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The Priest's Way To God

IN the previous chapters we have suggested that three things are fundamental for the interior life, namely: spiritual reading, reflection and private prayer. These three must find their place in each day’s programme. As a rule, it will be sufficient to set aside a time for reading and a time for prayer. Reflection, in many cases, will spring spontaneously from these two exercises; if not, then, of course, some provision should be made for it, but it need not be done formally; in fact it is often better to make our reflections while walking or sitting down or, say, working in the garden. Some men find they think better in noisy surroundings, on the top of a tram, or in a busy street, but, as a rule, a certain degree of quiet is helpful. In our last chapter we tried to discuss reading and reflection, but found that we were continually recurring to prayer. The three are inseparably connected and cannot be adequately treated apart. In this chapter we propose to pay closer attention to the exercise of prayer.

One important point about prayer—we are now speaking of what is usually called mental prayer—is that it is not just one more exercise added to a number of others in the spiritual life. It is a summing-up of all those exercises. It is an expression of our attitude to God, and it depends very closely upon how that attitude affects the rest of our life. We cannot pray sincerely unless our attitude to God is sincere. And our attitude to God is not sincere, if we deliberately prevent it from affecting our actions, especially when such prevention is habitual. That is why, to our mind, discussion of the ‘technique’ of prayer is more theoretical than practical unless one takes into consideration as well the whole of our spiritual life. That is why, in discussing our daily short period of prayer, we shall frequently have to digress to discuss many other aspects of our lives. For the real difficulty of praying has its roots outside prayer. If the ‘remote’ preparation for prayer is sound, little else is required to succeed in prayer; but that remote preparation is very far-reaching; it includes everything that we do. Yet, on the other hand, the way we do everything else depends on our prayer, so that while prayer in practice is quite simple, its discussion may be very involved.

The usual prescription for the beginning of mental prayer is to put ourselves in the presence of God. One might, perhaps, prefer to express it differently, but the idea is excellent. If we are going to speak to God, we must get in touch with him. That, however, is not so much a question of putting ourselves in his presence as of making him present to us by adverting to his presence, for in many ways he is always with us. Different men will do that in different ways. When prayer is made in the church the Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament is often the focus of our attention. Despite the excellence of such a practice there are many great advantages to be gained by attending rather to the divine presence in our own souls, where that is found helpful. If there is difficulty in doing this, one way of overcoming it is to make a spiritual communion—a word or two will suffice—and then to proceed as if one has just received our Lord sacramentally.

But the point we regard as capital in all this is that early on in prayer we must make sure to catch God’s eye, to look him in the face, as it were, even though it be only for a moment. To realize the importance of this one has only to imagine the meeting of two friends between whom there has been a tiny estrangement. They can talk fluently and freely for a long time about indifferent things and still part without any change in their strained relations as long as they do not look each other in the face. But the normal man cannot look his friend in the face and maintain his estrangement. He must either make it up or break it up. So it is when we go to pray. We can ‘pray’ at great length with a wealth of words and still retain a determination to say ‘no’ to God on some point, as long as we do not ‘catch his eye.’ But if we stop talking and fooling ourselves with our own words, and just for one tiny second look our Lord in the face, then—like St. Peter—we cannot continue in our cowardice and coldness, we must give him what he wants.

If we achieved nothing else in half an hour’s prayer than that one look into the face of Jesus, our time would be well spent and its fruit immeasurable. Such an experience, if it comes to us every day, will produce a great effect on our spiritual life and have a considerable influence on our prayer. Henceforth our prayer must be sincere; we realize that we must mean what we say. Fine words and fine ideas have nothing to do with our prayer. It is not like composing a speech or writing an essay. It is a question of being honest with God and with oneself. Accordingly, our flow of words dries up and we stammer; we start to say something and then, realizing our own insincerity, we stop again. This is an excellent development in prayer, and these stammered words and phrases are far more valuable than the most eloquent and illuminated colloquies which, by the way, are very often more like soliloquies. ‘Affections,’ of course, are what we are aiming at. But a sincere doubt about the sincerity of our hesitant ‘My God, I love thee!’ is often more in accordance with truth than a long protestation of undying love.

We need never be afraid to draw our Lord’s attention to the lack of complete sincerity in our protestations. This is a point where many people make a mistake. For a time they can ‘pray,’ that is, they can keep on talking to God. Then they begin to question the sincerity of their statements and they come to realize how little real truth is in them. Sometimes they become discouraged and give up prayer as something outside their scope; they feel they are not sincere enough to talk to God.

That brings us to a point that we consider to be of the utmost importance in prayer as well as in the whole spiritual life. We must have the correct notion of God’s attitude to us. Now, the first Person of the Blessed Trinity is our Father, and the authentic portrait of his attitude to us is painted for us by the lips of Infinite Truth in the parable of the prodigal son. And the third Person of the Blessed Trinity is our Sanctifier, whom the liturgy calls ‘the remission of our sins,’ so that we do not need to be saints to go to him; he knows that we are sinners and that our sanctification must come from him. So, then, even though we know ourselves to be sinners, we have no real reason to be afraid to approach the Father or the Holy Ghost.

But it is through the second Person that we are to go to God and his attitude to us is of the greatest importance. And his attitude is perfectly expressed by his name, for he is called Jesus ‘ because he shall save his people from their sins.’ He is, then, our Saviour. This we must never forget. We must make it the foundation of all our relations with him. He is always ready to save us from our sins and from our shortcomings. Thus, those very failings which tend to inhibit our prayer can be made the reason for a very close bond between us. They need not separate us from him or drive us away. ‘This man receiveth sinners,’ and we need not be afraid to approach him. In fact, like St. Paul, we should glory in our infirmities that the power of Christ may dwell in us. Our very defects may lead to a very close union with our Saviour. We must be quite clear and definite about this point. Divine union is not something reserved for spotless or angelic souls. It is the essential foundation of even the lowest degree of true Christian living, for a man cannot be in the state of grace unless he is so closely united to God as to share in the divine nature! Our Lord himself has made it quite clear that he wants to be intimate with us. If the institution of the Blessed Eucharist be not proof enough, let us remember the text: ‘Behold, I stand at the gate, and knock. If any man shall hear my voice, and open to me the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.’

Apoc. III, 20

We need not, then, be afraid to be intimate with our Lord in our private prayers. The very fact that we are sinners and need his saving power is sufficient justification for our drawing close to him, and it is our reason for asking for close union with him so that his power may dwell in us.

There is only one type of sinner who cannot be at his ease with God, and that is the man who intends to continue sinning. To glory in that infirmity, and to hope that the power of Christ will dwell in a soul deliberately defiant of the will of Christ, is worse than presumption. The case, however, is quite different if a man wants to give up sin, and yet experiences difficulty in doing so. Such a man need have no fear of appealing to our Lord’s saving grace. For it is precisely such a man that our Lord wants to save.

These considerations will suggest that one of the best starting-points for private prayer is a gentle act of sorrow for sin and a desire not to sin again. Starting from that, we can develop with our omnipotent Saviour a colloquy which will be a perfect prayer. This, however, is but one example. One can start from any other act—adoration or faith, for example—and let the conversation flow from that starting-point. The thing we wish to emphasize here is that prayer is a conversation (it may be a silent one) with Jesus, and we must be careful that we regard him in the correct light lest a wrong outlook should stifle our part in it. To our mind, the fact that it is to our Lord that we are talking is far more important than what we say to him. Talking to Christ develops our friendship and intimacy with him and that is what is so desirable.

If we recall the trivialities which serve as topics for conversation between friends or lovers and remember that the persons concerned are interested not so much in these trivialities as in each other, we may be encouraged to allow ourselves a little more liberty in our choice of subject matter for conversation with him who called us his friends. The fact that we have made provision elsewhere in reading and reflection for the harvest that is usually expected from meditation may also ease our mind on this point. The important thing in prayer is not so much the choosing of the subject as keeping in touch with our Lord. And for that reason we need not worry too much about the subject of our prayer as long as we can talk to God about it. Even distractions, therefore, can be made a starting-point for a colloquy with him. But what is of importance is to make sure that it is really to our Lord that we are talking and not just to ourselves or to some unfounded fantasy of our imagination. That is why it is so necessary to pause now and then to catch God’s eye. Even in mental prayer we are liable to harden our hearts and go on praying so that we may not hear his voice!

We have commenced our discussion of mental prayer by considering it as a conversation with God for two reasons. The first is that we have already provided for the other aspects of it by insistence on reading and reflection; the second, that the conversational aspect is not always given its proper place. Until one has reached some degree of simplified prayer, conversation with God is the really important part of prayer both as an aim and as a practice. The rest, to some extent at any rate, is rather an introduction to prayer, a means to an end. But because the end is often unattainable—because there are so many occasions when we can find nothing to say—then one must have recourse to the means, one must meditate.

Before, however, discussing the use of such means, let us note another way of sustaining prayerful contact with God. We can make use of some favourite formula of vocal prayer, reciting it slowly and deliberately with plenty of pauses, and making the words our own by dwelling on them. A gentle effort to mean each word and to utter it sincerely will often produce the desired result. The Psalms afford excellent material for this way of praying; but one should not linger over obscure or difficult texts, but be content with those verses that say something which we want to say. Any formula of prayer drawn from our memory or from a book can be used in this way. One book which many will find helpful is The Sufferings of Our Lord Jesus Christ by Fr. Thomas of Jesus O.S.A. It is a translation of an old Portuguese work in which every second chapter is a prayer personally addressed to our Lord. Each one, however, will have his own favourite, and old friends are the best friends; we do not want a book which is so new to us that we are continually tempted to go on to see what comes next.

Even books which are not prayer-books can be used to feed the flames—or perhaps we should say, kindle the spark—of prayer. Some people find that they can get on best by using a suitable spiritual book. They read it sentence by sentence and pause in between to make acts inspired by what they have just read. In such a case, care must always be taken that the exercise of prayer does not become mere spiritual reading.

The book used must, therefore, be carefully chosen. It should be one which makes the reader pause and think rather than one which tends to carry him on further. Here, too, old friends are the best.

Reflection—however it may arise—can often be turned into prayer; instead of talking to ourselves in our thoughts, we can talk over the matter with our Lord. This is a possibility which should be borne in mind when there is question of approaching prayer by the conventional way of methodical meditation. Of methodical meditation it is hardly necessary to treat here at any length. There are many excellent books on the subject; those written by Fr. Egan S.J. and by Fr. Kearney C.S.Sp. will be of great help. (The chapter on ‘The Prayer of Stupidity’ in Fr. Egan’s book, The House of Peace, is invaluable and should be familiar to every one who wants to pray). All we wish to say here on the subject is that any priest who adds to his theological studies the daily practice of spiritual reading and reflection may allow himself considerable latitude in following the more rigid and detailed prescriptions laid down by some writers. He should never forget that in regard to prayer the preludes and considerations are means to an end; once the end, namely praying, has been attained, the means may be set aside for the moment.

However, a priest should not carry this emancipation so far as to free himself from having some subject of prayer ready at hand upon which he may fall back if all else fails. This may be the subject of earlier spiritual reading; it may be some point in the liturgy of the day; it may be one of the mysteries of the Rosary or one of the Stations of the Cross. These latter have the advantage of being arranged in a familiar order so that they are ready to hand. If care is not taken to provide a prepared subject, prayer may become a mere series of distractions or an idle reverie. We cannot, however, exhaust the subject of prayer in this chapter, and as we should prefer to link up further discussion with the possibility of advance in prayer, we shall postpone it to later on. Let us here advert to another point which also calls for further treatment but is mentioned here as it may help those who are looking for the cause of difficulty in praying.

Success at prayer is not—primarily, at least—a matter of technique or of method. Admittedly technique and methods have something to do with it, but their role is quite secondary. What is of primary importance is the fervour of one’s life and the degree of one’s willingness to follow the example of our Lord. For us priests it can all be summed up in one question: how sincerely do we say our Mass? That, perhaps, is rather summary; but the life of a priest should be an unfolding of what he promises when he says Mass. There are, of course, other springs of devotion, so that a man’s fervour may outrun his appreciation of the Mass, but in the long run it is the Mass that matters. For in the Mass a priest acts in the name of Christ. He is so closely associated with the priesthood of Christ that he speaks in the first person when he consecrates. He offers Christ’s sacrifice. But in Christ’s sacrifice, Christ is victim as well as priest; he offers himself. Do we imitate him? Do we realize that he also offers us? Do we consent to that? Because if we do not, there can hardly be any close and deep friendship between us and our prayer will be rather a conventional greeting between business partners, so to speak, than a heart-to-heart talk between friends. Where there is a deliberate intention to continue wounding him by a habit of sin, friendship and prayer are extremely difficult. Even a deliberate refusal to co-operate with the inspirations of his grace, asking us for some sacrifice to which we are not bound, will be a great obstacle to our success at prayer. But even where there is no clear-cut purpose contrary to his will, there are still attitudes of mind which hinder prayer. We may, for example, be afraid that generosity in his service is going to impose intolerable burdens upon us. We forget that he has assured us that his yoke is easy and his burden light, and we priests should know him well enough by now to know that he does not break the bruised reed.

An unconscious fear of some unwelcome demand from him is very often at the root of our problems in prayer. We either keep on talking empty words or filling our imagination with empty pictures so as to leave him no chance of speaking in our souls, or else we erect some sort of a barrier between us so that we cannot look each other in the face. That is why one cannot discuss prayer without discussing the whole spiritual life. Until a man wants—at least to some extent—to give himself to our Lord, prayer will always be penance rather than a pleasure, an embarrassment rather than an embrace. After all, he himself warned us that we cannot be his disciples unless we are willing to deny ourselves, to take up our cross daily and to follow him. Unless we are willing to do that, we cannot be his sincere friends. But prayer is the heart-to-heart conversation of a friend of God with his Divine Lover, so that without such friendship and all it entails, prayer will always be difficult.

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