Project Canterbury

The Church and the Hour
Reflection of a Socialist Churchwoman

By Vida D. Scudder, A.M.

New York: E.P. Dutton, 1917.

V. A Plea for Social Intercession

EVERYONE knows that religion is undergoing a social revival. Where our fathers agonized over sins of the inner man, we lament our social crimes. Where they analyzed their relations to God, we analyze our relations to our brothers. Perhaps we are less conscious than the Puritans were of loving Him whom no man hath seen at any time,--but we are a great deal more conscious of loving our fellow-men.

The change of attitude may entail loss as well as gain. If it means pragmatic indifference to the things of the spirit, it means loss. If it means that anything, however lovely and sacred, supplants in the soul the supreme desire for the Living God, it cuts life at the heart-root, and though the plant may still seem green and fresh for a time, slow death is on the way. There is reason to fear that modern social feeling does have these bad tendencies sometimes. The quest for union with Eternal Love is a stern and fearsome thing, and men are always seeking facile substitutes. So they try to replace this quest by a vague humanitarian ardor, press the sure truth that laborare est orare to the point of eliminating orare altogether, and make a religion out of ministering to the poor and working for social justice. When they feel the need for more contemplation, as everybody does at times, they betake them if they can to the great woods and relax pleasantly as they enjoy Nature. These people are repeating in modern fashion the specious error of the old "Quietists," whom Ruysbroek so dreaded in the fourteenth century. For they are without that "eternal hunger which shall never more be satisfied; it is an inward craving and hankering of the loving power and the created spirit after an uncreated Good." "Fruitive love," which is the old mystic's final phrase for the ideal life, is denied to them: Instead of this, they "enter into rest through mere nature . . . and this rest may be found and possessed within themselves by all creatures, without the grace of God. . . . In this bare vacancy, the rest is pleasant and great." . . . "This rest is in itself no sin," says Ruysbroek, but it has no relation to "the supernatural rest which one possesses in God." However much such people may be addicted to good works, they can never, he says, enter the arcana.

A condition like this is lamentable and superficial. Yet no one would lose out from religion that intense social preoccupation which is now seizing on it. For a mighty force is regenerating the whole body of the Church. The recovery of social emphasis in the spiritual life is the great means by which our age is getting "back to Christ," who in nearly all His teachings was primarily concerned with men's relations to one another. We can pray the Lord's Prayer as it has not been prayed since the days of the Master, and we are learning the force of the sequence in the petitions. "Hallowed be Thy Name": the attainment of a lofty, holy, hallowed conception of God is humanity's first need. "Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth": the coming of the Kingdom, the true social order over which God can reign unchallenged and supreme, precedes the doing of the Will, which is the personal, intimate fulfillment, of the Divine life within. And then, descending to the present level from that aspiration toward ultimate ideals which prayer must never forfeit or postpone, the petitions for immediate needs. "Give us THIS DAY our daily bread": let all humanity receive the physical nourishment which it requires. "Forgive as we forgive,"--we are negatively indulgent enough sometimes toward sinners but do we forgive them quite as we want God to forgive us? "Lead us not into temptation, deliver us from evil,"--and our whole industrial system adapted it would seem almost deliberately to tempt the strong and to betray the weak! The great petitions are a social program in themselves, which if we live as we pray will carry us far indeed toward expressing the Mind of Christ in a new order of Christian living.

No, we cannot give up our social vision and we may not give up our ancient quest. Rightly understood, each fulfills the other. And in one special way they meet. It is the Way of Prayer, modeled on the Prayer of the Lord, the Way of Intercession. Through intercession, the old type of religion is one with the new, and aspiration rises Godward even while tenderness holds humanity in its embrace.

Intercession is the counterpart in the life within of social work in the life without. Of all effective work it is the soul. In vain does the Church create social service commissions, and announce fairly drastic programs of social reform. In vain does the community establish associations to fight every evil under the sun, organize efficient relief for its social victims, and grope toward new industrial ideals. All this is good, and one rejoices that whatever a man's tastes and convictions, there is a place for him in the social crusade. It is good, it is necessary; but at times it all turns to ashes in the mouth. We look abroad, and "brothers" in the awkward words of a well-meaning hymn, are still "engaging." We look at home, and we know that nobody is living as St. Francis would live, or St. John. Are we, for that matter, living as Jesus would have us live? Here is a graver question: whose conscience is wholly free? Futility and helplessness press us down. In the night-silence, our fussy energies seem pretty poor things, pretty useless.

And all the while we have power--sure power--power that goes straight to the mark. Truly, truly, Christ says to us, Whatsoever ye ask in My Name, I will do it.

Whatsoever! And what are we asking? Let us examine our prayers. How languid they are, how perfunctory, and alas! how often selfish! Sometimes one feels that men's prayers must sadden God even more than their sins. Prayer is the deepest and surest measure of personality. As men pray, so they really are. For people do pray even in these unbelieving days for what they want intensely. When a dear friend is in peril, they pray. When they encounter personal crisis, they pray. When they see a glorious sunset, they instinctively lift their hearts to the Source of Light. But prayer must be more than instinct or sudden emotion, it must be the habit of the disciplined Christian life. A force more penetrating and powerful than gravitation or electricity is entrusted to us, and we are responsible for the steady use of it and its direction to the noblest ends. Do men look to wide horizons, do they ask great things? Or is their inward life self-centered even while the outer may be filled with fine impersonal interests? If they really want social justice they will pray for it; activities are not worth much unless they constantly turn into upward-leaping desire.

Some people think themselves religious just because they like to pray and to go to church. And of course that is something, but it is not very much. To spend our precious time for prayer,--usually scant at best,--in begging for personal gifts and graces or in enjoyment of personal consolations is as selfish as to spend active lives in pursuit of personal gain, and one can be as greedy in spiritual affairs as in any others. The time can go in asking for health or wealth or success or affection or pleasure or peace; it can go in asking similar gifts for friends, which is very much better. But do most people get farther than their own circle? Does their prayer reveal that the rescue of children from wage-slavery, of men from conditions that stifle manhood, of women from the manifold evils which weigh them down, is a potent and passionate desire? Prayer is the desire most native to the soul turned God-ward, and egotism at the center of the soul's life is an awful thing.

It is the impression of such egotism conveyed by the life of many mystics and holy men, which has caused, often unjustly, the reaction against them. But how great, how subtle, the danger! The best way of escaping it without running into the opposite danger is the practice of intercession. For by intercession, life at the center, life in the sanctuary, may be purified from self and lost that it may be found. Also, life is energized; for right praying involves hard thinking, and the mind addicted to indolent evasion will never kindle the sacred fire. God sets no limit to audacious importunity. Men may ask for the greatest things, for the industrial and political peace of the world, for universal justice. But if their prayers are to prevail, they must avoid all lazy generalizations, they must have point and precision of aim. In proportion as they attain breadth, point, and ardor, the hidden life turned inward will be cleansed from selfishness and the life turned outward from arrogance or discouragement, and the kingdom will come faster than men dream.

There is secret sacrifice involved in placing special emphasis on Intercession. It is the sacrifice demanded by an age peculiarly called to labor for social ideals. Petition at highest is only a small part of prayer. Praise is a blessed duty, confession of sin a necessity: above all other forms comes that pure single concentrated Practise of the Presence of God whence flows all peace and power. Considering the richness of the life hid with Christ in God through prayer, one cannot marvel if it drew men of old away from all earthly pursuits to an exclusive consecration. But the Via Contemplativa is to-day the way for very few; and perhaps precisely in the sacrifice of dearer energies, the subordination of possible hidden joys, lies part of our expiation for communal guilt. The joys may wait on that great day when the redeemed of the Lord shall come to Zion with songs and with everlasting joy upon their heads. Here and now, God may best be found by those who in the secret life forever deny in part even their higher desires, that they may lift the sorrowful needs of the world up to his Heart of Mercy.

Through intercession, the handicapped, the sick, the feeble, the inhibited from action, can find their place, can march shoulder to shoulder with the vigorous, or perhaps can lead the march, in the inspiriting advance toward the Kingdom of Justice. Legislative reforms, and greater things, may be achieved by desires rising from some obscure bed of pain. Yet this is no mere work for private initiative, it is also a work for the Church. Men grope to discover how an aroused Christian community can react on the social situation through its ecclesiastical machinery; the answer is difficult, opinions vary. Some say that the clergy should throw themselves into politics, some that they should stay out. Some want institutional churches, some despise them. Some wish the Church to inaugurate social service under her own name, others think that if she does she will simply chip in at cross purposes to wiser secular agencies. But one thing the churches surely can do without harming or interfering,--they can summon people to pray for social justice, and they can teach them how. In a parish or a diocese, or in the Church universal, why should not a Novena or a Week of Prayer be now and then proclaimed against some shocking evil--child labor, or the White Slave traffic? If Christian people threw themselves heartily and reverently into such a scheme and got themselves ready for prayer by becoming intelligent on the issue, what an access to zeal would ensue on the merely human side! And in that unseen region whither prayers wing their flight, who can tell what forces would be set in motion?

Phillips Brooks used to tell how a number of good Episcopalians got together at the time of the great Boston fire and said the Litany. "And there was a provision in it for everything under the sun," said he, "except for a burning city." Obviously, this special Church has been sadly in need of more flexibility, and she has been gaining it lately. Intercession services are common and increasingly prized. Cannot they be more vigorously turned toward social salvation, while losing none of their fervor for missions, for parochial ends, for individual needs? Will not the numerous Guilds of Prayer develop social intercession? One such guild at least is especially pledged to pray for the reconciliation of classes, and so, whenever a great strike or labor war is in progress, hundreds of people all over the country are entreating, with what ardor God and their conscience vouchsafe, not that one side or the other may triumph necessarily, but that brotherhood may prevail.

Yet there is no need to wait for corporate action. Let every man examine his private life. Is he satisfied with the idea God gains of him from his prayers? In prayer more than in any other pursuit one must be honest; there is danger in pretending to desire what one does not really care about. But also one may grow. The world-crisis calls men faithfully and fervently to enlarge and energize their life of prayer. So the old and the new ideals of religious life will be brought into unison; so the Mystical Body of Christ will come to her own, in power to help and heal. Thank God for letting us pray! May we be worthy of the Gift and the Summons!

Project Canterbury