Eighth, and last, in a series
As I arrive at the end of the series based on Learning to Pray ( New York: HarperOne, 2021, pp. 386, $27.99) by James Martin, S.J., I think, indeed I hope, that Father Martin’s insights will stay with me for a long time. In writing this series I have tried to communicate my appreciation of and enthusiasm for the book and certainly my gratitude to Jim for writing it.
At this moment in time, I think Jim is a special presence in the church doing an enormous amount of good through his writing and other priestly apostolates such as presenting a Catholic presence on television and helping others through spiritual direction.
As I mentioned earlier in this series of columns, something that Father Martin emphasized in his book seemed to leap off the page at me. It was that God wants to have a prayer relationship with us even more than we want that relationship. I probably knew that before reading “Learning to Pray,” but reading it in the book seemed to be a special grace. Reflecting on it, I link it to my own experience with the “Hound of Heaven” theme found in many Catholic novels. As I recall, that image of God was one of the topics that drew me in high school and college to the novels of Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, and Francois Mauriac.
It emphasized for me the truth that God is mercy and love in relation to us. While reading some of those novels, I felt as though God was jumping off the page at me. I still can barely read the section in Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited” depicting Lord Marchmain’s deathbed conversion without being moved to tears. When I met the actor Jeremy Irons, who starred in the magnificent television series based on the novel, I complimented him on the series. He said to me “Did we get the religious part right? We tried very hard.” I assured him they did.
Years later a movie version of the masterpiece appeared in theatres that missed the religious dimension of the novel completely. It was so bad that the reviewer in Commonweal wrote that the film was made by nincompoops.
The theme of the marvelous poem “The Hound of Heaven” by Francis Thompson is that God never stops pursuing the sinner, that God’s love is stronger than the sinner’s efforts to escape that love. I can recall being thrilled the first time I read Thompson’s poem and often being touched when that theme was present in many of the Catholic novels that I read. These thoughts came back to me while thinking about a poem by Joyce Rupp that Father Martin reproduces in his book. When he read the poem Father Martin felt called to centering prayer. I can understand that call because reading the poem caused a similar reaction in me.
The following is the poem:
Song of Songs 2:8-12
You tap at the window of my heart.
You knock at the door of my
You call out in my night dreams.
You whisper in my haphazard
You beckon. You invite. You entice.
You woo. You holler. You insist:
“Come! Come into my waiting
Rest your turmoil in my easy silence.
Put aside your heavy bag of burdens.
Accept the simple peace I offer you.”
I love the images that Rupp presents and I find they speak powerfully to me. I think I will occasionally re-read the poem as a way of beginning centering prayer. What leaps off the page to me is God’s almost incredible love for us. I want to grow closer to God. Possibly everyone does, even those who are not aware of their deepest need. I think part of my vocation as a priest is to try to communicate to people, in as many ways as I can, the profound truth about God’s love for us.
In the past in homilies at Sunday Eucharists I would find myself spontaneously saying something I had not planned to say such as, “God loves us so much that we cannot even imagine or conceive of that love,” or, “We should become as deeply convinced as we can about God’s infinite love for us.”
The call to us to deepen our relationship with God is constant. It happens every Sunday at a Eucharistic celebration, but it is not confined to Sunday mornings in church. We can become aware of it anywhere and at any time. We can become aware of it when reading the news, watching a news report on television or having a discussion with a friend. Whenever we become aware of it, I believe it is from the Holy Spirit, and we can gratefully respond. I suspect Jim Martin’s book will help me respond.
Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.