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Austin Phelps
The Still Hour

Ch. 11: Fragmentary Prayer
 
Key Thought: "
We are opposing God’s method of working, if our life has a tendency to incapacitate us for the enjoyment of prayer at all times. If by needless excess of worldly cares; if by inordinate desires, which render it impossible for us to accomplish our objects in life without such excess of care; if by frivolous habits; if by the reading of infidel or effeminate literature; if by an indolent life; if by any self-indulgence in physical regimen — we render the habit of fragmentary prayer impracticable or unnatural to us, we are crossing the methods of God’s working. Something has gone wrong, is going wrong, in the life of that Christian who finds himself thus estranged from filial freedom with God."

A Devout Man, One That Prayed Always
Fragmentary Prayer

We miss very much devotional joy, by the neglect of fragmentary prayer. In the intervals which separate periodical seasons of devotion, we need a habit of offering up brief ejaculatory expressions of devout feeling. The morning and the evening sacrifice depend very much upon these interspersed offerings, as these in return are dependent on those. Communion with God in both, is assisted by linking the ‘set times’ together by a chain of heavenward thoughts and aspirations, in the breaks which occur in our labors and amusements. Sunrise and sunset may attract our attention more strongly than the succession of golden rays between them, but who can say that they are more cheering? It is not often that a day wholly clouded lies between two clear twilights.

Prayer, as we have seen, is, in the highest conception of it, a state rather than an act. A full fruition of its benefits depends on a continuity of its influences. Reduce it to two isolated experiments daily, and separate these by long blank hours in which the soul has no glimpse of God for its refreshment, and how can prayer be other than a toil, and often a drudgery?

We come to the eventide with the impression of the morning watch all obliterated; probably with a conscience burdened by accumulations of sin upon an ungoverned spirit through the day. We feel that we must take a new start every time we seek God’s presence. Our sense of spiritual progress is lost. Sinning and repenting is all our life; we do not have holy force enough to get beyond repentance in our devotion. Our prayers, instead of being, as they should be, advancing steps, are like the steps of a treadmill. Humane law has abandoned this, even as a punishment for felons; why should one whom Christ has made free inflict it upon himself?

We need, then, something that shall make our prayerful hours support each other — the morning tributary to the evening, and the evening to the morning. Nothing else can do this so naturally as the habit of ejaculatory prayer. The spirit of prayer may run along the line of such a habit through a lifetime. So, one may live in a state of prayer, ‘a devout man that prays always.’

Not only does this habit of fragmentary prayer contribute to a lofty, devotional spirit, but such a spirit demands it for its own indulgence.

It is characteristic of minds which are aspiring in their piety, and which have begun to reap the reward of arduous devotional culture, to be habitually conversant with God. Such minds are constantly looking up. In the very midst of earthly toils, they seize moments of relief, to spring up to the eminences of meditation, where they love to dwell. In the discharge of duties most unfriendly to holy joy, they are apt to experience a buoyancy of impulse towards a heavenly plane of thought, which it may even require a power of self-denial to keep down.

Critics have observed, that in the apostolic epistles, doxologies are sometimes embedded in passages of remonstrance and of warning. It should seem, that the apostolic mind came down unwillingly, or from a sense of duty only, to deal with the sins and weaknesses of earth; and was on the watch for chances to rise, like a bird let loose, though but for a moment, into the upper air.

Such is the nature of holiness. Being from God, it is ever seeking to revert to its source. The heavier the pressure of a mundane life upon it, the stronger is the force of its compressed aspirations. Such pressure is like that of the atmosphere on water, which seeks, through crevices in its enclosure, the level of its fountain. A spirit like this, I repeat, will demand the habit of fragmentary prayer for its own holy indulgence; and will demand it with an importunity proportioned to the superincumbent weight of earthly cares.

Providence and Prayer

The providence of God, also, contemplates these impulses as a counterpart to certain of its own procedures.

Under the laws of Providence, life is a probation; probation is a succession of temptations; temptations are emergencies; and for emergencies we need the preparation and the safeguard of prayer. We have duties which are perilous. We meet surprises of evil. We struggle with a wily adversary. We feel perplexities of conscience, in which holy decision depends on the mind we bring to them. We encounter disappointments which throw us back from our hopes rudely. We have difficult labors, in which we sometimes come to a ‘dead-lock;’ we do not know what to do. We have an unknown experience opening upon us every hour. We are like travellers in a fog, who cannot see an arm’s-length before them. Providence is thus continually calling for the aids of prayer; and in a soul which is keen in its vigilance, prayer will be continually responsive to providences, often anticipative of them.

Secret Promptings

The methods of the Holy Spirit also, presuppose the value of these fragmentary devotions. God often secretly inclines a Christian’s heart to engage in them.

Are there not, in the lives of us all, moments when, without the formality of retirement to the closet, we feel disposed to pray? We are conscious of special attraction towards God. Perhaps with obvious reason for ‘looking up’ now rather than an hour ago, we do look up. ‘We feel just like praying.’ It is as if we heard heavenly voices saying, ‘Come up hither.’

There is often a beautiful alliance between Providence and Grace, in these experiences. A Christian who will be studious of his own history, will probably discover, that often the occasions for such fragmentary communings with God follow hard upon these secret incitements to them. Emergencies come soon for which they are needed. The Holy Spirit has anticipated them, and sought to forearm us. Providence and Grace thus hover over us, not far asunder.

In this view, those Biblical exhortations to prayer, which men have sometimes deemed extravagant, are transparently rational: ‘Continue in prayer;’ ‘Continue instant in prayer;’ ‘Pray without ceasing;’ ‘Men ought always to pray;’ ‘Rejoice in the Lord always!’ Such exhortations contemplate a state, not insulated acts, of prayer. They fit in well, to the system of things in which we are living; for, that system seems, on all sides of it, to presuppose just this continuity of unpremeditated ejaculations, joining together our stated seasons of devotion.

No Christian, then, can afford to be frugal of prayer, in the intervals of daily business and amusement. Enjoyment of all communion with God must be impaired, by the loss of these little tributaries. A Christian’s life, so conducted, must languish as a tree does, whose fibrous roots are stripped off, leaving only its truncal roots, possibly only a tap-root, for its nourishment. That Christian is hoping against impossibilities, who thinks to enjoy a life of intercourse with God, in any such way.

Contending With God

We are opposing God’s method of working, if our life has a tendency to incapacitate us for the enjoyment of prayer at all times. If by needless excess of worldly cares; if by inordinate desires, which render it impossible for us to accomplish our objects in life without such excess of care; if by frivolous habits; if by the reading of infidel or effeminate literature; if by an indolent life; if by any self-indulgence in physical regimen — we render the habit of fragmentary prayer impracticable or unnatural to us, we are crossing the methods of God’s working. Something has gone wrong, is going wrong, in the life of that Christian who finds himself thus estranged from filial freedom with God.

Such a Christian must, sooner or later, be brought back to Christ, and must begin life anew. He will come back heavy laden and in tears. No words express more becomingly the wail of his spirit, whenever he comes to his right mind, than the plaint of Cowper —

‘Oh for a closer walk with God!’

The Porta Santa

In the vestibule of St. Peter’s, in Rome, is a doorway, which is walled up and marked with a cross. It is opened but four times in a century. On Christmas Eve, once in twenty-five years, the Pope approaches it in princely state, with the retinue of cardinals in attendance, and begins the demolition of the door, by striking it three times with a silver hammer. When the passage is opened, the multitude pass into the nave of the cathedral, and up to the altar, by an avenue which the majority of them never entered thus before, and never will enter thus again.

Imagine that the way to the Throne of Grace were like the Porto, Santa, inaccessible, save once in a quarter of a century, on the twenty-fifth of December, and then only with august solemnities, conducted by great dignitaries in a holy city. Conceive that it were now ten years since you, or I, or any other sinner, had been permitted to pray; and that fifteen long years must drag themselves away, before we could venture again to approach God; and that, at the most, we could not hope to pray more than two or three times in a lifetime! With what solicitude we should wait for the coming of that Holy Day! We should lay our plans of life, select our homes, build our houses, choose our professions, form our friendships, with reference to a pilgrimage in that twenty-fifth year. We should reckon time by the openings of that Sacred Door, as epochs. No other one thought would engross so much of our lives, or kindle our sensibilities so intensely, as the thought of Prayer. It would be of more significance to us than the thought of Death is now. It would multiply our trepidations at the thought of dying. Fear would grow to horror, at the idea of dying before that fear of Jubilee. No other question would give us such tremors of anxiety as these would excite: ‘How many years now to the time of Prayer? How many months? How many weeks? How many days? Shall we live to see it? Who can tell?’ Yet, on that great Day, amidst an innumerable throng, in a courtly presence, within sight and hearing of stately rites, what, would prayer be worth to us? Who would value it in the comparison with those still moments, that —

‘secret silence of the mind’

in which we now can ‘find God,’ every day and everywhere? That Day would be more like the Day of Judgment to us, than like the sweet minutes of converse with ‘Our Father,’ which we may now have, every hour. We should appreciate this privilege of hourly prayer, if it were once taken from us. Should we not?

‘Still with Thee, O my God,
I would desire to be;
By day, by night, at home, abroad,
I would be still with Thee!

"With Thee amid the crowd
That throngs the busy mart —
To hear Thy voice, ‘mid clamor loud,
Speak softly to my heart!’

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