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The Priest's Way To God

TO avoid misunderstanding, let us here summarize our view about the practice of meditation and prayer for priests. We have insisted on the necessity for daily reading, daily reflection and daily prayer. As a support or scaffolding for these, we ask each priest to set apart a period in his daily timetable for spiritual reading, and also one for private prayer. The reading is to be done reflectively; it may be interspersed with short periods of silent reflection or of aspiratory prayer. We hope that this will lead a priest to reflect informally during the freer periods of the day, and we would suggest a periodic checking-up to see that this is being done. Meditation, in this sense of reflection fed by reading, can never be deliberately dispensed with. It is to this exercise we look for the formation and maintenance of convictions, for their application to our daily life—though this will call for some special examination of conscience—and for the making real of those darkly-seen truths of faith which are the mainspring of the spiritual life.

Many writers condense all these things into one exercise of ‘meditation’ or ‘mental prayer.’ Our fear is that by doing this the need for prayer in the real sense of the word may be overlooked and receive too little attention. For that reason we make prayer a separate exercise. We freely admit that, for many, such a special period for prayer may have to be approached immediately through reading and reflection, but we insist that these should be used only in so far as they are necessary as a means to an end, and that in this special exercise of prayer they should be given no other function than to put us in touch with God and to start us praying to him.

Supposing then that all this has been done regularly, and that there has been made a reasonable and sustained effort to live a spiritual life in accordance with the convictions acquired in reading and reflection and with the promises made in prayer, what is going to happen at prayer? Normally one may expect to find prayer becoming more and more affective; one speaks with an increasing facility to God; ‘acts’ come with a fair fluency and our prayer, by analogy, resembles the conversation of two good friends. This at least should be the expectation of every priest, because Christ does not call him his servant but his friend. This friendship however is not a static thing. It should develop. On our side there will be an advance in the knowledge and understanding of our Friend’s mind and ways; in this sense mutual understanding and sympathy will grow. This progress will certainly affect our conversation with him. Our words become charged with a new meaning; in fact, single words begin to replace sentences. When we do achieve sentences, they have a manifold significance. Our whole utterance simplifies itself. We converse with only a few words or even with none at all. A glance, a smile, even a silence, can say all that we want to say to one who knows us so well. We may even lose the desire to say anything; all we want to do is to remain quietly in his company. Such a change in our prayer need not surprise us. It is similar to the development of human friendship. Grace of course is at work, but grace here seems to adapt itself to the ordinary ways of human nature. Of course, this type of prayer depends greatly on the sincerity of our friendship, not merely when we are at prayer but at all other times. Even where our friendship with our Lord is sincere, the nature of our prayer will depend also on personal temperament. This stage of prayer may last a long time for some souls; for others, it may not come at all or only for a time. Other developments are possible which may either succeed this pleasant phase or anticipate it altogether. Much, as we have said, depends on temperament and also on our knowledge of God.

Increasing knowledge of the Divine Person to whom we are speaking, and especially increasing advertence to his Divinity, may change the nature of our prayer. We begin to suspect the inadequacy of it all. We may even begin to feel that there is something of self-love in our prayer, that we are more interested in the consolations of God than in the God of consolations. We may perceive the lack of correspondence between our promises and our performance. Apart from all that, the limitations inherent in any human emotion, however good or holy, may manifest themselves. Pleasure cannot satisfy us. We were made for something more, and our emotional reaction becomes less and less. We may begin blindly to feel that the picture our imagination forms of the Person to whom we are speaking is quite inadequate, that there is a lot therein of our own creation, a projection of human desires and experiences. It is true that all we can desire or admire in some way reflects God and can be found in God. Yet God himself is much more than his reflections and, whether we know it or not, it is God himself that we need and are seeking.

Considerations such as these may have a considerable effect on our prayer and may even cause us to lose all the facility and enjoyment we once found in it. We arrive at a state which was described in the last chapter as the Prayer of Stupidity; and there is a great temptation to give up prayer as a waste of time that could be better employed. This is a critical pons asinorum in our advance to union with God. We have to remember that it is with our will, aided of course by grace, that we are to pray, and that although our will needs the lead of the intellect to act, yet our intellect must rely on the dim light of faith to feed it, so that we need not be disturbed if everything seems dark and dreary.

It is very important to realize that at this stage we have to be content with doing very little at prayer, and to be convinced that we shall not improve things by a violent effort to replace our apparently useless attempts by some sort of discursive meditation. Our principal difficulty is to deal with distractions. In a more affective and devotional phase of prayer we can manage distractions either by replacing them with some pious thought, or else by leaving them there, while looking over their shoulder, so to speak, at something which will hold our attention. Now there is nothing with which to replace them and there is nothing to look at which will occupy our minds.

Possibly the best policy is to fall back on those fundamental acts which are at the basis of the whole spiritual life. This we do by enunciating gently, very gently, acts of faith, of hope and of charity, in a very quiet and simple fashion, making no violent efforts to ‘feel’ what we say. To these we can add, explicitly or implicitly, an act of adoration leading us to a willing acceptance of our helpless position and circumstances. Even if we achieve no more than this in our time of prayer, we may be quite satisfied. As far as actual praying goes there is little more that we can do.

Any remedy—if there be one—must be sought for elsewhere. Obviously one must consider the possibility that this ‘failure’ at prayer could be due to our own infidelity. In practice one need not worry if examination reveals nothing more definite than a general sense of not doing enough for God or being fervent enough.

It is only when our examination reveals some definite infidelity, some deliberate determination to persevere in a habit which we know to be contrary to God’s will, that special action is called for. Even here one must be careful not to be misled by unreasonable scruples or by an exaggerated notion of the physical mortifications demanded for progress in spirituality.

The fourfold purity of heart, of conscience, of mind and of action upon which prayer depends is a matter we shall discuss later. Here we wish to point out some considerations, too often overlooked, which may help to encourage the man who has come up against a stone wall in prayer, and who is tempted to abandon all further efforts.

Before doing so, we should like to remind the reader that we are considering progress in prayer from the human side. All prayer, of course, is supernatural and depends on grace, but the working of ordinary grace does not do violence to natural development, and we have refrained from discussing what special developments God may initiate by altering the manner in which he treats the soul at prayer. We prefer to reserve that question—upon which there is a certain difference of opinion—for separate treatment later. What we wish to do now is to urge the priest to remember the doctrine of grace and of filial adoption, to remember what he is by grace: a son of God, participating in the divine nature, a man in whose soul the Blessed Trinity dwells—for his enjoyment and for his use! If that seems too strong, let us quote Hervé :

Vol. III, n. 54

‘Deus, secundum donum gratiae sanctificantis, praesens est in anima, modo novo et omnino speciali, non solum quatenus infundit et conservat in nobis dona supernaturalia, sed etiam quatenus personaliter in nobis inhabitat, se praebens nobis ut objectum intimum, quasi experimentaliter cognoscibile, quo iam aliqualiter uti et frui possumus.’ St. Thomas uses a similar expression in the Summa:

I, q. 43, art. 3

Illud solum habere dicimur quo libere possumus uti vel frui . . . Sed in dono gratiae gratum facientis Spiritus Sanctus habetur et inhabitat hominem.’ And if one needs authority for connecting this doctrine with prayer, let us quote St. Paul: ‘Likewise, the Spirit also helpeth our infirmity. For we know not what we should pray for as we ought; but the Spirit himself asketh for us with unspeakable groanings.’

Rom. VIII, 26

And again: You have received the spirit of adoption of sons, whereby we cry: Abba (Father). For the Spirit himself giveth testimony to our spirit that we are sons of God.’

Ibid. 15–16

We must make use of this tremendous gift of God; we must have recourse to the Holy Ghost, for ‘God hath sent the Spirit of his Son into your hearts crying: Abba, Father.’

Gal. IV, 6

Did not our Lord tell us : ‘Thus shall you pray, Our Father’ ?

It would not seem unreasonable to suggest that the providential reason for our paralysis at prayer is to force us to pray not by nature but by grace, to pray not as mere human beings but as sons of God, participating in some mysterious and analogous way in his power of knowing and loving himself. In fact, our Lord’s repeated instruction to pray in his name takes on a new significance in our present circumstances; we begin to glimpse some faint view of the depth of meaning in his exhortation: ‘Abide in me: I am the vine; you the branches . . . Without me you can do nothing.’

John XV, 4–5

The failure of our own prayer is a blessing, for it forces us to fall back on the prayer of Christ; it forces us to unite ourselves with him, to identify ourselves with him, to offer up to the Father his prayer and his love, to pray by his Spirit, the Holy Ghost. As priests we never question the powers of consecrating and absolving given to us by the sacrament of Holy Orders. It would be well to take a similar view of the power of prayer and worship given to us by the sacrament of Baptism and by every other sacrament which we receive. It is true that we cannot have the certainty of faith about our being in the state of grace, but since we must be morally certain of it to exercise various sacerdotal functions, we can use the same conviction when we go to pray. Even if we are sinners, we are still marked out as sons of God, in whose regard he has revealed his attitude and interest by the parable of the prodigal son.

We must, then, unite ourselves to Christ by faith, by hope and by charity. All his merits and his Passion have been communicated to us in Baptism as if they were our very own.

Cf. Summa q. 69, art. 2

Therefore our past sins or our present unworthiness need be no obstacle to our hope and confidence. In fact, our Saviour has made our weaknesses his own, and we should present them to the heavenly Father in his Son’s name. Our own powerlessness does not matter; our Saviour is praying, is adoring, is loving, in our name. All we have to do is to abide in him, by faith, hope and charity. We must never forget that the life of grace on earth is a foreshadowing of the life of glory in heaven. And the life of glory is not merely a passive beholding of the Blessed Trinity, but an entry into, and a partaking in some extraordinary and created way in their life. This participation should begin by grace on earth.

This subject must wait for further discussion in a later chapter, but by way of a practical hint, we would suggest that priests should revise the grace tract, in a modern text book, and develop its teaching in more specialized works. Nothing better has been printed on the divine indwelling in souls than the Rev. Fr. Blowick’s articles in Pagan Missions in the years 1946 and 1947. (Would that they were reprinted in a compact form!) A better understanding of this doctrine will make us realize the force of St. Paul’s teaching that the Holy Ghost prays for us and within us. For we have received the spirit of adoption of sons whereby we cry: Abba, Father.

Cf. Rom. VII, 15

In our aridity we can still truly say, ‘We are saved by hope.’ And hoping for that which we do not see, we shall wait for it in patience, which has a perfect work. Then will the Spirit help our infirmity, for we know not what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself asketh for us. That is the beginning of the true life of prayer which should be the life of every priest.

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