Catena is not a word which you come across very often these days, which is why I resisted the temptation to use it in the title of this post. It means ‘A connected series or chain‘ or more specifically ‘A connected series of texts written by early Christian theologians.‘ The first Church Fathers often used to run together a number of quotes from different parts of scripture in order to demonstrate, for example, the unity of thought or continuity of doctrine which runs through the pages of the Bible.
This is certainly a useful exercise but it is open to manipulation since one can connect together disparate texts out of context to make it appear that Sacred Scripture means something which it doesn’t mean. It worked well for the Church Fathers because their purpose was to convince the world of Christ, it works badly for theological liberals because they want to convince Christians about the world. My purpose here, however, is not to use the catena form for doctrinal but for devotional purposes.
I think that if you consider these three lines from the Psalms together then they form a coherent picture of the practice of prayer or meditation. They begin with-
Return, my soul, where thy peace lies
When we turn our attention to God we are turning it away from all that is not peace, all that is restlessness and noise and distraction. Even when we are doing this for the very first time it is always a ‘return’ because from the instant that human life begins (by which I mean the moment of conception) there is, as the Quakers say, ‘that of God’ in each of us, and since He is always there, always waiting, it is only our unconsciousness or deliberate resistance that separates us from the first truth about ourselves, namely, that He is one with us and we are one with Him.
He is the God of peace. He is peace itself. We, our souls, have gone out from Him but He has remained waiting for us. More than that He has sent us His messengers, the impulses of grace that descend upon us intangibly and the messages of grace that come to us through the acts of love and kindness we may encounter from our neighbours. Grace may come to us too from the sufferings and losses we encounter which fill us with a conviction that life must have more than this. And so, at some point we turn to Him with the petition-
Be Thou the whole quest of my heart
The Buddhists talk about ‘one pointed meditation‘ which is a useful concept. It speaks of a singular focus to the exclusion of all else upon a particular object. In speaking of the heart King David, traditionally the author of the psalms, emphasises that the entire person is directed towards God, that is, not our discursive mind only but also our deepest longings and our most profound love. We can only enter into Him if we, as it were, throw ourselves body, soul and spirit, into His arms. It is a petition not a statement of fact because we cannot will ourselves into such a state of desire, it requires a pure gift of the Holy Spirit, an act of grace, all that our will can do is form an intention, our lips can express a hope, but the final consummation rests upon His will and His act.
In returning where our peace lies we are the more likely to arrive at the destination which we seek if we lay aside all distractions which afflict us, hence-
Deliver me from every false thought
In a sinister brainwashing cult this kind of advice would have terrible implications. It suggests that entertaining certain ideas or types of knowledge is a form of what George Orwell called crimethink. However, it is important to notice that not all advice is universal. That is, while in general it is useful to be open to a free flow of ideas and to investigate all kinds of possibilities, in prayer or meditation we are undertaking a narrowly focussed task and need to exclude everything that is not immediately helpful. In the same way that, for example, someone trying to land an aeroplane after one of its engines explodes will not welcome an insistent thought about Fermat’s Last Theorem we should not be thinking about Burger King versus McDonald’s while praying.
False thoughts are a broad category. They relate not merely to conscious heresies or doubts which might trouble our minds but also, and often more fundamentally, to false evaluations about the relative importance of things. We insistently feel that the category ‘Me‘ is the most important thing in the universe and that my career, my relationships, my clothes, my children, my demands are and should be the main if not the sole quest of my heart. Again, David’s petition is for an intervention, for us to be delivered by grace from a power, the power of the self, that we cannot deliver ourselves from.
The second half of Psalm 114 verse 7 is ‘the Lord has dealt kindly with thee.‘ This perhaps is a fourth thought that we should bring into consideration when thinking about prayer or meditation. That we should in the first place be moved to pray at all is a sign of His kindness to us. Even if we spend a barren, dry, seemingly empty period of meditation where we feel no divine consolations and have gained no insights, where we think that we have been wasting our time, or even where, like St Thérèse of Lisieux, we have fallen asleep still these are sign of God’s kindness. He has moved our will so that it endures tedium if it is His will to inflict it, because He has filled our hearts with the longing that not our will but that His will be done and in doing so has dispersed the false thoughts about inhabiting a ‘Me’ centered universe.
As is often the case the best way to summarise all that I have written is to consider the example provided to us by the Blessed Virgin Mary. St Luke tells us that she pondered in her heart the things of God, that is, she frequently returned to that place where pure peace lies. She devoted her whole life to the love of and service to Jesus, her Son and the Logos of God. Unflinching, and undistracted she stood at the foot of the Cross and watched as the most beautiful, most innocent and most beloved of all sons died a criminal’s death on the Cross. Like Abraham, preparing to sacrifice Isaac, before her she knew that the Divine promise given her anent Jesus would be fulfilled and no false thoughts about His seeming failure plagued her, if necessary, and knowing it to be God’s will, she would herself have driven the nails into His hands and feet, so sure was she about His faithfulness. And though she lived a life of sorrow, poverty and pain the Lord was indeed kind to her, He had given her Jesus as a Son and He raised her body and soul into heaven when she had finished her mortal life on earth. In contemplating Mary we contemplate perfect prayer. And may we, together with her, contemplate the One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit now, in time, and forever, in eternity.
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The picture is King David in Prayer from a medieval Book of Hours.