Fausto Gomez OP
As I begin to reflect on prayer, the words of St. John Vianney come to mind: “If you pray and love, that is where your happiness is.” Prayer is an essential element in the life of every Christian – of a priest, a religious, and a lay person.
We all need to pray. We are creatures of God. Our earthly life is a life of searching for God, longing for him: “Like a parched land, my soul thirsts for you” (Ps 143:6). Baptized in the Blessed Trinity, we are God’s children, and need to go to him: to praise him, wordship him, bless him, thank him – and ask for his grace and love. We are also wounded creatures, sinners, “God’s beggars” (St. Augustine), needy of his mercy and forgiveness. “Apart from me,” Jesus says, “you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5).
We are obliged to pray always. Jesus tells us: “Pray always and never lose heart” (Lk 18:1). St. Paul repeats to us: “Pray constantly” (I Thess 5:17), that is, live in God’s presence. For the anonymous Russian Pilgrim, praying ceaselessly means “to have the remembrance of God in all times and places and circumstances” (The Way of the Pilgrim).
Jesus is a deeply prayerful person. He prayed in the synagogue and with his disciples and people. He often prayed alone for long periods of time early in the morning and late at night – to connect deeply with God the Father in the Spirit (cf. Lk 5:16). Jesus taught us to pray the Prayer, the Our Father, which is the norm of Christian prayer.
Imitating Jesus, his followers ought to be prayerful persons. Like Mary, who kept everything that happened around Jesus in her heart, meditating upon it! Like all the saints. St. Dominic de Guzman talked always and only with God or of God: “Never asking for reward, he just talks about the Lord.” e also advised us not to use too many words when we pray ((cf. Mt 6”:7
How do we learn to pray? Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta answers us: “By praying.” The Master of Novices’ answer to a novice: “Practice the two great laws of prayer: the first law is to pray; and the second is to keep at it.”
No time to pray? Being too busy is the usual excuse not to pray daily. We try hard not to fall into this temptation or invitation not to pray. The Lord asks us to pray always: actually or virtually, externally or internally. We have to pray daily, today: “If today you hear his voice today, harden not your heart” (Ps 95:7-8). When praying, our attitude is attentive, recollected, humble, and focused on the Lord.
What is prayer anyway? Prayer is “one thing that can conquer God” (Tertullian). It is “the lifting up of mind and heart to God” (St. John Damascene). It is like the breathing of the soul, feeling God’s presence in our lives and communicating with him. Prayer is the language of the heart in love with God. St. Teresa of Avila, still an incomparable master of prayer, defines prayer as “A dialogue of friendship, being alone (silently) many times (frequently) with the One we know that loves us.” Prayer is a journey to our inner self.
Prayer is personal and communitarian. We need both: we are individual persons and social beings, and children of God. We belong to God’s Family. Communitarian prayer per excellence: The Sunday Celebration of the Holy Eucharist in which we take communion at two tables – the table of the Word and the table of the Eucharist. The Holy Mass is sacrifice and sacrament, act of thanksgiving, worship, petition and atonement for sins. The first Christians were asked; “Why do you celebrate the Breaking of the Bread when you know that if caught you will be sent to jail or killed?” Their answer: “We are Christians. We cannot live without the Eucharist.” For them – and us -, the Eucharist is a mystical experience, the experience of the sweetness of God.
Prayer is vocal and mental, external or internal, with words or in silence. What matters in prayer is that it is done well. Hence, we need to be aware of who is talking; to whom he is talking; and what he is saying (St. Teresa of Avila); to be aware of God and of oneself; of God’s love and our poverty. God says to St. Catherine: “I am He-who-is, you are she-who-is not.” All prayer involves talking to God and listening to him – mostly listening! In the world-in-a-hurry in which we live, it is important to practice the prayer of attending: making pauses through our hectic life to connect with God, to feel actually his presence.
Prayer is addressed to God, to Jesus, to Mary, to the saints (cf. CCC 2664-2672). Above all, to God: prayer and devotion are the two main acts of the virtue of religion through which we relate to and unite with God. All prayers are Trinitarian prayers: “To God the Father, through Christ our Lord, and in the Spirit.”
Prayer is universal – for all. Christian love is not selective, but solidarity with all, our brothers and sisters in Christ. Our prayer is very often intercessory prayer. We are sinners and needy, so we ask for God’s help for ourselves and for others. We pray for peace and justice and compassion in the world, for all Christians, for our families, for sinners, for the souls in purgatory; and for our enemies, “for those who maltreat us” (Lk 6:27-28; Lk 23:24).
There are different methods of prayer. What is the best method? Any method or kind of prayer is good as long as the result, the fruit is good. Blessed Jordan of Saxony was asked by a brother: “What would be for him the best way to pray?” Blessed Jordan: “Good brother, do not fail to apply yourself to whatever inspires the most devotion in you. The most beneficial prayer will be the one which moves your heart in the most beneficial way” (Vitae Fratrum). “Do what most awaken your love; prayer does not consist in thinking much but in loving much, and therefore what inspires you to love do it” (St Teresa of Avila).
In his wonderful Diary of a Country Priest, author Georges Bernanos puts these words on the lips of the main character, a young humble good priest: “When has any man of prayer told us that prayer has failed him?” Never! Prayer cannot fail, although we can pray the wrong way or ask for the wrong things. We have the promise of Jesus: “Anything you ask from the Father, he will grant in my name…; ask and you will receive” (Jn 16:23-24; cf. Mt 7:7). Jesus did not say, maybe you will receive, but you will receive the good you asked for. St. Basil cautions us: “If you asked and did not receive it is because you asked for something that is not good; or you asked for it without faith; or it is not convenient for you; or you did not persevere in asking.” When we ask something from God, we must add – like Jesus – “your will be done,” not our will but God’s will.
The tree is known by its fruits. Good prayer produces good fruits. Good prayer necessarily leads to a growing rejection of sin. Fruit of prayer is our firmer resolve to say no to sin! “One cannot sit the contraries, God and sin, at the same table” (St. Teresa). As we move up by the ladder of prayer, we realize in an ever deeper way that the main obstacle to prayer is our selfishness. Hence, the continuing need of “unselfing.” Prayer, moreover, is especially helpful against temptations: “Watch and pray” (Mk 14:38).
True prayer is shown by good deeds, that is, deeds permeated by love. The practice of virtues is the fruit of prayer. Prayer is the mother of all virtues (St. Catherine of Siena). Genuine prayer leads necessarily to an ever growing and more perfect love, which is the virtue of virtues: love of God and love of neighbor. Prayer guides and strengthens us in our practice of love of all our neighbors, in particular the poor and wounded neighbor. St. Vincent de Paul says that “Looking after the sick is praying.”
Work needs the breathing of prayer to become a prayer, and certainly prayer time is never wasted time: Prayer must not replace work, but animate, purify, improve our work, including our professional and pastoral work. If we are prayerful, our work becomes a prayer: our work is our participation in God’s evolving creation. Our work therefore must be a competent work which we try to love. Prayer helps us love our work and the people we work with. K. Gibran writes that those who work without loving their work should not work, but ask for alms at the entrance of the temple (The Prophet).
Prayer is a source of courage to carry our cross. Prayer with love makes our cross bearable and even – as the saints show well – joyful. It helps every Christian to carry out the duties of his/her vocation.
Let me close with the enduring words of St. Teresa of Avila:
Never leave prayer. There is always remedy for those who pray. Prayer is the royal road to heaven.
[PHOTO] José Mario O Mandía