Hope is the thing with feathers,
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all…
∼ Emily Dickinson
If hope is a virtue we cannot reach heaven without, where then is the handle we need to take hold of to get there? The answer is prayer, which is the voice of hope. It is the language we use to drive home the deepest desire of all, which is for ultimacy, for God. I like to think of it as a missile, a warhead aimed at the heart of God, propelling us straight into his kingdom.
“The wild prayer of longing,” writes W.H. Auden, “against which all legislation is helpless.” Imagine the absurdity of telling people they may not pray. Not even the most powerful police force on the planet can prevent people from crying out to God. There is no force on earth, nor under the earth, to keep the soul from evincing its hunger for heaven.
Only the self-centered self, lost in an endless orbit around itself, can keep prayer away. How? By refusing to recognize its own need for God, its utter dependence on him, falling thus into a solipsism so perverse as to refuse the very fuel that keeps it in orbit. “The terrifying compliment,” C.S. Lewis calls it, in which God takes us so seriously as spiritual beings that we are free even to spit in his eye, burning our last bridge to beatitude.
But what exactly is prayer? I mean, what does it really consist of? We know from the Penny Catechism that it is a “lifting of the mind and heart to God.” But what does that mean? Emily Dickinson, in her oblique and understated way, has called prayer, “the little implement,/Through which men reach/Where presence is denied them/They fling their speech/By means of it in God’s ear…”
But God hasn’t got any ears. And so there can be no direct frontal assault upon the citadel of the Godhead. This is why we go to Christ, who, as his image, makes concretely incarnate the whole meaning of his being. To Christ, then, we carry our burden of prayer, serenely confident that he will, as the very Mediator of the Father’s mercy, place it before the One who answers all our needs.
“All that you ask of the Father in my name,” Jesus assures us, “he will grant you.” And who more than the Father experiences greater delight than when granting all that we ask of him? He who takes such special pleasure in filling the pockets of the poor. It is the beggar, Luigi Giussani tells us, who, arms outstretched, is the true protagonist of history. “The poor in spirit are those who have nothing,” he reminds us, “except one thing, through which and by which they are made: an endless aspiration … a boundless expectant awaiting…” Was it G.K. Chesterton, that dauntless defender of the Catholic faith, who said that what he most liked about God was the keen interest he took in his minor characters? There are none more minor than we, the most miserably poor of all, who lack even existence itself until God chooses to confer it, conjuring our name as it were out of the abyss. And we have it on faith that he remains infinitely, intimately even, interested in everything about us.
Especially now that he has come among us in the human being Jesus, whose companionship along the way makes everything easy. The entire landscape of life and prayer has been completely upended by his coming. Isn’t that why John the Baptist, on seeing Jesus for the first time, calls him “the Lamb of God”? Who else can take away the sin of the world if not the God who has taken on flesh? Christ alone is our hope.
And does he not return the favor by declaring that none greater than John has been born of woman? But only in order that John may then give way to all who are greater than he. For even the least in the kingdom Christ came to establish—to enflesh no less—will be greater than he. How can this be? Because the journey from John to Jesus, like the movement from nature to grace, cosmos to covenant, history to heaven, represents a sheer ontological leap, right off the page, relativizing everything, including even the one who stood at the top of the stair.
For anyone who now belongs by baptism to Christ, the New Adam, that man will be accredited greater than the one who merely pointed the way. And it is only by way of baptism, an event described by Pope Benedict as “the final mutation in the evolution of the human species,” that prayer is given optimal leverage. A courtesy extended by Christ himself, says Pascal, so that the Father might empower his creatures with the dignity of becoming a cause. By our prayers we literally cause things to happen. We become instruments, in other words, in the very mystery of that divine causality whereby the world’s salvation is won.
But we must exercise the privilege—everyday. Which means something as simple as saying a single Our Father, over and over. It is the greatest possible prayer, the ground on which all our hope of heaven rests. It is the prayer invented by Jesus, enabling us to bypass the justice of God and so to obtain mercy. The always greater aspect of divine mercy, St. Therese called it, whose own boundless trust became the very signature of her sanctity. “I believe,” she says, speaking of God and his saints, “that they are waiting to see how far I will go in my trust, but not in vain was my heart pierced by that saying of Job’s: ‘Even if you kill me, I will have hope in you’ … we can never have too much trust in our dear Lord, who is so powerful and so merciful. One receives as much from him as one hopes for.”
So let us not forget to pray. And when we do, let us have a care lest we fall into the trap of the smug, who, already knowing the outcome of their prayers, utter them without sincerity. It is the sin of presumption, of those who imagine that they can drive their own cars into the kingdom without first asking Jesus to pump the grace of hope into their tanks. They will surely end up on the side of the road, their engines dead in a ditch.
“Those who pray,” St. Alphonsus Liguori tells us, “are certainly saved; those who do not pray are certainly damned.”
That’s something to think about.
Editor’s note: The image above titled “Praying Hands” was drawn by Albrecht Dürer in 1508.