My spiritual director here at college said to me ‘all prayer is a journey’, and I believed him… because he is a wise old chap who prays fulltime as a vocation, and he looks like one of the Desert Fathers:
…only with a much shorter beard, and glasses.
Anyway, when he said ‘all prayer is a journey’ I thought ‘is it, I hadn’t really noticed?’ and decided I ought to get my head around that.
I was still trying to work out what he might have meant several days later (I hadn’t spent all that time thinking about it, but it kept coming to mind), when I was reminded in a book I was reading, of St Teresa of Avila’s comment likening the formation to the life of prayer, regular meditative prayer, to drawing water from a well. At first she describes the effort of drawing up a bucket by hand, on a long rope, from a great depth, only to find very little refreshment therein. It’s easy to get disheartened. But as one grows accustomed to meditative prayer, to seeking stillness in the presence of God, day after day, the task becomes less arduous, until it is no longer like pulling a rope up from great depths, but as though the well were operated by a windlass, effortlessly drawing refreshment and irrigating the land.
Whilst individually I could not really see my own meditative prayer life in those metaphors, when put together, those two notions made sense to me. Not just a journey, and not a well of great depth… but for me, I think prayer is like a journey to fetch water from an oasis. Unlike a well, the water is not a long way down in the dark out of sight… but just over the horizon, almost remembered, almost smelt and almost seen… the traces of greenery are visible from far off, and all I have to do is glance beyond myself to see the signs of where the water is. But to get there is a discipline, and it is not enough to know the water is there, to see that the desert is actually green with life… it is necessary to get up and go and obediently fetch water for the hours to come -and not just for myself, but for those around me too -particularly those who do not know how to get the oasis or who cannot see that it is there.
And if I don’t go and fetch water, I can still see the reassuring presence of the oasis, but that is not enough, I gradually get thirsty, tetchy and dull-witted… life becomes a chore, a greater effort than usual, and when someone comes to me for a drink, I have nothing left to give them… so the task of walking to the oasis… coming to God in prayer, is a discipline that sustains me and also others, a daily journey, which is not arduous in itself, but which becomes harder the longer one leaves it, the more dehydrated one gets.