by Father Gabriel Barry, OCD
So much has been written about prayer that it would be futile to think of compressing it all into a few pages. However, in our conferences here, I will try to cull some practical and stimulating ideas from this abundant literature and present then for your use.
In respect to prayer, we can divide Catholics into several categories. First of all, there are those who hardly ever pray. The main reason for this is a weakness in the spirit of faith. They don’t know God very well. Therefore they are reluctant to speak with Him and their hearts are closed to His call. When prayer has been neglected over a long time, it is extremely hard to renew the habit. Only a specially strong grace from the Holy Spirit can break the long-established apathy.
“Many remain in the outer courts of the Castle (of prayer); they are not interested in entering it and have no idea what there is in that wonderful place or who dwells in it…… Souls without prayer are like people whose bodies or limbs are paralyzed. They possess feet and hands but cannot control them. Although by nature they are so richly endowed as to have the power of holding converse with God Himself, there is nothing that can be done for them.” (Interior Castle I 1 P203-cd.Peers.)
There is another type of Catholic who makes an occasional effort to pray, but he is inhibited by narrow ideas or an immature spiritual life. It is surprising how many never really go beyond the childish stage of praying; for them it is a matter of putting a few words together, when they kneel in the Church or at home. God is a vague kind of being, probably recalled as a stern task master or a kind glorified policeman, and prayer, at best, is an attempt to placate Him. To their minds, He is the kind of being who expects his subjects to go on their knees from time to time, and to rhyme off some vocal prayers, sometimes quite meaningless to the one who uses them. It all seems so devoid of sense, yet they insist on going through with it.
A third category of Catholics is the one who prays a good deal but rarely rises beyond set formulas. They are earnest, religiously-minded people. They are convinced about the reality of God and the place of the Church, but other than that are not well grounded in the biblical or theological foundation of it all. The result is a type of prayer which is genuinely sincere but tends to be measured in terms of quantity, emotion and extent rather than in depth. Often enough this is no fault of the one who prays. They have never been instructed. In such cases, the Holy Spirit may intervene in some way to lead them quietly, almost imperceptibly to a more authentic kind of prayer. A large number of Catholics belong to this general category, which in fact is rather extensive.
Fourthly, there are those who have broken through the routine manner of prayer and have discovered meditation and even beyond. In varying degrees of success, they make use of this kind of prayer, occasionally with considerable satisfaction . But since there can be no standing still in the road of prayer, they begin to encounter the inevitable problems of advancing and here they need help, guidance and encouragement. “God gives many souls the talent and grace for advancing and so it is sad to see them continue on their imperfect method of communion with God, either because they do not want to advance, or do not know how to advance or because they receive no direction in breaking away from the methods of beginners.” (Assent of Mount Carmel: Prologue).
Lastly, there are the ones, few in number, who have had the generosity to allow God to lead them to the higher regions of prayer, which we call contemplation. This is a special grace from God; the crowning of a deep purification and long fidelity. Not many arrive at this blessed state. Why this should be only Cod knows, as St. John of the Cross points out in Dark Night I IX. But all are invited.
It would be extremely difficult to give statistics on the number of people that belong to these various classes. Since prayer is essentially an inner experience, it is almost impossible to conduct an accurate survey. But one thing is clear enough, namely, that the life of prayer is undergoing a serious crises in the Church. It is a well-known fact that many, many Catholics, priests and religious among them, never pray in a truly meaningful way. (Later, I hope to return to this fact and discuss it more fully. ) There can be no doubt about this kind of spiritual allergy in so many people. What is very regrettable is that they blame it on the Church. At the same time
one must also recognize a reaching out for better things in another section of our people. This may well be the beginnings of new growth. Let us hope and pray that it is so.
Before going on to speak more in detail about prayer, I want to attempt to set it in its proper perspective. On this point alone a great deal has been written. I will try to condense it into a few paragraphs.
First of all, the entire universe was created by God, and man was assigned a unique position in creation. He is the crowning of God’s creative activity. He was put in a position of authority over the rest of creation, position he has not entirely lost even after sin entered the world. He is the “swinging-door, set between the seen and the unseen.” This is one of the lessons we glean from Genesis I and II. Whatever may be the scientific explanation of man’s origin and purpose, we cannot get away from the fact that the life of man is intimately related to Cod, in its beginnings, its end, and in all between. There are two other passages in the Bible that bring out this fact. The one is a well-known passage from Romans 1 where St. Paul says that God has made the truth about Himself plain to mankind at all times, “Since the beginning, of the world, the invisible attributes of God, His eternal poster and divinity, have been there for the mind to see, made visible in the things God created.” (Romans 1 19-20) And again in a sermon of his recorded in the Acts, St, Paul makes the point, that even though in the past, God seemed to let the nations go on their own way, nevertheless, He also never left them without clear evidence of Himself. (Acts 14: 16-17). This is what Vatican II says: “From, ancient times down to the present, there has existed among all peoples a certain persuasion of that hidden power which presides over the course of things and over the events of human life. At times indeed mankind came to recognize a Supreme Divinity and even a Supreme Father too. Such a perception and such a recognition instills into the lives of people a deep religious sense (Doc, of Vat.II, P.661) This is what we call religion, an attitude or disposition of mind that binds us, relates us to Cod, inclining us to recognize our place as creatures and to worship Cod who made us and who is our Last End.
Religion takes in this entire human person. Since Cod created both body and soul, He deserves to-o be worshiped and acknowledged by both. This is not something God Himself needs; but He has made man in such a way that human nature attains to full maturity only when united with God in love. To neglect to develop this religious personality is to frustrate the purpose for which he has been made and to deny Cod the glory that is His due.
Worship must be interior, because “God is a spirit and they who worship Him worship in spirit and truth..” ( John 4:24 ) Worship must also be exterior, because it is natural for man to express his inward attitudes and experiences by outward signs. This is done by gestures of the body, by the use of sacred words, and of sacred things. (Besides, man is the high-priest of all creation and, its spokesman.) But it is also well to notice that we worship God not only by the things we give Him and do for Him, but more especially the way we receive things from Him; by cooperating in what He does for us. This is very important, and has special application in prayers.
It is into this background that we fit prayer. It is one of the vital acts of religion and worship. It is a surrender of the mind to Cod. It is an expression of our place before God, of our readiness to serve Him, to worship Him, to know Him better and to seek to love Him. One of the outstanding causes of human dignity is man’s call to communion with his maker. From the very circumstances of his origins man is called to converse with God. For man would not exist if he were not created by God’s love, and constantly preserved by it. No man can be sincere and true to himself unless he freely acknowledges that love, and dedicates himself to his Creator. And unless the inner life of man is illuminated and guided by prayer, we can never be true witnesses to God. For prayer shows us what we are, our nobility and our meanness. We begin to see that the greatest faculty in us is our capacity to “receive God”.
This acute sense of need, and the knowledge that God can fulfill it is the basis of prayer. It is an ever-present need that springs from the very fact that we are creatures. The great French scholar, Pascal, writes in his “Reflections”: “In every man, is an infinite abyss that can be filled only by the Infinite; that is to say, only by God (Sect VII, 425)
St. John of the Cross too speaks of the “infinite capacity of the human soul.” Prayer emerges from this built-in yearning, which is, in very truth, a part of our human selves. All prayer takes for granted that man is not alone; he lives in the presence of Infinite Mystery and Infinite Majesty. This is a difficult thing to admit in a 20th century culture. Everything is designed to convince us that we can “go it alone”, that we have no master but ourselves. Prayer is the wholesome antidote to all this.
Prayer enables us to develop a true sense of values; it gives us strength it helps us to keep our balance. It discovers to us the wonders of creation and grace. But above all, it makes known to us something of the truth and riches of God Himself. This is the principal reason why we pray: to know God better, to love Him better and to bring Him to others.
It seems to me that if some Christians of our time give up the practice of prayer, it is due to the fact that they have a very narrow understanding of what it really is. They tend to think of prayer in materialistic terms, such as petitioning God for temporal things, or sensible consolations as St. Teresa points out. Attitudes like this could never be a solid basis for Christian prayer; it is far grander and more meaningful. Prayer is a “meeting with God”, watching for God, “a conversation with One who we know loves us”, (St. Teresa) an effort to relate ourselves to Cod; asking Him, for the strength to live out our lives in His abiding presence and in accordance with the gospels. The early theologians of the Church, the Greek Fathers, employ the image of climbing a mountain to define the nature of prayer. No doubt they were thinking of Moses ascending Sinai to meat God, or the Israelites as they climbed Mount Zion to the Holy Place, or the apostles on Mount Tabor. When we pray, we begin with a deliberate effort to find God, only to discover that He has been there all the while; as St. John of the Cross says, searching for us more eagerly than we search for him. (Living Flame III)
Francis Thompson puts it this way:
“To fled Him down the nights and down the days,
To fled Him, down the arches of the years.
To fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
Of my own mind. And in the mist of tears
To hid from Him, and under running laughter,
…..From those strong feet, that followed, followed after.”
Men and women of all ages know that when we break through to an awareness of the mystery and majesty of God, we find a presence and a power all about us, pursuing us, coming to meet us, enfolding us. It is a power of healing and reconciliation. It is a presence full of kindness and mercy, one that we can address as “Our Father who art in heaven….”
But we have to make this initial effort; it is our response, our climb, toward God. This is why prayer is sometimes described as an ascent of the mind to God. But the reality is in the encounter with Him.
So much about the meaning of prayer. If we can grasp this much, it is a lot. If we know the reality, it is sure to find an outlet in various channels, like an over-flowing fountain. Because prayer is a many-splendored thing, there is public prayer, private prayer, liturgical prayer, vocal prayer, meditative prayer, contemplative prayer, listening, waiting, speaking, silence. And all converge on God.
Genuine prayer is marked by an openness to the Infinite, in Whom the present, the past and the future are all summed up. When we come to pray, we may ask God for the things we need; we may beg that He, in His almighty power would do what we could never do. This dependency, far from abolishing human freedom, is its source. But we must not think of prayer as a means of controlling God. One indispensable condition of Christian prayer is, “Thy will be done.” And contrary to what we may imagine, this kind of prayer is tremendously liberating.
We entrust ourselves, our lives, our concerns and our future into God’s hands. From now on we are free; He takes care of our destinies.
Prayer does not always lead to human happiness, or freedom from worries. There is no fairy-tale ending to prayer, as far as this life is concerned. The final earthly prayer of Christ was one of supreme anguish. But all sincere prayer will infallibly bring one to a deeper sharing in the life of God, a perception of hope, an insight into the meaning of life; a participation in Love. And surely, these are gifts for all persons; the rest will be ours when God draws back the veil.
1. Please refer to the OCDS Rule of Life, Articles 2, 4, 5 and 8. (no longer used; replaced by Constitutions and Statutes)
2. The Holy Bible.
3. Living Flame.