“People on sinking ships do not complain of distractions during their prayer”

Our praying itself is as much God’s gift as is the answer to it. And prayer is not just God’s gift in the way that our power of speech or our health is God’s gift; prayer is God’s grace, and that means it is due to God’s own life within us, God’s own spirit within us. For God gives us not just our marvellous human powers and skills; he gives us himself, makes us able to live by his own divine life through his Son, Jesus Christ.

When we pray, we display a divine power which is in us because we are in Christ, sharing his life. We speak to the Father with the voice of his Son because we have been taken up to share in their Spirit. The great prayer, the first prayer, was the cross, when Jesus, for the sake of his fellow men and women, accepted total failure, crucifixion and death and left it all to the will of his Father. This was the prayer that was answered in the resurrection of Jesus and the redemption of the world. Whenever we pray it is because in Christ we are linked with that prayer; whenever we pray we share in that prayer, the prayer of the cross. Especially, of course, when we celebrate the sacrament of the cross, the sign of the cross, as we do in the eucharist, but also whenever we pray. Whenever. And whatever we pray for, we are in Christ.

Now this is an astonishing teaching: every bringing of our desires before our Father in heaven is Christ in us speaking to his Father and ours. There are people, you know, who cannot believe this. They will tell you that the only true prayer is prayer for higher spiritual things, unselfish prayer, prayer for the grace to be forgiving and kind, for a deeper understanding of the scriptures, for the conversion of sinners, prayer for others and not for ourselves. They are very shocked to if you say that praying to pass an exam, or worse still, praying that you will be able to afford a new car, is just as much part of the life of the Spirit.

You must indeed pray for the right things; but the right things are not the noble high-minded things that you think you ought to want, they are the vulgar and rather infantile things you really do want. Genuine prayer is honest prayer, laying before your Father in heaven the actual desires of your heart—never mind how childish they may sound. Your Father knows how to cope with that.

People often complain of “distractions” during prayer. Their mind goes wandering off on to other things. This is nearly always due to praying for something you do not really much want; you just think it would be proper and respectable and “religious” to want it. So you pray high-mindedly for big but distant things like peace in Northern Ireland or you pray that your aunt will get better from the flu—when in fact you do not much care about these things; perhaps you ought to, but you don’t. And so your prayer is rapidly invaded by distractions arising from what you really do want—promotion at work, let us say. Distractions are nearly always your real wants breaking in on your prayer for edifying but bogus wants. If you are distracted, trace your distraction back to the real desires it comes from and pray about these. When you are praying for what you really want you will not be distracted. People on sinking ships do not complain of distractions during their prayer.

Never mind then if your prayer seems “selfish” or childish. If you will be honest in prayer, acknowledging that you are not very altruistic, that you do worry about your own interests, if you just try to be, and admit to being, as you are, the Holy Spirit, I promise you, will lead you into a deeper understanding of who you are and what you really want. For prayer is not only a matter of asking, it turns out to be about learning as well, about growing up, about discovering yourself. When you lay your desires, your true desires, before God, you begin to see them in better perspective. Quite often you find that they are not, after all, the things you really want most of all. If you bring these desires out into the light, not only the light but the divine light, the light of the Lord, you begin to see them as important but not the most important thing to you. And so through the practice of praying, God will often lead you nearer and nearer to realizing that in the end what you want most of all is God himself.

Fr Herbert McCabe

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30 Responses to “People on sinking ships do not complain of distractions during their prayer”

  1. brian says:

    Father McCabe is the kind of Thomist that exemplifies the best tradition.
    I would want to add that not only our petitions, however trivial, are included within the purview of prayer, but at some deep level, all our actions and efforts at pursuing the truth, not in some abstract way which is unreal, but in the way we desire to know a poet, a moth, a rainbow, a person at the deli, all this is rooted in a giftedness that carries and sustains our desire. Hence, below (or above or transcendent to or nurturing, there are many ways to approach it) our manifest will, there is a sheer, agapeic source that is making our effort exist in the first place and go anywhere secondly.

    (I am cribbing all this from William Desmond. He’s difficult, but more assessable in something like Is There a Sabbath for Thought? Read him, folks.)

    The bottom line on all that is that prayer in a real way sustains all our activities, not simply what we clearly recognize as a function of our petitions or our overt desire to approach the God who is always already approaching us. Another way to say something similar is that all true knowing is also a loving. Knowledge that does not end in love is a pseudo-knowledge.


  2. john says:

    Thanks, Thanks a
    hundred times Thanks!!!!!!


  3. David Dickens says:

    I completely disagree. In fact, those things I think I want are delusions. They are the lies. Things I “desperately want” are always things leading me away from God. The girl, the house, the job, yes even to be saved from the sinking ship are all the false, a result of the egomania of me the liar, me the villain, me the consumer and the horder. The selfish and perverse, idolatrer. These are not good things, they are not of Christ, it is not him in me. This would be to put the Devil’s words in Christ’s mouth. You are calling evil things good, Father. There is nothing I need to repent for more when I go to confession than the horrid landscape of my poisoned “desires”.


    • brian says:

      “When you lay your desires, your true desires, before God, you begin to see them in better perspective. Quite often you find that they are not, after all, the things you really want most of all. If you bring these desires out into the light, not only the light but the divine light, the light of the Lord, you begin to see them as important but not the most important thing to you. And so through the practice of praying, God will often lead you nearer and nearer to realizing that in the end what you want most of all is God himself.”

      You appear to have missed that part.

      Also, if you consider desire so poisoned, you are going to have to bracket out all the mystics and saints; you are also perilously close to embracing a gnostic/manichaen metaphysics. God’s creation is good and the eschatological conclusion of human being is not just you and God; it’s you, God, and the community of the entire cosmos. There’s a very bad metaphysics that sees the world primarily as an idolatrous distraction from God. This is largely based on seeing God as a supreme being on the same univocal order of being as everything else, only infinite. Loving God is not a zero sum game where loving someone else or delighting in some thing somehow takes away from loving God or takes away from God’s glory.

      In fact, it is actually a blasphemous thought to think of God in that way. Ironically, the fear of idolatry can also foster the very worst forms of idolatry. God’s giving is agapeic — generous and for the good of the other; it is also playful, patient, and full of humor. Zeal that lacks these qualities is more like Dostoevsky’s Father Ferrapont as opposed to Father Zossima; in short, it’s religion, but not Christ.


      • David Dickens says:

        Two different points.

        First, I do not agree that my recitation of evil desires will eventually convince me that what I really want is God. Even if I want to put aside all the language in the post where Fr Aidan appeals to the reader’s own sense of their “real self” (which we all know to be a false self), the point remains. We learn to want good things by rehearsing wanting them, not pining after darkness and death. St Paul does not tell us to think on all our selfish desires and that will eventually make us realize God is what we really want, he tells us to think on GOOD things. Yes, those things… all those noble things that Fr Aidan would tell us are “inauthentic” and not the “real us”. You get to appreciate broccoli and other such good things, by eating them, not by eating cake until you realize you really wanted carrots. It’s psychologically (forget spiritually) unsound.

        Now on to the matter of the mystics and the saints… who practiced years of self-denial, fasting, ascetical rigors, poverty, chastity and so forth…. In fact, the very people who did have their desires transformed by God were the ones that discarded all the rubbish of the lies their stomachs told them (gluttony is, after all, a lie).

        It would be a terrible thing to misunderstand the eros present in the mystics without first realizing that such a profound desire was at the other end of exactly the opposite discipline as Fr Aidan councils. He might as well be telling us to “follow our dream” or “know your bliss”. It is trite, trivial pop-pscych with dangerous consequences.

        To accuse me of Gnosticism because I profess we should follow the saint’s into self-denial instead of self-indulgence is absurd.


        • brian says:


          The article you are reacting against is an excerpt from a book by Father Herbert McCabe. Your specific antipathy is for his words, not those of Father Aidan. He is the priest who helped teach Alasdair McIntyre about Aquinas. You are not reading correctly if you have taken from his words a sense that he is a frivolous purveyor of psycho-babble. I personally think his voice is pastoral, decent, and rather charming.

          The sort of argument from desire that I would advocate for can be discerned in the work of C. S. Lewis or in something like Luigi Guissani’s The Religious Sense. You are likely to find all that equally objectionable and modernist . . . our sensibilities are vastly different.


          • Jonathan says:

            Brian, I have to thank you again for unintended and tangential recommendations. I’ve never read Desmond or Giussani but see now that I have to check them out.

            I thought you were eloquent in writing this: “at some deep level, all our actions and efforts at pursuing the truth, not in some abstract way which is unreal, but in the way we desire to know a poet, a moth, a rainbow, a person at the deli, all this is rooted in a giftedness that carries and sustains our desire.” Surely prayer recapitulates the whole person praying (including the person’s environment and context), or else we’re not doing it right.

            Often I think we should broaden our horizons in thinking about what constitutes prayer, or kinds of prayer. I was watching one of the NFL championship games when a bunch of the players (Seahawks, I’m pretty sure) knelt in a circle, after winning, to pray together. My friend I was with scoffed at the image, which was only televised for a second. But I argued, as I always do, that I doubt there can be a more heartfelt moment of prayer than the athlete’s thanksgiving, or prayer for victory. What is actually childish in the bad sense is to assume with cynical and poorly founded confidence that such impulses are childish and irrational. But more important to recognize, is that play (including sport) and art are, or ought to be, prayerful when at their best and most intense. Whose faculties are more collected and focused than the athlete’s, the lover’s, the artist’s?

            I strive to make my life and work an argument from desire. Unfortunately, that means I have most definitely crashed the car. Except in my case it was a bike. The woman was nearly the same. Whoever says the Way of Affirmation is easier than the Way of Negation (in Williams’ sense) knows not whereof he speaks.


          • David Dickens says:

            You are correct. I assumed that he chose the excerpt it was because he agreed with it and was recommending it. Perhaps he isn’t. (That sounds more sarcastic than I meant it, I’m actually very surprised that I missed the entire post was a quote.)

            It doesn’t really change anything whether or not he was quoting or speaking with his own words. It also doesn’t matter how well intentioned he is. Fr Aidan’s reputation is excellent. Even his musings along the lines of apokatastasis come across as well considered, deeply researched and thoroughly honest. That doesn’t make them correct.

            Believing he means well, does not mean his advice is sound. After all there are many more well-meaning and more well-educated persons than me floating around Christendom a great many of them can’t seem to agree on even the most basic matters of faith past down from the days of Pentecost.

            I’m not sure what to do with that except to say that I made the claim I made based on what I know to be true. Hopefully folks are getting their pastoral advice from their own parish priest not from blogs or from comments on them. Frs Aidan and Herbert may be right and I may be wrong, but neither of us should presume to take the place of that.

            I would love to be pointed to the collection of desert wisdom, or the writings of a saint, or the canons of a council that support this position. Right now, I know of none. All I know is that I am supposed to (as has been repeated in a thousand ways in all the texts I’ve read and all the advice of my elder brothers and sisters in Christ) deny myself, pick up my cross and follow Jesus. That doesn’t sound like a 16yr old me praying to get a date for the prom, or hoping for a house with a fireplace and a tree in the front yard, or my kid to get into a good college.


          • Mike H says:


            I get the point that you’re making, but I think that you’ve made the original post into a straw man by making it say things that it doesn’t, and then arguing against those things. The risk that readers here are either looking for or going to find theological ammunition to start praying and fasting in order to win the lottery is very very small. I’d think that there are far more people with the mistaken (IMO) belief that God is indifferent to their real existence, to the fact that they worry, that they’re afraid, etc.

            I’m far from any kind of a prayer guru, but I found the post to be very theologically profound. It’s just to say, in a theological way founded on Gods character as a Father, that prayer need not be “broccoli”. I get the metaphor, but let’s face it, even if we come to like it, it’s still broccoli – little more than a necessary evil to avoid heart disease or whatever. Is that really the best metaphor? Another metaphor, more relevant to the way that I read this post (a bit cliche perhaps) might be a gym metaphor. We need not get in tip top shape with sculpted pecs and chiseled abs BEFORE we go to the gym. This isn’t about appearances.

            Certainly the post isn’t propping up god as a magic genie, but as you point out it’s helpful to remember our propensity to do that. But isn’t it also possible to become so detached from our selves and out lives that we swing the other way? The voice that says “Come talk to me after you’ve properly self-emptied” isn’t the voice of Christ. Neither is the voice that says “come to me once you’ve fixed your own desires” or “kill all desire, then come to me”. Neither is the voice that is indifferent to the actual moments and cares of my real life – as if it they’re a nuisance. In my own life, I haven’t leapt from not praying to becoming perfectly “self empty” with perfectly righteous prayers – I live in the gray area in between. And so my favorite line in the post was – “Your father knows how to cope with that.”


          • David Dickens says:


            I wanted to respond to you before I went to bed (I should respond to Fr Aidan as well, but am at my end this evening and will have to beg his patience until tomorrow). There is a careful line between extending a position to its logical end and making it extreme for the sake of knocking it down. I’m not sure I can convince you that my characterization is fair.

            It seems to me that the basic premise is clearly opposing what we’ve been taught. That we are distracted when we pray because we aren’t praying for what we really want, and if we stop trying to pray for the noble and good, and just focus on what we want, God will eventually convince us that what we really want is Him.

            But the scriptures, the fathers and the saints say no. They say to reject our idols and to repent of them, to follow God putting off every encombrance.

            Broccoli isn’t just to avoid heart disease. I remember a story about a man asking a monk if all the fasting made them appreciate the feast more, the monk said no, it made him appreciate the bread during the fast for its own sake. Do you see the difference?

            I don’t claim any sort of prayer-perfection. In fact, the cathartic character of my original comment comes directly from my appreciation for my corruption. Following after that corruption, calling evil, good, would only hasten my descent into perdition.

            But let us return, not to a strawman, but to the basic premise here. That chasing goodness is a problem and that chasing our distractions will eventually lead us to God. That has everywhere and always been false.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      David, l’m out of town and won’t be able to respond until Monday or so.


    • Mike H says:



  4. Andy says:

    I found Fr McCabe’s insights as helpful as anything I think I have ever read concerning prayer. I ordered the book right away.


  5. Alright, I guess I will continue to pray, although I am losing faith in the efficacy of prayer when it comes to healing my poor, suffering spouse. He needs God’s help more than ever right now, but I am at my wit’s end, and so is he. God, please hear my prayers and ignite again the flame in my husband’s spirit that brought us together. Amen.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Victoria, thank you for sharing. There are no words that I can offer that will give you comfort, except these three: “Jesus is risen.” I do not speak them to you lightly. I do not know why our petitions for healing and deliverance seem to be ignored or denied. Fr McCabe touches on this in his homily on prayer:

      There is no such thing as unanswered prayer (if it is real prayer, and not just going through the motions). Either God will give you what you ask, and this is extremely common; or else he will reckon that you are ready now to receive more than you asked. To you at the time, and especially to an outside observe, it may look as though your prayer has not been answered. But, as you will recognize some time later, God has been getting you to understand that your deeper desire was for more than you asked for. Only God can reveal that to you, for only God can bring it about in you. I cannot tell you, and nor can anyone else. It is one of those things that ‘flesh and blood’ does not reveal to you but only your ‘Father in heaven’ (cf. Matthew 16:17). But the way to grow is to recognize that we have not yet grown. And God does not mind this at all. In fact, even if we do deceive ourselves, even if we are hypocrites, he will find ways of healing us. (God, Christ and Us, pp. 105-106)

      If I were in real pain, I do not think I would find this passage helpful. Of course, he is not addressing the question of serious suffering and unanswered prayer. Perhaps he would something more to say to us. Perhaps there is nothing more than can be said. Ultimately, the life of faith, with all of its suffering, can only be lived.


      • Thank you, Fr Aidan. Live and writhe we must. I thank God every day for each moment we’ve shared, both in sickness and health, and I am sure He has not abandoned us, even though it may seem so sometimes.


  6. albert says:

    I have a different take on David’s point.. OK, I get distracted when I try to pray, even–maybe especially–during liturgy… and suddenly wake up to realize that what I “really want” is something not very good. I get ashamed of “who I am and what I really want.” At this point I feel like I should just walk out of church, or stop praying. Who am I to presume I can address God?.

    But I coud think about how that particular want has entered my life, taken over it almost, and ask for help–or better, throw myself metaphorically on the floor and repeat, “Lord have mercy.” I try doing that, but even then I feel as though I have no right. The only help comes from remembering things that Christ said about God’s love, especially as a Father. I am a father, and I understand that image, that relationship. So I keep on trying to pray.

    I don’t relate as well to the sinking ship image, unless that ship is really me thinking that I can pray. Strange.


    • David Dickens says:

      I wonder about such things myself Albert. This is why, in the midst of that, I don’t turn to the bucket of confusion and strife in my soul. I don’t stay dead and buried in Romans 7 unable to manage the conflict within me between the flesh and the spirit. I turn to Romans 8. That is, I turn to Christ. I use His words, I follow His example, I chase after His people. I pray the Jesus prayer, or the Lords prayer, or verses from the Psalms. I return to them again and again, even when my mind wanders, even when I am confused.

      How in the world Fr Aidan thinks that indulging in that darkness and confusion is going to help anything is beyond me. The only hope is to keep returning your eyes to the candle in the night, the light of Christ no matter how faint, or distant it might seem (for we know that Christ is indeed at hand and not far away as He might appear!) The wandering mind will stumble, so it was with the great saints as well.

      The fact that all the nonsense of our selfish-desires gives us more “focus” should be a warning siren to us, not an indication that we should abandon all the teaching of those who went before us to be further seduced by them.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I figured that this excerpt from Fr McCabe’s homily might generate some discussion. I see that I was not wrong. 😉

    First a word about citations: When I blog a citation from a theologian or spiritual writer, I am not necessarily expressing 100% approval of the thoughts therein expressed. I quote material that I believe to be stimulating, interesting, provocative, edifying. Clearly the McCabe passage satisfies at least one of these qualifications.

    Personally, I note the following points of interest in the quoted passage:

    First, I am struck by McCabe’s affirmation of the Fatherhood of God. Because God is Father, he wants us to bring to him all of our concerns and desires. Petition is often dismissed by both theologians and ascetical writers—the former wonder what the point of petition can be, given divine omniscience; the latter worry about its apparent selfishness. McCabe, on the other hand, believes that we should regard God as our Father, just as Jesus taught us to do; and like any father, our heavenly Father desires us to feel free to come to him and share with him all of our concerns and ask of him all of our desires. Of course, he may say no to our request; but if he does so, McCabe believes, it is because our Father desires to give us more, not less than what we have asked for. God truly desires our happiness, and he has appointed petition as a way to bring us into that happiness. I cannot count the number of parishioners I have known who do not feel free to ask anything of God because they feel that their needs are of little concern to God. God has more important matters to deal with in the world. McCabe rightly challenges this perception. Through petition God brings us into ever-deeper communion with himself.

    Second, I appreciate McCabe’s affirmation of human desire. McCabe is a Thomist and would remind us that we are created by God as desiring animals. We are ordered to the good; we are constituted to want the good; we are created to find our fulfillment in the good. Or to put it in different language, we are made for happiness. Hence at no point are we permitted to reject or denigrate desire, for ultimately it is through our desire that we are brought to union with our supreme and ultimate Good. As St Thomas Aquinas writes, “Happiness is another name for God.”

    Third, I appreciate McCabe’s summons to honesty in our relationship with God. How can we hope to grow in our love for God and to come to know his heart if we are not honest about what we need and want? Isn’t this just sound relationship advice? But McCabe has a more important point to make—namely, one of the divinely-appointed functions of honest petition is to lead us out of self-deception and immaturity into deeper knowledge of ourselves. We typically live our lives in superficiality and delusion. We think we know what our desires are, but we really do not, for we do not know who and what we are; we do not know what we are really searching for in life. We remain blind to our real and most fundamental desires. I am remind of the oft-quoted words of Bruce Marshall: “The young man who rings the bell at the brothel is unconsciously looking for God.” Denys Turner touches on this in his discussion of Aquinas and prayer:

    And it is here within his conception of moral practice as desire-discovery—or as he calls it, “practical wisdom”—that for Thomas a principal means of tracing the way back to what we really want, is prayer, oratio. And our only available starting point for that practice of self-discovery is our wants and desires as we actually experience them. Therefore, Thomas says, we ought to pray for what we think we want regardless. For prayer is “in a certain manner a hermeneutic of the human will,” so that by way of placing our desires as we experience them before God we are asking also that those desires be “unfolded,” “explicated,” thereby to release their real significance, the real want that is wrapped up in, “implicated” in all their opacity in their form as experienced. Therefore, says Thomas, we ought to pray, as Jesus did in the garden of Gethsemane, “in response to our animal desire” (secundum sensualitatem). For when we pray as Jesus did then, out of animal need and desire—for Jesus was scared of death, as naturally any animal is—we are placing that animal need and desire within the interpretative power of the divine will itself, wherein alone we will discover our own real will. Therefore, Thomas concludes, we ought always to pray for what we think we want; for Jesus prayed as he did in Gethsemane so as to teach us just that lesson, namely that it is “permitted for human beings naturally to desire even what [they know] is not God’s will”; and, as if in reinforcement of what for many is a startling thought, he cites the authority of Augustine to the same effect, commenting on the same prayer of Jesus: “It is as if [Jesus] were saying: ‘See yourself in me: for you [too] can wish something for yourself even though God wishes something else.’” Only thus, in the prayer of honest desire, is there any chance of our discovering what are our true desires, our real will. (Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait, pp. 180-181)

    We do not begin our life of prayer as deified Athonite elders. Dom John Chapman offered this wise maxim: “Pray as you can, and do not try to pray as you can’t.” McCabe would agree. If I really want Santa to bring me a Lionel train set, then that’s precisely what I should ask of God. Perhaps years later God will bring me to understand that my happiness cannot be found in toys, but I have to begin as I truly am. Pretense only hinders our spiritual growth.

    Finally, I gather that some are concerned that McCabe’s counsel actually underwrites and confirms our disordered and sinful desires. But what is a sinful desire? What is it about a given desire that renders it disordered? I haven’t been able to find anywhere in McCabe’s writings where he addresses this question specifically, but he does address a related questions, namely, what makes an actions sinful:

    To come to God’s friendship in Christ is to choose a good, the greatest good and the greatest good for us; and the creative and gracious power of God is in us as we freely make this choice. It is both our free work and God’s work. To do good is to choose the highest good; but to fail to do this, to sin, is not to choose evil. Nobody chooses evil, it cannot be done. When we sin what we do is choose some trivial good at the expense of choosing God’s friendship. Sin is sin not because of the thing we positively choose: the human satisfaction, the pleasure or the power. It is sin because of what we fail to choose, what we sacrifice for the sake of a minor good. Sin is sin because we have opted not to grow up to our flourishing, our happiness which is life in God’s love and friendship. To say that people sin is to report what they have not done, what they have freely chosen not to do—freely choosing not to be just and kind, because they have opted for a trivial good like wealth or whatever. (God Still Matters, p. 185)

    Analogously, perhaps McCabe might suggest that our desires are disordered when they are detached, as it were, from our fundamental and deepest desires, namely, happiness in God.

    But what about truly depraved desires? May we ask God to fulfill them? I do not know what McCabe’s answer would be. If we know that that which we seek is contrary to God’s will and law (e.g., the death of someone we hate), I cannot imagine that McCabe would urge us to just go ahead and ask God for it;,but he probably would tell us that we need to talk to God about it in prayer. St Augustine states, “It is lawful to pray for what it is lawful to desire.” If that which I desire is unlawful, then I probably shouldn’t be asking God to give it to me.


    • Jonathan says:

      May I ask what ‘lawful’ means in this context? I was serious in adducing the praying Seahawks as an instance of sincere and decent prayer. Sure, that would have been prayer of thanksgiving rather than petition, but it’s just the reverse of the same coin. Is beating the Packers something it is lawful to thank God for? I can’t help but affirm that it is. . . and my opinion in this matter is not influenced by having lived in Chicago for a decade, I swear.


    • albert says:

      This is a startling new thought for me: ” . . . when we pray as Jesus did then, out of animal need and desire—for Jesus was scared of death, as naturally any animal is—we are placing that animal need and desire within the interpretative power of the divine will itself, wherein alone we will discover our own real will.”

      It will take some time to integrate this with what I thought I understood about desire, about the “passions,” (which I was just today reminded of in this quotation from Isaac the Syrian: “The passions are the following: love of riches, desire for possessions, bodily pleasure from which comes sexual passion, love of honour which gives rise to envy, lust for power, arrogance and pride of position, the craving to adorn oneself with luxurious clothes and vain ornaments, the itch for human glory which is a source of rancour and resentment, and physical fear.”). These are the things that seem to distract me when I think I am praying. And it is not that they appear as subjects for confession. On the contrary, they seem very appealing, more so than prayer, so I start to feel foolish, or worse, hypocritical.

      For some reason I misunderstood Aquinas’ famous statement about how, as in your summary, “We are ordered to the good; we are constituted to want the good; we are created to find our fulfillment in the good.” Or maybe my understanding of it required more thought. At any rate, your comment helps me appreciate better what the original post is getting at. Thank you, Fr. A.


    • David Dickens says:

      There’s so much confusion here I don’t even know where to start. I’m certainly not going to argue against Thomism. That’s too big a target and far smarter and more educated men than me have tried with little success. I think it is easy to mischaracterize Thomism (and I have already been accused of making a strawman here) so I’m going to stay away from that.

      I wish that it were possible to has Fr Herbert himself to respond to my more blunt criticism here, but if you’d be willing to consider it Fr Aidan it would clear this up in less philosophical terms.

      We (three? Herbert, Aidan, David) agree that we are deluded. We agree that God’s good will for us is better than our will for ourselves. We agree that God desires us to pray and engage in a relationship with Him that is both intimate and personal. I’d even say we agree at least that God is aware that we are double-minded, faint hearted, foolish, (some might use the word “emotional”) distracted, fallen and damaged (use your own set from your favorite thesaurus) people who are not going to pray “correctly” (whatever that would mean) just like we aren’t going to be perfect in any other way today.

      The problem I’m having here is with the pastoral advice here. It isn’t that God “cannot” or “will not” do thus-and-so, or that He “understands” us and our silliness. There’s no need to draw up a sentimental pile of warm feelings about God-hugs. Yes, God loves us. But chasing after will-o-wisps will not draw us to Him. That’s not what the scriptures say, that is not what the fathers say. Now, perhaps that’s what Thomists say (along with telling you to use your imagination in prayer perhaps as well) but as I said to quarrel with that would mean I would have to quarrel with all of Thomism (a worthy thing indeed, but not for this format).

      The basic bit: advising a teenage boy to pray to get the hotrod or the hotgirl of his dreams instead of praying the prayer of St Ephraim during Lent is BAD ADVICE. Yes, I’m being extreme in this particular case, but we can tone it down and the contrast still remains. Telling a mother to pray for her child to get into a good college will not result in her eventually figuring out that what she really wanted was her child to love God, it will only reinforce her vanity. The point of praying the prayers of the church is the very battle that Fr Herbert says is pointless and even harmful.

      I know you mention this objection at the end of your response, but simply saying “you shouldn’t pray for what isn’t lawful” either disagrees with the quotes from Fe Herbert or it is pointlessly ambiguous. If you think about this just in terms of the “law’ you are missing the point. The point is that we are distracted because we don’t like good things. We learn to like good things by trying them, challenging ourselves to develop a taste for them, seeking in ourselves that which does “rightly desire” the light. But deliberately praying for things I can actually concentrate on means I’m not engaged in that battle. I’m giving in to my passions, that’s why it is so easy.

      Don’t misunderstand, such a change in perspective must be done with the greatest of care. There’s no point in walking up to someone who is worried that he will lose his job just to tell him he should pray for his employer’s salvation even if it means losing his job (or some other “spiritually superior” thing). But the habits of prayer are the habits of the mind. This is repentance, turning away from our sins and looking to God, not chasing after our sin knowing that God will save us from ourselves.

      Similar advice might be, “You don’t need to give alms, after all giving your children a big birthday party will lead you to God just as well, even better, because God really loves chocolate cake… Dads love chocolate cake, right?”

      Why bother with any spiritual labor? Just chase after your worldly dreams and God will wrap you up in a snuggie and squeeze you until everything works out OK.


      • Mike H says:


        Final thoughts from me. I really do get what you’re saying – I just don’t read the original post the way that you do. There’s nothing in the post about warm hugs or snuggies and squeezes. You seem to be using some false dichotomies and absolutes that wouldn’t be helpful in the messy world where I get my pastoral advice.

        What you’re cautioning against is an approach that’s the equivalent of jumping into the deep end of the pool wearing ankle weights and having just eaten a pound of nachos knowing full well that the life guard will jump in and save you. But the post isn’t suggesting that anybody do that. It ends with “and through the PRACTICE OF PRAYING, God will often lead you nearer and nearer to realizing that in the end what you want most of all is God himself.” It’s not “through the practice of indulging your innermost fantasies” but “through the practice of praying.” The post seems to be saying that the practice itself is transformative, if Christ is indeed nearer to us that we are to ourselves, and that we can rest freely in that. That’s not to say that it isn’t hard or that there are no occasions for self denial. The post claims that the practice itself is an essential part of the process of reordering desires. As far as the fathers and saints, I wonder what they prayed about before they were considered “saints” and their writings were canonized? The content and hopes of my prayers have changed dramatically over the years as I perceive God and life differently (this coming from someone who did indeed pray for a prom date). It’s a process.

        Peace, Mike


        • David Dickens says:

          I appreciate all your responses Mike. It is good to hear how I sound. I’m not a practiced as I once was in online dialog and I do need correction (the fact that I have gone through long periods of avoiding blog-comment-discussions is because it is so hard to hear oneself in this context, and I do have a tendency towards rhetorical extremes).

          In the dark and messy places where we live, and particularly so for anyone trying to live there honestly, the challenges of living a Christian life (I don’t even mean a perfect life, but merely walking along the path towards Christ) appear impossible. They appear impossible because they are impossible. It is the word of Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit which draws us to God beyond our strength.

          This is a hard teaching, to know that what we do is somehow both essential and yet impotent at the same time. I will betray the limits of my own vision enough to say that Fr Herbert’s advice would end very badly for me. I cannot see how it would end well for anyone. I think you misread the post.

          Please read these sentences again:

          Distractions are nearly always your real wants breaking in on your prayer for edifying but bogus wants. If you are distracted, trace your distraction back to the real desires it comes from and pray about these. When you are praying for what you really want you will not be distracted.

          I’ll indulge one last rhetorical extreme. This is the sort of advice that will lead to hell, if one actually believes that hell is a possibility.


          • Mike H says:


            I hear you. Online dialogue is tricky. It’s tough to discuss complex matters with brevity and without talking past one another.

            I’ve read the part that you highlighted several times. I do get where you’re coming from, up to a point. The difference is that I don’t see the words that you’ve highlighted as the first or last word in the post nor representative of what the post is really about. If the very last paragraph wasn’t there (nor what came before the section you highlighted), I might not feel that way. If Fr McCabe is suggesting that it’s EITHER pray for “what you really want” or “pray for spiritual things” I would also reject that false dichotomy.

            As it stands, the last paragraph seems to complete his point. “If you just try to be, and admit to being, as you are, the Holy Spirit, I promise you, will lead you into deeper understanding of who you are and what you really want.” That, to me, is a great summary of the entire line of thinking. Only if one rejects that statement can it be possible to view prayer as something that needs to be kept completely separate from who I really am, and it sounds like you don’t agree with that statement since doing so would you lead you directly to hell. Either that, or “being as you are” must exclude bringing a person’s desires – or hide the desires that are bad. Either way, there is an expectation that desire is transformed and deepened in this process – that seems to be the thing that you don’t agree with. Old desires die and new ones are formed. If you are reading this as “pray for the most superficial thing that you can think of because it will naturally lead to transformation”, I think that’s a misreading. It’s not the nature of the “superficial” subject matter, it’s the nature of the authenticity and of bringing myself to God as I am, warped and confused as my thinking and desires at times are.

            Look, I’m not good at this. Frankly, it’s just as hard to pray with this level of authenticity. We think that God will be disgusted by our petty wishes, ready to at once cast us into the lake of fire. I admit that I struggle with that – too often God is presented as all to ready to do just that, ready to let us go, dangling us over the fire. And again, this post may be directed at those of us who have been taught (whether overtly or by implication) that God does not much care about the overwhelming majority of our actual day to day existence. So it might be read with that as the backdrop.


  8. brian says:


    We are definitely kindred souls.

    I ended up purchasing eight Lafferty books, btw — and I am relatively poor, so it’s a testament to his quality as a writer.


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