Editor's note:

This sit­ting, this breath­ing.
This is the sym­bol of my con­sent.
Per­haps it is also just a habit, and more than a habit as well.
It is the sig­nal to my own body and brain, thoughts and mind,
that I do intend to wel­come God’s pres­ence and action
in my life, my cir­cum­stances, my being in these cir­cum­stances.
This is the desire and recog­ni­tion of my will­ing the rec­ol­lec­tion of my Soul
into my being and con­scious­ness in this day in this way.
This pause, this pose of pas­sive still­ness in my body com­port­ed for prayer,
though imag­i­na­tion and mem­o­ry and egoic mind wres­tle for cen­ter stage;
this is grasp­ing and groan­ing for inte­ri­or still­ness; this is my prayer and plea and sup­pli­ca­tion.
This is sac­ri­fice and sur­ren­der (again!).
This is Love rec­i­p­ro­cat­ing in gift giv­ing
This, O Holy Dar­ling, this is my Yes. (Jean Nevills)

It is an unrea­son­able, recur­rent, soul­ful desire for inti­ma­cy with God that keeps me return­ing to the Chris­t­ian prayer of med­i­ta­tion — though it con­founds my over-ambi­tious expec­ta­tions. In this excerpt on prayer, Eve­lyn Under­hill is a won­der­ful spir­i­tu­al direc­tor in help­ing me deal with my think­ing, feel­ing, will­ing self.

When my intel­lect and emo­tions run con­trary to my inten­tion in prayer, she reminds me that it is noto­ri­ous­ly use­less to try to beat our­selves up to a froth: to make our­selves think more deeply or make our­selves care more intense­ly.… Even when our heart is cold and our mind is dim, prayer is still pos­si­ble to us. 

Whew. Amen. Thanks be to God. 

—Jean Nevills

Excerpt from Devotional Classics

1. Stretch­ing Out the Tentacles

In the first place, what do we mean by prayer? Sure­ly just this: that part of our con­scious life which is delib­er­ate­ly ori­ent­ed towards, and exclu­sive­ly responds to, spir­i­tu­al real­i­ty. God is that spir­i­tu­al real­i­ty, and we believe God to be imma­nent in all things: He is not far from each one of us: for in him we live and move and have our being.”

Prayer,” says Wal­ter Hilton, is noth­ing else but an ascend­ing or get­ting up of the desire of the heart into God by with­draw­ing it from earth­ly thoughts.” It is ascent,” says Ruys­broeck, of the Lad­der of Love. In the same spir­it William Law defines prayer as the ris­ing of the soul out of the van­i­ty of time into the rich­es of eternity.” 

It entails, then, a going up or out from our ordi­nary cir­cle of earth­ly inter­ests. Prayer stretch­es out the ten­ta­cles of our con­scious­ness not so much towards that Divine Life which is felt to be enshrined with­in the striv­ing, change­ful world of things; but rather to that Eter­nal truth, true Love, and loved Eter­ni­ty” where­in the world is felt to be enshrined.

2. This Dou­ble Situation

The whole of a person’s life con­sists in a series of bal­anced respons­es to this Tran­scen­dent-Imma­nent Real­i­ty. Because we live under two orders, we are at once a cit­i­zen of Eter­ni­ty and of Time. Like a pen­du­lum, our con­scious­ness moves per­pet­u­al­ly — or should move if it is healthy — between God and our neigh­bor, between this world and that.

The whole­ness, san­i­ty, and bal­ance of our exis­tence depend entire­ly upon the per­fec­tion of our adjust­ment to this dou­ble sit­u­a­tion; on the steady alter­nat­ing beat of our out­ward ado­ra­tion, and our home­ward-turn­ing swing of char­i­ty. Now, it is the out­ward swing which I want to con­sid­er: the pow­ers that may be used in it, and the best way in which these pow­ers may be employed.

3. Three Faculties

First, there are three capac­i­ties or fac­ul­ties which we have under con­sid­er­a­tion — the think­ing fac­ul­ty, the feel­ing fac­ul­ty, and the will­ing or act­ing fac­ul­ty. These prac­ti­cal­ly cov­er all the ways in which the self can react to oth­er selves and oth­er things. From the com­bi­na­tion of these three come all the pos­si­bil­i­ties of self-expres­sion which are open to us.

In our nat­ur­al life we need to use all of them. Do we need them in our spir­i­tu­al life, too? Chris­tians are bound to answer this ques­tion in the affir­ma­tive. It is the whole per­son of intel­lect, of feel­ing, and of will which finds its only true objec­tive in the Chris­t­ian God.

4. Work and Rest

Prayer should take up and turn towards the spir­i­tu­al order all the pow­ers of our men­tal, emo­tion­al, and voli­tion­al life. Prayers should be the high­est exer­cise of these pow­ers; for here they are direct­ed to the only ade­quate object of thought, of love, and of desire. It should, as it were, lift us to the top of our con­di­tion, and rep­re­sent the fullest flow­er­ing of our con­scious­ness. For here we breathe the air of the super­nat­ur­al order, and attain accord­ing to our mea­sure that com­mu­nion with Real­i­ty for which we were made. 

Prayer will include many dif­fer­ent kinds of spir­i­tu­al work; and also — what is too often for­got­ten — the price­less gift of spir­i­tu­al rest. It will include many kinds of inter­course with Real­i­ty — ado­ra­tion, peti­tion, med­i­ta­tion, con­tem­pla­tion — and all the shades and vari­eties of these which reli­gious writ­ers have named and classified.

As in the nat­ur­al order the liv­ing crea­ture must feed and grow, must suf­fer and enjoy, must get ener­gy from the world and give it back again if it is to live a whole and healthy life. So, too, in the spir­i­tu­al order. All these things — the giv­ing and the receiv­ing, the work and the rest — should fall with­in the cir­cle of prayer.

5. The Tran­si­tion from Inac­tion to Action

Now, when we do any­thing con­scious­ly, the tran­si­tion from inac­tion to action unfolds itself in a cer­tain order. First, we form a con­cept of that which we shall do; the idea of it looms up in our minds. Sec­ond, we feel that we want to do it, or must do it. Third, we deter­mine that we will do it. These phas­es may fol­low on anoth­er so swift­ly that they seem to be fused into one; but when we ana­lyze the process which lies behind each con­scious act, we find that this is the nor­mal sequence of development.

First we think, then we feel, then we will. This lit­tle gen­er­al­iza­tion must not be pressed too hard; but it is broad­ly true, and gives us a start­ing-point to trace out the way in which the three main pow­ers of the self act in prayer. It is impor­tant to know how they act or should act.

6. An Active and Dis­ci­plined Intelligence

Prayer, as a rule, should begin with some­thing we usu­al­ly call an intel­lec­tu­al act, with think­ing of what we are going to do. All the great writ­ers on prayer take it as a mat­ter of course that med­i­ta­tion” comes before ora­tion” (or spo­ken prayer). Med­i­ta­tion is sim­ply the art of think­ing steadi­ly and method­i­cal­ly about spir­i­tu­al things. So, too, most mod­ern psy­chol­o­gists assure us that instinc­tive emo­tion does its best work when it acts in har­mo­ny with our rea­son­ing powers.

There are some who believe that when we turn to God we ought to leave our brains behind us. True, they will soon be left behind by neces­si­ty if we go far on the road towards God who is above all rea­son and all knowl­edge, for the Spir­it swift­ly over­pass­es these imper­fect instru­ments. But those whose feet are still firm­ly plant­ed upon earth gain noth­ing by antic­i­pat­ing this moment when rea­son is left behind; they will not attain the depths of prayer by the mere anni­hi­la­tion of their intelligence.

In say­ing this — in insist­ing that rea­son has a well-marked and nec­es­sary place in the soul’s approach to God — I am not advo­cat­ing a reli­gious intel­lec­tu­al­ism. I am well aware that it is by love,” as the old mys­tic said, God may be got­ten and beheld; by thought nev­er.” It is humil­i­ty and love that are essen­tial for suc­cess­ful prayer. But sure­ly it is a mis­take to sup­pose that these qual­i­ties can­not exist side by side with an active and dis­ci­plined intelligence.

7. Prepar­ing the Consciousness

Prayer, then, begins by an intel­lec­tu­al adjust­ment. By think­ing of God earnest­ly and humbly to the exclu­sion of oth­er objects of thought, by delib­er­ate­ly sur­ren­der­ing the mind to spir­i­tu­al things, by prepar­ing the con­scious­ness for the inflow of new life.

But hav­ing thought of God, the self, if it stops there, is no more in touch with God than it was before. We may think as long as we like, but noth­ing hap­pens; thought unhelped by feel­ing ever remains apart from its object. The intel­lect is an essen­tial­ly sta­t­ic thing: we can­not think our way along the roy­al road which leads to heaven.

8. The Indus­tri­ous Will and the Pas­sion­ate Heart

Where the office of thought ends, there the office of will and feel­ing begins: Where the intel­lect must stay with­out,” says Ruys­broeck, these may enter in.” Desire and inten­tion are the most dynam­ic of our fac­ul­ties; they do work. They are the true explor­ers of the Infi­nite, the instru­ments of our ascents to God. Rea­son comes to the foot of the moun­tain; it is the indus­tri­ous will urged by the pas­sion­ate heart which climbs the slope.

Expe­ri­ence endors­es this empha­sis on will and desire as cen­tral facts of our per­son­al­i­ty, the part of us which is supreme­ly our own. In turn­ing our will and desire towards Spir­i­tu­al Real­i­ty we are doing all that we can of our­selves, we are select­ing and delib­er­ate­ly con­cen­trat­ing upon it our pas­sion and our power. 

9. The Very Cen­ter and Art of Prayer

Now, intel­lect and feel­ing are not whol­ly in our con­trol. They fluc­tu­ate from day to day, from hour to hour; they are depen­dent on many del­i­cate adjust­ments. Some­times we are men­tal­ly dull, some­times we are emo­tion­al­ly flat. On such occa­sions it is noto­ri­ous­ly use­less to try to beat our­selves up to a froth: to make our­selves think more deeply or make our­selves care more intensely.

If the worth of our prayer life depend­ed upon the main­te­nance of a con­stant high lev­el of feel­ing or under­stand­ing, we would be in a dan­ger­ous place. Though these often seem to fail us, the reign­ing will remains. Even when our heart is cold and our mind is dim, prayer is still pos­si­ble to us. Our wills are ours, to make them Thine.” 

The deter­mined fix­ing of our will upon God, and press­ing toward him steadi­ly and with­out deflec­tion; this is the very cen­ter and the art of prayer. The most the­o­log­i­cal of thoughts soon becomes inad­e­quate; the most spir­i­tu­al of emo­tions is only a fair­weath­er breeze. Let the ship take advan­tage of it by all means, but not rely on it. She must be pre­pared to beat to wind­ward if she would reach her goal.

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Excerpts tak­en from Devo­tion­al Clas­sics: Select­ed Read­ings for Indi­vid­u­als and Groups (Richard J. Fos­ter & James Bryan Smith, Edi­tors. Harper­Collins, 1993.). Orig­i­nal­ly from The Essen­tials of Mys­ti­cism by Eve­lyn Under­hill, pub­lished 1920.

Pho­to by Marc-Olivi­er Jodoin on Unsplash

Originally published December 1992