The Prayer of Futility
by Father Humbert Van Zeller, O.S.B.
The great Complaint with most People about their Prayer is that they
never Feel they're getting anywhere. But of course, it would be a Very Bad
Sign if they did. A lot of the Trouble about Prayer would
disappear if we only Realized really Realized, and not just Supposed that it was so that we go to
Pray, not because we Love Prayer, but because we Love
God. Not in order to Master Distractions, or Perfect a System, or because we have said we would go on with the Thing, but
simply in order to Please God. Once granted that, God's 'View' of our
Prayer is the only One that is at all Worth Taking into Account, it can't much matter what our Own 'View'
of it is. In fact, the less 'View' we have of it and for 'View' we can substitute the word Feeling
the better. This is what Saint John of the Cross is talking about when he says that Darkness in
Prayer is better than Light. Better in the Sense of Being not
only safer for us, but making for a Purer Prayer in itself. This is a Significant Claim to make.
"Oh, I know all about that", you will say, " but it's no use telling me
that God's Way of Judging Prayer is so different from my Way of Judging it, that what are Distractions to me are Praises to Him. Distractions and
Praises are not only different things altogether, they are completely opposite things. Your Theory doesn't make sense". Excuse me, it does.
In the First Place the Opposite to a Praise is not a Distraction, but an Insult and Ordinary
Distractions are certainly not that. In the Next Place we must remember that
God's Scale-of-Values, His Sphere-of-Operation, His Terms, even, are
Quite Different from ours. What is Light to Him is so
Luminous, that to our Materially Focusing Eyes it appears as
Darkness. (This is not simply my idea: it is Saint John of the Cross' and, before him,
Dionysius the Areopagite's). If we can't even look at the Sun without seeing Black-Spots everywhere,
it is hardly likely that we shall see very much of what we are looking at when we are trying to Train our Gaze upon
God knows the Limitations which He has imposed upon Man and makes Allowances;
we think we can see ourselves as God sees us, and make Difficulties. There is only
One (1) Test of our Prayer: Are we Wanting God?
Do we Want Him so-much that we are prepared to go on looking for Him in our
Prayer in-spite-of Apparently never getting any nearer to Him? Upon the
Answer to this Enquiry depends the whole business of our Success or Failure in Prayer. Success and Failure to
be Judged in God's Terms, not Ours.
Scenes from the Book of Job -
by an unknown Flemish Master -
from Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne
[ Click image to view full-size ]
The above may be easier to follow if we change the Approach. Take the Book of Job. Here we are granted an Intimate Glimpse into the Ways of
God, the Ways of the Devil, the Ways of a certain Holy Man.
First of all the Devil is briefed, by God's Permission, for an
Attack upon the Man, Job. Next the Attack
takes place. Then Satan returns and presents his
Report. At First Sight, it looks like a Good Report, but by the time we have finished the Book of Job we realize that the Report can be
pulled-to-pieces and that the Attack must have been a Complete Failure. The same sort of thing is presumably still going on;
the Devil Tempting, God Permitting, Man Resisting as best he can. There is Imperfection
in the Fight put up against Temptation, and sometimes it seems to the
Weary Frightened Soul that there is Nothing left of its Resolve, but the
Struggle still goes on and in the Topmost Pinnacle of the Will, there is still the Refusal to be Stampeded
into Evil. Our Prayers, always by God's Permission,
because He knows what is best for us, are for ever being Invaded by Dryness and
Distraction. The Devil's Reports are Constantly coming-in before the
Throne of God. There is the same Misrepresentation. But though we may be Deceived,
God is not Deceived. Pick out any day in our Prayer Life and consider the kind of account which
Satan might Present at the Judgment Seat of God. It shouldn't be a Record of our Resisting
Effort on a Good Day, when perhaps we have been in Form, but simply a Frank Statement of what has been going-on when our
Prayer has run True to Normal when, in other words, it has been that Boring Blank, punctuated occasionally by the arrival of not-very-memorable
"See this Dilapidated Prayer", says the Devil,
"and tell me, Lord, whether You don't think it has been a Waste of Time. Those Yawns, for instance, and those Furtive Glances at the
Watch they must certainly score heavily in my favor. And what about that Lengthy Digression on the Subject of his Health? Then there was that Argument which
would have been so convincing if it had, in fact taken place, instead of being a Fanned-up Piece of Self Justification, existing only in the Mind. And those plans
for August. Followed by at least ten minutes when nothing seems to have gone-on at all. Surely, Lord, You got very little out of that Prayer today especially
if You take into consideration those Memories and Imaginations which I suggested to his Muddy Mind; Memories which would be unsuitable anywhere, but which are
especially so at Prayer. Even the Attempts at returning to Your Presence, Lord, can be counted as Winning Points to me: they were so Half-Hearted and Infrequent.
Add to the total that Confessedly Bored Attitude of Mind in which the whole thing was conducted and You will admit that I have won hands down".
So much for the Devil's Report. First of all there is nothing to show that our
Prayers are as Boring to God as they
Feel to us. Moreover, even granted that in the Given Prayer there was nothing
Substantial which could be listed on the Credit Side (and there usually is something, though not always something you could put your finger on afterwards) it would
surely be Reasonable to Think of God as countering Satan with the all-important question:
"But Whom was he doing it for?" That's the Point!!! It would be in keeping with the Spirit of the Book of Job to
consider the Lord Pursuing Satan Relentlessly. "It's all very well
for you to cite the Distractions in My friend's Prayer" so we would have the Lord defending
His Own "but though he may not have made a very good thing of it, at least he has not gone back to bed or picked up a novel.
He did, you notice, go on. Discouraged as he is about the Result of his Effort (unreasonably discouraged in point of fact) he will be at it again, you will find, tomorrow
morning. His Object all along has been and still is to Please Me, and though he Imagines he isn't doing this, he has no intention of pleasing you. While
certainly he isn't, poor man, pleasing himself".
The Prayer of Futility, then, has this Inestimable Advantage; it keeps us in our place. (It has
its Dangers too; particularly Dejection and Laziness). It enables us to say with Sincerity:
"I am Nothing. I can do Nothing. I deserve Nothing but Kicks and Crosses. At the same time nothing in the World will induce me to give it
up". Such is the Mind of the Man in Prayer. A Fixed-Refusal to be put-off by Failure;
a Willingness to Forego the Taste of Success. The True Soul of Prayer strives after
God alone. Not after Satisfaction, not after Recollection (for it self's sake), not even after
Sanctity (regarded as a State and not as a Means of Loving God), but simply after
God Himself. And inevitably God is the Reward of such a
Striving . . . but God, Expressing Himself more in His
Absence than in His Presence. "You wouldn't be looking for Me", as
He reassured Pascal, "if you hadn't already found Me".
If God does not exist, one will lose nothing by believing in Him; while if He does exist, one will
lose everything by not believing.
Physicist and Mathematician
Prayer of Saint Padre Pio
Lord Jesus, sometimes, when I am in the State of Spiritual Aridity, I don't even feel like
Praying, and I certainly do not feel Your Presence. I wonder how You, the Bread of Life, could ever Love me, a Miserable Sinner.
Help me to Accept my Weak Humanity, and to bow always Humbly before You and Accept the "Medicine" of Your Holy Spirit
Who longs to Heal my Heart and Soul.
Padre Pio was Graced by God with the Stigmata. His Shield depicts the Pelican,
a Symbol of Christ, who strikes her own breast to draw blood in order to feed her young chicks.