Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Observations on prayer, part IV: the inmost prayer

But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly. 
—Matthew 6:6

 I think we are accustomed to the idea of prayer being a public event. It’s offered at meals; it is preached at us out of pulpits and delivered to us through flat-screen televangelists.

Yet it is categorically impossible for prayer to be public, if it should be real within us.

When Christ said pray to thy father which is in secret, He specifically indicated this intimate, private, sacred, and ultimately secret form of prayer. He wasn’t just speaking of a general action; He was speaking of an inner action. 

Enter into thy closet, He says.

This is the dark and quiet place where one keeps one’s clothes, all of the outward aspects of one’s being which one wears as one parades across the stage of life. In the closet, the clothes are hung up: ordered, and on hangers, but I am naked. I am not wearing my outward aspects, but abandoning them in the darkness of my own being.

For the soul is so firmly attached to the powers that she has to flow with them wherever they flow, because in every task they perform the soul must be present and attentive, or they could not work at all. If she is dissipated by attending to outward acts, this is bound to weaken her inward work. For at this birth God needs and must have a vacant free and unencumbered soul, containing nothing but Himself alone, and which looks to nothing and nobody but Him.

—ME, The Complete Mystical Works, Sermon 2, pages 42-43

 Shut thy door, he says.

 This is the action of shutting out outward influences. It’s common for those who teach meditation to speak about turning thought, and the need to accept it; Christ indicates that here. The door of Being needs to be shut to outward influences in order to come into a new relationship with the Lord:

And so in this way you must cast aside all your deeds and silence your faculties, if you really wish to experience this birth in you. If you would find the newborn king, you must outstrip and abandon all else that you might find. 

—ME, ibid, Sermon 2, page 43

 Pray to thy father which is in secret, he says.

Ah,  This is so different than what we expect in outward life, where we pray with and in front of others, and show how we pray.

It is a kind of devotion that becomes so personal it becomes a surrender of ourselves. So much so that a taste of this makes outward prayer seem like a sin; and only one who tastes this food can know what that means.

How complete, you may ask, must this devotion be? Again, we turn to Meister Eckhart:

But if a man knows himself to be well trained in true inwardness, then let him boldly drop all outward disciplines, even those he is bound to and from which neither pope nor bishop can release him. From the vows a man has made to God none can release him, but they can be turned into something else: for every vow is a contract with God. But if a man has taken solemn vows of such things as prayer, fasting, or pilgrimage, if he then enters some order, he is released from them, for in the order he is vowed to goodness as a whole, and to God Himself. And so I say the same here: Whatever a man's vows to manifold things, by entering into true inwardness he is released from them. As long as this inwardness lasts, be it a week, a month, or a year, none of this time is lost by the monk or nun, for God, who has captured and imprisoned them, must answer for it. On returning to himself, a man should perform his vows for the time present; but as for what you may think you have neglected in the preceding time, you need not bother to make it up, for God Himself will make it up for the period during which He caused you to be idle. You should not wish to make it up by any act of creatures, for the least act of God outweighs all the works of creatures. 

—ME, ibid, Sermon 3, pages 52-53.

We shut the door to outward things so completely and thoroughly that no matter what our vows — even if they be holy ones — we are released from them, because the vows we take to life, to outward this, to creatures (all creation) are not subject to the laws of prayer and inwardness. In order to enter a perfect union with us in prayer, God allows us to give up every vow we have made, even those to God himself, in order to bond with him. No outward actions can compensate for what is needed in the inmost prayer.

 I say that this inmost prayer makes outward prayer seem like a sin, because my outwardness, as it is, contains none of God — and this is what Meister Eckhart is getting at. 

 The kingdom of heaven is like vessels made to hold water. For a vessel meant to contain water, all of the rain in the world means nothing; it is only that water which reaches the vessel and fills it that has meaning, because the purpose of the vessel is not to sit in the rain; it is to hold water.

 Thy father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly, He says.

 It is known by now that this is inaccurately rendered, and that the word openly was added sometime in the middle ages. Although it is often suspected of being the egregious error of a monk who could not understand what possible good being rewarded in secret would be, I believe the person who added it may have meant, by the word openly, freely — that is, that one becomes open to receive the rewards of Being through the Lord, freely, that is, without restraint.

The action of the inmost prayer is to be opened without restraint, to accept an energy that has no boundaries and that does not submit to definitions.


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