THE MOST UNIVERSAL bond of union with God is prayer, because, unlike the sacraments, it can be secured in all places and at all times. The presence, or lack of it, in our lives reveals our attitude toward God. The reality of religion is not significant without what is called the interior life, and this life is largely nourished by prayer, which develops the sense of God. Unless we desire to converse with Him we are not likely to want to work for Him. It has been said that parish life is today "extroverted to excess." Doubtless it is. Our duty, therefore, seems to be to try to rectify it by recalling it to a more vivid consciousness of God's presence and to the need of a greater infiltration of His grace. This we must do largely through prayer.
Prayer is an attitude; but it is more—it is directed thought. It is more than this; it is a science, and because of this fact many of us live a desultory prayer life. The Divine Office has been called the Opus Dei, the work of God. It is chiefly a method of prayer and, though we may not all use it, it reminds us of the need of work and of method in prayer, for the spirit of recollection which we require will not make its appearance casually, with no consciousness of labor on our part.
Devotion is not a synonym for sentiment. Devotion is concerned to a great extent with the will, and if our wills are active in the service of God we are devout, whatever be our feelings. The extrinsic cause of devotion is God Himself; the intrinsic cause of it is some form of prayer prompted by the will.
Prayer involves both giving and getting. It does not exist peaceably in a controversial mind, and its spirit in practice has not much patience with moderation and compromise, for it is the spirit of the artist, it is creative. As Saint Teresa said, "The kind of prayer which is most acceptable to our Saviour is that which produces the best results." Our prayers seek to produce fruit, but not to change the arrangements of God, to bend His will, which is immutable. Rather do they aim at transforming ourselves. "Men," says Saint Gregory, "by petitioning may merit to receive what Almighty God arranged before the ages to give them." But we do not limit ourselves in prayer to interceding for others and asking for forgiveness. We give things, and we adore, and, if our prayer life is developing, we are learning more of adoration. When we can go to church and worship God in the Mass without a crying dependence upon audible sounds, but with a lively faith in the Sacramental Presence, and a firm grasp of the meaning of the Sacrifice, we may feel sure that we have learned more about how to adore God, and that we are better Catholics.
We may divide prayer into public and private, vocal and mental. The greatest act of public prayer is performed when the members of a congregation unite their intentions with those of the priest at the offering of the Holy Sacrifice. This is, par excellence, public worship. There is no reason for the ringing of sanctuary bells when only a server is present, for there is no congregation to be notified of the progress of the rite; but a bell in the roof should call those outside to join their prayers to the offering of the great Oblation. Reference has been made to a "crying dependence upon audible sounds." This is no plea for silent Masses, but for a deeper sense of worship in the individual. If the person in the pew is devoutly engaged in prayer, he does not require a meticulous enunciation of each word at the altar; but he may like to weave his own intercessions around the prayers publicly recited by the celebrant. Furthermore, a certain rapidity at the altar may indicate a very good type of speed, that of intense concentration. May not an ardent brief prayer prove more vital than some prolonged ones? An English Dominican has remarked that "those who say private Masses in such a low tone—and that consciously—as to be unintelligible to their hearers, appear to act unreasonably and are inexcusable, unless it should happen by accident that no one is present; in this case it is sufficient if they can be heard by the server who is close at hand."
The obligation to hear Mass on specified days is not qualified by the possibility that none is provided in a certain locality by some careless priest or bishop. In such a contingency, on one's vacation, for instance, one must go where Mass is celebrated, in whatever language; for we are Catholics first and Anglicans afterwards.
The lowest form of private prayer is ordinarily vocal; but we need not expect to outgrow it entirely, for our Lord taught His disciples the use of it and employed it Himself. In the form of momentary aspirations we may find it especially helpful.
Some of our private mental prayers are made with the use of a prayer book, but such books we should seek to outgrow. They may be necessary sometimes for the purpose of recalling to our minds subjects for intercession; they may, too, prevent dissipation of thought; but they are spiritual props or crutches and should not be constant adjuncts to our life of prayer.
Meditation is an important form of mental prayer, although as a methodical exercise it seems to be no older than the fifteenth century. Prior to that period persons, of course, reflected prayerfully upon religious themes; the Carthusians in the twelfth century had times for mental prayer; but what we now know as meditation, with its arrangement of subject and order of progress, has come to us from the days of Saint Ignatius Loyola and from the seminary of Saint Sulpice.
Probably most of us need to practise daily meditation, making use of the method which suits us individually, and changing it if it becomes tedious. However, as Faber reminds us, our "bad" meditations, if not due to our own fault, are generally the most profitable. The difficulty involved in some kinds of meditation is that the exercise becomes too intellectual, whereas the higher forms of prayer depart further and further from such a position. Indeed, the person who is supposed to be piously dreaming may be in a more receptive and fruitfully spiritual state than the one pursuing some elaborate and difficult scheme of meditative prayer. But, whatever be the practice adopted, there is satisfaction in knowing that experienced souls have found that in hours of meditation thoughts, emotions, intuitions, resolutions, have arisen, and proved beneficial, to say nothing of the most important benefit, the grace of God.
Meditations should not be too brief, for, unless one can become quickly recollected, the period of the activity may cease when one is just beginning to derive conscious profit. Meditations should in no sense be speculative, or provide occasions for intellectual curiosity, for, we must remember, meditation is a kind of prayer. Meditations should grow less and less intellectual, and reflections should more and more give way to converse with God. Saint Teresa tells us that she spent somewhere between ten and twenty years before she could meditate without a book. She also writes: "I have always been more affected with, and the words of the Gospels have sooner recollected me, than books very accurately composed." Her words should warn us of the need of perseverance, and likewise of remaining biblical. In the time allotted to meditation clerics should not compose sermons, and then, examples of rationalization, say, "I've been meditating," while if lay folk find their attention wandering, let them not confess infirmities of the flesh which are not actual sins. And let us all try to take the advice of Saint Vincent de Paul, "The principle fruit of mental prayer consists in making a good resolution."
It has been suggested that certain types of prayer correspond more or less to the several degrees of the spiritual life, which have been defined as the purgative, the illuminative, and the unitive. While meditation may be associated with the first of these, what is known as affective prayer is usually concurrent with the second, and characterizes the predominant prayer attitude of many devout persons. The higher degrees are less familiar to us, as is the unitive life. Yet, while this gradation of states is correct, many of us do not remain permanently in any one of them, so that what we may call illuminative souls may still require the occasional practice of meditation.
Affective prayer should be developing in those souls which meditate. In this type of prayer reflections become less frequent, the exercise becomes tinged with emotion, affections arise, and convictions assimilate a certain warmth, expression being given to them mentally and, sometimes, vocally. The danger connected with it seems more obvious for those of us who are sentimental.
Above affective prayer is placed that degree which is known as the prayer of simplicity and into which the former should evolve. It is more marked by intuition than are the lower forms of prayer; a dominant thought is present; affections vary little. It has been compared to a thread, visible here and there, upon which pearls are strung, and has sometimes been termed "the prayer of simple regard." What is known as the practice of the presence of God is in reality the prayer of simplicity, known, too, as "simple committal to God." Saint Francis de Sales is evidently referring to it when, in a letter to a Superior, he writes: "The almost universal attraction of the Sisters of the Visitation is a very simple attraction to the presence of God."
We shall never learn much about the prayer of simplicity until we shall have succeeded in effectively concentrating, and in seeking or practising it we should realize that too much concern with it may entangle us in aberrations, illusions, or condemned forms of devotion, for it assumes a contemplative character and is approaching the realm of the definitely mystical. Saint Francis de Sales, perhaps rightly described as never more than a semi-mystic, tells us that meditation is the mother of love and contemplation its daughter. Meditation is such a parent intrinsically and acquired contemplation is such an offspring. Infused contemplation we need not here attempt to consider further than to emphasize the value of the non-rational element in religion as distinguished from the rational and the irrational, and by referring to the words of Rodriguez. "Not only," he says, "are we unable to express what this prayer is, or to teach it to others, but even no one must seek to raise himself up to it, if God Himself does not elevate him thereunto."
The wholly normal person is a myth. We vary, in differing degrees, from the ideal pursued. The psychology of one person cannot be made the possession of his neighbor. There is no psychic uniformity, and suggestions in regard to prayer must be adapted to one's needs and temperament, or else ignored. One soul may perhaps suffer from aridity or dry-ness. Let such remember that this condition, which experiences no conscious satisfaction in prayer, is no necessary sign that devotion is lacking, or that such prayer is unacceptable to God. The element of sacrifice, which is so integral a part of the higher forms of love, is perhaps more present in difficult prayer than in devotion which is pleasurable. The power of the will involved in prayer is of more importance than problematical pleasure. There may be a high degree of union with God with no extraordinary or marked expression of it revealed by Him. Sweetness is no infallible sign of devotion, and to be constantly seeking consolations in prayer is a defect in faith. The most advanced, the most loving, souls will not require heavenly signs. Saint John of the Cross reminds us that we may seek consolations of God more than the God of consolations, while a woman writer of today refers, rather vividly, to those who desire what she describes as super-sensual petting.
Some devout persons are at times preoccupied with scruples, and when they try to meditate they begin to analyze their motives. Scrupulosity is not repentance, and scrupulous souls should spend little or no time in self-examination. Indeed, a great deal of prayer may sometimes indicate a melancholic attitude toward life, while prayer in regard to a person or condition which disturbs us nervously may prove deleterious by drawing the attention to a subject which is better avoided. Modern psychology has at least taught us something about the unconscious. Faber once wrote, somewhat paradoxically, that "the time of prayer is God's time for punishing us for our faults." "Then it is," he says, "that our venial sins, our slight infidelities, our inordinate friendships, our worldly attachments rise up against us, and we must pay the penalty for them"—and, we may add, for our nerves.
Someone has called attention to Saint Paul's devotion to the Passion of Christ, a subject which has always occupied an important place in the devotional life of Catholics. The traditional hours of Tierce, Sext, and None, for instance, commemorate the condemnation, crucifixion, and death of our Lord. Thomas of Celano tells us that Saint Francis of Assisi taught his brothers to honor the Passion in passing churches by saying, "We adore Thee, O Christ, in all the churches of the whole world, and we bless Thee because by Thy holy cross Thou hast redeemed the world." Might not we, particularly lovers of the Poverello, keep this devotion when we pass churches enshrining the Blessed Sacrament?
When we "make the stations" we undertake a mental and spiritual pilgrimage to Calvary with Christ. The rosary and the Angelus have their penitential devotions. The Way of the Cross has been called sentimental; it has been objected to because of its repetitions. Many of our confreres have too often been characterized by a fear of feeling in religion, but, as a matter of fact, all the Passion prayers make an emotional appeal. The Way of the Cross, furthermore, is not meant to be an easy service, as its name indicates, and, if its repeated prayers prove a little irksome, they may be lightened by being said with various intentions.
The devotion to the Sacred Heart is a special form of devotion to our Lord, who is wholly adorable. The Heart of Jesus recalls and symbolizes His incarnate and pre-incarnate love, and, conjointly with His Person, is worthy of worship. We should not think of it as something separate; we may not care for some of the printed prayers concerning it which we have seen; but the devotion is one of great beauty, is as old as Christianity, implicitly, and, associated as it is with the spirit of reparation, is one which we should take to our own hearts and embody in our prayers, especially at Benediction and during the Holy Hour.
It is particularly desirable that our parish churches should be used far more often for private prayers. Let us begin again, then, by teaching the children to use them, not by resorting to cheerful corners set apart to them, but to the Human and Divine Natures of Christ awaiting both old and young in the tabernacle amid reverent beauty. Let us not only provide them with Masses, but instruct them in prayer in connection with votive offerings of flowers and lights, in relation to pictures and statues. We adults have probably grown up with too much self-consciousness in religion; let us try to divert it from those who are younger.
If we are spiritually alive, rather than barely existent, we are growing, and therefore we are changing in the sense of developing for the better. From time to time we have reconsidered our rule of life, no doubt; surely we are not praying just as we did twenty or thirty years ago. Self-adaptation with reference to God and to society demands new adventures. If perfect prayer is that of which we are unconscious, we must first be conscious of much imperfect labor before we can attain much of that high degree of prayer; but every attempt is an enlarging of mankind's religious experience, and a bringing into human life of the supernatural which it always needs. "Saints," we are told, somewhat encouragingly and very truly, "are men like the rest of us; only they seriously take to heart the conditions of their creation and the end which God had in view in creating them." May they pray for us that we may follow after them.