I love to watch the tendril of smoke rise from a candle recently blown out. The smoke is so responsive to the merest whiff of air and the pattern is never the same. The remaining smoke from the still barely-glowing wick stretches to the ceiling and spreads farther than one expects. Then, without a sound the last glow winks out and soon the smoke disperses.
It is not all beauty, of course, especially if you do not like smoke. While the flame provided light or ambiance, the smoke just lingers and catches in one’s throat. Far easier to cut it short with a quick, sizzling squeeze with spit-gloved fingers.
This was brought to mind recently as I read Matthew’s quotation of Isaiah regarding the Messiah, “A battered reed he will not break off, and a smoldering wick he will not put out.” (Matthew 12:20 from Isaiah 42:3). It seems the Messiah is not into making quick, painless work of the wounded and dwindling.
Our society has not much time for the bruised reed and the smoldering wick. Euthanasia and assisted suicide are quickly becoming not only widely accepted but even socially expected. Doctors counsel abortion to parents of babies with birth defects. The prospect of an imperfect life and our final days of senility or illness are regarded as unproductive and noxious as the smoldering wick. The obvious solution is to cut the slow burn short with a quick, syringe squeeze with latex-gloved fingers.
In our quickness to dispense with the bruised and smoldering among us, we may be well served to recall that elsewhere in Scripture our lives are described as “a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14). Perhaps we should not be too quick to clear our lives of the too-long lingering mists of the lives of others.
I was blessed to be with my grandfather in his waning days. Amazingly, as his wick smoldered, his memory re-fired and I heard stories from his youth that he had never shared in our many years together. To be sure, those last weeks were difficult. But the pattern of beauty that rose from the smoldering wick of his life lingers in my vision to this day.
I am slowly reading through Jacques Philippe’s small book on prayer: Time for God.* What I have read so far has been simple yet helpful, so I thought I would pass it along.
Philippe’s first declaration is that the life of prayer comes to us as a gift from God not as a result of our efforts nor the application of techniques. He contrasts Christian prayer with the meditative practices of other religions that seek to achieve mystical experience through the performance of specific practices. But these are based in the efforts of humans. Christian prayer is a gift from God. This does not completely remove a human part to play. He writes:
Although–as we shall see later–a certain human initiative and activity has its place, the entire edifice of the prayer life is founded on God’s initiative and on his grace. We must never lose sight of the fact that one of the constant and at times most subtle of temptations in the spiritual life is to base it on our own efforts and not on the free mercy of God.
I particularly appreciate that Philippe brings in the aspect of human personality. He notes that there are always some people who are much better at employing techniques, being disciplined, or forming ‘spiritual’ language (‘hermosos pensamientos’ in his phrase). But since the reality of a prayer life is a gift from God, these abilities are not the sum and substance of a good prayer life. “Each one, by cooperating faithfully with the divine grace according to their own personality, with all their gifts and weaknesses, is able to have a deep prayer life.” Each of us has a God-given personality that has features that both help and hinder our prayer life. We must learn to work patiently with our own graces and limitations to receive God’s gift of himself through prayer.
While there are not “tricks” or “techniques” for the Christian prayer life, Philippe suggests that there are attitudes, certain dispositions of heart that set us up to receive God’s gift of prayer more readily. About those anon.
*For the record, I am reading it in a Spanish translation of the original French. Therefore, any of the English quotes you read below are my clumsy translations. The book is available in English. Since I have not yet read the entire thing I cannot at this time make a blanket recommendation.
(This post was simultaneously posted on the website of Union Christian Church).