The Prayer of LoveANTHONY ESOLEN
There is a prayer for which every moment of our existence is the right occasion. It is the prayer of praise, which is a prayer of love.
Johnny had just arrived that day, too late for the doctors to save. When the man had heard that Johnny was ill, he rushed to the poor hovel where the boy lived. With the man came a young lady named Bella, a girl slowly awaking from the dismal dead-ends of selfishness. The boy saw her and whispered, in his baby lisp, "Who is the boofer lady?"
That vision of the beautiful lady, and the boy in the bed beside him, remain in Johnny's mind to the end. He tries to say something to the man. "Him," he says, meaning the other boy. "Those!" And the doctor, understanding, takes the toys from Johnny's bedside and places them on the table of his neighbor. Then with a weary and yet a pleased smile, and with an action as if he stretched his little figure out to rest, the child heaved his body on the sustaining arm, and seeking [the man's] face with his lips, said:
"A kiss for the boofer lady."
Having now bequeathed all he had to dispose of, and arranged his affairs in this world, Johnny, thus speaking, left it.
(Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend)
A gift for the other boy, and a kiss for the beautiful lady – what do these have to do with prayer?
We think of the fundamental form of prayer as that of the petition. We fall ill, and we pray to God for healing. The storms come, and we pray that God will allay them and save our harvest. We are right to do so. But these prayers come and go with the occasions that prompt them. There is, instead, a prayer for which every moment of our existence is the right occasion. It is the prayer of praise, which is a prayer of love.
When Johnny thus enters his last will and testament, he affirms the goodness of his neighbor, and of the "boofer lady" Bella. That may not be so clear in the case of the neighbor, because what he gives him has some value apart from the act of love with which he gives it. But the kiss for Bella is as much as to say, "You are worthy to be loved!" What can one do with a kiss, but accept it in love! Johnny does not know Bella, and has no idea of her struggles with self-will. None of that would matter to the baby, anyway. All he sees is that she is beautiful, and he responds with the full-hearted innocence of a child. Bella thinks she is unworthy of praise, but the child is wiser than she. He sees the goodness of her beauty, and he loves it, and wants to give her a kiss.
In that kiss we see how we are to love our neighbor. Not that we neglect to help him fix his roof if he needs it; but more important than a sealed roof is the unsealed heart, to say, in speech or in deed or in silence, "How good it is that you exist!" That is what the Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper calls the fundamental affirmation of love. We revel in the fact that the one we love exists.
So too our love for God is a sharing in the goodness of his being. We are, strange to say, most like God when we praise him for simply being God, for then we share most fully in the act of love whereby he gives us our own existence. We see this in Scripture and in the lives of the saints, the great heroes of prayer.
What does the Psalmist want from God, after all the struggles of life, but God himself – to dwell in the house of the Lord, to see the face of the Lord in the land of the living. "Whom have I in heaven but you!" he cries out, "and on earth there is none beside." He seems to say to the Lord, "How good it is that you exist!" Not that the existence of the Lord is ever in question for him. The lover sees, in that flash of insight that only love can bring, that the Lord is good, that one day at the threshold of the Lord's house is better than a thousand years in the palaces of kings. That is not because the Lord brings him external riches that are finer than what can be had in the palace. The Psalmist wants more than any such riches what Thomas Aquinas said he wanted. One day, one of Thomas' brother Dominicans overheard a conversation between the saint and a crucifix. "You have written well of me, Thomas," said a voice. "What do you wish in return?"
"Only You," said Thomas.
May we too know the joy of that prayerful desire!
Anthony Esolen. "The Prayer of Love." Magnificat Vol. 12, No. 12 (February, 2011): pp. 9-12.
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Anthony Esolen is a professor of English at Providence College, where his classes are featured in the college's Western Civilization Core Curriculum. He is the author of Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, Ironies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. Anthony Esolen has published many scholarly articles and essays, including several on Renaissance literature. A graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina, Esolen is proficient in Latin, Italian, Anglo-Saxon, French, German and Greek. He lives in Rhode Island with his wife Debra and their two children. Anthony Esolen is a member of the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.
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