The Ground Zero of Prayer
“Deep Calls to Deep” —Psalm 42:7
St. Gregory of Narek, a 10th Century Armenian monk and the Church’s most recently named Doctor of the Church, offers great insight and sparks reflection upon what it means to view prayer as “speaking with God from the depths of the heart.”
Hubert van Zeller, the great twentieth-century spiritual writer, once called attention to a danger in writing books about prayer. He cautioned that talking about something—even about prayer—can take the place of the thing itself. “Just as we can talk about prayer and not pray,” he writes, “so in our prayer we can think about prayer and not pray.” [Hubert van Zeller. OSB, We Sing While There’s Voice Left (New York: Sheed and Ward. 1951), p. 91.] This applies to many areas of life, from dieting and exercise to overcoming sin. We can talk all day and never make it to the starting line.
The starting line or ground zero of prayer, particularly the prayer of the Psalms, is what Psalm 130 calls “the depths”:
Out of the depths I cry to thee, O Lord!
Lord, hear my voice!
Let thy ears be attentive
to the voice of my supplications! (Psalm 130:1-2)
St. Gregory of Narek, the most recently named Doctor of the Church, describes this kind of prayer as “speaking with God from the depths of the heart.” Few before or after this tenth-century Armenian monk have explored and mapped these depths as painstakingly as he. A glimpse into his approach to psalm prayer will show to what depths and heights our own prayer can go.
In titling this article “Praying from the Depths of the Psalms,” I am very deliberately evoking a line repeated throughout Saint Gregory’s famous prayer book, which he calls “a new book of Psalms.’’ [Gregory of Narek, Speaking with God from the Depths of the Heart: The Armenian Prayer Book of St. Gregory of Narek. trans. Thomas J. Samuelian. 4th ed., (Yerevan: Vem Press, 2015)]. At the outset of each of his searching meditations, Saint Gregory reiterates as a keynote verse “Speaking with God from the depths of the heart.” The line sets the tone for both author and reader of the meditations: going deeper into ourselves is indispensable if we would also go deeper into God. You can’t have one depth without the other.
Listening to a saint’s prayers from the depths opens us to the possibilities that prayer with God’s own words offers us. Here we find Saint Gregory making his own psalm of healing. As he exposes his wounds, he declares his own restoration:
I who was broken, am restored,
who was wretched, am triumphant,
who was dissipated, am healed,
who was desperately outlawed, find hope,
who was condemned to death, find life,
who was mortgaged by damnable deeds, find the light,
who was debauched by animal pleasures, find heaven,
who was twice caught in scandal, again find salvation,
who was bound by sin, find the promise of rest,
who was shaken by incurable wounds,
find the salve of immortality,
who was wildly rebellious, find the reins of tranquility,
who was a renegade, find calling,
who was brazenly self willed, find humility,
who was quarrelsome, find forgiveness.
[Narek, Speaking; with God. Prayer 11E.]
You can’t expect to plumb the “depths of God” (1 Cor 2:10) unless you’re willing to descend into the raw depths of self like the saints. Mystics such as the Carmelite St. Elizabeth of the Trinity especially loved to read Psalm 42:7 (“Deep calls to deep”) as this mutual calling:
We must not, so to speak, stop at the surface, but enter ever deeper into the divine Being through recollection…. So must we descend daily this pathway of the Abyss which is God: let us slide down this slope in wholly loving confidence. “Abyss calls to abyss.” It is there in the very depths that the divine impact takes place, where the abyss of our nothingness encounters the Abyss of mercy, the immensity of the all of God. [Elizabeth of the Trinity. “Heaven in Faith.” in The Complete Works: Major Spiritual Writings, vol. 1 (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publications, 1984), p. 95.]
What St. Elizabeth of the Trinity calls “recollection” means an inner attentiveness to the Lord that convicts us of two inseparable truths: our poverty and God’s greatness. Our personal poverty is the “depths” from which our truest and best prayer rises. This is where all deep prayer is born. To speak to God from the depths of the heart is to cry out from a place where we have nothing but nothing itself to offer.
We live topside much of the time, unrecollected, avoiding the depths—just dealing with the events of life as they come, but not living simultaneously in that secret inner chamber in which the Lord who sees in secret rewards us as only He can. Courageous souls willing to descend beneath the surface distractions, passions, and vanities of daily life will find themselves standing in the truth, before God.
Perhaps the finest description of the meeting that transpires between God and us in our depths, even in this life, is what Pope Benedict XVI wrote about the souls in Purgatory:
Before His gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with Him, as it hums us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. Ali that we build during our lives can prove to he mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity’ and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of His heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire.” But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of His love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God. [Pope Benedict XVI, Encyclical on Christian Hope Spe Salvi (November 30. 2007), № 47.]
At the heart’s ground zero, no lies, charades, or masks are possible. All of our vices are denuded of the dressing that makes them seem respectable to us. There, we are nearest the original wound that cuts through our entire being, running like a fault line through so many of our desires and choices.
Praying from the depths of heart clearly isn’t about straining the mind with thoughts, deep concentration, or even deep introspection. Allowing the grace of the Holy Spirit to well up within, to breathe as He wills, to intercede for us with groans beyond words, is to pray from the depths of the heart. Our humble openness to the truths He wishes to reveal, the sorrow He wishes to inspire, the joy He wishes to establish and increase, allows Him to heal the soul from the ground up, so to speak.
Those who simply dabble in prayer may fail to see what all the fuss is about when people spend hours before the Blessed Sacrament or in the study of the Scriptures — a holy “time wasting” with the Lord, as Ven. Fulton J. Sheen called it.
For good reason does Psalm 34 invite and compel, “O taste and see that the Lord is good!” (Ps. 34:8). You acquire a taste by savouring what you consume. And you can’t acquire this unique spiritual taste without doing what saints and people of prayer do so much of: praying from the depths. Merely “saying” prayers is one thing, and a very good thing, but far from the best thing. To be a soul of deep prayer is to cry out like the one who waited in a lonely hollow until the Lord was ready to rescue him:
I waited patiently for the LORD;
He inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the desolate pit,
out of the miry hog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
As for me, I am poor and needy;
but the Lord takes thought for me.
Thou art my help and my deliverer;
do not tarry, O my God! (Ps. 40:1-2, 17)
Praying from the depths does not simply mean that I won’t try to save myself, as though I’m doing God a favour if I let Him do it. It means I can’t, and I know I can’t. I will wait patiently for the Lord, and refuse to counterfeit His salvation by ducking into the escape hatches of sin — the self-indulgence of intoxication, lust, or tuning out reality with Internet and television. I will wait patiently for the Lord, until He draws me from the desolate pit.
Healthy diversion is one thing; substitution for salvation is another. It is one thing to get the mind off an unhealthy fixation by wholesome amusement, and another to counterfeit “the answer” to one’s problem by numbing it. Major surgery is never fun but often necessary to eradicate a malady. The soul is no different. If the soul were shallow like a puddle, fingertips would go deep enough to clear it of its impurities. The human soul demands what Scripture calls “the hand of the Lord” or even “the arm of the Lord” to reach into depths that only the Lord can see.
Though I walk in the midst of trouble,
Them dost preserve my life;
Them dost stretch out Thy hand against
the wrath of my enemies,
and Thy right hand delivers me.
The LORD will fulfil His purpose for me;
thy steadfast love, O LORD, endures forever
Do not forsake the work of Thy hands. (Ps 138:7-8)
Salvation is the willingness to be carried by a Shepherd, rescued by a Redeemer, and pursued relentlessly by a Bridegroom. But I can’t know my need fully unless I immerse myself in my own inner poverty. In quietly pondering myself in the mirror of the Psalms, I begin to grasp my need and the greatness of the salvation of my God.
In an age when technology both enables and expects “multitasking,” blocking out time each day for one thing only may seem wasteful—even if it’s the one necessary thing. We are used to combining activities for efficiency’s sake; mixing cell phone conversations, texting, and so on, with just about every other activity is the order of the day. The idea of sitting quietly in God’s presence, pondering a psalm, or making visits to the Blessed Sacrament might seem like pious add-ons to the really important stuff of my day. A luxury for monks and nuns, and nothing more.
But there is no way around it. We must risk feeling inefficient, unproductive, and even powerless for the sake of being still and knowing the Lord’s nearness. Isn’t this a quasi-command of Psalm 46: “Be still, and know that I am God” (v. 11)?
When the Israelites found themselves backed up against the Red Sea with Pharaoh in hot pursuit, Moses gave his terrified countrymen a similar counterintuitive command:
Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD,
which He will work for you today … The LORD will fight
for you, and you have only to be still (cf. Ex 14:13-14).
Once delivered and safe, Moses, his sister Miriam, and all the Israelites, sang something that could qualify as the proto-psalm, the first canticle of its kind in the Old Testament:
I will sing to the LORD, fen He has triumphed gloriously;
the horse and his rider He has thrown into the sea.
The LORD is my strength and my song,
And He has become my salvation;
this is my God, and I will praise Him,
my father’s God, and I will exalt Him.
The LORD is a man of war;
the LORD is His name. (Ex 15:1-3)
But they would never have had a song to sing, never have known the salvation of the Lord, had they not been willing to be vulnerable and patient and still. Saint Thérèse exclaimed on one occasion: “It is so good to feel that one is weak and little!” [Thérèse of Lisieux, St. Thérèse of Lisieux: Her last Conversations, trans. John Clarke, OCD (Washington. D.C: ICS. 1977). p. 74.] When we move beyond the frontiers of theory and into the realm of experience, we know the Lord’s faithfulness firsthand. Like the saints, we get it.
Rev. John Henry Hanson, O.PRAEM., is a Norbertine priest of St Michael’s Abbey in Silverado, California. His books Praying from the Depths of the Psalms (2019) and Home Again: A Prayerful Study of Your Catholic Faith (2020) can be ordered at ScepterPublishers.org.