Why do people not pray enough? The answer is partly because they do not want to make the effort to begin, and partly because they do not know how to go on once they have begun. A lot of this difficulty would be cleared up if people would only understand that prayer comes from God, is kept going by God, and finds its way back to God by its own power. All we have to do is to lend ourselves to the process as generously as we can, and not put any obstacles in the way.
Our Lord is the light of the world, and by His light we are shown how to start and how to go on. The best way to think of it is to look upon our Lord’s prayer as an all-powerful dynamo that sends out spiritual strength day and night, unceasingly. From this dynamo our souls are charged, and when the batteries have gotten run down, we come again and again, every time we pray, to be recharged.
Without prayer we are in darkness, but in God’s light we see light.
Our Lord has said that we have not chosen Him but that He has chosen us. It is the same in this matter of prayer. We are not so holy or so clever that we can make prayer. Prayer is a grace. Prayer is so spiritual that it has to be made by God. God brings our prayer out of us by pouring His prayer in. We are just the bellows: His is the breath of life. When our Lord speaks of the Spirit breathing and the Light shining, He is speaking of His life in us.
If we share our Lord’s life, we must also share His prayer. This is the wonderful thing about being a member of His Church — that we are part of His Body and part of the service He offers to the Father. He draws our service out of us by establishing Himself in our souls. We have the infinite merits of His life, death, and Resurrection to call upon at every moment of our lives. We cannot please God more than by calling upon them in the particular service of prayer.
Or you could put it this way. If you love someone very much, what is it that pleases you most about that person? You will surely answer, “Being loved back.” It is knowing that the other person feels as you do; it is seeing in another the same thing that is terribly important to you. Now, God is love. What He wants to see in you is the love He has put there. And He wants to see it expressed — He wants it to show. And that is why He wants you to pray.
Perhaps you think of prayer as wanting something from God when you pray. Up to a point, this is right: you want mercy, strength to resist temptation, answers to particular petitions, graces of one sort or another. But it would be more true to say that God wants something out of you when you pray. What He wants out of you is a generous response to the prayer of His own, which, as we have already seen, He has put there.
He who has created all things, who owns heaven and earth, wants something that you alone among all the millions of human beings who have been born into this world can give. He wants your own, particular, personal, direct, here-and-now service. Nobody else can give it instead of you: it is yours alone to be given to Him alone. Your service of prayer is seen by God as a single thing by itself. You can either give it or refuse it.
By giving it, you give the best that is in you — because it is His own love that you are returning to Him — and by refusing it, you waste the greatest chance that God can offer you. When you pray, you are using your human powers to their highest possible limit — in fact, you are using them beyond their highest possible limit because in prayer they are being carried along by grace — and when you have decided to give up prayer, you have thrown away the one really solid support that you can depend upon in this life.
Our prayer is spiritual (or it would not be prayer at all), but it is also bound up with these fallen natures of ours, which we cannot escape. For as long as we live on this earth, we shall have to be content with a weighted prayer, a prayer that we can never quite handle as we would like, a gritty and earthy prayer that has to be constantly lifted up and sent on its way more directly toward God.
But however weighted down our prayer may be, it is at least a prayer. It is an effort, and has made a start. If we can honestly say we are trying, we can just as honestly say we are praying. So long as I am really trying to please God in my prayer (or in anything else, for that matter), I am pleasing Him. All He asks is that I should try to serve Him. The moment I try, I am in fact succeeding. I do not have to feel that I am doing it well, and that my prayer is pleasing God, because feelings are likely to be quite wrong about the goodness or badness of our prayers. All I have to be clear about is that I am making the effort.
How We Should Pray
After reading what has been said so far, you may feel like someone who has been told how necessary swimming is and then has been thrown into the water without being told how to keep afloat. To know how important prayer is — and religiously, you cannot keep afloat without it — will not be much good to you unless you go on to the next step, which is to learn how to go about it.
Having taken in what is called the principle of prayer, we now have to think about the performance.
Now, whether the performance is an outward one, bringing you together with other people to pray in a church, or whether you are praying on your own, the worship you give must be yours. It is person-to-Person. Even a ceremony in which everyone takes part (such as the Mass) is, underneath the printed words, a private conversation between you and God. What is called “liturgical” prayer is God’s revelation of Himself made public — a revelation that invites a personal as well as a public return from those who are joining in. As if nobody else were there, God is revealing something of Himself especially to you.
The fact that in public worship other people are there makes your response to God all the more pleasing to Him. He wants the members of His Body to be together in prayer and charity — all doing the same thing, but each in his own way. That is why there are churches and congregations. If He wanted a purely private devotion out of us, God would allow us to do all our praying at home. The truth is He wants both: He wants us to pray as part of a crowd because we are united to one another in the family of His Church, and He wants us to pray by ourselves because members of a family can often get closer to their Father when the others are not around.
You will notice that I have called prayer “God’s revelation of Himself,” which asks you to reveal yourself to Him in return. You may wonder at the word revelation, because when you are praying, you do not seem to notice anything of the kind. But a revelation does not always mean a blinding flash, the discovery of an important truth, the understanding of a mystery or a secret. Certainly it means something learned, something unveiled and imparted. When we pray, we come to know God better. We come to see by faith beyond the curtain that hides Him from us. Our knowledge, faith, and love are increased in the act of prayer. It does not happen suddenly, or even noticeably, but it does happen.
Say you were to stand in front of a painting, a masterpiece. If you were ready to take in what you saw, you would gain in knowledge. Your knowledge would make you like the picture. Your liking for the picture would make you understand a little about the artist who painted it. So, altogether you would be a lot better off, in regard to art, from having stood for a while in front of a masterpiece and gazed at it. The perfection of the work would have revealed itself to you.
Apply this to standing before God in prayer. Without having a vision or hearing a divine voice, without perhaps noticing at all what has been going on, you have been taking in something of God. Every time you pray, whether you are aware of the effect it is having upon you or not, you develop in the knowledge and love of God. God so imparts Himself to us in prayer, so “reveals” Himself, that we come away from it with the whole religious side of our natures enlarged and strengthened.
So what it all amounts to is that what God does for us in prayer is infinitely more important than what we do for Him in prayer. We cannot increase His knowledge and love of us in prayer — because He knows us through and through already, and loves with an eternal and infinite love — but He can increase our knowledge and love of Him. This is prayer’s particular grace: that we understand more, and therefore want to worship more. In his light we see light, and, seeing, are drawn to praise.
But to go back for a minute to the art gallery, it is obvious that you will not learn much about art, or come to have a liking for it, if you stand in front of the picture with your eyes shut. Or with your eyes open but with your mind closed. You have to look, you have to be ready to understand whatever the picture is supposed to mean. So also in prayer. You have to focus on God. You have to be ready to receive whatever He intends for you.
This is where the practical side of prayer begins — when you ask yourself, “How do I focus on God? .. . How do I get ready for what He intends?. . . How can I be sure of what He intends?” Always remembering that prayer is a matter of faith, and therefore a matter of operating more or less in the dark, we have at least certain lines to go upon which were given us by our Lord Himself. Fortunately, we are not left entirely to ourselves, and to see where our help lies, we must turn to the next chapter.
Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from Dom van Zeller’s Prayer and the Will of God, available from Sophia Institute Press.