“As thou art in church or in cell, that same frame of mind carry out into the world, into its turmoil and its fitfulness.”
For the Kingdom of God is within you.”
“One day at a time.” As I have written in these blogs, this is such a profound idea for the recovering addict and, at least for people I know in recovery, wholly transformative. No one I know who has gotten sober from addiction has done so without learning how do one day at a time. And, as I recently wrote about, beyond the days of early recovery, practicing this habit is the only way that, even now, twenty-plus years clean and sober, I can meaningfully respond to profound sadness, such as the family tragedy of a terminal illness. So “one day at a time” is both a practical tool and a spiritual truth for getting and staying sober, and for living life on life’s terms, at least for this addict.
But recently I have come to see another way in which this idea of consciously dwelling in this day only can transform the spiritual life. It is the simple idea that, when it comes to the inner life of prayer, “one day at a time” and the discipline and practice that it implies, is exactly what the great teachers of prayer have been saying all along.
I have tried for three decades now, at least tried intermittently, to pray. Now by “prayer” I here mean some sustained and intimate meditation or contemplative prayer, some awakening to and dwelling in the inner places of the heart, where God is to be found, such that I may take those profound mysteries with me into the world of busyness and madness, hope and despair. Sometimes I have begun to make progress, but like a novice skier who picks up too much speed and then sits down on his skiis lest he lose control, I have sat down on my momentum out of fear of what comes next. I simply have not had the guts to press on, daily, habitually, through the scary places. But I have spent enough time reading great mystics, and very occasionally doing what they suggest, to know that there is a deep and sacred place to which I may go at any time, to abide there in Love and Peace, and that this place is utterly transformative of my entire world. After I have centered there and been touched by Mercy itself, I see differently, I love more deeply, I understand more, I am more alive and conscious—all as opposed to my more normal and prosaic plodding through the day, half-seeing, poorly loving, confusion and understanding in equal portion.
So this transformative practice of the presence of God is what I mean by prayer. And it is worth pursuing. It is the purpose of our being, of that I am convinced. It is, in the words of Jesus, the pearl of great price.
By the way, the mystics I have read and would heartily recommend include Thomas Merton, the Catholic Trappist monk who was so prolific (New Seeds of Contemplation, Thoughts in Solitude, Contemplative Prayer), the Orthodox Metropolitan Anthony Bloom (Beginning to Pray), Fr Henri Nouwen (Clowning in Rome, Genesee Diary, the Wounded Healer), Richard Foster, the contemporary Quaker writer (Celebration of Discipline), the old professor CS Lewis (Letters to Malcolm, Chiefly on Prayer, Reflections on the Psalms), medieval Brother Lawrence, [Practice of the Presence of God], and the anonymous Russian classic The Way of the Pilgrim. I have also tried to dwell with the some of the other, more ancient teachers of mystical prayer—Meister Eckhart, Thomas A’Kempis, St Theresa of Avila, St John of the Cross, Ignatius of Loyola, among others—but at least at the time I read them I was too much the toddler, too feeble and too scared to dwell very long in the depths of their teachings. But all of these, too, talk about the incremental process and the firm resolve it takes to learn to pray deeply.
Recently I picked up the readily accessible Thomas Kelly’s Testament of Devotion, and in just the first few chapters I was struck by this wise Quaker’s approach to prayer. It was in the early pages that I discovered that he, too, is a proponent of prayer in daily portions. He insists that we only reach the deeper, quiet union with God which we so desire by humble and persistent effort, repeated over and over again, habitually, incrementally, and—surprise, surprise!—one day at a time.
Before I set out what Thomas Kelly has to say about the daily way of prayer, I should quote his description of the natural response of our hearts to contemplative prayer, the reason that we are drawn to it, why it is worth all this effort:
“The basic response of the soul to the Light is internal adoration and joy, thanksgiving and worship, self-surrender and listening. The secret places of the heart cease to be our noisy workshop…. In brief intervals of overpowering visitation we are able to carry the sanctuary frame of mind out into the world, into its turmoil and its fitfulness, and in a hyper-aesthesia of the soul, we see all mankind tinged with deeper shadows and touched with Galilean glories. Powerfully are the springs of our will moved to an abandon of singing love toward God; powerfully are we moved to a new and overwhelming love toward time-blinded men and all creation. In this Center of Creation all things are ours, and we are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s. We are owned men, ready to run and not be weary, to walk and never grown faint.”
“Owned men” (and women, obviously). Well now, there’s a phrase that once would have sent me running (“NO ONE owns me, by damn…I am master of my own destiny and no one is going to tell me otherwise”…yada-yada-yada). To my surprise, though, the phrase now accurately describes what I most want: to be owned of God.
Now, lest we get carried away in some kind of grandiose fantasy that any of this will happen quickly or completely, Kelly gives caution. “The light soon fades, the will weakens, the humdrum returns. Can we stay this fading? No, nor should we try, for we must learn the disciplines of His will and pass beyond this first lesson of His Grace…. Continuously renewed immediacy, not receding memory of the Divine touch, lies at the base of religious living.”
And he makes clear that the way of “continuous renewal” is a daily, habitual, exercise of the will towards God in prayer—not some stupendous, dazzling, once for all transformation: “What is here urged are [daily] internal practices and habits of the mind. What is here urged are secret habits of unceasing orientation of the deeps of our being….What is here urged are inward practices of the mind at the deepest level, letting it swing like a needle to the polestar of the soul.”
Not only daily increments does Kelly emphasize, but also the enormous commitment that such a practice demands. Referring to John Woolman, a Quaker mystic, we are told that Woolman “resolved so to order his outward affairs, so to adjust his business burdens, that nothing, absolutely nothing would crowd out his prime attendance upon the Inward Principle.”
I have to say that as I read these words, my mind was drawn first, not to my Christian friends, but to my friends in recovery, surprising as that may be. This is surely not because all recovering addicts are great mystics—though some are. But I thought about my brothers and sisters in recovery as I read Thomas Kelly because for the recovering addict or alcoholic, nothing—absolutely nothing—takes a higher priority than the spiritual and practical business of recovery. The recovering addict knows she or he must be fierce about making sure that he or she takes care of first things first, day by day, for unless that happens, sooner or later, he or she will drink or use again, and then lose everything that matters: family, friends, work—everything. This we addicts know better than any other fact in the world, like a child who has been badly burned knows not to touch the stove anymore, and this we are fiercely determined to remember—of course remembering it every day, one day at a time.
So it was that as I read these words of Thomas Kelly’s about the life of prayer, I was reminded again of first priorities, practiced daily, incrementally, habitually. As the recovering alcoholic lives one day at a time—and, before she knows it, celebrates a year of recovery, or five, or twenty—so Thomas Kelly is here saying that only incrementally, habitually, humbly, daily, do we progress in the life of prayer, but that the peace and joy of the great sanctuary of the soul is absolutely worth the daily effort and discipline.
Now, in one way, this way of building the habit of prayer is really not too surprising. Anyone who has ever tried to break a bad habit or put on a new one knows the tremendous “liftoff energy” that it takes. Whether we are trying to get into physical shape through exercise, to stop procrastinating on work commitments, to stop swearing or gossiping—or to break a fatal addiction—it is apparent that it all must begin by making a definite decision and then taking the necessary action for today. Then, tomorrow, we re-make the decision and do the action again. And again the next day. And again. Over and over until the decision and action are such a part of what we do and who we are that the decision and action are like second nature. They are like a habit. They are a habit. And we have donned that habit and it has become a part of us and we a part of it, and it defines us and we define it, over and over again on a daily basis. We are “owned” by it.
Of course it takes a long, long time of daily, incremental work, of one-day-at-a-time practice to become owned men and women. And by “practice” I do not mean “trying to get better at” but, rather, praxis, as in the Greek, meaning a practical application of a theory, doing that which we have previously only theorized about. We only develop habits by doing them, not by talking, reading, thinking or—(NOTE TO SELF)—writing about them.
So it is that Thomas Kelly—and our friends the recovering addicts—are telling us that if we would pray, if we would know the inner joy and adoration that Testament to Devotion and so many other great works of prayer describe, we must begin with a simple, humble, decision: “today I will pray.” That decision is then followed by equally simple, humble action: to pray as best we are able, with whatever light we have. We do our best to pray honestly and listen deeply. And then, when we are finished, we go on about our day, hopefully lit from within, seeing, understanding, loving. And then the next day we do it all again. One day at a time.