sufferers, the slow of speech, timid believers, tempted spirits, — weakness in all its varieties,—find a refuge in that thought of God, which nothing else reveals so affectingly as the gift of prayer, that He is a very present help in every time of trouble. He whom the heaven of heavens cannot contain, 'has come down and placed Himself in the centre of the little circle of human ideas and affections,' as if for the purpose of making our 'religion always the homestead of common feelings.' It has been debated by philosophers, whether prayer be not of the nature of poetry. Yet poetry has seldom attempted to describe prayer; and, when it has done so, what is the phraseology in which it has spoken to our hearts most convincingly? Is it that of magnificent and transcendental speech? No; it portrays prayer to us as only
' The motion of a hidden fire
That trembles in the breast,' —
as the mere 'burden of a sigh,' the 'falling of a tear,' 'the upward glancing of an eye,' the 'simplest form of speech' on 'infant lips.'
All this is true, and no idea of the intellectuality of prayer should be entertained which conflicts with this. But we degrade the dignity of God's condescension, if we abuse His indulgence of our weakness to an encouragement of our indolence. Must we not wince under the rebuke of the preacher at Golden Grove: 'Can we expect that our sins can be washed by a lazy prayer? We should not dare to throw away our prayers so, like fools'?
Coleridge, in his later manhood, expressed his sorrow at having written so shallow a sentiment on the subject of prayer, as that contained in one of his youthful poems, in which, speaking of God, he had said—
'Of whoso all-seeing eye Aught to demand were impotence of mind.'
This sentiment he so severely condemned, that he said he thought the act of praying to be, in its most perfect form, the very highest energy of which the human heart was capable. The large majority of worldly men, and of learned men, he pronounced incapable of executing his ideal of prayer.
Many scriptural representations of the idea of devotion come up fully to this mark. The prayer of a righteous man, that availeth much, which our English Bible so infelicitously describes as 'effectual, fervent,' is in the original an 'energetic' prayer, a 'working' prayer. Some conception of the inspired thought in the epithet may be derived from the fact, that the same word is elsewhere used, to intensify the description of the power of the Holy Spirit in a renewed heart. Thus: 'According to the power that worketh in us,' — the power that energizes us in a holy life: — such is the inspired idea of a good man's prayer.
What else is the force of the frequent conjunction of 'watching' and 'praying,' in the scriptural style of exhortation to the duties of the closet? Thus: 'Watch and pray,' ‘watch unto prayer,' 'praying always and watching,' 'continue in prayer and watch;' there is no mental lassitude, no self-indulgence here. It was a lament of the prophet over the degeneracy of God's people: 'None stirreth himself up to take hold of Thee.' Paul exhorts the Romans to 'strive together with him in their prayers,' and commends an ancient preacher to the confidence of the Colossians, as one who 'labored fervently in prayers.' There is no droning or drawling effort here.
Indeed, what need have we of more significant teaching on this point than our own experience? Setting aside as exceptional, emergencies in which God condescends to our incapacity of great mental exertion, do we not habitually feel the need of such exertion in our devotions? Is not even a painful effort of intellect often needful to recall our minds from secular engagements, and to give us vivid thoughts of God and of eternity? I do not assume that this ought to be so, or need be; I speak of what is, in the ordinary life of Christians.
Prayer can have no intelligent fervor, unless the objects of our faith are represented with some degree of vividness, in our conceptions of them. But this is a process of intellect. As we must have clear thought before we can have intelligent feeling, so must we have vivid thought before we can have profound feeling. But this, I repeat, is a process of intellect.
Yet, do we not often come to the hour and place of prayer, burdened by an exhausted body; with intellect stupefied by the absorption of its forces in the plans, the toils, the perplexities, the disappointments, the irritations of the day? How wearily do we often drag this great earthen world behind us, into the presence of God! Is not our first petition, often, an ejaculation for the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit? But, in such a state of body and of mind, to acquire impressive conceptions of God and of eternity, is an intellectual change. I do not affirm that a state of intellect is all that is involved here; but intellectual change is indispensable; and it requires exertion.
On this topic, what can the man do that cometh after the King? Let us hear Jeremy Taylor once more. His description of a good man's prayer, though well known, one can never outgrow.
'Prayer is the peace of our spirit, the stillness of our thoughts, the evenness of our recollection, the seat of our meditation, the rest of our cares, and the calm of our tempest. Prayer is the issue of a quiet mind, of untroubled thoughts ; it is the daughter of charity and the sister of meekness. He that prays to God with a troubled and discomposed spirit, is like him that retires into a battle to meditate, and sets up his closet in the out-quarters of an army, and chooses a frontier garrison to be wise in.’
‘For so have I seen a lark rising from his bed of grass, and soaring upwards, singing as he rises, and hopes to get to heaven, and climb above the clouds; but the poor bird was beaten back by the loud sighings of an eastern wind, and his motion made irregular and inconstant, descending more at every breath of the tempest than it could recover by the libration and frequent weighing of his wings, till the little creature was forced to sit down and pant, and stay till the storm was over; and then it made a prosperous flight, and did rise and sing, as if it had learned music and motion from an angel, as ho passed sometime through the air, about his ministries here below.’
‘So is the prayer of a good man. When his affairs have required business, … his duty met with infirmities of a man, … and the instrument became stronger than the prime agent, and raised a tempest, and overruled the man; and then his prayer was broken, and his thoughts were troubled, and his words went up towards a cloud, and his thoughts pulled them hack again, and made them without intention; and the good man sighs for his infirmity, but must be content to lose his prayer; and he must recover it when … his spirit is becalmed, made even as the brow of Jesus, and smooth like the heart of God; and then it ascends to heaven upon the wings of a holy dove, and dwells with God, till it returns, like the useful bee, laden with a blessing and the dew of heaven.'