Will Ross on the spiritual battle we all face.
Very early one Autumn morning some years ago, I drove to Loch Ard to make a photograph. At the far end there is a little jetty, sitting quietly where a small triangle of land kisses the water of the loch.
On the far side, directly opposite, was a little boathouse, with a small boat snuggled within.
I arrived there before dawn and set up my camera and then I waited. The image I captured that morning caught the very first glints of sunlight as dawn broke and caressed the still waters of the silvery loch, causing a gentle mist to arise out of it and setting the gold of the trees on fire.
Within two or three minutes, the whole scene was completely different; the mist had gone altogether, and the trees were bathed in the bright light of the morning. How I would have loved to have gone across the water to that beautiful little boathouse!
I clearly remember that frosty morning and the photograph I made – I have a printed version framed on the living room wall. Looking at it again this morning, it struck me that it seemed to say something to me about the spiritual life.
It can sometimes seem that the spiritual life is a continual battle of sorts. We always have one eye on the beautiful scene ahead, where we would like to be and feel we ought to be – but at the same time, we perceive how very far we have yet to go before we can reach that place.
The little spiritual boathouse across the water is in clear view but is seemingly unreachable – we are without a boat and feel stuck on the jetty of the present moment of our lives. And that can leave us feeling somewhat despondent.
Although this might be an understandable human response to where we see ourselves to be, it isn’t really a very helpful one. Despondency generally leads to acedia – that feeling of listlessness where we ultimately stop caring.
And in the spiritual life, acedia is deadly – subjected to it, we risk becoming that salt without flavour of which the Lord warns us in the Gospel, which is good only to be thrown out.
Consequently, we need to fight any sense of acedia and keep going. Catholics call this ‘perseverance’. Perseverance is especially necessary in the realm of prayer, that crucial foundation of the spiritual life.
The Catechism tells us: “Prayer is a gift of grace but it always presupposes a deter- mined response on our part because those who pray ‘battle’ against themselves, their surroundings, and especially the Tempter who does all he can to turn them away from prayer. The battle of prayer is inseparable from progress in the spiritual life.”
And there we have it. Prayer and progress are deeply intertwined when it comes to the ‘battle’ of the spiritual life; when one deteriorates, so does the other.
Many of us will recognise this description of that moment when acedia – the antithesis of perseverance – tempts us to stop and to give up. “What’s the point?” we ask ourselves, while a quiet voice whispering somewhere in the background tells us that prayer is useless, that it is not listened to and will not be answered.
It is in precisely this moment that we need to draw water from the well of per- severance, refreshing ourselves sufficiently that we are able to keep going, if only a little longer.
What matters most is that we do not stand still, that we do not stop praying.
The particular form of our prayer matters less than the fact we are praying. Sometimes, we can submerse ourselves deeply in prayer, whether of the Rosary, the Hours or something else.
But there are other times, too – moments when prayer seems all but impossible to us. At those moments, it may be that all we can manage is that intense cry of the heart directed silently toward Heaven, which expresses what words cannot.
Perhaps that is the most authentic prayer of all. It reflects something of that look of Christ upon the Cross, His eyes gazing to Heaven in the midst of His desolation. It is the cry of one heart, reaching out to another heart. And that singular cry always reaches its divine destination.
Our own battles will not always reach those depths – but they will occur, even if less intensely; and so perseverance in prayer is necessary for every single one of us.
Prayer is the bridge between the divine and the human. It is the ‘connection’ we make which allows us to reach out to the One who has first reached out to us, seeking our willing response.
Our physical life is impossible without air; our spiritual life is impossible without prayer. Perseverance in prayer is our sign that the ‘battle’ described by the Catechism is still being waged, that it has not been lost.
Will Ross recently retired after more than 30 years as a nurse in the NHS, the last 18 as a specialist nurse for dementia. He enjoys writing and photography.