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The Priest's Way To God

BEFORE we discuss the spiritual life of a priest—and particularly his life of prayer—we must first get rid of any misunderstanding about the perfection to which he is called. There is such a close connection between prayer and perfection that any error about the latter will lead to a wrong standard for the former. St. Thomas did not regard the priesthood as a state of perfection; he did, however, describe the episcopate and the religious life as states of perfection. As a result there is a vague feeling, which may unconsciously lower one’s standards, that a priest, as a priest, is not called to the same perfection of life as, say, a religious. This is completely wrong.

There is no need to discuss the question whether changes subsequent to the time of St. Thomas would have caused him to alter his view of the priesthood as a state of life. The obligation of a priest to be perfect has other sources. It arises from his very office, and by that office he is placed under an obligation that is not only different from, but much superior to, that of a religious. A religious is bound to tend to perfection, and his state of life is excellently designed to help him to do so. But a priest, as Cardinal Manning says, is ordained to exercise perfection. He must be holy before ordination.

His obligation as a priest is to be holy; the obligation to acquire holiness only arises through a lack of the holiness that is demanded by his office.

Since St. Thomas is quoted in this discussion, let us hear his views on the perfection of the priest in comparison with that of a religious. He deals with the objection that one should be perfect before undertaking the obligations of the religious just as the walls of a building should be dried before the weight of the roof is laid upon them, and he replies: ‘Sicut supra dictum est, ordines sacri praexigunt sanctitatem; sed status religions est exercitium quoddam ad sanctitatem assequendum. Unde pondus ordinum imponendum est parietibus jam per sanctitatem desiccatis sed pondus religionis dessicat parietes, id est homines ab humore vitiorum.’

Summa Theol. II-IIae, q. 189 art. 1 ad 3

And the previous statement to which he refers is quite definitive for our purpose, for he writes: ‘Per sacrum ordinem aliquis deputatur ad dignissima ministeria, quibus ipsi Christo servitur in Sacramento altaris, ad quad requiritur major sanctitas interior, quam requirat etiam religionis status.’

Ibid., q. 184 art. 8

This is quite conclusive. The misunderstanding arises from the fact that St. Thomas was rather considering the question of the priesthood as a stable state; and, as he knew it, the state of religion was more stable. Readers will find an excellent discussion of the question in Dr. Mahoney’s book, The Secular Priesthood.

It is unfortunate that many manuals of moral theology are quite inadequate and sometimes inaccurate on the point. It is not for the present writer to quarrel with the standard works of theologians, but the following phrase in FerreresCompendium Theologiae Moralis seems unfortunate. In the introduction to Tract X, de Statu religioso, the learned author writes: ‘Status sacerdotalis, licet dignitate omnium praestantissimum sit, ratione tamen perfectionis longe vitae religiosae cedit.’ If the author is speaking of the priesthood as a state, he is, no doubt, technically correct.

Cf. Apost. Const. Provida Mater Ecciesia, Feb. 2nd 1947

If he means to suggest that a ‘secular’ priest is called to a lesser degree of perfection than a religious, as such (e.g. a lay brother), the best comment is that of Cardinal Manning: ‘In my belief that proposition is erroneous and offensive to pious ears and injurious to our Divine Master and to the Holy Ghost.’

Purcell, Life, II, p. 764

Whatever about his state, his office demands personal holiness in the priest. It is not merely a question of dignity, or of external holiness (if there be such a thing!). The text of St. Thomas is quite clear; he speaks of interior holiness. That such is required is evident from the fact that a priest’s primary function is to offer sacrifice. This sacrifice, in so far as it is a personal act, is a lie if his heart is not in accord with his actions. To avoid further discussion here, let it suffice to quote Pius X, whose Letter to Catholic Priests should be read and re-read by every priest and student.

The Holy Father writes: ‘If such sanctity was demanded in the Old Law from a priesthood which was but a type and a figure, what shall be demanded from us, the victim of whose sacrifice is Christ? . . . There are some who think and teach that the whole value of a priest consists in the fact that he devotes himself to the needs of others. How fallacious and disastrous is such a doctrine. Personal sanctity alone will make us the kind of men demanded by our divine vocation—men crucified to the world, men to whom the things of the world are dead, men walking in newness of life.’

Haerenti Animo, Aug. 4th 1908: Cf. also A. A. S., IV. p. 1912

One cannot too often turn to the extraordinary words addressed by our Lord to his Apostles, on the eve of his death, when he was ordaining them priests. ‘I am the true vine . . . Abide in me: and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abide in the vine, so neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you the branches: he that abideth in me and I in him, the same beareth much fruit: for without me you can do nothing.’

John XV, 1–5

Thus, on an occasion when his words must be taken as specially significant, in a matter that was intimately connected with his life-work and with the purpose of his death, our Lord laid it down that not only was union with him the way to fruitfulness in the ministry, but that there was no other way. In fact, he stated that ‘if any one abide not in me: he shall be cast forth as a branch, and shall wither.’


No priest, then, can set aside union with our Lord—intimate and complete union with our Lord—as something outside his vocation, something peculiarly the vocation of religious. Absit! A priest, as a priest, is called to the highest perfection. He is in a class apart. While the religious must tend to holiness, the priest must be holy.

This should be a source of great confidence to every priest. No one will deny that the life many priests have to live presents not a few difficulties and obstacles to holiness. Yet, since it is obligatory, holiness must be possible. Since holiness is an essential duty of his office, the priest can be certain that all the necessary graces are available. The character of the priesthood received in Holy Orders—that mysterious participation in the priesthood of Jesus Christ—is the promise and the pledge of all graces needed for our priesthood. St. Thomas would even call the character a ‘cause’ of grace.

Cf. Summa Theol. III, q. 69 art. 10

By ordination a special relation is set up between the soul and the Holy Ghost; on him, who is God himself and who is our sanctifier, we can rely for all that our priesthood entails. Our Lord himself has exhorted us: ‘Have confidence, I have overcome the world.’

John XVI, 33

So that even if our lives in the world are fraught with difficulty, we can be absolutely certain of his omnipotent aid. In all these things we can overcome ‘because of him that hath loved us’; in all things we are made rich in him, so that nothing can be wanting to us in any grace. With St. Peter let each of us launch out into the deep at the word of the Master, confident of a full draught; with St. Paul let each of us say: ‘I know whom I have believed and I am certain that he is able to keep that which I have committed unto him.’

2 Tim. I, 12

The first difficulty about a priest’s prayer—namely the feeling that he is not called to a high spirituality, that this is something reserved for religious, to which he need not, or even should not, aspire—is thereby removed. A priest must sum up in himself all the different types of the spiritual life, ‘eminently’ of course. He must be a contemplative, if his activity is to be fruitful. There is no other way for him. His vocation demands all the holiness of any religious order, even though it does not provide the same means to achieve it, and even though it may not—perhaps—have the same stability of organization that would make it technically a ‘state.’

Cf., however, Mahoney, op. cit.

Readers will forgive us for stressing this. It is true that many workers in the mission fields are religious. Even for these, we would stress the obligation to holiness which arises out of their priesthood. The reason is that in the missions regular religious life has often to be modified considerably, if not at times almost completely abandoned, so that the religious is no better off in respect of safeguards and assistance than the diocesan priest. He may, therefore, be tempted to feel that he is no longer obliged to acquire and to possess that holiness that would be his aim and his vocation in a more sheltered and regular observance. This would be a fatal error. As if St. Peter and St. Paul were saints only in spite of their apostolic vocation! Such religious are, as priests, called to the highest holiness, and as priests, in the exercise of their priesthood, can and must find the means to achieve it. They must school themselves from the very beginning to seek such means even in walks of life which render regular religious observance impossible. They have by ordination at least a title to, if not the actual possession of, all the graces necessary for holiness. But they must use those graces. That is where a religious can fail. He may have come to rely on his rule and regular life to bring him to perfection. Once the rule has to be modified by the needs of the mission-fields, and regular life becomes a dream never to be realized, there is a danger that he may give up hope of perfection, fail to take things energetically into his own hands and use the grace that is in him to be holy.

Our primary purpose in these pages is to discuss mental prayer for priests. But it is necessary to discuss these other matters to get things into their true perspective. Prayer is, of course, only a part of the spiritual life, yet it is a part that depends on, and gives expression to, the whole spiritual life. If any part of our spiritual life is defective, our prayer will be influenced by that defect—especially by a mistaken view of our vocation to holiness.

Another point which we should like to stress is this. Union with God is frequently put forward as the goal of prayer—a goal to which a man may attain after long years of prayer, penance and faithful service. Divine union would, then, be the end of a life of prayer in a chronological sense as well as a philosophic one. Such a view—while true in a way—could easily mislead us. For in a very important sense, divine union is the beginning of prayer—its ‘principle,’ chronologically as well as philosophically. It is true a sinner can pray, but he must have at least that momentary union with God that is the result of actual grace. Prayer is a supernatural act, something superhuman, and therefore utterly impossible without God. Therefore from the very beginning we must see divine union as the foundation of our prayer. We pray not in order to achieve divine union—we achieved that in Baptism—but to develop it. Let us again refer to our Lord’s words at the Last Supper; they must never be forgotten by the priest. ‘Abide in me . . . without me you can do nothing.’ That is the secret of how to pray; it is the secret of how to preach; it is the secret of how to be apostles; it is the secret of how to be saints. And there is no other way!

The pattern set by the Church in the breviary is highly significant. Each hour begins by a communing with God. ‘Deus in adjutorium meum intende. Domine ad adjuvandum me festina.’ That is the way we must approach all prayer. We must stir up the grace that is in us, by the imposition of hands. All we need is already ours, by the title of five sacraments. And also, may we add, by the title of our own poverty. ‘Modicae fidei’; why do we doubt? Let us pray in faith, nothing wavering. ‘We know in whom we have confidence.’ We have received the Holy Spirit, for our use. He it is who prayeth in us. All we have to do is to unite ourselves to him.

Before leaving this point, may we anticipate some later discussions, and draw the reader’s attention to the need for faith—especially for faith in the powers given to our own souls by the sacraments we have received? We must believe in our power to pray, as we believe in our power to consecrate and to absolve. In fact we shall frequently be forced to believe in our capacity for prayer, for neither the prayer nor the power to pray will be at all in evidence. Yet we are participators in the priesthood of Christ. That will suffice—if we have faith in him.

Our spiritual life, then, from the very beginning is a life of union with God, which we have to develop. One of the principal ways of developing this life is prayer. How are we to go about it? To answer this question, it is again necessary to explain its perspective. There are three important things upon which our whole spiritual life depends, and which are so interconnected that no one of them can be discussed properly without reference to the others. These three are: spiritual reading, reflection and prayer. When we speak of prayer in these pages, we generally mean prayer in this sense, something distinct from our reading or reflection, and something which is of capital necessity for our advance in the spiritual life. The best way to describe what we mean is to make our own the words of St. Teresa: ‘Mental prayer, in my opinion, is nothing else than being on terms of intimate friendship with God, frequently conversing in secret with him, who, we know, loves us.’

Autobiography, Ch. VIII, 7

It is an elevation to God of our heart and soul, in which he is addressed, with or without words, in the second person singular. Using the term prayer in the sense which we have indicated, we do not consider thinking about God to be in itself prayer. It is of course often accompanied by a silent prayer of the heart; and it is one of the best ways to lead us to pray.

But it does not suffice, in itself, to satisfy the third need of the spiritual life we have indicated by the term prayer. We shall return to that point in a moment.

Before we go any further in this discussion, we have again to clear a way through the brambles and brushwood of misunderstanding. A distinction is made between vocal prayer and mental prayer. It is not for us to quarrel with traditional usage, but we may be permitted to deplore the effects arising from a misunderstanding of that distinction. Two particularly harmful notions can arise from it, and, in fact, have arisen. One is the idea that there is some type of vocal prayer which is not ‘mental’; the other is that ‘mental’ prayer must never be made with words. It is hard to imagine any misunderstanding that can be more baneful to our spiritual life than these. There can obviously be no true prayer in which the mind does not in some way take part. And even the higher forms of contemplation may express themselves in words. Was St. Francis, who spent the night repeating ‘My Lord and my God,’ not making ‘mental prayer’?

Generally, the term vocal prayer is applied to that prayer wherein words are used and externally expressed, at least by lip-articulation; in most cases some ready-made formula is employed, for example the Pater Noster or the Psalms. One might say that in vocal prayer a person tries to conform his mind to a ready-made formula externally expressed, while in mental prayer, he starts with a ‘meaning’ and may try to express it in some way or other. Such a summing-up is quite inadequate, but it may help to get rid of the notion that the two things are mutually exclusive. One thing we insist upon: prayer does not cease to be mental prayer when one commences to use words, even if those words are borrowed ones, such as common aspirations or verses from the Psalms. The important point is not whether we express our meaning in words or acts, but whether we have a meaning to express, and also, indeed, whether we mean that meaning. Here we can certainly agree to a caveat. If you do use words in your mental prayer, be sure you mean what you say. It does not matter a whole lot whether you say what you mean: often, in fact, you will be quite incapable of saying it. Sometimes you can only ‘babble.’ These things don’t matter; it is the ‘meaning’ that matters, in other words, the movements of the heart.

We also insist upon another point. Meditation, strictly so-called, in the sense of reflection, is not, as such, mental prayer, at least that mental prayer which we consider to be so essential for the spiritual life. Readers will forgive us if we are almost aggressive on the point. We have met many souls who think and who, it would seem, were taught to think, that mental prayer consists essentially in ‘consideration.’ We do not, indeed, deny the need for consideration or reflection for the formation of convictions in the spiritual life. On the contrary, it is because we hold such to be so necessary that we are going to insist upon the importance of reading and reflection. But we are convinced that some more direct approach to God than that is necessary, and we feel that prayer is the time for that intimate approach. It is here that prayer can be defined as an elevation of the mind to God. One could, perhaps, argue that reflection is such an elevation and therefore a prayer. Transeat! We are not writing a theoretical treatise on the psychology and theology of prayer; we are trying to draw up a programme of the exercises necessary for a priest who wishes to develop his spiritual life. If such meditation be prayer, such ‘prayer’ is, to our mind, not sufficient for a healthy spiritual life. Something more is needed and we reserve the term prayer for that something more.

However, we do not deny that there is a very common type of prayer in which the discursive operation of the intellect greatly predominates, leading, however, to some affections and to those acts of choice which are called resolutions. Indeed, it must be so for many people, if the ‘meaning’ we refer to above is to come into existence. But because of the misunderstanding of that unfortunate adjective ‘mental,’ too many people consider that discursive meditation is the essential part of mental prayer. In fact, it is quite the other way about! The real prayer, the elevation of the mind and heart to God, is in the affections, in the movements of the will to God; the reflections, in themselves, are little more than a means to that end. It cannot be denied that in many cases the will is acting—we may say praying—even during the reflective part of the exercise. That, however, is per accidens. But in stressing the need for affections, what we wish to combat is the notion—by no means unheard-of—that mental prayer, properly so-called, ceases when the acts or affections commence, especially if these are made in words. As a matter of fact, it is only then that prayer in its fullness really commences. The whole purpose of meditation, in so far as it is connected with the exercise of prayer, is to get those acts going.

We shall have to postpone to our next chapter what we have to say about reading and reflection. The reader is probably impatient now, and wishes for something practical with regard to his mental prayer. To satisfy him, let us anticipate by a summary statement, which we shall develop and explain later. Once the current misunderstandings have been put aside and the initial novitiate completed, what one might call the ‘technique’ of prayer is comparatively simple. The whole thing can be summed up in this way. There is an exercise of private prayer, well-nigh essential for the spiritual life, which consists in talking to God, in one’s own words, with or without words, according to one’s inclination. The paradox is deliberate and is best elucidated by reminding the reader of the prayer to the Holy Ghost which begins, ‘Deus cui omne cor patet, et omnis voluntas loquitur . . . ’ Our wills can speak to God without words, and yet in the way indicated by the phrase, ‘in our own words.’ As a matter of practical policy, the use of words has nothing whatever to do with the nature of mental prayer. They are a means to an end, to be used if they help, to be omitted if they are a hindrance.

If it is as simple as all that, why do many men find it so hard? In practice, one answer to that question is another question, addressed to the individual priest who says he cannot pray. ‘Do you do any regular spiritual reading’? That, to our mind, is the practical crux of the whole matter. In some ways we regard regular spiritual reading as more important than mental prayer itself, inasmuch as, if one looks after one’s spiritual reading, mental prayer will look after itself.

To any priest who looks for guidance in the matter of his mental prayer, our reply is this. First of all, he must agree to a regular daily ration of spiritual reading. Given this, and provided we are not dealing with a beginner or with someone in unusual circumstances, to the ordinary priest who is living a ‘good’ life, we would say: Fix a time each day for your mental prayer.

Stand, sit or kneel as you find best. Start off by turning to God. After that, it does not matter much what happens, as long as you do not allow yourself to be deliberately distracted. When you find yourself distracted, and that will be often, turn gently back. Use a book if you wish, but don’t turn the exercise into spiritual reading. Never strain yourself. All must be done gently. Do not be disappointed if you achieve nothing. Hold on. God will come in his own time.

This is a rather summary prescription which we intend to discuss at greater length in later chapters. But it provides, if not for the melius esse of prayer, at least for the esse of prayer as we believe it to be necessary. So essential do we consider some such effort at private prayer for the spiritual life of the priest that we would personally quite cheerfully take full responsibility for all the time that a priest prudently spends in such an exercise no matter how fruitful the time might actually have been if devoted to other good works. The apparent failure and fruitlessness of our effort must not lessen our determination to persevere in it. Very often God allows the fruit of our efforts to find him to appear only at some other moment of the day. Sometimes he wishes us to learn that, even though we must keep on making efforts, the result depends completely on him and his bounty. Accordingly, he withholds his graces for a time and then bestows them in such abundance, and so clearly out of all proportion to our own efforts, that they are unmistakably the result of his mercy rather than of our own merits. If we remember that in persevering in our attempts at prayer we are continually offering and giving ourselves to him, and if at the same time we regard everything that he gives to us as the gift of his mercy rather than as the reward of our merits, we shall enter into a new relationship with him full of a peace and confidence which no shortcomings on our own part can lessen. And while we must not lose sight of those shortcomings we must remember, too, that God has given us his Son for our Saviour so that nothing is wanting to us in any grace. Let us cast our burden on him . . . Ipse faciet.

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