Continuing the Way of Unitive Prayer in Richard Baxter
Unitive prayer is deeper by far than the meditation Baxter has described. ‘… to withdraw from [this sort of] prayer is to withdraw from God … meditation or contemplation is a duty in which God is much enjoyed: but prayer hath meditation in it and much more.’ This ‘much more’ is hinted at in the Saints’ Everlasting Rest where Baxter says, ‘Christians, who are much in secret prayer and contemplation, are men of greatest life and joy, because they have all more immediately from God himself … the fulness of joy is in God’s immediate presence’. This unitive prayer is not to be confined to the rare moments of rapt prayer. God is with us always and everywhere.
‘It is not a walk for complement or recreation only that is meant; but it is a life of nearness, converse and employment, as a servant or child that dwells with his master or father in the house.’ God’s will alone matters: ‘We must resolve to do no work but his, no not in our trades and ordinary callings: we must be able to say, it is the work which my master set me to do, and I do it to obey and please his will.’ Union of the will with God’s will is precisely what unitive prayer is about and is costly, as Baxter tells us: ‘It is not as idle companions, but as servants, as soldiers, as those that put forth all their strength, to do his work and reach the crown, that we are called to walk with God … Therefore … we must make it our daily study and business, to do him the greatest service in the world … whatever it may cost us through the malice of the enemies, being sure that our labour shall not be in vain, and that we cannot serve him at too dear a rate.’
Whatever oppositions might come our way we are called to endure. The steadfast man remains immovable: ‘He is set upon the pleasing of the most holy God, whoever be uppermost among men; as knowing that the God whom he serves is able to deliver him from man, but man is not able to deliver him from God. He still goes on in the holy path, as knowing that heaven is as sure and as desirable as ever it was.’ However, though God has power to rescue and protect us, there are also times when he seems to do the exact opposite. The mystics tell us that before we can have union with the all-holy God we must be cleansed, purified from our sinfulness. On Walking with God leaves us with no doubt about this. Because we prevaricate with God and prefer so many trifles in this world to him, God has to deprive us of the things we cling to.
… marvel not then if God shake your health, or waste your riches, or turn your honour into contempt, and suffer men to slander and reproach you, and spit in your face, and make you of no reputation: marvel not if … he turn all to your grief and trouble, and make the world a desert to you … The great lesson that Christ hath undertaken to teach you, is the difference betwixt the Creator and the creature, and the difference betwixt heaven and earth. The great work that Christ hath undertaken to do upon you, is to recover your hearts from the world to God: this lesson he will teach you, and this work he will do upon you, whatever it cost you: for it must be done.
This is passive purification, what St. John of the Cross calls the dark nights of sense and spirit Baxter says that the outward sufferings react on our minds, hearts and spirits, with no escape. Even friends turn against us, ‘and may prove as THORNS IN YOUR BED and GRAVEL IN YOUR SHOES, yea, in your eyes, and wrong you much more than open adversaries …’
But in the dark night God too seems to desert us. In his apparent absence we are smitten with guilt on account of our real or imagined sinfulness. This is the greatest pain of all and like Christ we cry out, ‘My God my God, why hast thou forsaken me!’ Baxter counsels insistent prayer and penitence: ‘If it be a winter time, a stormy day with thee, and he seem to chide, or hide his face because thou hast offended him, let the cloud that is gathered by thy folly come down in tears and tell him, thou hast sinned against heaven and before him … but yet fly not from him, but beg his pardon.’
Even if the breach seems impassable and God lost, there must be no despair. God hides his face awaiting our repentance. He loves us more than we can ever dream of and we are safe and sure in this love.