On the road to Emmaus
Time and humility are essential to prayer writes Delia Smith in her penultimate Lenten meditation
HAVING MADE the allimportant decision to begin to seek a deeper personal relationship with God in prayer, the next stage of our spiritual journey is to ask how, in a practical way, can I seek Him and know Him?
The answer is deceptivels simple. I say deceptive, because to grasp it we need to be very simple ourselves.
The whole theme of the Bible is God constantly reaching out to draw people into relationship. We must try to understand that, in some inexplicable way, our desire for God is inspired by his own desire for us, and that it is He who is the initiator of the relationship. We can see this relentless pursuit enacted in the history of Israel, also how we can interpret it on a personal level.
The theme of the fifth Eucharistic prayer illuminates this process: He forms us in his own likeness. Even when we disobey Him and lose his friendship He never abandons us but helps us to seek and find Him. Again and again he offers us a covenant (relationship); through prophets he teachers us to hope for salvation. The climax of the prayer is God's desire for us ('He so loved us that in the fullness of time . . .').
God has actually provided us with the simplest way of knowing who He is — by coming to teach us Himself. Through Jesus we have access to all that God wants to teach us about himself. By sharing our poverty, our frail human nature, God has made himself totally accessible, teaching us on a human level how to have a relationship.
Isaiah caught this wonderful vision: . they will be taught by God' (ch.54), the same passage that Jesus quotes, telling us how `to hear the teaching of the Father, and to learn from it is to come to me'.
To know God, then, we must know and learn from Jesus — as simple as that. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus we can learn to recognise Him in the breaking of bread, the Mass, and in the Scriptures. Just as Jesus showed them that everything written in the Bible was about Himself (Luke 24) and 'opened their minds to understand the Scriptures', so will Ile for us if we are truly seeking Him. God is initiator and teacher: we are the recipients. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, 'it's all God's work'.
So what must we do to receive this gift of intimate relationship through prayer? First, we must have the right attitude — which means not setting out to do something for God, but rather allowing him to do something for us.
But then, and most important, we must set aside time, prime time. It is impossible to have a relationship with anyone unless you're prepared to spend real time with them. So it is with God. Reflection is only possible when we have provided ourselves with space. The enemy of prayer is activity. When Moses came to tell the Hebrews the good news of their redemption from slavery, Pharoah (their adversary) responds with the edict 'increase their work so that they have no time to listen'.
The adversary's work has changed little today, and we can so easily become slaves to activity — which is why I emphasise the importance of a decision for God. It's only when I really want God that I will find time.
'When you pray' Jesus says, 'go into your private room, and when you have shut the door, pray to your Father'. We can, of course, begin reflecting during the normal spaces of everyday life (train journeys, walking, driving, etc) but sooner or later we have to set aside real time to be alone in the presence of God, in the simple words of the Psalmist `to be still and know God'. Jesus himself revealed time and again how necessary this was to him, by going off by himself to pray.
To start with, prayer is a matter of disciplining our lives, working out our priorities in Order to make this precious time. At the beginning we can start with half-an-hour a day, but then the goal should be to work towards an hour given exclusively to God. It takes — according to American psychologists — eighteen months to form a new habit, so we must pray for patience and persevere until it has bOcome a habit and a normal part of our daily lives.
One of the obstacles is very often fear: we fear we're not good enough, our minds are full of our problems and anxieties. But we must summon enough faith to believe that it is precisely here, in the midst of our human struggles, that God comes to us.
'Come to me all you who labour and are heavy-burdened and I will give you rest'. God, we should always remember, is not separated from the world; in the Gospels it is sinners that Jesus keeps company with.
Having found our space we need then to learn not just to read, but to listen to the word of God in scripture, taking a little at a time and allowing it to penetrate (in the Hebrew sense, it's learning to listen with the heart). What is so liberating about this is that you don't have to do anything, but allow the word to live, the active word of God do something to you, to touch you, to enlighten the eyes of your mind.
This is where the simplicity we
talked ol at the beginning comes in. The pharisee's problem was that he needed to be somebody to offer God something; the publican, who went home at rights with God, had empty hands. To pray we need to be simple and receptive, to have the attitude of a little child. St Therese of Lisieux was one who understood this: '1 expect nothing of myself' she said, 'but everything of God'.
If we are willing to fight to find time for God, and if we're humble enough to listen and allow his word to touch our inmost hearts, then we are truly praying at the deepest level — at least letting prayer happen, letting God infuse our lives with his own. It is a touch that heals deaf cars and blind eyes, and awakens hearts to the newness of resurrected life that is eternal.
'When our heartsare wintry. grieving or in pain, your touch can call back to life again fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been, love is come again like wheal that springeth green'.