There is only one essential prayer: it is the movement drawing the soul upward toward God, and the relationship that follows. As soon as the soul turns from the dark valley to the heights where there is light and gladness, it prays. It meets Him who has never been absent and who is always turned toward the soul, His hands full of blessings, His heart overflowing with eternal love, and the relationship that is love and life begins.
This relationship can assume very different forms, which vary according to persons, times, needs, and with the varying circumstances of everyday life.
There are times when we find comfort in the thought of God’s greatness in general, or in some particular perfection of His. For instance, we invoke His love, His mercy, His goodness, His holiness, and His truth. These perfections serve to raise us to the contemplation of those vast horizons where the God who is becomes ever greater in our eyes. We do well. God has only Himself. He cannot resist such praise. We were made for that: to praise Him eternally. Hearing on our lips this exiles’ song of the Fatherland, He knows that we want Him more than any created thing, and that we belong to Him completely.
Often we turn to someone dear to the divine Majesty. Obviously our Lord’s sacred humanity occupies the very first place, far above everyone and everything. In this respect the litanies of the saints are wonderful. We first invoke God Himself, then Jesus, His Mother, the great saints of our immense and loving family in Heaven. Then we recall the difficulties of the way and the dangers that threaten us, and finally, gathering it all up into an immense and powerful finale, we recall the main details of all that our Redeemer has done for us in giving Himself to us. We end on a note of supplication, on our own behalf and for others, for the souls in Purgatory as well as for those who are still on earth: “We beseech Thee, O Lord. . . .”
The diversity of our requests also imparts to our prayer an infinite variety of shades. We can ask for the absolute good, which is God Himself, and for the eventual possession of this supreme good. We can ask for the means that lead us to Him. Among these means, some are directly and essentially directed to that end, others less so. Our prayer varies according to these objects. There is the prayer that consists solely of praise and adoration; another restricts itself to thanksgiving. But all are essential prayer, for they raise us up to God. And although in some cases we may not make our request explicitly, it is nonetheless hidden under the words, and even in the intention. Those who praise the divine greatness, those who thank Him for favors received, know that at His feet we are always souls in need, and that His goodness cannot fail to be moved at the sight of our indigence.
Often we collect together in one formula all the different kinds of prayer. In a word or two, we adore or thank, we ask for pardon and help, and approach the Father in the steps of the Son, in the arms of Mary, in union with all the company of Heaven. I cannot think of anything that could be dearer to the God of love or make a greater appeal to His love.
In the Gospels there are many forms of prayer ideal for all circumstances. The most beautiful, needless to say, is our Lady’s “They have no wine.” The request itself is lost in the perfect act of trust. Mary is so sure of being heard. She feels that it would wound her Son’s tenderness by asking directly for the wine. Jesus’ love for her, His unfailing thoughtfulness for others, leave no doubt in her mind as to the answer. She speaks, and then waits, as all mothers do. And she invites us to do the same: “Whatsoever He shall say to you, do ye.”
And so do those two beloved of Jesus whom the Gospel calls Martha and Mary, at the bedside of Lazarus their brother. They know that Jesus loves them, and so they ask for nothing. They simply say, “Lord, he whom Thou lovest is sick.” There is no actual request, no word of their grief. They say, in effect, “You love . . . and someone is suffering.” In that home, so united, the brother’s sickness is their sickness, and they have not the slightest doubt that their common grief will find an echo in the heart of their friend.
Let prayer refresh your soul!
Prayer should be continuous. It is the soul breathing. Just as we have to breathe continuously, so we must pray continuously. Prayer is the deep interior movement of which we are barely conscious. To become aware of it, so far as we can, is indeed a great grace. To live, conscious of this movement and of Him who is both its source and term, is the greatest of all graces.
Onto this deep movement, the continuity of which is unhappily perceived by so few, should be grafted special prayers — that is, those that are more conscious and willed. It is these we properly call “prayers,” and which call for fixed times. The times for these prayers in the case of priests and religious are so precise that they are called “Hours”; that is to say, certain prayers are attached to certain hours during the day and night.
They are so determined that the whole day is, as it were, one continuous prayer. The repetition of these prayers turns our vacillating mind, so easily and so often distracted, back to God. Just when our mind could be caught up by some superficial thing, the time for the Divine Office comes around, and our mind is called away from the pressing vanities that might have occupied it and is plunged again in God.
The ordinary Christian is not held by so strict a tie. Regular hours for prayer, filling the day and canalizing everything toward God, is not for him a duty and a daily task. But what for him is not an obligation he may, of course, do out of love. I say out of love, but it is a love that is in his own interest. But even for him, there are fixed times when he ought to recollect himself and renew the divine contact. “In the morning,” says the psalmist, “Thou shalt hear my voice. . . . In the morning I will stand before Thee.” And the prophet Isaiah: “In the morning early, I will watch to Thee,” as if, for him, there could be no other awakening than this, and all time not so occupied was but night and sleep. Still more relevant is that other word of the son of Sirach, falling gently and spreading like dew: “[The wise man] will give his heart to resort early to the Lord that made him, and he will pray in the sight of the Most High.”
Sleep brings renewal; that is what the word rest or repose implies. It revives us, provided we put entirely out of our mind every- thing that has disturbed us during the day. If, on the other hand, we pursue in our dreams the things that have attracted us during our waking hours, our sleep only wearies us still further, instead of bringing us rest.
Night is thus like a new creation: it relaxes the limbs, gives assurance to the mind, renews the soul, and restores our whole being. These hours of repose are hours of unconsciousness. We do not live this deep, restorative contact with our Source; the soul does not perceive Him. It wants this contact, and indeed achieves it, but it is not conscious of it. During these hours of sleep, it does not offer to God, who is still its all, the homage of the whole being for which it is responsible. There is a kind of break in the divine dialogue, for although the soul holds the first place in our being, it does not constitute, as we must recognize, our all.
When the body awakens in the morning, and the soul becomes again conscious of this “whole,” it resumes command and becomes once more the link and interpreter of the created world, thus renewing its conscious contact with the Creator. That is why in the psalms at Lauds, we invite the whole of creation to take up again its interrupted praise: “All ye works of the Lord, bless the Lord; praise and exalt Him above all forever.” Thus sings the soul to all creation, which it salutes anew. These are images of Him whom the soul loves, and all creation responds as with one voice: “We are, because He is; we are, because He gives us being, and we are what He gives us to be.”
During the night, these voices continue their praise, but the body, which is the link between the soul and creation and conveys these harmonies to the soul, is asleep. But once awake, those voices beat loudly but calmly at the gate of the body’s senses; the soul hears them again, and the great hymn of praise — if man takes his place in it — is resumed.
Between this renewed world and the rested man, a harmony, a perfect understanding is created, which becomes a fullness when united to the Source from whom it proceeds. It is prayer that achieves this union and completes the body’s rest. It is the prelude to the day’s movement and is its preparation. Mankind dies through not understanding this.
Thus plunged anew in God, who is in that creation to which He has given Himself, man can take up again his daily toil. In this He is not alone. He leans upon HIM WHO IS; he draws from Him both light and strength. Beyond what he does, he sees Him for whom and by whom he acts, and is united with Him in his task. His every act takes on an immense importance, outstrips the brief moment in which it is done, and is engraved in eternal duration.
A day is no longer just a day; it is a preparation and already a participation in eternity. Upon these heights, men can face the difficulties of this quickly passing life. He is not crushed by the testing time, nor frightened by temptation. When these things come, he renews, with one elevation of his soul, with one bound, as it were, toward God, his contact with the source of life and resists the temptation. To obtain such a consummation, prayer must really be prayer — that is, a raising of the mind and heart to God, a turning away from all created and human attractions.