George Eliot was no orthodox Christian, but she gives a fine description of prayer in her first novel, Adam Bede (1859), a novel about simple country people. Dinah Morris has been staying with her cousin, Hetty, while becoming known as a Methodist preacher. She is about to go home. Hetty, just seventeen and recognised for her beauty, is infatuated with the grandson of the local landowner, Arthur Donnithorne, who is also attracted to her. After a critical moment has been reached for the two of them, the two young women, so different in character, retire to rooms next to each other. While Hetty indulges her most ambitious fantasies, Dinah quietly turns to prayer.
Dinah delighted in her bedroom window… it gave her a wide view over the fields…. And now the first thing she did, on entering her room, was to seat herself in [her] chair, and look out on the peaceful fields beyond which the large moon was rising, just above the hedgerow elms. She liked this pasture best, where the milch cows were lying, and next to that the meadow where the grass was half-mown and lay in silvered sweeping lines. Her heart was very full…. she thought of all those dear people whom she had learned to care for among these peaceful fields, and who would now have a place in her loving remembrance for ever. She thought of the struggles and the weariness that might lie before them in the rest of their life’s journey, when she would be away from them and know nothing of what was befalling them; and the pressure of this thought soon became too strong for her to enjoy the unresponding stillness of the moonlit fields. She closed her eyes, that she might feel more intensely the presence of a Love and Sympathy deeper and more tender than was breathed from the earth and the sky. That was often Dinah’s mode of praying in solitude. Simply to close her eyes, and to feel herself enclosed by the Divine Presence, then gradually her fears, her yearning anxieties for others, melted away like ice-crystals in a warm ocean. She had sat in this way perfectly still, with her arms crossed on her lap, and the pale light resting on her calm face for at least ten minutes when she was startled by a loud sound.
One should add a few things to this. Dinah knows the Bible inside out, and the novel shows how deeply her experience of the world, of people and events is articulated by Biblical idiom and expression. Hers is not simply a delight in the English landscape. It has taken on the Biblical contours of a landscape of salvation. So her familiarity with the people who belong to the landscape is not merely social or self-interested; she wants to come to their physical, practical and spiritual help. Eliot draws a deliberate contrast between the two women. Next door, Hettie is also sitting down, looking at herself in a mirror, the blemishes of which she regrets. She is indulging her fantasies of luxury, of escape, or self-indulgent romance.
From this passage we can pick out several aspects that are important for the practice of a simple kind of meditative prayer. Sitting comfortably in an upright chair, hands folded on the lap. Just looking, and letting things quieten down. The method she uses is interesting; as we see from the second part of the description, it involves a return to oneself, but to do that Dinah just looks gratefully at the big, natural world outside – a contemplative gaze, which lets it ‘speak’ – realistically – of its natural, animal, and human beauty in such a way that a kind of second step can be taken to an interior awareness (eyes closed now) of the Divine Presence. This awareness if conveyed through the emotions. As a Methodist, emotions play a big part in Dinah’s spirituality. But we know from her straightforwardness and honesty that she has no room for emotionalism (in contrast to Hettie next door). Emotions allow Dinah to enter more completely into the fullness of life, in its richness as well as its poverty and need. Indeed it is the pressure of that poverty and need that prompts her to turn beyond natural order to God and where her emotional maturity allows her to respond fully to God’s presence embracing her.
Padre David Foster