That comfort is to be found in prayer is such an outstanding fact, as proved by the lives of the saints and by those of ordinary good Catholics, that it might seem a pious platitude to state it. That it gives the chief clue to the heroic lives that have been lived by men and women in every period of Christian history, no one who has studied those lives can fail to see. It is the only explanation to be found of those even of less heroic mould, who in spite of many faults and shortcomings show fortitude and perseverance in clinging to God amid the grievous trials that beset them.
“I cannot pray”
Alas, there are many who, because they have neglected prayer when their lives were bathed in temporary sunshine and everything from a worldly point of view was going well with them, find it difficult to turn to God when the sun has gone in and they are plunged in temporary darkness, darkness that holds trouble and suffering.
They may come wrongly to think that they cannot pray. But though because of their past neglect prayer may not at first be easy, their difficulty very soon can be overcome by getting a right conception of what prayer is. Prayer, as the Catechism reminds us, is the raising up of the mind and heart to God. It is to look up to Him not only as the Great Spirit, the Omnipotent Creator and Ruler of all things, but no less as the infinitely tender and loving Father who has ever the best interest of His children at heart and is most anxious to help them even though they have forgotten Him and neglected all His claims upon their obedience and service.
Raising up your mind and heart to God
It is this conception of God as our Father, and of ourselves as His children, that tells us of the right spirit in which we ought to pray. It is the spirit that especially inspired that saint of our own days, St Therese of Lisieux, who has brought so many souls closer to God by reminding them of Christ’s words: “Unless ye become like little children ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.” She in her autobiography (a book that has been read with such profit in every part of the Catholic world) has removed many misconceptions that even good Catholics have held in regard to prayer.
Unless ye become as little children ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven
The Saint has made it plain that to pray well it is not necessary to follow any particular method… She was content with a simple perusal of the Scriptures and with readings from the Imitation of Christ, which fitted in with a conception of herself as a little child, speaking and appealing to her loving Father in heaven.
She would have admitted at once that well-known methods of prayer, approved by the Church, such as the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, are of unquestionable help and value in the formation of virtue and in the attainment of perfection, but she realised that a more simple approach to God was of more benefit in her own case. This simplicity of prayer is one which is suited to many souls who would find in the strict following of a formal method a difficulty or even a positive hindrance…
Simplicity of prayer
Very often when people say “I can’t pray,” it no doubt only means that they are not disposed to overcome a lazy habit and they make no real attempt to raise their minds and hearts to God.
To overcome this lethargy and to rid themselves of an inordinate love of the things of this world, God in His mercy will sometimes permit some misfortune, such as a serious sickness, to befall them, which rouses their fears and makes them instinctively turn for Him for help. Such an experience may happily have the permanent effect of creating in them a fixed habit of prayer.
As an example of what simple prayer means, it is enough, then, to look up to God and see in Him the supremely good Father having – but in an infinitely greater degree – all those most attractive qualities which the best of earthly fathers possess; and, then, remembering you are His child, you can pour out as a child, in simple words, all that your heart prompts you to say, confident that He will listen and help you.
You may have been guilty of many and grave sins, but once you realise your wrong-doing and the goodness of Him you have offended, you will run to Him, even as little children run to a good father, and tell Him of your sorrow, certain that He in His infinite mercy will forgive you. The mere acknowledgement of your sins in straightforward unequivocal language, with no excuse or concealment, is in itself a prayer, and the act of hope that follows gives greatly added value to it.
How to effectively open the communication-channels with God with one single, spontaneous, lengthy prayer
One who has led a life of prolonged sin will find that only to enumerate his sins in the presence of Our Blessed Lord in the tabernacle will fill up no inconsiderable measure of time and become a source of real comfort, for gradually as he is doing this there will come to him a clearer perception of Him against whom he has sinned. He will get a deeper appreciation and understanding of the words of the angel in the Dream of Gerontius who says to the disembodied soul arrived at the throne of judgement:
What then – if such thy lot – thou seest thy Judge,
The sight of Him will kindle in thy heart
All tender, gracious, reverential thoughts.
Thou wilt be sick with love, and yearn for Him,
And feel as though thou couldn’t but pity Him,
That One so sweet should e’er have placed Himself
At disadvantage such, as to be used
So vilely by a being so vile as thee.
There is a pleading in His pensive eyes
Will pierce thee to the quick, and trouble thee
And thou wilt hate and loathe thyself.
It is not too far-fetched to say that the simple prayer of one of God’s sinful children can bring about an effect, as near as is possible on this earth, to that produced on one who finds himself in the presence of his Judge and Saviour.
It was the telling of his sins in his Confessions that brought to St Augustine a greater understanding of God’s infinite love and that elicited some of the deepest and loveliest words that ever a man wrote about his Creator. But it needs not the genius of an Augustine to pray in simple words out of which arise thoughts which, though unuttered and perhaps not fully understood, may yet be deeply felt and be the cause of the truest consolation and comfort. This the grace of God will most surely bring to those who go to Him as children and so make, as it were, a bridge that joins their littleness with His infinitude.
It is really easy to pray if we but look upon ourselves as God’s helpless little children (as indeed we are) and see in Him the Father of all goodness and love who gives ready ear to all our prattlings. How well did that great little Saint of Lisieux understand this! When we read her life we might at first think that much that she said and did was concerned with things seemingly trifling, but it was her simple prayer that won her the courage and strength to meet every difficulty that arose; her simple prayer that increased ever daily her love for God and enabled her to refuse no sacrifice that His love demanded, so that as her sufferings became ever more intense – and how great they were! – she bore them with a heroic sweetness and patience that has gained her a high place among the canonised saints of the Church, as the numerous miracles wrought through her intercession surely testify.
Those people find it hard to pray who are under the wrong impression that God must be addressed as if He were a public meeting. Prayer books that are written in periodic English and couched in artificial language might not really be helpful for many of us. They are in striking contrast to the liturgical prayers of the Church which are so simple and direct, where adoration and praise of God and thanksgiving to Him are joined with petition. They should form the model of our own private prayers.
As a child will find delight in praising its father and will express gratitude to him for his kindness to it, so we, putting ourselves in a like attitude, will speak to God in the same simple way.
It is then that we will experience the real comfort of prayer and find in it solace and strength, however dark and menacing be the external world in which we are living and however great may be the difficulties with which we have to contend. Every saint and every fervent Catholic would be able to say, “experto crede” [“(formula) trusted by experts”], and would confirm all that has been said above.
– From: Lift Up Your Hearts, Christopher J. Wilmot, S.J., The Catholic Book Club, London, 1949