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The Priest's Way To God

IT would be a great mistake for any priest to think that the necessity for daily mental prayer arises merely from Canon Law or Church discipline, for its importance is intrinsic and is based on its essential connection with the spiritual life. But it would also be a mistake to regard it as an exercise at which success depends on talents or application and can be measured, so to speak, as we measure success in a sermon or some purely intellectual exercise. For nowhere else in the spiritual life can apparent failure so easily conceal real achievement. Let us review the position for a moment. The normal approach to prayer is by reading and reflection. Many writers include these in prayer itself and indeed some seem to make the whole exercise consist in remembering and reflecting with a few minor acts added by way of an accidental winding-up of the whole. To emphasize the importance of the prayer element, we have in these chapters suggested that reading and reflection be made separate exercises and that they be used at the time given to mental prayer only in so far as they are necessary as a means to achieve prayer. Since, however, prayer, as we have just admitted, is very often achieved in apparent failure instead of by perceptible success, many will wonder whether there is anything left after reading and reflection have been relinquished, and will decide that, since in their case prayer seems so difficult to achieve, they had better occupy themselves with reflection or even with reading if reflection does not succeed.

This is a point on which we cannot compromise. It is quite true that there can be no spiritual life without reading and reflection. In some equivalent form or other they are absolutely essential and it is by neglect of them that so many of us allow our spiritual lives to decline. A healthy spiritual life must be nourished; but it must also be exercised, and prayer is one of its most important exercises. Intellect and will have both their part to play in the spiritual life. At prayer it is mainly the will which is to be exercised. For prayer is not merely an intellectual activity. It is a reaching-out of the soul to God, not merely to know him but still more to love him and to be united to him. It is true that there is much prayer in the daily life of the priest. He frequently, so to speak, meets God and acts in his name in the course of his liturgical and apostolic activities. But most of this is done in an official capacity. It is quite possible for a man, speaking officially, to condemn roundly and resolutely things which in his private life he condones. And there are many other official activities which can be performed in an impersonal way despite an external appearance of zeal and emotion. In fact, one of the dangers to which a priest is exposed is that of thinking that by denouncing vice and demanding virtue he has thereby fulfilled all justice. This possibility of divorce between one’s official and one’s private life is also found in the matter of prayer, and that is why no priest can be satisfied with the official prayers of his daily duties unless he is also personally and whole-heartedly involved in them. And if his own personal feelings are involved in his public prayers, he will long for the opportunity of pouring them out in private. So that, in any event, private prayer becomes of capital importance. For most of us unfortunately it becomes of importance, not because we feel a need of relieving a pent-up torrent of devotion and desire, but because of our lack of such ardent supernatural aspirations.

The seed for the growth of such aspirations is sown by reading and cultivated by reflection but can be brought to life only in prayer—in private, personal prayer. In such a prayer a priest must go to meet God; thinking about him is not enough. This meeting with God is not a matter of eloquence or originality, of depth of thought or extent of learning but of divine grace and human correspondence. We cannot go to God unless he, in his fatherliness, draws us. And we can go no further towards him than his grace enables us to do. What we can do is to ask for his grace and to dispose ourselves for it; to count upon sufficient grace to enable us to do that can hardly be presumptuous. So that the first step of our ascent to God in prayer must be to ask sincerely and humbly, in willing acknowledgement and acceptance of our helplessness, for grace to seek God and to go to him.

The second step is to dispose ourselves for the reception of such grace and to prepare to co-operate with it. Since our will plays such an important part in this going to God, the detaching of our will from any deliberate quest opposed to our purpose is a most important preparation for prayer. That, perhaps, is where many of us fail. Our wills have attached themselves to something opposed to our quest of God, something he has forbidden, something he has asked us to sacrifice, something which we are afraid of being asked to renounce. We do not want God earnestly enough to leave our nets and our nothings—for is not the whole world and our own selves nothing without God?—to go in search of him. Some, perhaps, may be discouraged by this conclusion, but unnecessarily. Since it is only by God’s grace that we can detach ourselves so thoroughly from all else, we need never be afraid to admit to God our defects and our shortcomings. We need never be afraid to tell him that even though the spirit is willing, the flesh is weak. We need not even fear to remind him that our spirit is far from being what it should be. He is our Father. He is our Saviour. He is our Sanctifier. It is he who is to pour love into our hearts and to compel our rebellious wills to come to his wedding feast. And very often he withholds his assistance until we learn our own helplessness in aridity and ‘failure’ at prayer. Yet such aridity, such failure, is a very great advantage. For in the spiritual life there is no one so weak as the man who does not suspect his own weakness. The only men who are at all truly sure of their power to go to God are those who are quite convinced that all their sufficiency is from God; that the only strength they have is God’s strength and grace.

For that reason a helpless, drowsy, distracted, sterile, dreary ten minutes spent at mental prayer is—in so far as it is a perfect expression of our own position with regard to God—a very good prayer. It expresses the truth far better than the most eloquent phrases or the most ardent feelings. It leaves us nothing of which to be proud but it offers God much to excite his compassion. And it is only when God has compassion on us that we can succeed in finding him in prayer! By way of consolation the writer might add that, as far as he can see, such ‘unsuccessful’ prayer is the normal experience of souls who are truly spiritual after the initial stages of sensible fervour and devotional discovery have been passed.

Perhaps the following quotation from such an authority as Fr. M. Egan S.J. will help. In his excellent book, The House of Peace,


he has a chapter entitled ‘The Prayer of Stupidity,’ which commences: ‘Mgr. Ronald Knox, in one of two admirable articles on prayer which he contributed to the Clergy Review (June and July 1939), recommends what he quaintly calls the Prayer of Stupidity, as a kind of prayer suitable to souls of ordinary calibre who are in search of God. It consists in a sort of general awareness of God, with a vague and more or less indiscriminate movement of the will towards him. The soul is in what we may call a prayerful attitude, which may or may not receive a specific direction or determination through particular acts of the mind or will. It is a kind of prayer that is familiar to many who, perhaps, have not recognized it as prayer at all; they have thought of it either as a failure to pray, for which they feel more or less blameworthy, or at best an inoffensive way of putting in the time allotted to prayer by rule or custom. Nevertheless it is really prayer. It may be very imperfect, full of distractions, many of them ascribable to sloth or negligence, barely worthy of the name of prayer; but on the other hand it may, without losing its vagueness and amorphous character, be very pleasing to God and very sanctifying to the soul.’ Fr. Egan then goes on to consider the progress in prayer of a Jesuit novice trained in discursive prayer. ‘It is, I think,’ he writes, ‘the experience of many Jesuits, perhaps of most, that the power of meditating, of acquiring and turning over spiritual ideas and using them to enkindle their wills, grew and increased in them for some time, but did not continue to grow. On the contrary, after a longer or shorter period, these spiritual ideas, “lights” about our Lord’s life, or about eternal truths, came less and less easily in the time of prayer. They might come at other times. . . . But at times of prayer when one was alone with God, the mind seemed to relapse into dullness, into an uncouth and stupid silence broken by a few half-formed acts and by a multitude of distractions.’

There are two points in the above quotation which we wish to underline. The first is that this ‘failure’ at prayer is really an advance in prayer. The second is the nature of this prayer so well summed up in the last phrase: ‘an uncouth and stupid silence, broken by a few half-formed acts and by a multitude of distractions.’ A little thought will show us that if prayer is a meeting with God, the very finding of God in prayer might be expected to produce just such an attitude on our part. As long as the person to whom we are praying is. vividly portrayed in our imagination, in our own terms, so to speak, it is not surprising that we should be able to talk freely and earnestly. But when all creatures of our own imagination are removed and when God really begins to manifest himself to our souls, what adequate speech is left for us? Is not silence his fitting praise? Indeed, one often suspects that much of the fervour and facility which some souls experience at prayer is the result of finding themselves rather than of finding God. Such facile fervour decreases as one progresses along the road which St. John the Baptist summarized as decrease of self and increase of Christ.

On the other hand one must not overlook Fr. Egan’s suggestion that in some cases such a performance at prayer may be due to our own sloth and negligence. To go to God we have to leave our nets. If we do not dispose ourselves at the beginning of our prayer and put aside all distracting preoccupations with creatures, we need not be surprised at the result. The remedy lies in our own hands. But the remedy is not to return to meditation; it is to turn to God with our whole heart. Obviously this whole-hearted turning to God greatly depends on the general tenor of our spiritual lives. Our prayer will often reflect the shortcomings of our other activities. If we deliberately prefer creatures to God, such a preference will certainly fetter our will when we try to pursue God at prayer. Nevertheless it is by praying, by asking, by knocking and by seeking that we shall obtain the grace and the strength to break our fetters and to seek God with all our heart.

If then a priest finds that his prayer is a failure, let him not give in to the temptation to abandon prayer. Provided there is not an obvious cause on his part, provided that he daily reads and reflects, he need have no scruple about continuing what seems such a futile activity; It is only when one decides to omit prayer because of such ‘failure’ that one learns by sad experience how valuable it was and how great an effect it had, for all its apparent futility, in sanctifying us. It is practically impossible to persevere in sincere attempts at daily prayer, even though the attempt seems to fail, while persevering in any deliberate infidelity to God. But if one gives up the attempt at prayer infidelities flourish unchecked. The proper prescription for a soul whose prayer is ‘stupid’ is patience and abandonment. We must be content to be beggars before God, to realize that our spiritual poverty is our most valuable title to God’s bounty; and we must embrace such poverty, gladly relying on the merciful compassion of God, who himself is our Father, our Saviour and our Sufficiency.

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