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But or ever a prayer had gush’t,
A wicked whisper came and made
My heart as dry as dust.
Most of us have experienced that stanza’s truth. The harboring of a grudge, the subtle wish for another’s harm, the envy that corrupts the heart, even if it find no expression in word or deed – such attitudes always prove impassable barriers to spontaneous prayer. When, therefore, any one encounters the practical difficulty that arises from the sense of God’s unreality, he may well search his life for sinister habits of thought, for cherished evils dimly recognized as wrong but unsurrendered, for lax carelessness in conduct or deliberate infidelity to conscience, for sins whose commission he deplores, but whose results he still clings to and desires, and above all for selfishness that hinders loving and so breaks the connections that bind us to God and one another.
The sense of God’s unreality, however, does not necessarily imply a wicked life. There are other reasons which often hinder men from a vivid consciousness of God. All of us, for example, have moods in which the vision of God grows dim. Our life is not built on a level so that we can maintain a constant elevation of spirit. We have mountains and valleys, emotional ups and downs; and, as with our Lord, the radiant experience of transfiguration is succeeded by an hour of bitterness when the soul cries, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matthew 27: 46).
Cowper tells us that in prayer he had known such exaltation that he thought he would die from excess of joy; but at another time, asked for some hymns for a new hymnal, he wrote in answer, “How can you ask of me such a service? I seem to myself to be banished to a remoteness from God’s presence, in comparison with which the distance from the East to the West is vicinity, is cohesion.”
Of course we cannot always pray with the same intensity and conscious satisfaction. “I pray more heartily at some times than at others,” says Tolstoi [sic]; and even Bunyan had his familiar difficulties: “O, the starting holes[fn] that the heart hath in the time of prayer! None knows how many bye-ways the heart hath and back lanes to slip away from the presence of God.”
The first step in dealing with this familiar experience is to recognize its naturalness and therefore to go through it undismayed. When Paul said to Timothy, “Be urgent in season, out of season,” he was giving that advice which a wise experience always gives to immaturity: Make up your mind in advance to keep your course steady, when you feel like it and when you don’t. This difficulty of moods has been met by all God’s people. The biography of any spiritual leader contains passages such as this, from one of Hugh Latimer’s letters to his fellow-martyr, Ridley: “Pardon me and pray for me; pray for me, I say. For I am sometimes so fearful, that I would creep into a mouse-hole; sometimes God doth visit me again with his comfort. So he cometh and goeth.”
[fn] Starting-hole: ‘A place in which a criminal or a hunted enemy finds refuge’ (OED).