Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Karl Rahner on the Need for Prayer

Last Friday I took some time off work to ride my bike down to the nearby Mississippi and sit at my favorite spot overlooking “brother tree and the great river.”

Here I opened, for the first time in months, my journal. On its pages I wrote about how disheartened I continue to feel about the ending of a relationship with a man I had loved (still love in many ways) yet whom I’ve sadly (at times bitterly) come to realize is incapable of cultivating and sharing with me the type of relationship I long for. This is by no means a moral judgment of either one of us - or of what we did share for a time earlier this year. It’s simply an observation that we have different needs and expectations.

I also acknowledged in the pages of my journal a general lack of motivation and energy - one that is manifested in mundane things, from the disorganized piles of papers, books, and to-do lists on my dining room table, to my bathroom that’s overdue for a good cleaning. It’s a despondency and lethargy related, no doubt, to the aforementioned relationship disappointment but also to something deeper: a sense of floundering, of feeling rudderless and “all at sea” with regards the direction in which I want my life and work to go.

It’s not the first time I’ve felt this way – and it no doubt won’t be the last. As always, getting out into nature (or a good workout with weights) helps me gain some perspective – even some insight. One thing I realized last Friday as I sat high above the gently flowing river, is that I need to be much more intentional in creating time and space in which I can simply be still and open myself to the transforming power of the sacred within and beyond me. Prayer, reflection, and journaling can all be part of this “time and space” I create. And silence, too.

I share all of this as a way of introducing a reflection by Karl Rahner – a man whom, though many people would rightly recognize as one of the twentieth-century’s great theologians, few would think of as a writer of “spiritual reflections.” Yet as Philip Endean notes in the introduction to the book, Karl Rahner: Spiritual Writings, Rahner could not have been the influential theologian that he was if he wasn’t “fundamentally a modern spiritual master.”

This particular reflection by Rahner focuses on the need and blessing of prayer in relation to what he calls “the blocked-up heart,” the experience of “powerlessness and hopelessness . . . tiredness and emptiness.” Not surprisingly, given all that I’ve shared above, Rahner’s thoughts on prayer greatly resonate with me – in ways that are encouraging and transforming. Perhaps they will speak in such ways to you as well.


Is it hopeless, the situation of the blocked-up heart? Is the danger of collapse and of inner suffocation unavoidable? What are people to do if they are to manage an escape from the dungeon of the cold despair and disappointment that they disguise? How does the heart’s opening take place? We can say it in a word: in prayer, prayer to God, just in prayer. But because we’re still trying to understand what “prayer” means, we need to go slowly and talk cautiously. Let’s ask what people need to do when they find themselves in this situation with their hearts blocked up.

The first is this. They must just stay there and let go. When people notice that in fact their souls are blocked up, they either begin to defend themselves with the desperation of a person drowning, indeed of a person being buried alive – plunging into everything, into every form of activity and busyness that gives them hope of fooling themselves about their despair. Or else they really despair: either in overt frenzy or else quietly and icily they curse, they hate themselves and the world, and they say there is no God.

They say there is no God because they are confusing the true God with what they took to be their God. And as regards what they are actually referring to, they are quite right. The God they are referring to really does not exist: the God of earthly security, the God of salvation from life’s disappointments, the God of life insurance, the God who takes care so that children never cry and that justice marches in upon the earth, the God who transforms earth’s laments, the God who doesn’t let human love end up in disappointment.

. . . The truth is that . . . you can happily let despair seem to take away everything from you, but in truth it’s only what is finite and null that is taken, no matter how great and wonderful it was, no matter indeed if it’s your very self – you yourself with your ideals; you yourself with your life-projects, all so very cleverly, so very precisely, so very nicely set out; you with your image of God, the image that was like you rather like the Self of the One past all grasp. What can be taken from you is never God. Even if all your exits are barred, it’s only the exits into what is finite that are blocked, the exits into what really are dead ends. Don’t be shocked at the loneliness and desertedness of your inner prison, which seems to be filled only with powerlessness and hopelessness, with tiredness and emptiness! Don’t be shocked.

For look, if you stand firm, if you don’t run away from despair, if in your despair at the idols of your life up till now, idols of body and mind, beautiful and honorable idols (for yes, they are beautiful and honorable), idols that you called God – if in this despair you don’t despair of the true God, if you can stand firm in this way (this is already a miracle of grace, but it’s there for you) then you will suddenly become aware that you’re not in fact buried alive at all, that your prison is shutting you off only from what is null and finite, that its deathly emptiness is only a disguise for an intimacy of God’s, that God’s silence, the eerie stillness, is filled by the Word without words, by Him who is above all names, by Him who is all in all. And his silence is telling you that He is here.

And this is the second thing you should do in your despair: notice that He is here, know that He is with you. Be aware that for a long time He has been waiting for you in the deepest dungeon of your blocked-up heart. Be aware that He has been listening for a long time, to see if you – after all the busy noise of your life, all the talk that you call your “illusion-free philosophy” or perhaps even your prayer, noise, and talk in which you are only talking to yourself, after all the despairing, weeping and silent sighing over the need in your life – He has been listening to see if you might finally be able to be silent before Him and let Him have the word, the word that appears to be the person you were up till now only as a deathly silence.

When you give up your frantic, violent inner anxiety about yourself and your life, your feeling should not be that you are in any way falling; when you doubt yourself, your wisdom, your strength, your capacity to make life and the happiness that comes from freedom for yourself, you should not despair. Rather, you should feel you are with Him, suddenly, as through a miracle that must happen every day anew and that can never become routine. You will suddenly realize that the petrifying face of despair is only God’s rising in your soul, that the darkness of the world is nothing but the shadowless radiance of God, that what seems a dead end with no way out is only the immensity of God, God who needs no ways because He is already here.

– Excerpted from “Opening the Heart” in Karl Rahner: Spiritual Writings, edited by Philip Endean (Orbis Books, 2004).

Images: Michael J. Bayly.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Something We Dare Call Hope
The Many Manifestations of God’s Loving Embrace


crystal said...

Thanks for this Rahner excerpt. I think most Jesuits are aware of the importance of spirituality thanks to Ignatius and his Spiritual Exercises.

crystal said...

PS - sorry to babble on, and I don't know if you'd be interested, but speaking of the Spiritual Exercises, Creighton University's online Ignatian retreat is going to start soon - link

kevin57 said...

This is a poignant and touchingly vulnerable sharing of the movements of the Spirit in your life. That contemplative space is what you recognize as the medicine, and I encourage you to wait on the Lord. The gentle sighs of the Holy Spirit will whisper to your heart where you must go and what you are to do.

Anonymous said...


The best spiritual advice I ever received is these two words:

"Not alone."

Always remember that you are "Not alone."


Mark A.