On Prayer                           (E.J.Tyler)

1.  The necessity and nature of prayer:

That prayer is one of the fundamental elements of the Christian religion is obvious from the mere fact that in the Church’s Catechism which sets forth her official teaching, she treats of the Creed, the Sacraments, the Commandments, and finally, Prayer. So without prayer, we cannot speak of Catholicism. Indeed, one can hardly speak of any religion unless we include in the idea some form of prayer. So essential is prayer to religion, and in particular to the Christian religion that St Alphonsus Ligouri states in one of his books that it is impossible to be saved without prayer. Human experience suggests that it is the most natural thing in the world to pray, and yet in the case of modern man so many do not raise their minds and hearts to God. Our modern Western culture has tried to exclude God from life. It is a secular culture. This is surely a factor in the lack of happiness that is observed among so many people.

   If, considering man in the broad sweep, prayer is so natural to him, and since it is necessary for salvation, we ought give some thought to prayer and growth in a life of prayer.

2. What then is prayer?   

It would be an interesting exercise to talk at length with several people and ask them what prayer is. Well, what is it? St Teresa of Avila, Carmelite nun and doctor of the Church, defines prayer as an intimate conversation with God whom we know loves us. In prayer we are not simply thinking about God and about what he has told us and tells us still, even though often prayer will include this for its own nourishment. Prayer is primarily communing with God, as we would commune with a dear friend whom we love and revere. God, of course, is much more than our friend. He is also our holy Judge and Lord whom, nevertheless, we know loves us. Prayer is conversation with him who is our loving God, our Saviour and our Father and Friend. Whether we pray with set definite prayers, whether we pray with others in a group or as a parish at Sunday Mass, or whether we pray interiorly by ourselves, we begin by placing ourselves in the presence of the all-holy One who we know loves us. We cannot enter into a conversation with someone unless we are in that person’s presence in some way.  If we speak on the phone to someone, the phone puts us in that person’s presence. Obviously we cannot do this with God face-to-face. He is spiritual, and our Lord who is also man has gone back to heaven. We have not seen our Lord, nor the Father, nor the Holy Spirit, nor our Lady nor the angels and the saints, and yet we are called to be people of deep prayer, people who have an abiding relationship with them, people who converse with them in their presence. How do we do this? By faith. Our Lord said to Thomas, blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe. We do not see, rather we believe on the word of Christ and on the word of the Church which speaks in Christ’s name.

3.  How then are we to pray?

Those who come to Mass regularly and practise their faith would know how to pray at least to some degree. They follow the prayers of the Mass and have their favourite prayers that they use to help them to pray. The further question is, how are we to advance in prayer? The more fundamental question is, how are we to advance in the love of God because we cannot hope to advance in our heart-to-heart conversation with God if we do not love him much. There is the world of difference between the conversation of two people who love one another deeply and two who do not. So the first thing we must understand is that we have to be striving to love God more and more if we are to have any hope of advancing in prayer. This commitment to love God more is what we could call the more remote preparation or background to a life of prayer. Our fundamental duty is to love God with all our heart, and if this is being seriously attempted day after day by a life of loving fulfilment of our duties of state, then the foundation is there for a true life of prayer. The hallmark of devotion to God is obedience to his will and to his commandments. If you love me, our Lord said, keep my commandments. Of course we could not hope to love God in the first place, nor to desire to love and serve him, nor to keep his commandments, nor to fulfil our daily duties for him, unless we engaged in prayer. So prayer helps our devotion to God, and devotion to God helps our life of prayer.

4. Our Lord’s teaching    

But granted that we genuinely desire to grow in the love of God, what steps are we to take to live a life of prayer? To consider this, let us contemplate that Gospel scene where the disciples were watching our Lord pray. He had gone apart from them precisely to pray. Perhaps he often did this. They lived together in a kind of travelling community, and there would have been times when they prayed together, but this was a time when our Lord went apart to pray to his heavenly Father. We are told that on occasions our Lord after working all day would spend the night in prayer to his heavenly Father. On other occasions, he would rise early and go out and spend a long time in prayer to his Father. At the very least this shows that our prayer life cannot be restricted to praying simply when others pray, and simply to praying with them. There has to be some form of truly private prayer. The disciples could see that our Lord was a man of the deepest prayer, both when praying with them, and when praying alone. So they came to him and asked him to teach them to pray, just as John taught his disciples. I tend to think that the very fact that the disciples came to our Lord with this petition implies that he did not force their pace. He was sensitive in what he expected of their pace in their life of prayer. In any case when they did approach him, he taught them what we call the Lord’s Prayer, the Our Father, simple yet profound. Undoubtedly it was a kind of summary of our Lord’s prayer adapted for us, and probably containing many of the words that our Lord used in addressing his heavenly Father, perhaps over and over, and full of divine meaning and feeling.

  Now, what lessons can we learn from this simple Gospel event? Firstly, in all our prayer we look to Christ as our model, as did the disciples. They watched him and asked him to teach them. We should ask him to teach us, just as they asked him. Christ continues to give us now in our day his teaching on prayer in the Scriptures and in the Church’s teaching, and in the great masters of prayer recommended to us by the Church. Moreover, in looking to Christ as our teacher and model in prayer, we rely on the help of the Holy Spirit who is Christ’s gift to us at our Baptism and Confirmation. The Holy Spirit helps us to pray after the manner of Christ, and in a way pleasing to the Father because he is the Spirit of the Father and the Spirit of the Son. Moreover, not only do we look to Christ for guidance and help in prayer, but we pray in real union with him and this we do especially in the Sacraments and in the Liturgy, and most especially at Mass. Mass is the prayer of Christ and of the Church, and to participate in Mass means above all uniting ourselves to Christ in his prayer.

5. Vocal Prayer    

But let us return and reflect on that Gospel scene of our Lord teaching his disciples to pray. There are obviously two kinds of prayer we can see immediately. There is vocal prayer and there is what we might call mental prayer. Our Lord taught them a prayer that was the summary of Christian prayer, but they had also seen our Lord apart praying in private. So there was in our Lord’s own practice vocal prayers and the Gospels give a few examples of our Lord praying audibly, in words, to his heavenly Father. At times these were words that came spontaneously to his lips, and there were other prayers such as the psalms which he knew so well and which he prayed out loud and with them. As already mentioned, he taught the disciples a very definite prayer which we call the Our Father. Our Lord may even have often prayed it with them. There are slight variations in the actual text of it as we see in different Gospels. Who knows, but our Lord may have prayed it with them at times using slightly different words. Imagine how the disciples would have prayed this prayer after he had gone from them! This teaches us that vocal prayer is important and there is obviously a most important role in the life of the Christian for vocal prayer. The prayers of the Mass are vocal prayers. The psalms are vocal prayers. The Divine Office is vocal prayer. The Church has also set down some vocal prayers which if said very well and if accompanied by other conditions, bring with them great grace and in some cases considerable indulgences.  The Rosary is one vocal prayer heavily indulgenced by the Church. Many encyclicals have been written about the Rosary. The danger is that we will not put our heart and soul into those set vocal prayers. When we hear the Eucharistic Prayer being prayed out loud by the priest the danger is that we will fail to unite ourselves fervently with the great prayer we hear. If we are saying the Rosary, the danger is that we will just recite the words and not put our soul into them. It is an excellent thing to have a very good prayer book of great vocal prayers to help us in our prayer.

6. Mental Prayer     

But then there is what we might call mental prayer, prayer that is not primarily a use of set prayers. As I mentioned, our Lord at times spent the entire night in prayer to his heavenly Father.  His disciples would see him praying, and the very sight of this prompted them to ask him to teach them how to pray, just as John taught his disciples. So we too are called to enter into conversation with God that is not restricted to the use of set prayers which have their very important place in the spiritual life. The great writers on prayer state that it is very difficult to advance far in the spiritual life unless we give some time to what we might call Mental Prayer, involving time with our Lord, simply to be with him, praying to him and in union with him. It involves being with him and giving the emphasis during that time to being in the personal presence (in faith) of the one whom we know loves us. It is a matter of being in his company. It will normally be necessary to use a book, perhaps the Gospels, or the Imitation of Christ, or The Way or The Forge, or some other book that offers our mind something that God has said or done, or the Church’s spiritual teaching about God’s words and deeds. In his presence we will respond and listen to his promptings as we read. Our intent ought be to be with Jesus listening to his word and letting our heart respond accordingly. Our conversation will involve a lot of listening. This will provide the opportunity to experience his friendship, express it and grow in it. I would recommend for the busy lay person, parent of young children, working person with a daily schedule at work or whatever, that if possible about 15 minutes be set aside each day just to be with our Lord, with the aid of some book such as the Gospels.

7. Advancing in Prayer   

I would recommend as a life-long practice that you begin your prayer  by placing yourself in the presence of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, breathing some simple prayer such as your morning offering, and then slowly reading a Gospel scene, perhaps the scene of the weekday Gospel reading. Place yourself in that scene and in your mind’s eye gaze upon our Lord or simply be with him watching him or hearing him speak, especially hearing him speak those words of the Gospel text to you. Essentially mental prayer is being with the Lord who loves us. It does not necessarily involve many words, although usually it will involve a few, perhaps repeated over and over lovingly in the presence of Jesus, with the constant effort being to keep the focus of the heart on him and not on what we are doing or saying or reading. It may be one word or a few from the particular prayer we have started with or from the Gospel we are immersed in, that we linger on lovingly, over and over again, slowly and very quietly. The gaze of our heart ought be on the person of Jesus, or the Father, or the Holy Spirit, or Mary, Joseph, or a special saint or our guardian angel. If we persevere in giving time to mental prayer, as time goes on our prayer will be more an attention in love to the divine Person who is present. It will not be felt vividly at the surface of our emotions but deeply lived. Prayer is a heart-to-heart intimacy and conversation, with progressively something like a loving stillness in our spirit, an attentive focus of the heart on Jesus and a learning from him how much he loves us.  As our prayer advances it will nourish our love for Jesus and it will express it. It will be a lived attitude of soul that does not normally have a lot of variety of expression. It will be a constant, humble, trustful looking to God in faith, hope and love. Our prayer will be progressively simple, involving attention to God in faith, wanting to do his will, adoring and praising him, and looking to him and asking him to make us what he wants us to be. We will entrust ourselves more and more to his grace while striving to do his will, and depending less and less on ourselves..

8. Life of Prayer   

Let us resolve to live a life of prayer, and a life of prayerful work. Whether we feel like it or not, we ought spend time with our Lord every day. If we do, our work will be done in his presence and for his glory. Our mental prayer will improve the quality of our vocal prayers too. But if we do not give this time to him, we will be like the husband who is too busy to spend time with his wife and children. His relationship with his family is at risk, and if that neglect keeps up the risk will be very great. The relationship could easily break down and disappear. So too with our relationship with our Lord. Let us then resolve to build into our daily life a pattern of real prayer, prayer which we utter in words and prayer of the mind and heart, vocal prayer and mental prayer..