How to Pray
by Fr John McCloskey
"There is only one thing necessary and Mary has chosen the better part."
- Jesus (Luke 10:38-42)
"All the misfortunes of men derive from one single thing, which is their inability to be at ease in a room."
- Pascal, Pensees (sect, no. 134)
The highest aspiration of man is to pray: to converse with our God: Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, Three Persons in one. To know that He is listening always and that He also responds in this life prepares us for the eternal life of prayer that is the possession of God in heaven.
Learning to pray, to grow in the interior life (the spiritual life within our soul), is more important than food or sleep, and certainly more important than worldly pleasures and ambitions. This is not a question of "either/or."
It's fully possible for the ordinary layperson to have an intense life of prayer, indeed even being a mystic, while at the same faithfully fulfilling their obligations in the world. This life of prayer is essential so they can make holy their everyday occupations thus giving glory to God and spreading the Gospel to their neighbors.
Prayer is our primary means of service to others, our family, friends, and fellow workers. In addition, it is indispensable in the great challenge that we and our descendants have before us: the "new evangelization" and the building of "civilization of love and truth."
Satan's greatest work on earth as he seeks to devour souls that are called to heaven is to keep us from praying and getting them to stop that journey. When we look at three disastrous and diabolical revolutions that have taken place over the last five hundred years-the Protestant, the French, and Communist-we find that what they all have in common is the dissolution of monasteries.
People who dedicate themselves to prayer are seen as enemies of the State and must be eliminated. They are not considered to be as useful to the State. The Holy Father knows this well and has placed personal prayer at the heart of his message as he looks ahead to the building of a civilization based on true personhood and authentic love. In Novo Millennio Inuente , the encyclical letter released at the end of the Jubilee Year, the Holy Father makes this point crystal clear:
"For this pedagogy of holiness there has to be a Christianity that is distinguished above in the art of prayer.... It is necessary above all to learn how to pray, as if learning again from the lips of the divine master, like the first disciples: Lord, teach us how to pray (Lk 11:1). In this plea is developed that dialogue with Christ that converts us into his intimate friends: "Remain in me, as I do in you." (Jn 15:4). This reciprocity is the same foundation, the soul of the Christian life and a condition for all of the authentic pastoral life. Made real by the Holy Spirit, it opens, through Christ and in Christ, to the contemplation of the face of the Father. To learn this Trinitarian logic of Christian prayer, living it fully above all in the liturgy, the apex and source of the ecclesial life, but also from personal experience, is the secret of a truly vital Christianity, that does not have motives to fear the future, because it continually returns to the sources and is regenerated in them" (par. 32)
Pope John Paul II has also insisted that the most important project for the Christian in this new millennium is to "contemplate the face of Christ." This can be done in many ways: in meditation on Sacred Scripture, in living the sacramental life (particularly in those sacraments, Penance and the Eucharist, which we can frequent often), in the spiritual and corporal works of mercy directed towards our neighbor, in the sanctification of our professional work, and in our family life. Such contemplation will lead to personal apostolate, an invitation to our family and friends, to our co-workers, and the people we come into contact with every day "to pick up the Cross of Christ and follow Him."
This article is intended to help the reader to learn to pray and particularly to learn how to pray in silence. Silent prayer is the science of the saints and it is accessible without exception to everyone who is willing to collaborate with their will to God's grace. We are called to be contemplatives, whether in the midst of the world (like the overwhelming majority of us) or in the monastery where those relatively few are called to follow a religious vocation. The Catechism of the Catholic Church , after it's extensive exposition of the Creed, The Ten Commandments, and the Sacraments, presents to us an equally large section on prayer. Quoting St. John Damascene, a Father of the Church, the Catechism states: " Prayer is the raising of one's mind and heart to or the requesting of good things from God" (CCC 2590). And after recounting the salvation history of prayer throughout the Old Testament and citing the example of the patriarchs and prophets, it says, "Jesus' filial prayer is the perfect model of prayer in the New Testament. Often done in solitude and in secret, the prayer of Jesus' involves a loving adherence to the will of the Father even to the Cross and an absolute confidence in being heard... In his teaching, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray with a purified heart, with lively and persevering faith, with filial boldness. He calls them to vigilance and invites them to present their petitions to God in his name. Jesus Christ himself answers prayers addressed to him" (CCC 2620-1).
In a post-synodal document, "The Church in America," we are told: "Jesus Christ, the good news of the Father, tells us that without Him we can do nothing (cf. John 15:5) He himself in the decisive moments of his life, before acting, withdraws to a solitary place to dedicate himself to prayer and contemplation, and asked the Apostles to do the same. Enter into your room, and after shutting the door, pray, alone, to your Father who is there (Matt: 6:6) This intense life of prayer has to adapt itself to the capacity and condition of each Christian, in such a way that in the diverse situations of his life he can always return to the source of his encounter with Christ to drink from the only Spirit (1 Cor 12:13). In this sense, the contemplative dimension is not a privilege of just a few in the Church; to the contrary, in parishes in communities, and in the movements, there has to be promoted an open spirituality oriented towards the contemplation of the fundamental truths of the Trinity, the Incarnation of the Word, the Redemption of men, and the great salvific works of God."
To begin to acquire the good habit of silent prayer (or what we call mental prayer) is not easy for a variety of reasons. After all, when you see people walking down the street talking loudly to nobody might you not conclude they are mentally unbalanced (unless they have hidden their cell phone)? However, if they told you they were talking out loud (what we call vocal prayer) to God, Mary, St. Joseph, and the saints, you as a Christian would find it more understandable even though perhaps a bit unseemly. To sit alone in your room, however, or in a church before the Blessed Sacrament and talk to God requires fortitude, patience, and a variety of other virtues, the most important of which are faith, hope, and charity. Faith that He is really here and everywhere, Hope that you will receive what you ask for and that prayer really is of benefit for your soul, and Charity-you pray because you love God above all things and you want to share yourself with Him and you want Him to envelop you with His love. This is no easy task, but well worth the effort.
In the developed countries, many of us lead a frenetic life full of noise that does not lead us to contemplation, but rather to exhaustion. We are surrounded by noise in our daily setting (unless you live in the wilderness): planes, trains, automobiles, radios, television, videos, air conditioning, appliances, cell-phones, and so much more. This is not medieval Europe. A person brought into our world through time travel from those centuries would probably be driven insane by the cacophony of strange sound within a few days, and rightly so. We find all of this normal, but it is not. So to pray silently, we ideally should choose the most silent place we can, either a church (hopefully there is no piped in music!) or another quiet place of our choosing, perhaps a room in our residence where we can block out noise and exterior distraction, or even our office, if we can make it clear we are not to be disturbed. So to begin and continue our daily habit of mental prayer, we must have a customary place.
I want to make it clear that it is possible and indeed recommendable to pray silently everywhere as we are always in God's presence. But we must have a specific time and place for our silent prayer. Since I am addressing primarily the laity, I understand well that there has to be flexibility. You travel, your schedule changes, you fall ill-all of those things that happen to us in the world. That means, however, that you have to adjust accordingly, but never give up. The two most important practices of piety for us are the Eucharist and daily mental prayer. The real test of how deeply these habits are ingrained in us is when they are put to the test in less than ideal circumstances, such as a business trip, vacation, or a family crisis.
Our goal is to begin with fifteen minutes or so of mental prayer each day in a fixed place. So we must think about the right time of day. We can start by simply saying that we should give the best part of the day to God. How could we give Him anything less? We should be awake, alert as we can be, and ready to direct ourselves to the Holy Trinity and/or to the angels and the saints surrounding God in heaven. Remember, prayer can be exhilarating, and at times joyful and easy, but normally it is a form of work. Many of you know-and writers can certainly testify-that often times mental exertion is much more tiring than physical labor. Therefore you must know yourself. Is your best time of the day early in the morning, at midday, or after dinner or following family time? Don't decide the best time for your mental prayer is between halves of a football game or when you slip under the bed sheets at night. You must be honest with yourself and see that our relationship with God is paramount each day. So we should not think in terms of "squeezing in" our time of prayer or daily Eucharist, but rather see how we can schedule in our family and work responsibilities around our life of piety.
Remember, our prayer life is the best form of service. We live to serve and cannot defraud those around us. I am sure Blessed Mother Theresa, St. Pio, and St. Josemaria would agree with me. We can and should pray while we work, but we must have substantial "face time" with Our Lord and His friends. After all, we spend this life "seeking His face...seeing through glass darkly" until He calls us to the definitive and permanent encounter with Him. I have never met any person who was faithful to his daily time of mental prayer who complained that he had lost time or was wasting energy. On the contrary, a person who takes the time, whether it is fifteen minutes or an hour, to spend time with Our Lord, always comes back saying that his time has been multiplied, as Our Lord did with those fishes and loaves of bread.
What do we pray about? We know to Whom we pray. We address Him as we will, or are moved, to the Father, Son, or Holy Spirit, although normally we will pray to Jesus as the Way to the Father, moved by the Holy Spirit. Remember, the Lord does converse with us. He is listening and will respond when and how he wants, although not necessarily during the time of prayer itself. We should try always to prepare material for our time of prayer. We may choose to dedicate our time to one theme or to several. As children of God, we should pray as we like. From time to time, even though we have prepared for our time of prayer, we may find that we put that plan aside and simply contemplate our Lord. Or perhaps the Holy Spirit will suggest other paths to follow. We may unburden ourselves of a current problem or difficulty, or share a great joy that has come into our life. In any case, some of the four aspects of prayer-Adoration, Contrition, Thanksgiving, and Supplication (ACTS)-will likely come into play. As Saint Josemaria Escriva, a great man of prayer and teacher of prayer put it in The Way, "You wrote to me: 'to pray is to talk with God. But about what?' About what? About him, about yourself: joys, sorrows, successes, and failures, great ambitions, daily worries-even your weaknesses! And acts of thanksgiving and petitions-and love and reparation. In short, to get to know him and yourself-'to get acquainted.'" (no. 91).
St. Teresa of Avila tells us that she never went to her time of silent prayer without carrying a book along with her. We should try to imitate her even though we may have no need of it on any given day. Some days we may find our prayer dry or full of distractions, internal or external, that threaten to overwhelm us. That is when we reach for that book for some written words of inspiration to help us to return to our conversation with God. There are thousands of books that may help us, but I would recommend having a few favorites that you can count on. The New Testament, the sacred liturgy, and the readings of the day are appropriate. The monthly Magnificat and the excellent seven-volume series "In Conversation with God," with its commentaries on sacred Scripture drawn from the saints and spiritual authors, may also be helpful. There is always the spiritual classic, The Imitation of Christ by Thomas A Kempis, or the little books of points of meditation by St. Josemaria Escriva.
I am sure you will discover many others that may fit your needs or spirituality. What is important here is that these books are a help to prayer and do not become our prayer. In prayer we talk and listen, and read briefly only for inspiration. Spiritual reading should be an important part of our day at another time, but it is not a substitute for our time of mental prayer. Also, don't forget another help that gives continuity to your prayer is a regular prayer journal or notebook. Always have it with you as you pray so you can jot down those resolutions, affections, and inspirations that the Holy Spirit may send you.
I would recommend that you seek out a spiritual advisor who can guide you in your life of prayer. All the saints were, without exception, whether rich or poor, simple or smart, people of deep interior life and received spiritual direction. You may follow their example by searching for a priest, religious, or layperson who has experience in the practice of mental prayer. He or she will guide you along the steps of the "interior castle." Your director may introduce you to various spiritualities: Franciscan, Benedictine, Ignatian, or Teresian. Or perhaps you will embrace one of the newer ones, flowing from the newer ecclesial institutions that are energizing the Church today. In one of these spiritualities you may find not only direction, but also a home and specific vocation.
I would also recommend that from time to time you use books on prayer and the interior life for your spiritual reading. These can be of great help as you advance over time, with God's grace, through the purgative, illuminative, and unitive ways. I can recommend several that are in print: In Conversation with Christ by Father Peter Rohrbach, Difficulties in Mental Prayer by Fr. Eugene Boylan, Progress in Mental Prayer by Fr. Edward Leen, and The Soul of the Apostolate by Dom Chautard. There are many other fine books on prayer for the more advanced, written by Romano Guardini, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Garrigou-Lagrange, and others. For a larger picture, pick up Father Jordan Aumann's masterful book, Spiritual Theology .
To sum up, at the heart of the Christian vocation is the call to holiness that comes to each of us through baptism. In turn this call is confirmed and fed by the other sacraments of initiation: confirmation and the Holy Eucharist. The remaining sacraments help us to grow in God's grace as we ascertain our state in life, regain our state of grace if we have lost it, and prepare us for the moment when we face God's judgment. We take advantage of them in gratitude as means of growing in and staying in friendship with Christ. Prayer, however, is necessary for salvation. We are called to become a personal friend of Our Lord-and we all know that it is impossible to establish a lasting friendship with someone unless we spend a considerable amount of time with him. For a Christian this means dedicating time each day for conversation with Our Lord and, if at all possible, doing so before the Blessed Sacrament where Our Lord Himself awaits us. We must remember that Holy Communion and silent prayer are the greatest preparations for heaven, for heaven is nothing other than the possession and union with Our Lord. That is why the holy Cure of Ars said, "Our one great happiness on earth is prayer." Because, as St. Teresa of Avila said, "We are dealing alone with Him whom we knows loves us."
This happiness may not be evident to us in the beginning. But if we persevere, over time, and grow in the contemplative life, we will find that many things and activities that we used to find alluringly attractive now bore us. We will find them repugnant in comparison with the simple joys of the Christian life and the delight in bringing persons to Christ and his Church. Indeed, our appreciation of those many good things in nature, and for that matter in music, art, history, and literature, will be heightened as we see the divine in them. This, in turn may help us to be an evangelizer of culture, to help build "the civilization of love and truth."
Finally, remember to invoke the intercession of Our Lady, conceived without sin and full of grace, who from childhood was perfect in her prayer. And don't forget St. Joseph, "the master of the interior life." They will help to make you small so you can approach Jesus, talk to Him, listen to him, and then "do whatever He tells you."
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