“To pray well is to live well”- this is an old saying familiar to us all. In modern scientific dress and as applied to religious, the first part, “to pray well,” might be paraphrased by “progress in prayer”; and the last, “to live well,” by “spiritual progress.” Thus complete, our new title would be: “Progress in Prayer is Spiritual Progress.”
We religious are all certainly interested in spiritual progress, for we have often heard of the obligation of tending to perfection or of making spiritual progress. We must then be interested in progress in prayer since it is a very important factor in our spiritual growth.
Note the title reads: “Progress in Prayer,” not “Progress through Prayer.” Here we are not concerned with showing how prayer helps us to grow spiritually. We have taken that for granted. With this in mind our whole attention is rather focussed on progress in prayer.
Besides to make a brief important digression-if we had been told in our early novitiate days that we should always make our prayer in the same way and that there was no hope of progress in our prayer-life, I believe that we should have been much discouraged and not very ambitious. That is only natural, for all life-activity seeks improvement and development. Thus, prayer, being an activity of our supernatural life, naturally should develop, or, to come back to our title, there should be “Progress in Prayer.”
Progress in prayer can refer either to the intensity, that is, the deep fervor of our prayer, or to its continuity and frequency, or to both at the same time. We shall limit ourselves here to its continuity, for through this approach a mode of intensified prayer-life will also be found.
Perhaps there are some souls who never have the proper attitude towards prayer. These really need a few simple and correct notions on prayer so that in their minds prayer will not be a stilted and formalistic affair or something which only the learned can do well. Quite the contrary. Learning can be a great hindrance to successful prayer if it is not joined with the great simplicity of soul which prayer requires.
While it is true that prayer should correspond to all our relations with God, still there is one relation that we have with God which should ordinarily be emphasized more than the others. God is not our taskmaster and merely a severe Judge, and we his slaves and servants. No, He and we are more than that. Nor is God merely our friend. He is still more than that. Rather God is our Father, and we are His dear children, as God Himself tells us: “. . . And I will be a Father to you, and you shall be my sons and daughters” (II Corinthians 6:18). But God is even more than our Father; he is our loving Father, for St. John defines God as Love (I John 4:16). Yes, God is Love, purest and infinite Love; He is our Lover, our Divine Lover, the mightiest and purest of all lovers. Hence, while we realize the fact that God is our Judge, we must especially stress the fact that He is the most loving of fathers.
Ordinarily our attitude towards God ought to be that of a simple and loving child towards its father or that of a lover towards his beloved. How simply, spontaneously and lovingly a child converses with its father and tells him how much it loves him and what it wants! Or again, how simple and direct is the language of those in love! Prayer is but a familiar and childlike conversation with God. It is a heart-to-heart communing or chat between God, our loving Father, and ourselves, His children. In the intimate associations between a loving child and its dear parent, as I well as between lovers, usually there is no set form of words or speech. Words and forms of speech come spontaneously. “Heart speaks to heart.” We may use fixed forms of prayer, such as the Office, the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and give outward expression to them. This is called vocal prayer, an excellent form of prayer and necessary for all public Church services. The Church by its wide use of vocal prayer gives it very high approval.
Nevertheless, when we are alone, other things being equal, it is preferable for most of us to express to God, our Father and Divine Lover, the intimate feelings of our souls in our own words without always resorting to fixed expressions, although mental prayer may be made up of the latter also. Mental prayer is the inner expression to God of the interior sentiments of ourselves, His dear children. The Church, realizing the importance of mental prayer, requires religious superiors to see to it that their subjects devote some time daily to mental prayer (canon 595).
Let the foregoing jottings suffice to show the utter freedom of prayer from intricacy, as well as point out our ordinary attitude towards God in prayer. Such a proper attitude, I believe, is all-important for progress in prayer and, perhaps, some souls never have it.
And now to return more directly to our theme: Progress in Prayer. From the remarks on our attitude. towards God in prayer, we must be even further convinced of the necessity of our progress in prayer. Does not a perfect intimacy or nearness between two souls require a mutual interchange or communication of their ideas, longings, and projects as often as possible? And should there not be between God and us an intimacy and nearness which far surpass all other intimacies of any and all people, seeing that God is the most loving of all fathers, and the mightiest and purest of all lovers, a Lover Divine? We all surely realize that we carry on and further this intimacy with God through prayer. Thus it is a question of trying to pray as well and as much as possible within the limits of prudence. In heaven a constant union with God will be our normal lot and one of the big factors of our happiness. In view of this future, too, it would seem that here below we ought to aspire to make this constant union with God or a progressive prayer-life our chief quest.
But can this be realized? Is it possible to reach this without causing violence to our souls or, as they say, “cracking our heads?”.
Certainly, it is impossible for us to be praying vocally all the time. Because of the fatigue involved, one of the greatest spiritual writers of the last three centuries recommended that a priest avoid saying all the hours of the Divine Office in one grouping. Likewise, it is impossible to prolong incessantly strict meditation, which is the lowest form of mental prayer and one made up of a chain of distinct reflections or considerations with at least some simultaneous or subsequent affections. The same is true, at least for a very large majority, and particularly for those not exclusively devoted to the contemplative life, in regard to ordinary affective prayer.
In affective prayer, as the name indicates, the affections occupy more of the time than do considerations and reflection. As more ordinarily practised, this form of prayer includes a great variety of affections: for example, sentiments of love, praise, gratitude, contrition, and so forth. In this ordinary form, because of the variety of the sentiments, it can scarcely be made continuous without the risk of brain fatigue. Hence, we must look for something else, if we wish. to cultivate an intensive and uninterrupted prayer-life.
The next step forward in mental prayer brings us to simplified affective prayer or the prayer of simplicity. It is sometimes called acquired or active contemplation, the prayer of simple regard or simple presence of God. In this form of acquired prayer, intuition or an immediate grasp of a supernatural truth largely replaces the reasoning process found to a greater or lesser degree in either meditative or ordinary affective prayer. While in ordinary affective prayer there is usually a variety of affections and resolutions, here in simplified affective prayer little variety in either is noted. Likewise, representations of the imagination. as of God or our Lord, here have little or no appeal. It is sufficient for the prayer of simplicity that there be a spiritual sentiment or affection, which is not necessarily accompanied by sensible emotions or even by any distinct idea such as a representation of God or our Lord or a conscious reflex thought of the presence of God. De Smedt, the famous Bollandist, describes it as follows:
“It is enough that the soul be found in a disposition. similar to that of a child living for a long time near its mother, whom it loves tenderly and by whom it knows itself to be tenderly loved. It passes all its days near her, it enjoys constantly her presence; but for this it has no need to say constantly: My mother is here, I see her. It knows that she is there. When it has something to say to her or ask of her, it has but to lift its head and speak to her; and even when it is not speaking to her, it has a very loving feeling of peace and joy, on account of the presence of its mother.”
We said that in the prayer of simplicity there will be some thought or affection that recurs always allowing for some interruptions and modifications-frequently, readily, and rather spontaneously, with little or no development and in the midst of other various thoughts, some useful and others not. Poulain describes this occurrence as follows: “We may compare it to the strands which thread the pearls of a necklace, or the beads of a Rosary, and which are only. visible here and there. Or, again, it is like the fragment of cork, that, carried away by the torrent, plunges ceaselessly, appears and disappears. The prayer of simple regard is really only a slow sequence of single glances cast upon one and the same object.”
Some other comparisons of things familiar to us are the following. Consider a mother watching her baby. She thinks of it for hours lovingly, with relish, and without reflection and fatigue, but still with some interruptions. All this she does without any concern of mind whatever, for it seems to her such a spontaneous and loving thing to do.
As another example, suppose the case of a man who is 2000 miles away from home, when he is informed of the sudden death of his mother. His grief will be so intense and persistent that it will, no doubt, continue to be felt even when he is carrying on engaging conversations on the train homeward for the funeral.
Perhaps best of all is the case of a person in love. Day and night he thinks of the object of his love. Yet his thoughts and affections for his loved one show little variety: and he, on his part, experiences no need of a change. Thus for instance a devoted husband and wife can remain alone long hours together at home, not always having new ideas to exchange, but still relishing the joy found in being together in quiet and silence. And when they are apart. how readily their thoughts are directed to each other?
When we realize, as we just saw, that God is our loving Father and that we are His dear children, and even more, that God is our Lover, is it not strange that this simplified affective prayer is not more common? Should we not be spontaneously prone to be occupied with this loving Father by a loving, simple, and uninterrupted gaze just as a child is with its mother, or as one in love with the object of his love? We can readily see that this prayer should be a spontaneous outcome of the full realization that God is our loving Father and our Divine and mightiest of lovers.