In the Bitterness of Her Soul

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In the bitterness of her soul Hannah prayed to God with many tears . . . .
1 Samuel 1: 10

Elvin Semrad, a renowned psychotherapist in the last century, used to tell his students that “The client is either sad, mad, or afraid. Everything else is superficial.” Today we hear the story of Hannah presenting herself to the Lord in the Temple. She has come to pray out of her longing and desperation. In fact, so unmitigated is she in her expression to God in prayer that Eli, the priest, takes her to be drunk. So often our own experience of prayer can be quite perfunctory. Both in personal and communal prayer, we can often have a sense of speaking words or fulfilling a duty, but not at all a sense of interpersonal encounter. At least for me, this is often because I am there, in Semrad’s terms, only superficially. The person I bring to prayer is not the one who is “sad, mad, or afraid.”

Thomas Merton says that true prayer must come from an experience akin to that of Peter when, having dared to step out of the boat and onto the water, he begins to sink. As we read in Matthew 14:30, Peter cries out at that moment: “Lord, save me.” True prayer is an encounter with God from the core of our identity, from the depths of what we are going through, from the sense that we are drowning. In most of our waking hours, at least, we live a life which is removed from the passion of our souls. We present to each other, and even to ourselves, the aspects of our lives and of our selves that are socially compatible and acceptable. We deal with life to a large degree on its surface, and keep what is really happening to us and moving us at best as background and, too often, as repressed and refused.

When we go to prayer out of merely our socially and culturally apparent form of life, there can be no encounter with God, with the Mystery, for, as we are managing our own life, we also are managing the “object” of our attention at this moment. God will not be managed by us. As Metropolitan Anthony Bloom points out, what we take to be the absence of God is really our own absence. In Hebrews 5:7 we read:

During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.

Unless we are speaking with our own true voice, God cannot hear us. Hannah is driven by “the bitterness of her soul” to pray. Jesus, says the author of Hebrews, is heard because he submits his whole life, in every suffering aspect, to God. So it must be with us.

Unlike the directives offered by our culture of exhibitionism, it is important in our life with others to adopt appropriate and compassionate apparent forms of life. We need to be able to be with and for others, without burdening them with all we are going through. Our life with God, our life of prayer, however, is different. It is from the level of soul, where we know our desperate need for God’s presence, love, and mercy, that true prayer springs. God longs to be “with us,” but that requires on our part that we bring ourselves before God, that we offer who we most deeply are and what we most powerfully are going through to God. This is the submission of which Hebrews speaks to pour out our lack and need to God whom we trust “knows us, understands us, and loves us.”

How great is the power of Prayer! One could call it a Queen who has at each instant free access to the King and who is able to obtain whatever she asks. To be heard it is not necessary to read from a book some beautiful formula composed for the occasion. If this were the case, alas, I would have to be pitied! Outside the Divine Office, which I am very unworthy to recite, I do not have the courage to force myself to search out beautiful prayers in books. There are so many of them it really gives me a headache! and each prayer is more beautiful than the others. I cannot recite them all and not knowing which to choose, I do like children who do not know how to read, I say very simply to God what I wish to say, without composing beautiful sentences, and He always understands me. For me, prayer is an aspiration of the heart, it is a simple glance directed to heaven, it is a cry of gratitude and love in the midst of trial as well as joy; finally, it is something great, supernatural, which expands my soul and unites me to Jesus.

Therese of LIsieux, Story of a Soul, Chapter XI

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