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Prayer, dependence, and grace

During some time on retreat, I asked two older priests about their spiritual discipline and what patterns of prayer helped them. As we chatted, one of them remarked that a young man once asked the exact same question of a rather well known brother of the Society of St. John the Evangelist (SSJE, aka the Cowley Fathers). And everyone laughed at the answer the aged priest-monk gave. Highly respected for his asceticism and his work as a spiritual director, he said, with a smile, “I fall to my knees and hope for the best.”

When I heard this I laughed too. But that comment has hung in my head for over a year now. I understood it to be a gentle rebuke of sorts for a young, over-anxious man who was perhaps taking himself a little too seriously. And maybe that’s the truth. However, the comment “I fall to my knees and hope for the best” may have a deeper meaning — still a rebuke, of course, but also an act of spiritual direction for the listener who has ears to hear.

The Augustinian Friars, a religious order which emerged in the thirteenth century, were in many respects the fountainhead of what we might call a practical spirituality, a way of life which finds the transforming presence of God breaking into the most everyday of routines. Certainly we can think of the rhythmic life of the Benedictines with their emphasis on balance, but it was (or so I’d like to suggest) the “Austin Friars” who stressed St. Augustine’s view of grace as central to the spiritual life. To put it plainly, the grace and transforming love of God begins with God and extends from God to humanity, rather than humanity building a ladder, a route that ends only back with humanity and false idols. So from an ascetical perspective, the Augustinians taught a deep dependence on God, on receiving God’s grace, mercy, and love.

Now, once one receives love from God — notice very clearly the starting point is God — the Christian can direct that love back to God and to neighbor and from there one can grow in the virtues. But there can be no mistake: God is author and finisher. From the Austin Friars sprang the Devotio Moderna, the Brethren of the Common Life, Thomas Kempis and his Imitatio Christi, Erasmus, and Martin Luther himself (although these each have their own peculiar accent).

“I fall to my knees and hope for the best.” And, indeed, the best is the grace of God. This isn’t the mystical tradition of dereliction nor the pitfall of quietism, but rather I’m describing a conscious development of ever-deepening trust in the sovereign God whose grace is sufficient. So, to confess a bit, lately as I conclude the office of Morning Prayer on workdays (which is part of my discipline), instead of rambling on and on in my intercessions, I’ve had the habit of just shutting up, falling to my knees, and trusting that grace will come in the little moments of the day ahead not only in my life but also in the lives of those I entrust to God.

The featured image is “Prayer” (2014) by Ross Pollack. It is licensed under Creative Commons. 

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