When the mother of James and John asks Jesus to give her sons a special place in his Kingdom, Jesus responds, "Can you drink the cup that I am going to drink?" (Matthew 20:22). "Can we drink the cup?" is the most challenging and radical question we can ask ourselves. The cup is the cup of life, full of sorrows and joys. Can we hold our cups and claim them as our own? Can we lift our cups to offer blessings to others, and can we drink our cups to the bottom as cups that bring us salvation?
Keeping this question alive in us is one of the most demanding spiritual exercises we can practice.We all must hold the cups of our lives. As we grow older and become more fully aware of the many sorrows of life - personal failures, family conflicts, disappointments in work and social life, and the many pains surrounding us on the national and international scene - everything within and around us conspires to make us ignore, avoid, suppress, or simply deny these sorrows. "Look at the sunny side of life and make the best of it," we say to ourselves and hear others say to us. But when we want to drink the cups of our lives, we need first to hold them, to fully acknowledge what we are living, trusting that by not avoiding but befriending our sorrows we will discover the true joy we are looking for right in the midst of our sorrows.Henri Nouwen, from Bread for the Journey
For me, at any rate, this is what lies at the heart of prayer. Nouwen's words bring me back, yet again, to Isaac of Nineveh's:
An elder was once asked, “What is a merciful heart?” He replied:
“It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons, and for all that exists. By the recollection of them the eyes of a merciful person pour forth tears in abundance. By the strong and vehement mercy that grips such a person’s heart, and by such great compassion, the heart is humbled and one cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in any in creation.
For this reason, such a person offers up tearful prayer continually even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth, and for those who harm her or him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner such a person prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns with without measure in a heart that is in the likeness of God.”St. Isaac of Nineveh (7th century)
This kind of prayer, that I once clumsily dubbed "contemplative intercession", is the closest thing I know to an obedience to Paul's instruction in to "pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints." (Ephesians 6:18) It's not an easy option, and certainly it is a million miles from some people's idea of contemplative prayer, a sort of mantric self-realisation programme for spiritual connoisseurs. It's entirely down-to-earth, really, but it is the only answer that works (for me, anyway) to Romans 8:26-27:
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will.
Strangely, hard though it can be to bring ourselves to pray with this degree of vulnerability (a particularly poignant way of imitating Christ, if you recall that "vulnerability" means "liable to be wounded) it is not without immediate rewards, as Paul hints elsewhere:
Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus. (I Thessalonians 5:16-18)