God is the Goal; Prayer is only the Means

In his book Simple Prayer, Fr. John Dalrymple provides clear and practical guidance as to how one can find a way into contemplative prayer. He addresses theological issues such as how it is that grace is utterly constitutive of God’s nature, and the implications this has for how we pray, as well as advice on how best to order one’s time and the mindset we bring to prayer. Constant throughout the whole book though, is his insistence that contemplative prayer really is simple in essence, and that this essence is spending time with God – talking to Him, adoring Him, communing with Him, simply being in His presence.

Many ideas we have about contemplative prayer (vocal prayers such as the rosary, are of course a different matter, though some of the principles mentioned here could well be applied there too) can become too focused on the method, or on the experiences we might be able to extract. Fr. Dalrymple urges consistently that we remind ourselves of the real reason we are praying in the first place – to get to know God. Prayer is the way we do this; it is not in and of itself, whatever form it may take, the goal:

If we remember that prayer is service of God, not cultivation of self, we will avoid the mistake of approaching prayer as if it were a “thing.” With so much written about prayer (this book included!) there is an ever present danger that we approach prayer as if it were the goal itself of our exercise – whereas, of course, God is the goal, and prayer only the means towards him…

…The truth is that we love God in prayer or by prayer, for after all prayer is only the medium of communication between us and God and it is missing the point to linger too much on the means instead of the end. In prayer our hearts should be engaged on God, not on prayer. In the same way it is not prayer which has an effect on people’s lives, but strictly speaking God acting on them in prayer. A helpful way to think of prayer is to see it as a window through which we look at God. We all know that to concentrate on the glass of a window is to miss the view outside.

Simple Prayer (1992), p.30, Darton, Longman & Todd.

            The analogy he uses here is followed by an explicit reference to George Herbert’s poem The Elixir, in which the poet uses the same window imagery to great effect:

A man that looks on glass,

On it may stay his eye,

Or, if he pleaseth, through it pass,

And then the heav’n espy.

Though Herbert is referring primarily to the natural world and the daily round of tasks one is required to take up in life as being a possible means through which to see and know God, the point he and Dalrymple are both making is that we must only ever see such things (be they nature or prayer) as mediators. We must never allow the means to become an idol, or forget the reason we are meditating/praying in the first place.

A related point emphasised by Dalrymple later in the book is that we are not to turn our prayer lives into a search for certain emotional or psychological experiences. He highlights the fact that contemplation can often ‘feel’ dry, and one may not experience the emotions expected from being in the presence of God. But such an expectation is itself to make the mistake of preferring the means to the end – we are there not to gain anything for ourselves, to become more ‘spiritual’ people in the sense associated with many modern, new-age centres of meditation. We are there to contemplate God, to look ‘along the sun-beam’ rather than to examine it from outside, so to speak, and this requires the focussing of all our attention on Him, away from ourselves and our feelings.

            I recently found a quote (unfortunately without an original source) from Saint John Chrysostom which supplements what Dalrymple has said here, by providing a succinct yet powerful description of what, in essence, the business of prayer is all about:

Prayer is the light of the soul, giving us true knowledge of God. It is a link mediating between God and man. By prayer the soul is borne up to heaven and, in a marvellous way, embraces the Lord. This meeting is like that of an infant crying on its mother’s breast and seeking the best milk. The soul longs for its own needs, and what it receives is better than anything to be seen in this world.

Lent with the Saints (2006), p.14, Catholic Truth Society.

            Saint John here draws attention to the primary attributes of prayer, namely that it really is a link between God and man, and really does place us in His presence (even in His embrace!); also that this contact with God and true knowledge of Him is what the soul longs for, and in which it finds its renewal and direction. This, Dalrymple continues later in the book, is a good test of our prayer life – if our prayer really is helping us to know God, then we will grow ever more to love His will above our own. Thus, we can discern how much of our time in prayer is really directed towards Him by how loving we are, and how self-oriented we are not, in daily life. That we are not often the best judges (either because too indulgent or too critical) of this is unfortunately true, so acquiring a good spiritual director is advised.

Overall though, I think Dalrymple’s advice is eminently sensible, and as someone mostly foreign to contemplative prayer, I am very grateful for his removing the obstacles of what can sometimes seem bewildering sets of rules in this area. The crux of his counsel is this – in prayer, whatever helps you take your mind off yourself and directs it towards God is good, and if something is hindering that process, maybe it’s best to reassess things and try a new approach. Furthermore, if we always keep in mind that God is the goal of prayer, and everything else is just a means to that perfect end, we will not go far wrong.

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