God is Prayer

All prayer is a participation in the divine communion of the Father and the Son in the Spirit. This is the truth that Herbert McCabe would have us understand, but he takes a couple of steps to bring us to this recognition. Somewhat surprisingly, McCabe does not dwell on the role of prayer in the ministry of Jesus. He points us directly to the Paschal Triduum.

Why did Jesus die? Because he would not compromise his mission. What was his mission? McCabe boils it down to three words—to be human. Forget all the theological theories and pietistic mumbo-jumbo. The mission of the incarnate Son was to live an authentic human existence, utterly devoted to the will of his Father; and in this way to simultaneously reveal the trinitarian life of divine love and the meaning of human being. But our world is broken, fallen, held in bondage to sin and death and therefore can only respond to this manifestation of perfect love in one way—with violence:

The gospels … insist upon two antithetical truths which express the tragedy of the human condition: the first is that if you do not love you will not be alive; the second is that if you do love you will be killed. If you cannot love you remain self-enclosed and sterile, unable to create a future for yourself or others, unable to live. If, however, you do effectively love you will be a threat to the structures of domination upon which our human society rests and you will be killed. … The life and death of Jesus dramatise this state of affairs. (God Matters, p. 218)

Is McCabe’s analysis here too simplistic? Perhaps … but let’s grant him a hearing. Is it far-fetched to suggest that Jesus was killed because his teaching and ministry threatened both Roman colonialism and Sadduceean clericalism? Historians will no doubt unpack the nature of this threat in various ways, yet only such a threat can explain the judicial condemnation and execution of the Nazarene. But McCabe wanders into more controversial ground when he suggests that it was the manifested love of Jesus that ultimately explains his authority and the hostility that it generated:

We cannot live without love and yet we are afraid of the destructive creative power of love. We need and deeply want to be loved and to love, and yet when that happens it seems a threat, because we are asked to give ourselves up, to abandon our selves; and so when we meet love we kill it.

Not all the time, of course; there could not be any community at all without some friendship; but, still, we are uneasy with it, and love has to disguise itself if it is to survive. It is when love appears nakedly for what it is that it is most vulnerable; and that is why we crucified Christ. Jesus was the first human being who had no fear of love at all; the first to have no fear of being human.

Jesus had no fear of being human because he saw his humanity simply as gift from him whom he called ‘the Father’. You might say that as he lived and gradually explored into himself, asking not just the question ‘Who do men say that I am?’ but ‘Who do I say that I am?’, he found nothing but the Father’s love. This is what gave all the meaning to his life—the love which is the ultimate basis and meaning of the universe. However he would have put it to himself (and of this we know nothing), he saw himself as simply an expression of the love which is the Father and in which the Father delights. His whole life and death was a response in love and obedience to the gift of being human, an act of gratitude and appreciation of the gift of being human. (p. 95)

McCabe thus rejects the popular theories that claim that God sent Jesus into the world for the express purpose of dying, presumably for some atoning or juridical purpose. “The mission of Jesus from the Father is not the mission to be crucified; what the Father wished is that Jesus should be human” (p. 93). The crucifixion, rather, was our idea. The tradition calls this the state of original sin: the cross reveals that we have created a world in which perfect love is inevitably met with hostility, condemnation, and murder.

When Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem, he fully expected to be rejected and killed. But he committed himself to the task given to him. He did not seek escape. He did not evade his duty. He did not compromise the integrity of his message and being, even though he knew that his death would mean the apparent “failure” of his mission. Jesus freely accepted all of the consequences of his faithfulness to the will of his Father. “He was prepared,” continues McCabe, “to see all that he had apparently achieved come down in ruins, to see his followers deserting him, scattered and demoralized. He accepted all this because he did not wish to be the founder of anything, the man of power who would compel the coming of the kingdom. He wished only to do what he called ‘the will of his Father’, which was simply to accept the condition of humanity, to see the fullness of humanity which is in love and to accept the failure that characterises loving humanity” (pp. 218-219). In the end Jesus casts all of his hopes upon his Father. This is his prayer. The kingdom must come as the gratuitous gift of God … or not at all. If the cross is the petition of Jesus, then Easter is the Father’s answer. Prayer is the life of the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit.

Gift is an expression of an exchange of love. To believe in the resurrection, to believe in God, is to believe that the resolution of the tragedy of the human condition comes as gift, as an act of love encompassing mankind. The crucifixion/resurrection is the archetypal exchange of prayer and answer to prayer. … But [Jesus] wanted that all men should be as possessed by love as he was, he wanted that they should be divine, and this could only come as gift. Crucifixion and resurrection, the prayer of Christ and the response of the Father are the archetype and source of all our prayer. It is this we share in sacramentally in the Eucharist, it is this we share in in all our prayer. …

[Jesus] is not first of all an individual person who then prays to the Father, his prayer to the Father is what constitutes him as who he is. He is not just one who prays, not even one who prays best, he is sheer prayer. In other words the crucifixion/resurrection of Jesus is simply the showing forth, the visibility in human terms, in human history, of the relationship to the Father which constitutes the person who is Jesus. The prayer of Jesus which is his crucifixion, his absolute renunciation of himself in love to the Father, is the eternal relationship of Father and Son made available as part of our history, part of the web of mankind of which we are fragments, a part of the web that gives it a new centre, a new pattern.

All our prayer, whether the Mass itself or those reflections from the Mass that we call our prayers, is a sharing into the sacrifice of Christ and therefore a sharing into the life of the Trinity, a sharing that is in the Spirit. All our prayer is, in a very precise sense, in Spirit and in truth. For us to pray is for us to be taken over, possessed by the Holy Spirit which is the life of love between Father and Son. … So our stance in prayer is not simply, or even primarily, that of the creature before the creator but that of the Son before the Father. At the most fundamental level, the level which defines prayer as prayer, we receive from the Father not as creatures receiving what they need to make up their deficiencies, but as the Son eternally receives his being from the Father. Our praying is an expression in history of our eternal trinitarian life. (pp. 219-220)

As long as we think of God as a god, as a being to whom we present our petitions and from whom we then await an answer, we remain trapped within a pagan or, at best, a unitarian worldview: God remains purely other. But the God of the gospel cannot be other in this way, as one standing over against us, as Zeus or Allah does; for he is the one who, in Christ, has lifted us into the rhythm of eternal prayer.  To him we address our prayers; but we do, can do so, so only because he prays within us in the depths of our being. “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words” (Rom 8:26). “Our praying itself,” explains McCabe, “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 power and skills; he gives us himself, makes us able to live by his own divine life through his Son, Jesus Christ” (God, Christ and Us, p. 7).

Prayer is the trinitarian Being of God. Prayer is sharing in the Love that is God. Prayer is communion with the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit.

(Go to “Can we cajole God?”)

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17 Responses to God is Prayer

  1. Jeremy says:

    “Why did Jesus die? Because he would not compromise his mission. What was his mission? McCabe boils it down to three words—to be human. Forget all the theological theories and pietistic mumbo-jumbo. The mission of the incarnate Son was to live an authentic human existence, utterly devoted to the will of his Father; and in this way to simultaneously reveal the trinitarian life of divine love and the meaning of human being. But our world is broken, fallen, held in bondage to sin and death and therefore can only respond to this manifestation of perfect love in one way—with violence.”

    I like this a lot!

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  2. Jonathan says:

    “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” — Is this not a prayer, or at least the beginning of one?

    Is there capacity for a feeling of abandonment within the perichoresis of the Trinity?

    I generally like what I see from McCabe, but this time I have to say he strikes me as highfalutin, hovering a few too many miles above the normal human experience of life, God, and revelation.

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    • brian says:

      Jonathan,

      Balthasar argues that the kenosis demonstrated in God’s stance towards creation (economic Trinity) always has a basis in the immanent Trinity. Rahner thought this was claiming to know too much and accused Balthasar of gnosticism on this point. Balthasar, you may know, was influenced by his mystic friend, Adrienne von Speyr. Von Speyr would talk about God praying to God as the Triune manner of conversation.

      I personally cannot imagine a happy eternity where the negative elements of abandonment, suffering, death were germane. Nonetheless, I can entertain and actually expect that the virtue of courage, for example, has some hyperbolic meaning that is applicable to an unfallen world. I was just reading an interesting book on Jung and St. John of the Cross last night. I admit, I never quite get St. John — I don’t have that experience — but the calm of infused contemplation doesn’t really appeal to me. I am too carnal for that, I suppose. I much prefer the idea of eternal adventures and I surmise the elements that constitute discovery on this earth — daring, imagination, etc. play some role. Otherwise, it is something too different, too far from us, to be anything we could really hope for or find matched to the desires of the heart. (Well, doubtless, St. John is no quietist and I surmise he knows about adventures . . . )

      Back to McCabe: I do like his attempt to get beyond traditional atonement theory. I don’t think one can just jettison such, I suppose, but there is no comprehensive or satisfying explanation. Likewise, Hart recently noted in his conversation here that there isn’t really a satisfying explanation of the Fall. I concur. There’s certainly more mystery involved in all this than complacent religious minds will admit or recognize. Anyway, the notion that Christ came to show us what a human being is meant to be is of ancient heritage. Irenaeus of Lyons — “The glory of God is man fully alive.” I generally try to discover other theological elements of soteriology and the like in the light of eschatological glory. It’s one of the aspects of Orthodox thought that I think is particularly strong.

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      • Jonathan says:

        I was maybe being too aphoristic. When I asked about the Trinity, it was exactly because I can’t conceive of forsakenness in that intercommunion. But if even the Incarnate Son can pray his forsakenness. . . how to make sense of this in the light of McCabe’s thoughts on prayer? “Because the world is fallen” doesn’t do it for me, this is an instance of more than just simple suffering, or so it seems to me.

        What you say about adventure I think I understand. Have you ever read any Miguel de Unamuno? He writes similarly of the dynamism that we thirst for when we thirst for eternal life. Unamuno was, not surprisingly, a devotee of St Teresa of Avila, and I personally prefer her to her student, St John of the Cross.

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        • brian says:

          Yes, I see your point.
          Miguel de Unamuno, I’ve been meaning to read The Tragic Sense of Life.
          Any other recommendations from his oeuvre?
          I also find Teresa more amenable. There’s this famous anecdote where she is standing beside a broken down carriage and is splashed by mud when another vehicle drives by.
          She says that if God wants more friends, he ought to treat them better.

          God likes Job and Teresa, not the fawning lickspittles Nietzsche hated.

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          • brian says:

            A few further notes on adventures:
            Christos Yannaras has an essay where he excoriates Orthodox language of the afterlife as an eternal rest. There’s a passage in Tom Talbott’s The Inescapable Love of God where he talks about journeying to all the planets in the universe in the cosmos made new. Bulgakov sees angelic life as akin to the muses, rich with the inspiration that engenders making and doing.
            I like to think of the Holy Spirit as an adventurer plumbing the depths of the divinity.

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          • Jonathan says:

            As for Unamuno, besides The Tragic Sense of Life, which might be my favorite, The Agony of Christianity is excellent. Basically, all the stuff in vol. 4-5 of the Princeton collection of his works that they put together in the 60s. I don’t think he’s been translated since then, and actually those might have been older translations. Also fascinatingly weird is Our Lord Don Quixote. I haven’t read his novels and stories.

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        • Jonathan says:

          To state my confusion with McCabe from another angle, I might ask what is the nature of repentance? How can prayer that says to God “I’m sorry” and “Be merciful” be reconciled with McCabe’s exposition here? What is the substance of an act of contrition? Why is penance a sacrament in the traditional forms of Christianity? Perhaps this is Von Speyr’s God praying to God, but I’m not so sure, or not sure what such a formulation can really do for a person, existentially. Kierkegaard said, “Remove the anguished conscience, and you may as well close the churches and turn them into dance halls.” I think the complete implosion of liberal Christianity is evidence enough that he (or Luther) was onto something there. Eschatological joy is one pole of Christian faith and life, to be sure: the other is repentance, the thing we have to do precisely because the Kingdom is at hand. I don’t know about other liturgical traditions, but for Catholics there is a great deal of repenting before one gets to the eucharist (in the traditional Mass, at any rate). Whether anyone is paying attention is another question. But I know this much: the kind of prayer one does as part of repentance is the kind that is conscious not only of God’s otherness, but of an exilic distance from God. Should that be self-exilic? But Jesus himself in some sense repented. Besides the fact that he consented to be baptized, he sweat blood in Gethsemane and begged his Father to take his cup away; and yet prayed finally that not his own will but the Father’s will be done — in an about-face similar to that found in Psalm 22, the one he quotes in his final agony. Now, that volta (I tend to think the term from poetics is a better Latinate version of “metanoia”) is what I would call a dynamic spiritual life. At any event, it is certainly how scripture shows us “God praying to God.”

          Just to be clear, I don’t think I’m necessarily arguing against McCabe. I’m not arguing anything — clearly. But there is an agonic aspect of faith, particularly in prayer, to which McCabe’s exposition seems blind. I think that’s what I’m trying to say.

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        • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

          “When I asked about the Trinity, it was exactly because I can’t conceive of forsakenness in that intercommunion.”

          But why, Jonathan? Why should anything that Jesus experienced be judged outside the communion with his Father? Was this not the purpose (or one of the purposes) of the Incarnation—to bring the human into the divine life of the Trinity?

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          • Jonathan says:

            Perhaps I need a more sophisticated or a deeper understanding of the Trinity. Scripture clearly shows a struggling God, who is therefore not an impassible God. If every moment of Jesus’ life is equally a moment in the divine life, including his moment of forsakenness, then one answer to the question, “Why does God allow suffering?” would be “Because God himself suffers, even the worst suffering of all, the sense of abandonment by God.” Can that make sense from any kind of orthodox theological perspective? No one ever said (prior to the present age) that love precludes suffering; in fact, just the opposite: “Take up your cross and follow me. . .” I admit to more than a little confusion, a confusion that seems to grow rather than decrease the further I enter into Christian faith. Maybe that’s as it should be. Confusion doesn’t equal doubt for me. In fact, the dynamic seems to be quite the contrary. Anyway, if no one else is disturbed by McCabe’s description, that’s something for me to consider.

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  3. Mike H says:

    Echoes of Rene Girard in some of McCabe’s thinking re: violence & sacrifice. Good, thought provoking stuff.

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  4. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I have changed the title of the original article. The original title was … well … just … too long.

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  5. brian says:

    Jonathan,

    These are deep seas, indeed. I confess, I did not quite understand your initial post.
    I think that many of your insights and questions are absolutely legitimate. You should look into the emphasis on kenosis in Balthasar and Bulgakov. This entails not simply condescension involved in Incarnation, but a nurturing identification with suffering that I believe agrees with your sense that the Biblical God is “a struggling God.” And I think you have read Florensky’s The Pillar and Ground of the Truth . . . the final letter on jealousy is a masterpiece, overturning modernist assumptions and discerning, properly in my view, that an agapeic reading of God that is completely divorced from eros is to misread divine love, and hence to misread love.

    One has to be careful, of course, because divine eros is not driven by anything like creaturely lack. In this respect, I also have to say that I think impassibility is a necessary postulate for God. Christian paradox is ultimately mirthful. Recall the hidden laughter Chesterton hints is God’s secret. Please reread the section on salvation in David Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite, especially the strictures against equating the cross with any sense of a tragic, suffering wisdom. Certainly, a God who is not impassible is not capable of rescuing creation from its sorrowful chains.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      A year ago I embedded one of Hart’s essays on divine impassibility: “No Shadow of Turning.”

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    • Jonathan says:

      I seem to be stuck in a mire of unclarity: didn’t use “impassible” right, or in the usual way, which I think I do basically grasp. And yet, I can only avow a basic discomfort in speaking of the impassibility of a God whose most crucial episode (pun intended, I guess) is rightly called the Passion, an episode that is of course refracted throughout scripture. Am I just circling round Atonement theory? Maybe. It’s definitely one of the weak spots in Christian intellectual tradition, as far as I can tell. I understand the point about divine eros not being motivated by creaturely lack. I should indeed go back to Florensky. That book was wonderful (I remember the Jealousy letter as one of my favorites), but it’s been a few years since I read it and there’s a lot of water under the bridge since then. I read The Beauty of the Infinite around the same time, and perhaps have let it slip from my consciousness just as much. Still haven’t really dug very far into Balthasar. There’s just so much there. . . I’ve never read von Speyr. If Balthasar is as influenced by her as he claimed, do you think it would make sense to turn to her writing first, would it be a more efficient way of approaching some of the same ideas? Finally, let me say that for various reasons which there is no need to get into, lately my powers of reason and recall aren’t up to their usual acumen (such as it is). Forgive any lapses of foolishness. And thanks for the pointers.

      I do believe that the Christian story is a comedy, not a tragedy. My reaction to McCabe has maybe been excessive, or maybe just oddly placed here. I do not doubt salvation, and I am a convinced universalist. I try to pull back the veil of tragedy to catch a glimpse of the comedy that lies behind. But my background (perhaps unlike that of many reading and commenting here?) is one of total irreligion and liberalism, if not outright libertinism. I know there are a lot of people who were raised in very strict forms of Christianity, which taught warped and cruel ideas of guilt and damnation. For such, I appreciate the need to lighten things up. But the default position of Western man today is closer to my background than to that of the person who grew up in some fundamentalist version of the faith. Both cultures, the secular modern and the reactionary Christian, are equally broken. The modern person often wants to be good, but because he’s an anarchic hedonist at heart, his best efforts are vitiated and he doesn’t even really know what the good is. So what sort of message does this person need?

      McCabe’s way of describing prayer here, however theologically sound it may be, is just too sweet, profound but also somehow complacent. So it strikes me, and this has often been my impression of postwar Catholic thinkers, even when they’re intellectually adventurous. If the Christian faith has any future in the West (and I deeply care about its future — maybe to a fault), it has to learn how to speak responsibly to the reality of suffering. For two generations now, the Church has caved before a modernity that simply does not understand what to do with suffering, and consequently the Church doesn’t either anymore, and now exists primarily in its discursive forms (which may be brilliant) and in ritual that is at worst aesthetically debased and at best incomprehensible, for most people, in its symbolism (if it employs any). I don’t mean to offend anyone by saying this, but it is my honest impression, one that has caused me much angst. The reason I am attracted to writers like Kierkegaard, Unamuno, Marcel, Haecker, O’Connor, Percy, Mauriac, Bernanos, Péguy, Bloy, Ellul, etc. is that they seem to me to authentically engage the grime of the world and the disorder of the modern soul, and to be aware of how weird and difficult it is to be a Christian under current historical conditions. One does not have to preach hellfire to do this; and if the church catholic does not learn to do it again soon, it will have forever given up what little credibility it still retains. Modern Western man might not know what to do with suffering, he may have no approach of his own worth anything; nevertheless, he suffers. So we must witness to what suffering really is. Partly we are supposed to do that through prayer, the model of which is the Man of Sorrows, one who knew temptation and rejection. So I agree with McCabe! Only I want him to talk about the Second Person of the Trinity as He was actually revealed to us “down here on Earth” (as C-F Ramuz, one of my favorite novelists, would say).

      I feel like I’m in derailing mode these days, for which I apologize. My problems with this one tiny bit of McCabe are rhetorical, psychological, cultural — not theological, and this is a blog about theology, not culture, psychology and rhetoric. I’ll give it a rest. I’ll be traveling and have to check out for a few days anyhow. Will look forward to later catching up on the always edifying conversation.

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      • brian says:

        Yes, poor fellow. Too bad you are always so inarticulate.

        Start with Balthasar. He liberally quotes von Speyr, especially in the TheoDramatics.
        I’m not good at offering suggestions for works to begin with. The first Balthasar I read was vol. 1 of the Glory of the Lord. A lot of people like Love Alone. I am drawn to the larger works. Balthasar, btw, is very much a theologian who finds his bearings amidst culture and rhetoric. I can never make those kind of sharp divisions; isn’t everything ultimately connected to everything else?

        My background is somewhat eccentric, Jonathan. I flounder around when I have to talk about biography and I am uncomfortable doing so. I appreciate your path and the many voices of a discerning erudition that have guided you. I also struggle. I identify with Jacob wrestling. For some reason, when I was a child, I liked the tribe of Napthali. If one looks at the various prophetic words about him given by Jacob, he is associated with wrestling and poetic words. Anyway, in my view, generally the song of praise is won through a hard sojourn.

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