Radical Islam has struck again, leaving fourteen dead in San Bernardino, California, eliciting calls for prayer from Ted Cruz, Paul Ryan, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, among others. The New York Daily News offered a succinct rebuttal via the headline: “GOD ISN’T FIXING THIS.”
I have sometimes thought that there are two basic kinds of humans: those that want to be mystics and those that do not. Evidently, the staff of the Daily News falls into the latter category.
In 1981, I was in New York City for the summer rooming with a friend of mine from the University of Dallas—he studying Greek and I, Latin. One Sunday afternoon we went to visit The Cloisters, the famous reconstruction of a medieval monastery in Fort Tryon Park. The place for me was numinous, a spiritual locality, a feeling I also felt a year later in Canterbury Cathedral; I could have spent the day there quite happily. My friend couldn’t wait to get out. The unicorn tapestry, the somber light, and the stillness gave him the creeps.
It’s perhaps natural to think of the life of prayer as reserved for the few who renounce the world. But as easy as it is to associate the mystical with the monastic, I have to wonder whether the linkage is entirely right. Could it be the mystical life is open to all believers, waiting for us to tap into its limitless source, prayer?
“Many Christians are like deaf people at a concert. They study the programme carefully, believe every statement made in it, speak respectfully of the quality of the music, but only really hear a phrase now and again. So they have no notion at all of the mighty symphony which fills the universe, to which our lives are destined to make their tiny contribution, and which is the self-expression of the Eternal God.”
Indeed, mystics live and breathe this symphony.
But it’s worth noting, Underhill was addressing everyday believers. Her point? Simply that the most common tool of the practical Christian life is available to us as the greatest of mystical portals if we will but recognize it. The portal is prayer:
If, for instance, we consider the fact of prayer, the almost universal impulse to seek and appeal to a power beyond ourselves, and notice the heights to which it can rise in those who give themselves to it with courage and love—the power it exerts, the heroic vocations and costly sacrifices which it supports, the transformations of character which it effects—it is a sufficiently mysterious characteristic of man.
I think in our hearts we know the truth of this declaration; yet for many believers, perhaps most of us, moments of genuine prayer are few; hence, our ignorance of its riches.
T. S. Eliot, in his famous essay on Lancelot Andrewes, remarks that the great Anglican bishop spent five hours a day in prayer. I mentioned this recently to one of my priests, who, as it turned out, wrote his thesis on Andrewes. What spiritual changes, I wondered out loud, might I experience, what vision might I gain if I spent a mere fifteen minutes on my knees in prayer each day? My priest, a godly man, had to admit that many times even he did not have that much daily time for prayer.
The world, so anxious in recent days to scorn the power of prayer, would have us jettison the practice entirely. To men whose vision goes no further than the next headline and whose memories go back only as far as a week’s news cycle, it may seem that God isn’t “fixing” anything. Men that won’t pray will never know the God to Whom a thousand years is like a day.
Others, Evelyn Underhill among them, can declare, “Again and again [prayer] is discredited by our popular rationalisms and naturalisms, and again and again it returns, and claims its rights within human life,” testifying to “a force from beyond the world [that] really breaks in upon the temporal order with disconcerting power.”
Our nation, indeed, the entire West, is under attack from a demonic force—one of evil and total power—that would destroy all that is dear to us. That force, Islam, will not succeed, but it might take down a nation or two before it is destroyed. If we are to combat it effectively, we must begin with weapons greater than our Congress and the Pentagon recognize. In terms of a national budget, prayer is cheap. Yet in making us aware of how weak we are, it lends us incalculable strength.
A victory of minor mystics? Why not? The forces of Islam and the gates of Hell will not prevail against Christ’s Church. And the New York Daily News’ notwithstanding, God will fix things. Let’s start cultivating His weapons.