Prayer is, as it were, being alone with God. A soul prays only when it is turned toward God, and for so long as it remains so. As soon as it turns away, it stops praying. The preparation for prayer is thus the movement of turning to God and away from all that is not God. That is why we are so right when we define prayer as this movement. Prayer is essentially a “raising up,” an elevation. We begin to pray when we detach ourselves from created objects and raise ourselves up to the Creator.
Now, this detachment is born when we clearly realize our nothingness. That is the real meaning of our Lord’s words: “He that shall humble himself shall be exalted.” His whole life was a continual abasement, always more and more profound. St. Bernard does not hesitate to say that such an abasement brings us face-to-face with God. Hence the peace of souls that have fallen, when, raised up by God, they find themselves in His presence. And it is precisely in their abasement, once they have recognized and admitted it, that they find Him, because it is there that He reveals Himself. The only thing that prevents Him from doing so is our “self.” When we own to our nothingness, this “self” is broken down, and once that happens, the mirror is pure, and God can produce own image in the soul, which then faithfully reproduces His features that are revealed in all their harmony and perfect beauty.
This is what our Lord meant in that vital passage in the Sermon on the Mount, and what all human considerations on prayer repeat endlessly but without arriving at its full splendor: “But thou, when thou shalt pray, enter into thy chamber and, having shut the door, pray to thy Father in secret.” Enter this sacred chamber of your soul and there, having closed the door, speak to your Father, who sees you in these secret depths, and say to Him, “Our Father, who art in Heaven. . . .” This intimate presence; your faith in Him who is the secret depth of it and gives Himself there; the silence toward all that is not God in order to be all to Him — here is the preparation for prayer.
It is obvious that we do not reach such a state of soul without being prepared for it by quite a combination of circumstances. And this is just what we do not know sufficiently in practice. The way to prepare for prayer is by leading a divine life, and prayer, after all, is that divine life. Everything that reproduces God’s image in us; everything that raises us beyond and above created things; every sacrifice that detaches us from them; every aspect of faith that reveals the Creator to us in creatures; every movement of true and disinterested love making us in unison with the Three in One — all this is prayer and prepares us for a still more intimate prayer. All this makes real the divine word of the Sermon on the Mount and the dual movement it recommends: shut the door and pray to thy Father. When He spoke thus, the divine Word showed that He knew our being and its laws. He revealed Himself as our Creator and made Himself our Redeemer. He showed that He made us and that He alone can remake us.
We do not suffice to ourselves; we have not in us that which can complete us; we need to be completed. I know I am putting it badly when I say that this complementing thing is not in us. Actually, it is in within us, but it is in a part of us that is, as it were, outside of us. In us, as in God, there are “many mansions.” God is within us in the depths of our soul, but by sin we no longer occupy those depths. When Eve looked at the forbidden fruit and stretched out her hand to take it and eat it, she went out of those secret depths in her soul. It was these depths that were the real terrestrial paradise, where God visited our first parents and spoke to them. Since the Fall, God is in us, but we are not!
The preparation for prayer consists in returning to those depths. Renunciation, detachment, recollection — whatever word we use, the reality is the same, and that reality is the true secret of prayer. Close the door and enter. . . . It needs only these two phrases to explain this, but in reality they are only one thing. They represent a movement, for all that unites us to God is movement. The words are related to two “terms,” or ends. If we speak of the terminus a quo (that is, from), they say (and they do what they say): Close. If we think of the terminus ad quem (that is, to), they say: Enter. We have to close the door on all that is not, and enter into HIM WHO IS. There you have the secret of all prayer.
Enter your “inner chamber”
God is a brazier of love. Prayer brings us near to Him, and in coming near to Him, we are caught by His fire. The soul is raised by the action of this fire, which is a kind of spiritual breath that spiritualizes it and carries it away. The soul frees itself from all that weighs it down, keeping it attached to this wearisome earth. The psalmist compares this breath to incense. Now, incense is a symbol universally known and exceptionally rich. But from all the substances that fire penetrates under the form of flame or heat, there follows a movement by which it spreads, causing it to increase by communicating itself to all that surrounds it.
The movement of the soul that prays has something special about it. It goes out from itself and yet remains in itself. It passes from its natural state to its supernatural state; from itself in itself to itself in God. At first glance, these expressions may seem strange. The mystery is not in the realities but in our understanding of them. Our mind is not used to these realities; we have to become accustomed to them.
Our soul is a dwelling with many apartments. In the first, it is there with the body; that is to say, with all the body’s sensitiveness.
It sees when the eye sees, hears when the ear hears. It moves with the muscles; it remembers, imagines, and appreciates distances, when we take part in all the activities that are the common ground of its action with the body. In the second, the soul is alone and acts alone. The body is there — it is always there — but it no longer acts; it has no part in the soul’s action. The soul alone thinks and loves. The body with its senses prepares the matter and elements, the conditions of this spiritual activity, but it has no part in producing it. That room is closed; the soul is there alone and dwells there alone.
In that spiritual dwelling there is a part still more remote. It is the dwelling-place of being, who communicates Himself and makes us to “be.” We are so accustomed to live turned outward (and objects of sense keep us so turned), we hardly ever open the door of that chamber, and scarcely give it a glance; many die without ever suspecting its existence. Men ask, “Where is God?” God is there — in the depths of their being — and He is there communicating being to them. They are not HIM WHO IS and who gives being to all other things. They receive being; they receive a part of being that does not depend upon themselves. They receive it for a certain time and under certain forms. And from His “beyond” God gives them existence. They exist only by His power and are only what He enables them to be. He is at the source of all they do and, no matter how much they may desire to continue those activities, they cannot do so if He is not there. To understand this, we have to think a great deal, and reflection — perhaps the highest form human act can take — has given place to exterior action and to local movement, both of which are common to animals and matter.
The soul that prays enters into this upper room. It places itself in the presence of that Being who gives Himself, and it enters into communication with Him. To communicate means to have something in common and, by this common element, to be made one. We touch, we speak, we open out to one another. Without this “something,” we remain at a distance; we do not “communicate.” God is love. We enter into communication with Him when we love, and in the measure of our love. The soul that loves and that has been introduced by Love into that dwelling-place where Love abides can speak to Him. Prayer is that colloquy. God will not resist that love which asks. He has promised to do the will of those who do His will.
It is to love that is due these divine communications which have drawn from those happy recipients the most amazing exclamations. “Lord, stay, I beg you, the torrent of your love. I can bear no more.” The soul, submerged and ravished, has fainted under the weight of these great waters and has asked to be allowed to take breath for an instant, in order the better to renew its welcome. The anchorite in the desert, when he prayed, had to forbear extending his arms, so as not to be rapt in his prayer. St. Mary the Egyptian, St. Francis of Assisi, were raised up from the ground and remained upheld by a power greater than the weight of their body.
Editor’s note: This article has been excerpted from The Prayer of the Presence God, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.