The Priests’ Convention
Philadelphia, April 29-30, 1924
From The American Church Monthly, June, 1924, Vol. XV, No. 4.
Edited by Selden Peabody Delany, D.D.
Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2012
PRAYER is not only an act of obedience to our Divine Saviour's express and unescapable command, "Ask and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full" (St. John XVI, 24); it is a gift of the Ascended Lord bestowed in the fullness of its freedom when He led captivity captive and gave gifts to men. (Eph. IV, 8).
Indeed it may be described as the totality of His gifts to men—of grace, pardon, knowledge, sacraments, order—as these gifts are regarded from the side of the recipients. For every sacrament and institution of Church order, like every virtue and every unfolding of the truth, is in us an act of prayer.
Both legislation and discipline in the Church must be done not only after a preparation of supplication, but as an action of prayer and in the state of prayer. For the letter killeth, and the spirit giveth life. Prayer is indeed the real assent to revelation: and by the perseverance of prayer faith in revelation becomes thus secure, unshaken in conviction and in loyalty.
Prayer, even when viewed in its more confined character as petition or as contemplative vision, is a work of the Spirit in Christ's members, and it is an act belonging to the whole Church; for the most private and individual prayer of the Christian, like, for example, his secret acknowledgement of sinfulness, is done by him in the Name of Jesus Christ, in a life which belongs to the believer by virtue of his participation in the life of the whole Church, and for the purpose of establishing the sovereignty and vindicating the righteous will of God.
By Catholic Christians, who, in the effective fellowship of the Church, are living the life of faith and endeavor, Prayer may be studied as a distinct and separate, or at least, special experience, an experience both receptive and active, a work of the Holy Spirit, in which the believer attains the assurance of the Divine Presence and mercy, and also puts forth—always as the result of a Divine Gift—the energies of adoration, thanksgiving, supplication, intercession. Looking upon Prayer as such a distinct gift, experience, and work, Christian students may examine the [355/356] various forms, developments, and stages of prayer, as they have been known by devoted souls and described by historians of the inner life.
The study of systematic descriptions is attended by a measure of danger. It may be the danger of irreverence or loss of tenderness and awe, the danger of handling mentally without hesitation the sacred treasures of spiritual communion; or it may be the danger of imagining, with unconscious and almost innocent self-deception, states of spiritual enlightenment which the soul has not really attained, and so neglecting (it may be) duties of charity or regularity most certainly incumbent on the person thus unhappily deceived.
But if such dangers as these, and others more serious, attend the reading of systematic descriptions of prayer, they are almost absent from the humble study of the actual utterances of the saints of prayer whether in holy scripture or in such works (if there is another such work) as the Life of Saint Teresa by Herself.
There can be no danger in showing the connection between the sacraments and solemnities of the Church, vocal prayer both in common and in private, and mental prayer of every kind. We all now recognize the value of the study of the nature of Prayer, and we have good leaders and helpers in this study.
Further, such students as I have supposed, well-established in the Catholic life, may take for granted the Divine revelation of truth, and the sacramental life of grace, and may go on to consider the special interests of prayer, seeking answers to the questions how prayer may best be undertaken, cherished, protected, favoured by management of the rest of life, and secured in persevering advance; how mortification and discipline of the senses and of selfish wishes must prepare the way for sincere meditation and recollection, for the fruitful pondering of scripture and the truths of the creed, for the prayer of unmixed and direct desire, for the quiet of a full surrender to the divine influence, and for the vision which no man may command but which every believer is undoubtedly called to desire; for such an outpouring of the Spirit of wisdom and revelation that the lives already rooted and grounded in God's loving purpose, may, by knowledge of Him, be brought to full conformity with His will.
 A special study of prayer as an element or distinct feature of Christian life might properly be expected especially in a system of discourses, and when, as in our convention, the lines of foundation have been well and truly drawn in former hours of our work. But I do not think that if this kind of study had been desired I should have been chosen to take part at this point in your discussions. I cannot on such an occasion be useful in this particular way.
My object—although the foundations (as I said) have been well set out in preceding addresses—is to show prayer once more as in strict relation to the fundamental truth of religion and to the primary elements of our duty, that is to say to the Christian doctrine of God, and to the essential character of all human goodness.
It is because God is revealed as our God that we must always pray. Unto Him shall all prayer come.
It is because grace is the foundation, the substance, and the law of holiness, that our goodness must always be beginning anew in prayer.
God is the sole source of Reality and the one and only god. There is none good but one, that is God.
The creature is in being by God's will, and is brought into and sustained in existence in order to serve God's purpose. This purpose for the creature is the sanctification of the creature; and this sanctification is nothing else but the reception of the one goodness. The creature exists and will always exist only in order to be the scene and the shrine of the sole perfection both of reality and of rightness, that is God. There is no relative reality that does not proceed from and return to the divine reality. There is no human, and indeed no created virtue that is not the effusion of the Divine—that is the only—Goodness. The reception of the Divine for which the creature exists is not a reception effected of necessity, whether physical or spiritual, it is a welcome; and is effected by the Divine mercy in that will of man which the same mercy has made free so far as to make the welcome a genuine act of choice, that is of love.
It follows that, just in so far as we rise through freedom to actual duty, just in so far as we are capable of a moral life, our primary duty is the willing reception of the [357/358] Divine Goodness and Glory; and this primary duty is never superseded at any later stage but is the perpetual cause of all particular obedience to the law of righteousness, to the purpose of our own being.
Prayer, therefore, both as duty and as privilege, belongs essentially to our position and character as conscious creatures made for willing goodness.
Prayer, the special experience or state which is the growingly voluntary and growingly conscious welcome of the Divine Presence, is the indispensable foundation of every life that proceeds upon the right path or conforms to the law of its own health.
If God be God, it is useless to attempt to frame a scheme of duty that leaves God out of account. It is waste of time to make such a scheme first with the intention of adding to it later the motives of worship, the succours of Grace, and the activity of petition. For prayer—in view of the fact of Creation and God's purpose—appears as something more than an expedient for obtaining succour in temptation, comfort in trouble, strength in labour, light in darkness, or security in doubt.
By prayer we obtain all these particular blessings. But prayer itself is the entirely indispensable attitude, experience, and activity of the life that is being saved. It is more than a means to another end which is holiness. For since holiness is the communication of God, prayer which is the welcome of God, is holiness itself in its initial stage, and already, in the most imperfect worshipper, is the unspeakable gift of God, and the real life of Christ in the believer. It is surely an activity of that faith which is related as channel to "the righteousness which is of God," and of which it is said "By Grace,—that is by God's loving purpose and self-bestowal—are ye saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God."
The conception of prayer I have tried to suggest is the most exacting possible in its demand. It shows prayer not as a privilege separable from the Christian or truly human life, nor as an occasional duty however frequent in its incidence. It makes of prayer a form of life in all directions and without interruption necessary, [358/359] a duty for every one and at all times inevitable, though not always discerned or even discernible.
But, note, the description that shows prayer as everywhere necessary shows it also as everywhere possible. If it accentuates the demand, it also enlarges the opportunity; or rather it extends it indefinitely and perhaps infinitely, for it relates prayer not only to the special communications of inspiration but also to the universal fact of creation.
We shall not be fair and we shall not be safe if we do not hasten to add that the description that indicates larger lines for the opportunity of prayer also sets before us in the most convincing way the immeasurable difficulties of prayer. We must not forget or obscure these, and the man who does not know them has not long persevered in prayer. There is an ease and a peace in prayer. It is the ease of an accepted duty, the peace of a settled loyalty, of a simplified desire. S. Teresa says somewhere that he who prays is delivered from the toil of the journey and is borne as in a boat with sails. But the man who sails far meets both toil and crisis enough, and S. Teresa's own book is a record of difficulty valorously confronted.
There are difficulties enough connected with prayer; and they are of two groups: First the vast and varied obstacles, distractions, infirmities, seductions that barricade the path to prayer—those facts and forces that make the neglect of prayer easy, the recovery of prayer hard, rare, and costly; and secondly the difficulties, toils and dangers, greater, as I believe, than the first set—which are encountered, and must be endured within the life of prayer and by those who most resolutely enter it. There are dangers and difficulties which, even within that interior sphere, are not external to the soul but belong to the very activity and fabric of prayer itself.
Prayer carries not a promise only, but a challenge also. We must meet that challenge, take it up, endure its fire, withstand its unendurable strain, wrestle with the angel until the angel becomes a friend.
Here our reference halts at Israel in the person of Jacob. It is safer, and at the same time more terrible, to hold up our souls to the light of the Cross itself, to the light of the demand and awfulness of the love of God as met by the nature of all men in the person of Jesus Christ.
 What He endured for all, each man must endure according to his measure. In prayer, which is the central thread or stream of life, as in all the less central labour, thought, suffering, of man, there is dealt out by Heaven as much as the individual can bear, as much as is needed to bring him to his destined greatness. The task, the test, is as great as the man's God-intended future stature is sufficient to endure.
Let us not extenuate by a grain the difficulties' of prayer; the difficulties in its way, the difficulties within it. For by all these things men live.
Let us be sure we are on the wrong path—a path not truly ours, not truly human,—if our prayer, like our external task is not every day, or at least every year, more difficult. Let us look at least with caution and hesitation upon promised shortcuts. The utmost succour of the corporate devotion is not doing its true work when it seems to relieve the soul of effort. It does that true work only when it releases the soul from solitary ease to Churchwide endurance. It is only in the Church, in the Spirit-bearing fellowship that we can do the appointed work. But in the Church, in the Spirit-bearing fellowship of love, it is work and a full tale of work that each is appointed to do.
What at least for convenience we may call the external, material and social life is every year more difficult, more daunting, from its range, its complexity, its terrific movement and inertia, its growing treasures and equipment. The more we have to distribute, the more difficult the distribution becomes and, as in the case of some organic ferments, the spring of life is paralysed by the accumulation of the products of activity. If this is so with regard to the external or social sphere, then we must be sure, the life of faith and prayer becomes pari passu more difficult and more exacting. There are spirits unaware of this difficulty; but when the spirit of man is awake, it toils and almost staggers under an enormous burden.
A man recovers under this experience the sense of the blessing of mere supplication, obscured for us a few years ago by the re-discovery of restful prayer without petition. It seems certain that in our Lord's human life of a communion with God which must have been unbroken, there were times of intense petition, times after which He might be said to "cease to pray," [360/361] times in which being "in an agony" He was exhausted so as to need recovery of strength as He rose up from prayer (St. Luke 22:44).
We are sensitive to the burden of the world we live in—the weight of material existence, of social developments. Only the ungrateful can forget the uplifting power of both. The sea does not only inundate our shore or wreck our ships. There is an unspeakable exhilaration in its mounting waves, a tenderness beyond words in its shining spaces, in its innumerable smile. In sun and gloom, in storm and calm, and in the summer moderation of its temperate but ever dancing movement, it invades our souls with a magic for which all words of charm are too thin and colourless. Nor are the assemblies of men less potent in the influences of delight. Who can measure the strength and joy that come daily from companionship, example, friendship I confess that it is hard for me to maintain equanimity for the joy that pulses in the crowds of a great city, for the excellence of building and sculpture, for what seems to me the perfection of music; for the wonder, passing all anticipation, of the broad harmony reigning—spite of all local and partial disturbance—in your gigantic experiment of human cooperation. Yes, there is joy in the spring flowers and in the autumn forests; there is joy in an army and in that great school of equal courtesy that a free country opens to new multitudes every year.
And when I speak of the glory of the United States I am not speaking of the vastness of a unity vaster than any unity ever was before. I am speaking of the wonder of harmonious cooperation between sovereign states, of the attainment of a real civil organization of a continent, the genuine United States of America.
Alas! that from joys like these, vast multitudes are by our social ineptitude excluded: that uncounted thousands of the children of men live and die without knowing plenty, cleanness, quiet—the good bread on the fair linen, the dignity of the swept hearth, and the secure home; that thousands have never once rested in a night absolutely silent, or, when night withdrew her velvet curtain before the silver dawn, found the silence embroidered by the song of birds, while the diamond lace of dew, [361/362] one instant a glittering veil upon the lawns, rose, a white cloud of incense, to greet the sun with worship.
We cannot enjoy that loveliness of earth and sky, that nobility of human intercourse, without penitence for our failure to make those gifts universal. But neither need we meet them without prayer. And, as we pray in the crash and mire and exhausting toil of our journey, so when the woods shout with joy in the wind, and the sky with its rolling clouds moves in an exultation not foreign to our spirits, we shall pray also; and when the road is no longer rough or the storm frantic, we shall still mount, though by still paths and in a favouring air, to the mercy seat of the Most High.
Our description then makes the demands of prayer incessant, it shows the difficulties of prayer as unmeasured; but it also shows the opportunity to be perpetual. Why does the opportunity for prayer appear larger in the description I have suggested? Because that description takes us outside the sphere of felt devotion and appreciated light from Heaven, certainly outside any conventionally consecrated department, and directs our primary attention not upon what we know as spiritual blessings, but upon God the Creator of all things visible and invisible.
It shows the call to prayer for each man to be as wide as his experience. The vocation to prayer thus becomes much more frequent than the call to quietude; it comes to more men, and it comes to most, if not to all, of us more often than does the call to quiet and retirement. That call to quiet is of an importance beyond words, and there is great loss and great fault in not heeding it. To the quietness and to the intense devotion in the sanctuary of the church, the chamber, and the heart, belong the renewal of sensitiveness to that other call to prayer that sounds in the whole range of life.
But one of the best fruits of the special is the hearing of the more general call. And if not for the priest, yet for the people, it is of great practical importance to recall the fact that the opportunity to seek God lies in all experience of whatever kind, and not only in the corporate or the hidden worship which is still legitimately called the sanctuary of devotion.
My life, many an active man will say, is not made for prayer, is not fitted for prayer by the Providence of God. By the nature [362/363] of my duty prayer is seldom possible for me. The current of material existence is too strong for me, carries me forcibly out of the way of the knowledge and love of God. To such a plea we must answer with all possible encouragement of faith.
i. We ought to seek God the Creator, the Maker of Heaven and Earth, of all things Visible and Invisible. The whole deep cataract of realities and forces streams without pause from His Will. There is, in the mass of visible existence much that is contrary to God's purpose. It has become so by perversion, the possibility of which was bound up in the gift of freedom. But all reality is of Him and the thunder of its masses and movements need not divert us from Him. There must be recognized man's opportunity for prayer. For the good will given by God's own gift, that very torrent, pouring from His Will and governed by his Providence, is a line by which we return to Him; what Chesterton calls "the clamorous ladder of life" is our path of faith. With the thunderings and the lightnings there are voices, which both interpret the forces and call the soul back and up through all the whirl of change to the unchanging Father of Light. Simply to turn from the material scene to an unseen world of peace is to leave—so far as our wills are concerned—the material to some unnamed power or to some anarchy that is not God. The soul must transcend the material, must be lifted above it by God's special gift—but only in order to find the Key, or rather in order to be so tuned afresh as to read aright the message of creation. But the soul need not be divorced from that great, disturbing, terrible and entrancing spectacle, but rather see in the universe and in all the hurry of human life that which the soul—though with great toil of faith—may read, and that which at last the Creative love will restore to its first and intended order "after the image of Him Who created it." All things were made by the Word. Without the Word was not anything made that was made. Prayer, an operation in created man of the Creative Spirit, reads during the ages of waiting the primal message of Divine Power and Love now obscured in the Word's own creation. We pray without ceasing as we gaze upon the world and the prayer thus continually evoked gains the tremendous force of a vital habit.
ii.  Besides the all but overwhelming pressure of material existences, there is the answering task of man. Man, is made for labour, not for ease. He is enabled to bear the weight that lies upon him. He is constantly pressed by tasks which seem impossible, which are impossible until he takes them up.
There is no road of ease, only a road of ever renewed problems, burdens, efforts, conflicts. Man's case would be desperate indeed if he must wait for peace and ease before he can pray.
But it is in the very toil of muscle and brain and heart that his spirit rises to welcome the empowering love of God. As we see the creative Word in the flood of existence, so we see the redeeming Word in the tasks of human life,—we see the Cross. All the road of perplexity, of sacrifice, of suffering, of death belongs to God. It is the very road of Christ. Nothing hinders our prayer in the demand of toil. What hinders us is the rejection of toil, the abandonment of problems, the choice of easy answers, of a path of least resistance, the pursuit of a personal and self-centered peace. The fullest share in the agony of society, in the ever fresh and now, as it seems to us, nearly overwhelming, demand of human corporate needs, will give to faith the strongest, the most incessant prayer; and the Ascensiones in Corde, the flight of the soul to the sources of strength, the heavenly conversation itself, will be most secure in those who, through unwearied sharing of man's burden, are most conformed to the rule of Christ. Thus in manifold efforts, and not in self-chosen delicacies of limited suffering, does man in the Church, through prayer, bring to effect the fruit of sacraments. Thus he is a partaker of the power of Christ's resurrection, being conformed to Christ's Death. He asks and receives an unhoped power to endure. He seeks and finds unimagined opportunities for valour. He knocks and there is opened to him every day a door no man can shut against him, a wider door for far more costly witnessing than, without prayer, he could either hope for or dread.
The habit of effort becomes one with the habit of supplication, and the very substance of the Soul is changed by the power of God-given habit to the fashion of the redeeming love that bore, and still bears, our burdened nature. Thus our [364/365] difficulties become our supports. The believer drinks of the brook in the way, therefore shall he lift up his head. And the way is the Way of Sorrows. We have not to escape from this scene of struggle in order to find God.
Ours is a life of unending labour. To pray is to find God in the labour. Ours is a life of sudden, vivid, and violent crises. To pray is to seek God and God's will in the shock and splendour of the crises. Ours is a life of never-ceasing and of almost unbearable development, of a growth that knows no pause and a relentless gathering of momentum. Prayer is not prayer for us unless it flourishes in the presence of this momentum, this growth, this life often hatefully unfolded, these assemblies, buildings, accumulations often so unmeaning and futile for the real interests of actual human life. It is by prayer that the stores are to be prevented from becoming, effective rivals to the human life they are supposed to serve. By prayer the believer is withheld from so entering into the whirlpool of wealth as to profit by it, and brings into this senseless movement a redeeming, that is to say, a practically useful guidance.
And in face of all the strain and the confused results of old endeavours, we must not expect a clear field, a tabula rasa; we must not hope to clear away old errors and start afresh in efforts suggested by the sounding word "Reconstruction." We must face the state of things as it is, enter into its actual current, and bring by prayer to the busy life we have to live, the eternal wisdom and power.
The man who in quiet learns the laws of prayer, who as the result of Holy Communion feeds upon Christ in his heart, who by meditation upon revealed truths comes to know Him Whom first he trusted, receives in our time a call of special urgency. It is the call to teach, and find out better ways of teaching, his friends to seek and find God in the storms of life. That life, both beyond us and within us, "is a tempest that no man can see, for the most part of God's works is hid." But, though humble by reason of ignorance in presence of new manifestations, the believer is courageous and clear in purpose; for in prayer he sees Jesus, and continues to follow through difficulty, [365/366] yet securely, the living clue of the divine purpose, the Way, the Truth, and the Life.
Although our utmost effort is called for—an effort which is itself entirely the Divine gift—yet this utmost effort does not win what we need, or satisfy even our own conception of that need. All those energies which, by God's creation and grace, we have are required, and must be given in the fullness of thought, purpose, activity, labour, as well as in completeness of surrender. But all this is not enough; indeed it seems to be nothing. There is power reserved from us, not included in the sum of our endowments of effort and thought; and this power is outside of us—outside even the range of grace and inspiration. The result of effort is not merely insufficient. Our engraced will does not effect a contribution towards success which must be implemented and brought to perfection by the addition or reinforcement of that other act of God. Nothing at all is gained until all is given. It is only when the stone is rolled away and the Lord is risen that there is any salvation, and then the salvation is total. For there are no degrees in liberty. Until we have all we have nothing. When, for all the gifts of grace, we are nothing, we have all.