The disorienting quality of real prayer Print
Word on Fire
Monday, Nov. 29, 1999 -- 7:00 PM

Editor’s note: Because of its length, this column by Bishop Robert Barron will be published in a two-part series.

One of the most impressive literary figures of the 20th century was the Irish writer Iris Murdoch. You may have heard of her surprising and thoughtful novels such as A Severed Head and The Good Apprentice; or perhaps you are conversant with her more abstract philosophical texts such as The Sovereignty of Good and Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals.

She reached her greatest notoriety, posthumously, in the work of her husband John Bayley, who penned a moving memoir of his wife’s slow and emotionally wrenching descent into Alzheimer’s disease. To hear the story of one of the brightest women of her time gradually losing her mind is, to say the least, unnerving. But due to Bayley’s artful telling, the experience becomes, almost despite itself, uplifting as well.


Dark take on human nature

A careful examination of Murdoch’s fiction and non-fiction reveals her consistently dark take on human nature. Left to our own devices, we are, she thinks, self-absorbed, violent, and all too willing to draw the whole world into the narrow confines of our egotism.

In this conviction, of course, she is not far from the classical Christian doctrine of original sin. What we require, she concludes, are spiritual exercises that serve to break us out of the prison of our self-absorption; and since we are so ensconced in the pattern of self-reference, these must be rather shocking reversals of the status quo.

We need the Good -- in one form or another -- to burst through the carapace of our fearful self-regard.

Learning foreign language

A first such exercise, Murdoch suggests, is the learning of a foreign language. Playing at another language can be a mildly diverting experience and it can convince one that the language can be used after the manner of a game. But when one is really compelled to learn a language well, for the sake of survival or success, one quickly discovers just how unyielding, how demanding, and how unforgiving that language can be.

French doesn’t care whether you learn its nuances, its vocabulary, or its sometimes irrational spellings; German could care less whether or not you appreciate its (to English-speakers) confounding word order; Greek is not the least bit put out if you cannot master its alphabet; and Latin is utterly indifferent to your struggles with its endings and cases. All of these linguistic systems are, in their objectivity, order, confusion, and beauty, massively there, and they compel the one who would dare to learn them to submit.

The demanding “there-ness” of the French language was symbolized for me one day soon after I had arrived in Paris for my doctoral studies. I was with some friends in a crowded restaurant at the height of the dinner rush when a stereotypically haughty and impatient waiter came to take our order. When he turned his imperious gaze toward me and uttered a curt “Oui?” I promptly forgot all of my carefully memorized restaurant vocabulary and every one of my past participles and devolved before his eyes into a muttering, incoherent child. His reaction to my plight? He turned and walked away.

Confrontation with art

A second spiritual exercise recommended by Iris Murdoch for the disciplining of the ego is a confrontation with a true work of art. Second rate art is designed primarily to please. Comfortable, familiar, likable, it presents no particular challenge to the sensibilities of the one who takes it in.

For example, the music heard in an elevator or a doctor’s waiting room is meant simply to provide a mild distraction or a feeling of calm in the listener; and the paintings that hang in most hotel rooms or corporate lobbies are intended to provide low-level entertainment.

These works fit predictably into universally recognized canons of appropriateness and, as such, are forgotten almost as soon as they are taken in. But a great and true work of art does not aim to please. Rather, it presents itself in its integrity on its own terms, remaining fundamentally indifferent to the reaction of the viewer or listener.

In a scene from his autobiographical masterpiece, A Portrait of the Artist as Young Man, James Joyce brilliantly displays the dynamics of confronting the truly beautiful. Stephen Daedalus (Joyce’s fictional alter-ego) is pacing listlessly on the strand outside of Dublin when he spies, standing out in the surf, a woman of surpassing beauty. He is stopped in his tracks -- in the state of aesthetic arrest -- and takes the woman in. She turns to him at one point and “quietly suffered his gaze,” before turning back to look out at the open sea. Indifferent to his feelings or reactions, she allowed him to watch.

Finally, changed utterly by this encounter, Stephen cried out, “Oh, heavenly God” and resolved from that moment on to become an artist, a reporter of such epiphanies of the beautiful. The lovely girl standing just off the strand did not so much please Stephen Daedalus as change him, drawing him effectively out of his morose self-regard and giving him his vocation.


Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. Learn more at