Tuesday, October 29, 2019

In Extremis

There seems to come a time, in this business of prayer, when God insists on taking us at our word. For a long time now I have been increasingly convinced of my calling to prayer, and to contemplative prayer in particular. But the extraordinary events of recent years - the unfolding of what appears to be planetary climate catastrophe, the recurrent threats to democratic civilisation, and the ethical dislocation of social media, to name just a few - make it increasingly hard to be faithful to such a vocation.

How much easier it would be to surrender to the temptation to do something - to join in the twitterstorms, to bang the drums - do something, anything! To "sit in a quiet room alone" seems not only futile, but unbearable.

What Karen and Paul Fredette write of the solitary life is true of any strand of the  contemplative life:
Anyone taking the eremitic vocation seriously is bound to feel helpless, quite impotent, in fact. Hermits are determined to help, to make a positive difference, but how? What can one person do, hidden and alone? Sometimes, solitaries may feel blameworthy because they live lives which shelter them from much of the suffering that so harshly mars the existence of their brothers and sisters. Love and compassion well up in them... but is it enough? What should one do and how? This is where passionate intercessory prayer and supplication spontaneously arises. The challenge is to live a life given over to praying for others while accepting that one will seldom, if ever, see any results. No one will be able to ascertain how, or even if, their devoted prayers are efficacious for others. It is a terrible kind of poverty - to live dedicated to helping others, yet never know what good one may be doing. All that hermits can do is hope that they are doing no harm. Believers leave all results to the mercy of their God. Others rely on the interconnectedness of all humanity, trusting that what affects one, affects all. This is a form of intercession expressed less by words than by a way of life. A Camaldolese monk once wrote: "Prayer is not only speaking to God on behalf of humanity, it is also 'paying' for humanity." Suffering is part of the hermit's vocation. One of the most acute forms is to never know whether one's chosen lifestyle is worthwhile or has any value for others. Hermits enter into the darkness, the dusky cloud of unknowing, and walk without any light beyond that which is in their own hearts. Often, unbeknownst even to themselves, they have become beacons for others.  
Karen Karper Fredette and Paul A. Fredette, Consider the Ravens: On Contemporary Hermit Life
I have quoted this passage before, more than once, but it seems to me that the Fredettes express this difficult understanding better than anyone I've read - certainly far better than I could have myself. To remain faithful in prayer, no matter the temptations to do otherwise... the psalmist comes close to how it actually feels:
I am laid low in the dust;
preserve my life according to your word.
I gave an account of my ways and you answered me;
teach me your decrees.
Cause me to understand the way of your precepts,
that I may meditate on your wonderful deeds.
My soul is weary with sorrow;
strengthen me according to your word.
Keep me from deceitful ways;
be gracious to me and teach me your law.
I have chosen the way of faithfulness;
I have set my heart on your laws.
I hold fast to your statutes, Lord;
do not let me be put to shame.
I run in the path of your commands,
for you have broadened my understanding. 
Psalm 119.25-32

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