from Listen to the Silence: a Retreat with Père Jacques
TR./ED. Francis J. Murphy
Bear in mind the words of Saint John of the Cross: "It is not God who fails our souls; it is our souls that fail God." When God seeks to test the perseverance of the soul through suffering or trials, through disappointments or challenges, consider the outcome. Many souls, who longed to taste the sweetness of prayer, but not to have direct contact with God for his own sake, take flight. In the words of the familiar saying, they longed to taste "the consolations of God, but not the God of all consolations." In truth, are we any different? Are we not likewise lacking in courage and total acceptance? Do we not seek to exercise choice, to impose conditions, and to make bargains in our relationship with God? By contrast, Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus said: "I accept all." "Yes, Lord, I accept all," meant for her: I accept being as I am and remaining as you wish provided I find you and live ever more closely with you.
Père Jacques delivered these retreat talks to cloistered nuns, and so we must be cautious how much of what was said to them we take upon ourselves--after all we have neither the vocation nor the charisms nor the strengths that accompany the acceptance of such a vocation. On the other hand, we also need to be cautious of how much we reject of what is said, because what is true for those specially called is true for all Christians in the degree that normal life can sustain.
What is particularly compelling is the way Pére Jacques identifies some of the major problems in the normal religious and prayer life with such precision. How often have you found yourself bargaining with God. This happens more often in intercessory prayer, but I know that there are times when I say something like, "Let me only hear your voice and I will be more faithful to prayer." The intent is true, but the human heart being what it is, were I to hear His voice, I would be more true to prayer. . . for perhaps as much as a week. And then I would lapse into my semi-regular torpor. This is one of the reasons that the consolations of prayer must be withdrawn. As with a child learning to walk, you first provide support and then gradually allow the child to walk more and more free, so God treats us in prayer. The first bloom of prayer is a rush of ardor and affection filled with all sort of revelations and consolations and feelings of intimacy. But when that bloom has worn off, the consolations occur less and less until we are walking on our own. And like a child learning to walk, we are able to walk because we know there is a goal and we know that there is a guardian, a protector, one who loves us (though we may not understand at the time what that means or what love is). Just so, we are able to pray because we come to know that God is present as we pray, He listens and He hears and He responds as is best for us.
As we move on in prayer, we want that exhilaration of the first steps. In a sense, we want to move backward, to move to the point where we took our first steps because it was so exciting. But you can't return because your muscles have firmed up and your gait is more steady, and now you can walk. Yes, YOU CAN WALK! It's ordinary, it's mundane, it's slow, but it gets us from here to there. Exactly like prayer--we can't return to the exhilaration, but we can go from where we are to where God wants us to be one step at a time. But we can only do so if we stop longing to go back to where prayer was so sweet and God so immediately present. God is still immediately present, but like the parent encouraging those first steps, He wants us to move toward Him. He accepts our slow, halting advance, and He rushes to us when we tumble or fall, to lift us up and shower us with signs of His affection.
But we must desire what God desires. We must want to walk to Him and walk always toward Him, getting ever closer even though it sometimes seems as though we shall never be able to make it. On our own, we cannot, but He is always there, encouraging and supporting and holding out the arms we can rush into.
To make any advance, we must stop wanting to go back. Like the people of Israel released from the bondage of slavery, we long for the fleshpots of Egypt, the places of comfort, the places where we feel at home and in control.
These are the ways we bargain with the Lord as we pray. Not all of us--some great Saints stop their bargaining, and thus show us it is possible for us. But for me, the bargaining continues from time to time. Not always and not exclusively, I have trained myself sufficiently not to seek extraordinary things--and yet part of what lures me onward in this life is the promise of a single extraordinary thing--intimacy with God. Even this must fall away and what I do I must do because God calls me to it. No consolation or enticement should induce me to move forward in prayer, but rather the ardent, brilliant, burning, and all-consuming love of God.
May it be so!