Hannah prays with the heart is the second talk on Blaise Pascal's night of fire.
At the age of thirty, although outwardly religious, Pascal had what he called his “night of fire.” It was his conversion from orthodox Catholic practice to a new inner life of faith; the day his religion fell from his head to his heart. Today we might say, using Jesus’ words to Nicodemus, that Pascal was “born again.”
In his writings, The Provinciales which became immediately successful and influential, Pascal spoke of a more spiritual approach to religion than the orthodoxy and obedience of the time, turning to what he described as “the soul’s union with the mystical body of Christ though charity.”
There are many parallels between Pascal’s conversion and that of St Francis of Assisi that we spoke of several weeks ago; and my own. I was baptised, confirmed and well-churched after five years at Hilton College with services every day and twice on Sunday, yet without a personal faith.
Oddly perhaps it was a Jewish friend at school who first watered the seed that my grandmother had planted many years previously. A prodigious student and future academic, when I asked him what to read as we were leaving school for the last time, he recommended just one book; the Bible.
So I started reading but everything was difficult and in retrospect I was like the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts, chapter 8, waiting for a Philip to come and explain things to me.
There are of course many people in scripture who experienced this “night of fire” and then began to know for themselves the inner life of God rather than merely the outward observance of religion. It often happened after a period of great pain.
You are probably familiar with the story of Hannah, the mother of the great OT prophet Samuel. She was barren and was continually tormented by her husband’s second wife, especially when they went once a year to the house of the Lord at Shiloh to offer sacrifices and worship.
On one occasion she was deeply distressed and wept bitterly we are told. She went up to the temple to pray where the priest Eli watched her. He saw her lips moving, but no word was spoken aloud and he presumed she was drunk. But we are told Hannah was “speaking in her heart, and pouring out her soul before the Lord.”
I expect you know the story but if you don’t it is worth a read. It is related in detail in the first chapter of the first book of Samuel. We are told the Lord heard Hannah’s prayer, he always hears them though does not necessarily answer them in the way we would like.
God honoured Hannah’s prayer; she conceived and bore a son. And what a man he turned out to be.
Hannah was a woman who experienced for herself this inner life of God. No where is this more clear than in her well known prayer in Chapter 2. “My heart exults in the Lord, my strength is exalted in Him.” These are the words of a person of deep faith, and a great challenge to each one of us; there is so much more to be had than the outward show of coming to church, taking communion and so on.
John Wesley’s mother was another woman who experienced this deep inner life. Unlike Hannah she had a very large family. But every morning, when she pulled her apron over her head, the children knew to keep silent, or out came the wooden spoon.
She was not one to spare the rod and spoil the child if her quiet time with God was disturbed. And what a son John Wesley turned out to be.
Hannah prays with the heart sheds light on the famed mathematician and physicist, Blaise Pascal.
The point behind this is that whether one is a great scientist like Blaise Pascal, a lowly mother of many or no children or a prophet like John the Baptist, the outward trappings of religion without a deep inner life are largely meaningless; St Paul, St Augustine and Francis of Assisi all new that.
And that means space for God in silence each day. A time when we are still and make time for the immortal words of Samuel. “Speak, Lord, thy servant heareth.”
Of one thing we can be sure. If God has something of importance to say to us, and I would suggest he does for each and everyone, and we don’t make time to listen, then he will come and stop us in our tracks in one way or another until we are ready to hear.
The better way the psalmist tell us, let each of us voluntarily be still, and know that He is God. This is true religion.
Tomorrow we’ll talk about Pascal’s Wager.
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