In the past prayer was able to bring down punishment, rout armies, withhold the blessing of rain. Now, however, the prayer of the just turns aside the whole anger of God, keeps vigil for its enemies, pleads for persecutors. Is it any wonder that it can call down water from heaven when it could obtain fire from heaven as well? Prayer is the one thing that can conquer God. But Christ has willed that it should work no evil, and has given it all power over good.
Its only art is to call back the souls of the dead from the very journey into death, to give strength to the weak, to heal the sick, to exorcise the possessed, to open prison cells, to free the innocent from their chains. Prayer cleanses from sin, drives away temptations, stamps out persecutions, comforts the fainthearted, gives new strength to the courageous, brings travellers safely home, calms the waves, confounds robbers, feeds the poor, overrules the rich, lifts up the fallen, supports those who are falling, sustains those who stand firm.
All the angels pray. Every creature prays. Cattle and wild beasts pray and bend the knee. As they come from their barns and caves they look out to heaven and call out, lifting up their spirit in their own fashion. The birds too rise and lift themselves up to heaven: they open out their wings, instead of hands, in the form of a cross, and give voice to what seems to be a prayer.
What more need be said on the duty of prayer? Even the Lord himself prayed. To him be honour and power for ever and ever. Amen.
Reflection – Well, this is just all so beautiful that I hardly know what to say about it. ‘Prayer is the one thing that can conquer God’—that is a magnificent turn of phrase right there.
This was in the office of readings last week, and it struck me so powerfully, not only because it is so very beautiful, but because it resonated so deeply with what I was teaching last week, namely, a course on liturgy and worship. I love especially Tertullian’s bit about the beasts of the field lifting their voices to heaven and the birds opening their wings like hands opened in prayer, in the form of the cross.
All creation is made for prayer, that is, for a radical openness to God. Creation is not a closed shop, a mute and isolated lump of matter. Creation is, in its true created nature, its deepest essence of being, an open space for God, a type of being conditioned utterly by its relationship to the Other who made it.
Prayer is the soul of creation, and the soul of humanity. We are made in a state of total dependence and receptivity to God, and when our life is not bound up in the action of prayer, in the lived out, fleshed-out, reality of prayer, our life is wrong at the most fundamental level it can be wrong at. If we are not praying, we have gone astray at the most serious and damaging point of our humanity.
But the last words of Tertullian are even more penetrating into this mystery. The Lord Himself prayed. He just leaves it there, but consider that. Jesus, who we believe to be God, prayed… to God. How can that be? God prays to God? A theologian being very precise and technical would say that this is the human nature of Christ, not the divine.
But pray is a personal act of the subject, and there is only one person here, the divine person of the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity. And that right there plunges us into the deepest level of this prayer business. The Son ‘prays’ to the Father, from all eternity. Not as we pray—God is God and we are not—but prayer nonetheless. Dialogue, communion, love, totality of gift and totality of reception, from all eternity.
So when I say that prayer is the radical nature of created human reality, what I really am saying is that the most radical nature of human reality is to enter the communion of the Trinity. We are made, not simply to live some sort of ‘good human life’ (whatever on earth that means), but rather to enter into the life of God. And we do this above all in our prayer, through prayer, by prayer.
That is, we do it by crying out to God continually. That which may seem like an act of weakness turns out to be our greatest strength, of servility turns out to be our glorification, of desperation turns out to be the one sure hope of our race, of futility and uselessness turns out to be the most powerful and effective path in life.
In short: pray. Pray badly, pray well, pray reluctantly, pray eagerly. It don’t matter. Pray, pray, pray—and in that prayer, enter into the very life of God.