Learning the language of the Kingdom
Whilst living in exile as a senior official of king Darius, Daniel remains in the service of another king, the Lord God. Prayer is the very language of his kingdom, and the sure means of securing citizenship. As different as the prayer of Daniel may seem to be from that of the pagan king Darius, we ultimately can find a point of convergence: the more profoundly personal our interior communion with God, the more effective is our public proclamation of the gospel of salvation.
This homily was preached to the student brothers during compline. Listen here or read below:
The Jews are in exile in Babylon, and Daniel has ascended to high rank in the kingdom. Envious of his success, the other officials have set a trap for him. King Darius has been persuaded to change the law to render prayer to anyone but the king illegal for thirty days. How then is Daniel to survive in a hostile, irreligious land? We could ask ourselves the same question.The short answer is paradoxical: authentic prayer.Though in exile, Daniel is in the service of another king, the Lord God, and prayer is the very language of his kingdom, and the sure means of securing citizenship. As the story unfolds, we are presented with a masterclass on prayer from two wildly different perspectives, Daniel, the seasoned contemplative, and Darius, a worldly king, who in his faltering pursuit of the good encounters God.
We find an image of Daniel at prayer immediately before the lectionary passage:“he continued to go to his house, which had windows in its upper room open towards Jerusalem, and to get down on his knees three times a day to pray to his God and praise him” (Dan. 6:10). Daniel prays secretly, humbly, transparently, and constantly.
Secretly. He withdraws from the mundane discourse of the court and sequesters himself in a secret place to speak intimately to God, an intimacy the author of the book does not let us penetrate.That said, prayer can fly under the radar only for a time, for ultimately, “nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed” (Lk. 8:17).
Humbly. He falls to his knees. Darius divinises himself, Daniel abases himself before the true king.
Transparently. Daniel prays before an open window, an icon of that dynamic equilibrium, so prized by Dominicans, between action and contemplation, remaining present to the earthly city that all might be saved, and yet remaining a stranger to the ways of the world, eyes fixed on the heavenly Jerusalem (cf. Rule of St Benedict 4.20).
Constantly. Daniel’s disregard of the decree is not a decision reducible to a point in time, it is the consequence of a lifetime habit. Christian prayer is unceasing prayer. Prayer is an immersion in the divine life, and that cannot be stored up to be used at will, it must be continually renewed. Anyone who prays will have considered omitting prayer. Our prudential judgement on this should be guided by Daniel’s example: prayer may need to change form, but it must never disappear, not for a single day.
So much for the master, now for the sinner. Darius’ first error is not to begin with prayer, but to merely talk about it, and try to control it. Real prayer is supernatural, and to dispose ourselves to it takes time and effort. How tempting it can be to find natural substitutes for prayer.Yet, without intently and devoutly raising our heart to the Lord, even the most noble of aids like spiritual reading could end up cutting down our spiritual life to be just one activity among others, rather than the transcendent atmosphere of them all.
Darius is true to his name for it means “one who holds firm to good”. Beneath his pride lies a genuine love for Daniel: he searches diligently for a solution to the problem he has created. He soon finds himself in that familiar state of sin known to all of us: self-contradiction. As St Paul puts it, “I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Rom. 7:19). From this place, Darius is drawn to prayer. Like Daniel, he begins not with words, but asceticism: he fasts and keeps vigil. Only at this point does he speak: “May your God, whom you faithfully serve, deliver you” (Dan. 6:16) He acknowledges his powerlessness. Although we shouldn’t laud his act of injustice, we see here that “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more” (Rom. 5:20). Had Darius devised a successful rescue plan, he may never have turned to God at all.
Darius is not overcome by despair like Judas, but like Mary Magdalene, hastens early in the morning to the lions’ den. One could even say Darius excels the Magdalene in a certain respect: by addressing Daniel as a living person, he makes an explicit act of hope. Long gone is any play-acting as someone with divine status – he doesn’t command Daniel, as our Lord did Lazarus – he dares not even speak to God directly, but only to his faithful servant.
Finally, Darius shares in Daniel’s joy. Daniel offers no sign of resentment, just a contagious joy. Enlivened with the joy of salvation, Darius is quick to see justice restored and God’s universal kingship declared. Just as Daniel’s prayer was transparent to the world, so we now find Darius moving from the most personal of orations, that his friend be saved, to the most public evangelisation: a declaration that the dominion of the living God extends over all space and all time.As different as the prayer of Daniel and Darius may seem, they nevertheless converge on this point of paradox: the more profoundly personal our interior communion with God, the more effective is our public proclamation of the gospel of salvation. “There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth” (Ps. 19:3).