The World and the Mystery of Prayer

Prayer unfolds the more we engage the world rightly.

This is my conclusion after a cursory read of Dionysius’s Divine Names. I was in a conversation about this spiritual classic when the topic of “flight from the world” came up. I attempted to make the point that Christian spirituality involves a certain relationship with the world. In making the point, I decried the assumption that, in order to pray, one must flee the world. My friend objected saying that “flight from the world” is an important part of the Christian spiritual heritage. His point was that one must flee the world in order to find God and enter into right relationship with His Handiwork. I have to admit that I might have given into a little hyperbole. In the end, my friend is right: countless saints fled the world in order to engage the work of prayer. Put another way, they had to renounce the competing exigencies that made claim over their attention in order to attend to the Lord.

My intention in upholding the value of the world for the spiritual life is not to deny the tradition of flight from the world. Instead, I wanted to highlight how Christian spirituality does not terminate in running away but in facing one’s own sin and the sin of the world. This makes the flight from the world as little more than a means to an end. In a certain sense, the flight from the world functions as a tactical retreat, a pathway to the kind of profound engagement with the world that the Cross demands. One goes into the desert to be tested and to find intimacy with God, and out of the new intimacy, one is sent to be in the world but not of the world. Especially the lay faithful know that saints are made not in avoiding temporal affairs but in ordering them to the glory of God. It is from this vantage point that the Church makes its own the plight of the world and offers it to the Father as the mystical Body of Christ. While flight from the world is part of the Christian tradition, this journey to the Father’s House is only rightly understood in the light of the saving mission of the Word made flesh.

We live in a time when the flight from the world is often understood and taken up in a non-Christian way. As Western culture collapses, a sort of nihilistic movement flees from suffering, conflict and difficult responsibilities in pursuit of a higher and more evolved consciousness. So it is that the even Christian monasticism often falls short of its purpose as individuals pursue feats of mental gymnastics and psychological achievements. Such towers of spiritual industry are not sufficient to draw hearts into the beauty and goodness of God. Boasting over these usually ends in either wistful regret or self-delusion, the gnawing sense that there was a vocation to something great that somehow was missed. It is because of the greatness of their call that Christians do not flee the world in an effort to exchange a false self for a true self. They have fallen short if they are only self-satisfied with a state of consciousness. When the contemplative life is so self-occupied, it is often an indication that the community is fleeing the world with the compassion of Buddha but not the yearning love of Christ.

A certain distrust of “eros” or the “yearning” of the heart is behind efforts to flee the world. The presumption is if only the driven-ness of the heart were surmounted or suppressed, we would finally diminish the cause of our sorrows. So we run from the world, from the illusions of the world, until the yearning the world induces might be calmed. By turning our attention away from the concrete particularities of daily life and ordering our hearts around a universal truth, or ideal, or process, a certain mindfulness promises to raise us above the fray to which everyone is otherwise subject. In such instances, flight from the world is therapeutic, a conscious state of peace that does not suffer from the anguished yearning driving the work-a-day world. The point is not that this is inherently evil. In some contexts, it might even be useful as least as a first step. All the same, it is not the reason Christians flee the world.

The project of contemplation, the task of opening the eyes of the heart in faith, requires a flight from the world for a different purpose. Flight from the world for the Christian does not achieve peace by quelling eros, though a certain fruit of peace normally results. Christians flee from the world into the wilderness to find the fulfillment of all desire, the God who is the perfection of all yearning and love. Moreover, this flight is a journey from the profane to the sacred not for therapeutic reasons alone but far more for the sake of true worship.

This is captured in the mystagogical preaching done around Baptism in the early Church. The Baptized turn away from the West and turn to the East to enter the Baptistry. The symbolism is one of leaving Egypt and going into the desert to give thanks to the Living God. The Fathers also preached how. after Christ was baptized by John, he went into the wilderness to be tested. Christ Himself shows us that it is not outside the world, but into its lonely places, one must go to seek the sacred, to fight evil, and learn to worship rightly. If he is to open the eyes of his heart to uncreated glory, the Christian must go into the dark wilderness of the world with the True Light who alone can open them.

The Christian flight from the world does involve acts of renunciation that appear similar to non-Christian approaches, but a very different kind of mystery is being worked out. While in both approaches, a certain freedom is sought from the exigencies of the moment inherent to daily life, this freedom is of a different kind and purpose. If Buddhists believe eros must be extinguished, Christians also believe that the yearning of the heart must be put to death. Unlike Buddhists, Christians believe this not because yearning is causes suffering. Instead, they allow it to be baptized in Christ’s death because the yearning of the heart needs to be redeemed – and the redemption of eros is always in the pattern of the One who emptied Himself. This is why Dionysius quotes St. Ignatius as saying “He whom I yearned for is Crucified” or “My Eros is Crucified.”

As Christians allow the eros of their heart to suffer death, it is always a death with Christ so that Christ may raise this yearning desire up with Him. Thus, the whole ascetical tradition involves practices that incline the heart to this death. Yet our tradition knows that these practices are not enough. Instead, a darkness seizes the soul in the form of painful circumstances and misfortunes, as well as severe interior hardships. What John of the Cross calls a night, St. Teresa of Avila calls a cocoon. Something dies and something is raised up. There is a transformation, something new that was not before, that cannot explain itself.

The new yearning that implicates a Christian in the world is not of the world, but of Christ. It is a Divine and Eternal movement, a movement in relation. The Fathers of the Church identified this as Divine Eros. It expresses itself in suffering for another. This yearning is not a pathology to condemn or overcome, but instead a part of humanity’s image and likeness to God. If the primal eros with which man is endowed must die it is only because it needs to be redeemed and restored to its original purpose: to participate in and reveal the glory of God. The yearning that animates human existence expresses a deep truth about the superabundant goodness of God revealed in Creation itself.

Without revelation, the world might be mistaken for God. For such souls, the spiritual journey involves a personal realization of this. For others, the world is nothing, a mere illusion that distracts us from the truth. In both cases, the relation of the soul to the world is something to be surmounted if we are to attain the sacred. There is also the case of the contemporary idealist. By idealist I mean those who fit the world into the system and processes that best appeal to their worldviews. Among these are the secular idealists or the technocrats for whom only material values hold any real meaning for humanity. This kind of error has also affected the consciences of some ecclesial leaders who have more devotion to the work of the Church than they do to the Lord. What all these idealists have in common is their firm belief that the world as we know it must be destroyed and replaced with artifices without reference to the sacred. Think Dostoyevski’s Grand Inquisitor who sets Christ free as long as He will stay away from the real world.

The Biblical vision of the world is more complex than the idealist’s and even the pagan’s. So too is the Christian understanding of eros, yearning love. In the Christian tradition, the world and the yearning of the heart are mysteries to be transformed and made holy. Biblically, the world is revealed as distinct from God but also as something positive and good for human existence, an integral part of the eternal plan of the Father, even as it suffers under the weight of sin.

Prayer is the human expression of Divine Eros in the world. While the world incites lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes and the pride of life in 1 John 2:16 (what tradition calls concupiscence – a power distorting eros but not the same as it); Genesis 1 and Hebrews 9:11 reveal the world as ordered to sacred time and space, six days ordered to the Seventh, earthly realities signifying heavenly ones. While the world as we know it is passing away (Hebrews 1:11, 1 Cor. 7:31), Christ nevertheless is coming to establish a new heavens and new earth (Rev. 21:1), a mystery anticipated whenever the Church gathers in prayer (Rev. 22:17). Where eros informed prayer comes in is that while the world groans for the revelation of the sons and daughters of God, it does so in solidarity with the hearts of believers and the Holy Spirit Himself who also groan with wordless cries (see Romans 8:22-26). Thus, the Christian tradition is filled with saints who groaned in wordless prayer as did their Crucified Master. Christians learn to pray in the power of the Holy Spirit in an imperfect passing world that God has given them as a gift of love so that what is not passing might be revealed in it.

If the great saints before us fled the world, it was not to escape or overcome its suffering. Instead, it was to put distance between one’s own life and the capacity of the world to incite concupiscence – lust and vanity. Only a soul free from from such self-occupation can open its eyes to bear the weight of glory in a fallen world. The motif to go into the desert and find the place of the Lord is to learn that the Lord alone is adequate dwelling place for the heart. Once the heart is in the right place, the world becomes for the Christian a terrible responsibility. One must order it as did Adam and Eve as gardeners for the glory of God. This means entering the garden with Christ. This is a terrible task in the sense that the beauty and goodness that it involves evokes terror. One knows that once this responsibility is taken up, one’s life will never be the same again. Under the shadow of the Cross, enchantment is shattered by the truth of God’s love in the face of sin. Indeed, this task is one of laying down one’s life for the sake of the Gospel that those alienated from God might have a word of hope. Put differently, once one has given his heart to God, God sends him into the world to participate in Christ’s saving mystery, to actually make up in his own flesh what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ.

Saints flee the world only to become icons extending Christ’s atoning love. The world groans for this and out of love, under the Holy Spirit, the Christian groans with the world to raise up the agony of Creation into prayer. It is for this purpose that Catholics assist at Mass. In their personal prayer as well as their public offers, they raise up the joys and sorrows of life to Christ who transforms them into an offering pleasing to God. What specifically is made pleasing is all their struggles, failures, weaknesses, and accomplishments before God. All that the world regards as insignificant, Christ’s blood purifies and raises up to inestimable worth before the Father. Whether they are monks who live as signs of the world that is to come or else lay people sanctifying the world through their families, work and prayer, they have withdrawn from the world only to be made instruments of the Holy Spirit who pours Himself out into the world with saving love in ever new ways.

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