THE BASIS OF TRUE PRAYER
By William Peters, S. J.
The pontificate of Paul VI will always be marked by the astonishing decision to declare St. Catherine and St. Teresa to be doctors of the Church. This was no matter of making some sort of concession to a women's lib movement within the Church. Its importance has not been given due attention, partly because we are inclined to consider the action of our Holy Father as inspired by a sense of justice to give honor at all; it is a question of the Church admitting that she is badly in need to be taught by, in our case, two women. And the remarkable fact here is that neither Catherine nor Teresa spent a good deal of their energies to teach others how to pray. Both were mystics, and this is not something outside their being "teachers."
The trouble here is that we have relegated the very word "mystic," not to mention the reality of mysticism to the realm of the exceptional and over-privileged few, but we now do injustice to both the word and the reality of mysticism, and thereby to what prayer - better, praying - really is. In the past four or five centuries our approach to praying has been more scholarly and theological than scriptural and practical, by practical meaning experiential, i.e. based upon the experience (more than the writings) of great prayerful people. Now those great prayerful people are not those who have written about their life of prayer or those about whose life of prayer we come to know through the stories of their lives, but perhaps first and foremost the many saintly mothers and grannies, old priests and sisters, who did not even know they were prayerful people, and who had, technically speaking, moved into the prayer of faith, or simplicity, or "d'attention amoureuse," etc. And there is quite a gap between the two approaches to what prayer is. By insisting that mysticism is exceptional, we have thinned out, as it were, praying itself in an alarming fashion often with disastrous results, sterility being one of the worst.
II. DEFINITION OF PRAYER
We have been brought up with the definition that to pray is to raise one's mind to God, a definition based upon an incorrect interpretation of scriptural words. There is not really much that is good about this description of prayer: for one thing because it contains an image or metaphor (to raise), for another because "mind" has not much to do with praying properly. Dropping this definition, we might say that to pray is generally considered to be a way of getting into contact with God and maintaining and cherishing this contact as a great good, or as a duty that we are, (if we do not pray, we soon lose our vocation, we cease to be Christians, we live in a world of perhaps pious words, devotional actions, perhaps routine observance of certain laws) or as indispensable way, or help, to overcome temptations. Now these are certainly aspects of prayer, at times ways of saying prayers, but all this does not really touch the heart of the mysterion (we use the Greek word on purpose, for reasons that will become clearer later on) that prayer is.
We are well acquainted with the prayer: "Direct all our actions by your holy inspiration ...." in which we express the need that "every work and prayer may begin with You;" fortunately in the Latin text the sequence is "oratio et operatio;" prayer comes first. Evidently its beginning with God, not man. But this only affirms what Paul says in his epistle to the Romans, that we do not know how to pray, except for the Holy Spirits breathing in - better, into us. If we cannot say "Jesus is the lord," it is silly to think that we can spend half an hour in prayer by ourselves. We must do away, and quickly, with the notion that to pray is the thing to do, an often ascetical act on our part, that keeps us in spiritual shape, that is a means toward a profitable end or is a duty to perform at regular times. It is more something that happens to us. The beginning is not with man at all; it is with God.
III. A GOD WHO SPEAKS
To understand this we have to realize much more than we usually do that God is primarily a God who speaks. Notice the word "primarily." We always think of God as first and foremost the Creator, the maker of all things, the God who keeps things going (ongoing creations, etc.). But scripture presents us God, first and foremost, as a God who speaks, as a God who reveals Himself, as a God who communicates. Such is the beginning of Paul's letter to the Jews;(1) such is the God whom we meet in history from the very first time onward, when He moved into the life of Abraham. Hence, it is not really surprising at all that no phrase occurs more frequently in the whole scripture than the, "It is I, Yahweh, that is speaking to you." But neither is it now surprising that God is always pleading with His people to listen to Him.(2) And that God is really disappointed when people do not listen, as in Psalm 81, or gets truly angry as e.g. in Jeremiah Chapter 7. When we turn to God in human shape, Christ the Lord, we sense his disappointment when the seed, which is his word, falls among thorns and thistles and by the way-side, and when he complains that his people have ears and do not hear. We have to ask ourselves very seriously whether we know God of communication, who speaks, reveals. This may come as a surprise to some of you. But the surprise should be that we do not see how obviously God must be a God who speaks, that is, a God who takes the initiative for any contact with you and me, and who is both a God with passion to speak and burning desire that we should listen and learn to listen.
For God is father, and all fatherhood takes its shape from God's fatherhood, if you like parenthood. But to keep things simple, let us just confine ourselves to fatherhood. Now one of the most essential features of true human fatherhood is that the father wants to communicate with the child. It begins very early, and it grows and grows. Notice, it is not the child that is so anxious to communicate with the father; when the father asks the little girl on coming home what she learned in school, she prefers to play with her dolls or help her mummy, and when he wants to know how the boy fared at the ball game, the son often prefers to get out and play ball. We all know how one of the gravest problems confronting parents is adolescence when there is always some sort of breakdown of communication between parents and children, and they worry; they want to communicate, and discover with pain, "if only the child would talk." Now if human fatherhood is shaped after divine fatherhood, there is no conclusion but to accept that God is a heavenly father anxious to speak, to communicate, and humble enough to plead, "please, listen to me." Hence the important conclusion: prayer is a mysterion, an action on God's part (just as faith, or any sacrament, is a mysterion: God entering the life of man in a very special way). He takes the initiative. He speaks, and hopefully man, his adopted child, listens and responds.
V. COMMUNICATION BETWEEN PERSONS
With this firmly planted in our minds, a few implications yield no great difficulties, but are of utmost practical importance. True communication can only take place between two persons; the exchange of information can take place between two individuals, (a simple example of an insurance salesman makes this clear). Hence God must be to us all person, not just an infinite "being," not just a collection of functions (creator, judge, teacher, etc.), not just a conglomeration of infinite perfection's. (In fact, God is three persons, which is, or should be, the most fascinating part of the whole of revelation.) What this means he has made clear in the Incarnation: God has humanized Himself, translated Himself into humanness, so that knowing Christ as this person, we might know the father, not as a being, but a person, with his own likes and dislikes, his own disappointments and joys, his own worries and expectations, etc. etc.; Unless we know God as a person, in fact three persons, there will never be real communication or prayer. The conclusion is that getting to know Christ as the perfect copy of God's nature,(3) and this through contemplation, is indispensable; for if we do not know Christ, we do not know the father, and there will never be true communication; there will never be what the Cure d'Ares called "parler avec Dieu comme un enfant."
But man, who wants to pray, must be a person too; to be an individual is not enough. To present oneself in the presence of God as a devotional pious something who puts on his spiritual Sunday clothes for this special occasion, and uses the appropriate language, is artificial, however well meant, and has little to do with praying in the Scriptural sense. We draw the conclusion that someone who is not a person but only an individual (the difference being that a person is always aware that he belongs to a family of men, to whom he has grave obligations: the common good is more important than that of the individual) cannot pray. A superficial being, a selfish being cannot pray properly: probably he can go through all the actions of saying prayers, but he cannot pray, because there can only be communication between two persons. You yourself cannot properly communicate with a superficial being who thinks of himself, whose interest is only what he can get out of life, etc.; you break away from him. (notice that a superficial or selfish individual who suffers from his own superficiality and selfishness and wants to change, is no longer just an individual, and consequently will be able to pray.)
VI. TRUE TO HIMSELF
Furthermore, and it is most important: he must be this person, this person as he is here and now. He must be absolutely true to himself. We have heard it said that a good mother whose child was sick and who at Sunday Mass was all the time thinking of her child, and all the time wanting to go back home, and who could not be less interested in the sermon, might just as well have stayed home. This is gross injustice, and very stupid. Does anybody really think that God would not want this mother at His table, or would want her with Him as a spiritual dummy with her motherliness set aside for an hour? We are back at the illustration of the Sunday clothes that we are supposed to put on when we approach God. Good heaven, think of those Sunday clothes of Jonah or the dear lovable Jeremiah, who comes to Yahweh in his working costume, and hence, he complains, he gives battle, he gives God a piece of his mind, the tone to all this being set in the very first chapter of his prophesies. As this point is of the utmost importance, and very much neglected in more or less scholarly treatises on prayer, we briefly elaborate: if anybody dreads the prospect of meeting a friend or neighbor in distress (whether it is the death of a near relative, or the threat of divorce, or a bout of depression etc.) but put this aside when he begins his so called morning meditation, which that day happens to be on Lazarus raised from the dead, honestly, he is no longer praying at all. A substitute pious something is now at prayer, and God is not interested in Lazarus that morning, nor is this person. This person prays and God communicates with this person and on this morning, and God is interested in and approaches this person, and hence the beginning of prayer this morning is: "put your case before me, let us talk this over together," phrases that occur frequently in Scripture,(4) and examples of which occur even more frequently. To put this another way: the hallmark of true prayer is honesty, to be oneself. This makes for great directness, even at times for clash, of which Teresa many times is a good example, of which again plenty of examples are found in the psalms and the prophets. We would like to add here that in our experience it comes as a great relief when people are told and taught to put their case before "Him," to acquaint God with all their troubles, worries, hopes, their disgust of Him even, their disappointment with Him, etc. etc.
We add this is not as new as it may sound. Good people, fathers, mothers, priests and religious, have done this without being deeply aware that they were doing it. Two objections must be faced and answered. In all honesty, can this be called prayer? This "putting your case before Him" is really another form of self-projection, is it not? Many people get the impression that they are not praying at all but just saying out to themselves what they think or feel. Man is talking all the time: honestly, this is not communication, certainly not on God's part. We fall back, once again, upon what happens when two persons communicate with one another. We take the example of a teenager and one of her teachers in high school. She is in trouble and the teacher, who likes the girl, suspects as much. Suppose the teacher is a nun; she invites the girl to come and see her to have a chat. The girl complies; there is the tea, and after a brief introduction during which nothing is said except fairly empty words, the girl begins to talk: about home, her parents, how strict they are, etc., and all the trouble she finds herself in is laid on the table. The good sister does not say a word; she pours the tea. At the end the girl concludes, "good heavens, was this ever a monologue." Of course it was not; it was a dialogue, and the initiative was the sister, and throughout she kept the initiative. You see, we think that communication is matter of audible words, but much communication takes place through gestures, through facial expression, through a subdued smile, etc. All the time, the sister has been saying: don't be afraid, let me hear everything, I won't tell anybody, I want to help you, I love you and I like you, etc. etc. The girl has really been responding all the time. The application should be clear. While we are thinking that in a monologue we are saying our troubles and difficulties and problems, in fact it is God who invites to plead our cause with Him, who initiates the communication, directs it, stimulates, and even guides it. But there is one absolutely indispensable condition to this all: it is an act of profound faith, which stands at the very beginning of our "monologue," which is made up on our God's part of his standing invitation: I am interested in the hairs of your head, so please let me know what troubles you, and on our part of accepting and believing that God is Emmanuel, and does want to hear, or even of a simple telling Almighty God: please, You now listen to me, this preceded by a "wake up" perhaps, as we find in e.g. Isaiah, the forty-fifth chapter, not to mention a fair number of psalms.
VIII. LISTEN TO ME
The above disposes of the second difficulty. If prayer is communication, if it is initiated by God pleading "listen to me," many many people complain that they just cannot hear God saying anything at all. It does not merely mean that they do not find the answer to any given problem; they just do not hear God speaking. Now as we have said, the mere fact that we put our case before Him in faith is God saying: do not be afraid, give me all the details, etc.. And in so doing, things become clarified to us in the mere saying out of our troubles. There we clearly hear him speaking. But we have to take the objection very seriously because it worries good prayerful people. Hence a few more hopefully enlightening remarks or observations.
We are too much inclined to identify true communication with the contents of communication, and measure its value or usefulness accordingly. But more important than what is said is the fact that something is said. Take a simple illustration: quite often what a married couple communicate is relatively unimportant, often small talk. The wife does not mind; she gets deeply worried when nothing is said at all, when they no longer speak to each other, then she sighs, if only he would say something...God does not always convey profound truth; He does not always give the solution to our problems; more important is that He says something, because this implies that for Him I am, that he does pay attention, that He does think it worth while to communicate. As a matter of fact, often the most profound form of communication is presence, just the being together. Again, see what happens between husband and wife who are in love; they do not talk all evening, she has her little jobs to do, he has his work too, but they are together, in each other's presence, and they thank God that neither of them has to go out. And without a word being said, there is communication, with at the end often deep satisfaction, profound peace.
IX. DEEP PEACE
This is more often than not the most unexpected facet of the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius, made during thirty days. Not infrequently retreatants are somewhat worried when the end nears and they have little to show for all their hours of contemplation, (notice the utilitarian approach that goes hidden behind this observation): no resolutions, no new insights into the mystery of the Trinity or of our Lady's Immaculate Conception, or whatever. What they do experience is a deep, deep peace which is the result of right order, of God, That is, who is Emmanuel in many senses of this wonderful word, and of themselves as belonging to Him, the work of His hands, His adopted children. It is in this peace, coupled with tranquillity and quiet, that they sense the mutual communication of the persons, God and themselves, in true prayer, and very clearly hear God speaking: I love you, don't be afraid, you are so precious, I honor you,(5) come to me if your life is hard, etc. etc., and very clearly perceive God answering them by wiping away tears, by giving them more faith, and courage, and stirrings of deep love. We would like to stress, however, that in order to listen properly, and hear God one must withdraw; yes, withdraw and lock oneself, according to Matthew 6, in one's inner room, and be very open, very sensitive, and very still, according to Psalm 46, verse 61, for God does not bang doors, He stands at the door and knocks gently, His coming and speaking is like a gentle breeze.(6)
Before moving on, we would like to draw your attention to some implications of what we have said so far. Only the other day a major superior of sisters gave a sister the advice not to spend, waste, time on praying and to devote her time to working for other people. The very bad mistake made here is the conviction that to pray is a private hobby, or a thing that a pious sister might need; it never entered the poor superior's head that she was really telling Almighty God to curb his passion and anxiety to speak and communicate, change a little, or a great deal. Many a time I have been told by a fellow Jesuit that, honestly, he does not need an annual retreat, that he does not even need a period of what is called "mental prayer" every day. Such an observation proves that the poor man does not know what to pray is, but moreover, or because of it, he misses the point of praying completely; it is not a matter of what we need, or whether we need God, but it is a question of God very much needing us, in His presence. See what we have said about God wanting to communicate with his children, and if He wants to communicate with His child every day, which to say the least is very likely, well, that is the end of that problem.
X. DURATION OF PRAYER
The same holds good as regards the duration of our period of prayer. So much has been written about it: so much talked about it in general chapters, and hardly ever the matter was approached from God's point of view, and from God's desire. One never got beyond the opinion that prayer is an ascetical exercise to keep the members of a religious congregation in good shape. I have been present at meetings where it was seriously maintained that when we run dry after fifteen minutes, it is useless to continue for another quarter of an hour, or half an hour. But this comes to saying that we pray as long as God gives us consolation, but He must not bother us with desolation or darkness; then we stop. Ignatius in his Spiritual Exercises is as insistent in asking that the retreatant spends the full hour in praying without shortening it as insisting that he spends it without exceeding the hour, and the reason is that in either case in all likelihood the reason for shortening or lengthening our period of prayer would be desolation or consolation, but lengthening it for reasons of consolation would be what St. John of the Cross calls spiritual greed.
Prayer is first and foremost God communicating, and He does this in many divers ways, according to St. Paul, and we probably have experienced this ourselves. But the more obvious way of communicating with us is through Scriptures, and the Bible is God speaking to you and me, here and now. We do not think that this point needs further elaboration, although it has been much neglected within the Church in the course of the last four centuries. Fortunately better times are dawning, although we still have a long way to go. What should be pointed out, however, is that God speaking to us through Scriptures is by no means the same as reading the Bible. Communication is so much more. This becomes clear as soon as we substitute "God speaking to me" for "the word of God." It is only now that the word of God acts like a sword that penetrates, or like a shower that is the source of fertility.(7) It is only now that the word of God will smash rocks to pieces, or will cleanse, as Jeremiah and Christ respectively told us. The trouble here is that we have not too much confidence in the efficacy of the word of God by itself. We have been brought up on the truth that the sacraments are sources of grace, that they work "ex opere operato," and we have neglected the fact that the word of God is power. Not my reflection upon the word of God, not my analysis of the word of God is efficient and effective, but the word of God itself, provided we allow it to penetrate. This is not really as wonderful or surprising as it may sound: the word spoken by any person often has this power, and often works by some sort of "exopere operato," even the human word by itself can hurt or heal, can kill or give, life, can be a source of light and strength or have the opposite effect; God's word spoken to us directly can never fail to be effective, but it must fall into good soil; it must penetrate the "corde bono et optimo" of the parable of the sower and the seed; it must find a good and generous heart.
XI. NOT MERE RECEPTIVITY
We would like to add a further remark here. God always speaks to a human person; it is always a human person who listens, in fact with our lady, cherishes and ponders the word. Prayer is not just passivity on man's part; it is not merely receptivity. It is always a human persons, gifted with intellect and intuition and memory and other faculties to whom God addresses His word. And we have to listen to God, very much aware that we have these gifts, and that we are again guided by the great prayerful men and women in Scripture and in the life of the church - that we have to ponder, that we have to try and understand God's profound words of wisdom, that we have to use our brains when praying. It is here that within contemplation, the more receptive attitude toward God's speaking, we must allow room for what is technically called meditation, or to use a more traditional and more meaningful expression, we must "seek and find," and this is very often by means of asking pretty obvious questions, as "what on earth does this mean?" We do well to remember that our intellect always plays a part, when we listen to God speaking to us. The word of God is not a thing to be analyzed, but a gift to be relished, to be savored, to be known interiorly, all expressions of Ignatius whereby he tries to express what is really beyond expression by means of human words.
We might have given the impression that prayer is very much an affair between God and this person, rather to the exclusion of others, and that consequently liturgical prayer or the popular "shared prayer" hardly deserves the name of prayer. However, one should never forget that God cannot possibly speak to any child of his except in so far as he or she is meant to be light and salt; in fact He can only speak to a person because He wants him or her to become more and more what he or she is. True prayer is impossible except in the dimension and reality of the Church. An essential element of true prayer is always the "handing on" aspect, and lest this be misinterpreted as telling others about our prayer, we hold that an essential element of all true prayer is always and unavoidable that the person who prays grows in sanctity, and thus with the vision of St. Paul gives an increase to the mystical body.(8)
XII. LITURGICAL PRAYER
When St. Augustine refers to liturgy, he makes the point that "there must be alive in our hearts what we pronounce by word of mouth" (vivitur in corde, quod ore profertur). When two hundred people recite the Gloria together, we do not thereby have liturgical or even shared prayer. We only have true liturgy when the Gloria is alive in each and all who say the hymn. But this implies that we must have listened first to God revealing Himself as Trinity, as Creator and Lord, as Lamb of God etc., and that we cherish and ponder those words of God within our hearts. Liturgical prayer is thus giving voice by the community to what personal prayer has brought to life and to light in each. There can be no true liturgical prayer nor any true form of shared prayer except this is preceded by "going into one's inner room," by first being alone with God who speaks.
There is a growing desire in many Christians to pray, to pray better, and especially to learn how to pray, this is in contrast with merely saying prayers. Prayer houses, prayer weekends, prayer meetings, the very words have now a familiar ring. But if this desire is going to be fulfilled, if this genuine desire is not going to end in disappointment, it is of the greatest importance that we purify the notion and the reality of praying, which have become in the past centuries too much contaminated by asceticism, by methods, by certain techniques, by the wrong approach, that is, that praying is an act of religion performed by men. We have become simple enough to believe that praying always begins with God standing at the door and knocking and hoping that we let Him in so that He may be with us, may speak to us, and so that we may be with Him, mostly listening to His words, and zealously pondering and cherishing in our hearts what He has to say. It is not difficult; it is a great privilege; it is a very profound mysterion; but then, so is the reality that we have become his own adopted children.
1. Please refer to the OCDS Rule of
Life, Articles 2, 4, 5 and 8.
2. The Holy Bible.
1. Hebrews 1: 1-2
2. cf. e.g. Isaiah 55
3. Col. 3, Hebrews. 1
4. e.g. Is. 1:18; 43:26
5. Is. 43
6. I Kings 19, as Elijah experienced
7. Isaiah 55, Hebrews 4
8. 1 Cor. 2 8
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