Prayer is natural to human persons
We are here only because God made us, and we depend completely on Him. It is natural that man should acknowledge this fact. "What do you have that was not given to you?" (1 Cor. 4: 7).
Prayer is common courtesy
It is courteous to return thanks for a gift. God's gifts to us deserve our gratitude. "What return can I make to Yahweh for all his goodness to me?" (Ps. 116: 12).
Prayer is simple
It is the raising of the mind and heart to God, i.e., we turn our mind, our attention to God, we think about Him; and then our heart goes out to Him in adoration, love, praise, thanksgiving, sorrow for sin, requests for what we need. "Lord, you are good and forgiving, most loving to all who invoke you.” (Ps. 86:5).
Yet this simple thing can sometimes seem complicated and difficult.
Let us see some of the straightforward ways in which we can pray, and then we will consider some of the difficulties and how to deal with them.
The Practice of the Presence of God
Our Lord on one occasion told His Apostles that they should pray always (Luke 18: 1). What did He mean? How is it possible to pray always?
Our Lord meant by those words that we should first of all realise that we are always in the presence of God. He is with us all the time. Once we realise this, constant prayer becomes a very simple thing. It does not need many words, indeed it doesn't need any. The better we know a person the less need we have of words in talking to him.
The practice of the presence of God means sharing our life, our interests, our activities, our thoughts with Him.
This is called the state of prayer. It is a state which can last all our waking hours. Moreover, in this way we little by little learn to look at things in God's way, to judge things from His point of view. Prayer becomes, as it were, the very air we breathe. Our whole life becomes an offering, a prayer to God. This is what Christ meant when He said that we should pray always.
Of course we should also try to have some special time each day for verbal prayer. Even if we do not use many words, a few minutes each night to think back on the day and talk to God about it will mean a great deal. Next day we will be better able to put ourselves in the presence of God.
Prayer in Words
We can form the habit of prayer without words – simply by raising our mind and heart to God. There are times, however, when we feel the need to put our thoughts and feelings into words. In that case we should talk to God as simply as we talk to anybody. If you read the lives of the Saints you will find an extraordinary simplicity in their conversations with Almighty God. Sometimes they just say the same thing over and over again. "My God I love You. My God I trust You. My God I believe in You." So a person in love says the same things over and over again to the one he loves. We can talk as much or as little as we please, in any way we please, so long as it is sincere. That is all that God wants.
What about using prayer books? Some people find them useful, others don't. We can use them or not, just as we wish. In general, though, it is true to say that most people can learn a great deal from using a prayer book. There are times when we can't find words to express what is in our heart. The prayers that have been used by friends of God for centuries can then help us to say what we want to say. It is like appreciating poetry. The poet has a gift of saying with insight and penetration the kind of thing that we have vaguely felt but never been able to express. So also formal prayers can nourish the spirit of prayer in us when we use them. After a while phrases and sentences from them become part of ourselves. What had begun as a borrowed prayer is now a very personal one of our own.
Distraction and Dryness
Prayer is simple, prayer is talking to God. God always listens. Why then do we find it so hard to keep our mind on what we are doing? Why do we suffer from distractions?
We all suffer from them. We start praying with the best will in the world. We turn our mind and heart to God. And then a few minutes later we realise with a shock that our attention has wandered far away. This is often worrying. People are inclined to think that their prayers are useless because they have suffered from distractions. This is not necessarily so. If the distractions are deliberate or careless then the prayer is of little use. It is no use pretending to pray if we are deliberately turning our attention to other things all the time. But not all distractions are deliberate. Often they can't be helped.
In the first place don't be surprised that distractions come. We have a body as well as a soul. And our attention is most readily caught by what we can see, touch and feel. God is not visible to our physical eyes.
There is nothing to be surprised at then in the body's attention being distracted by one thing and another. It is only to be expected that distractions will come. The important thing is to know how to deal with them when they come.
How to deal with Distractions
1. Be properly recollected at least at the beginning of your prayer. Say in your heart, "Here I am Lord and here, too, are You." You will know then at any rate that you have begun well.
2. If you find that your attention has wandered, patiently come back to your prayer and continue.
3. Never go over again the prayers that you have already said distractedly. If you start doing that you will grow so weary of praying there will be a danger that you will give it up entirely.
4. If the mind wanders again, once more patiently come back to prayer and continue.
5. Accept the distractions as a cross and offer them up with the cross Our Lord carried.
All this does not mean that we should take distractions for granted. We should continually be trying to make our prayers more attentive, more recollected. We should not be worried, however, when distractions come through no fault of our own. St. Teresa of Avila said that the "prayer of distraction," as she called it, could be an even more perfect prayer than the prayer which goes, as it sometimes does, smoothly and comfortably. What she was saying was that to persevere in prayer to God, even when everything is against it, is a real sign of love and shows even more devotion than prayer at the times when we experience full consolation.
Asking for Things in Prayer
In the prayer of petition, i.e., asking God for things in prayer, the most important and necessary requirement is the willingness to be resigned to God's will. Christ Himself gives us the perfect example of this in His prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. He was in an agony of apprehension about what He was to suffer on the next day-the first Good Friday. And He prayed: "Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me." Then He added, "Nevertheless, let your will be done, not mine."
(Luke 22: 42).
The first thing then to ask God for is the strength to live as He wants us to live. Many people try to make God fit into their plans but they should rather try to make themselves fit into God's plans. It is quite all right to ask God for the things we would like to have, such as good health, etc. Often He is only waiting for us to ask for these things. But sometimes He wants us to go without these things and to accept the hard things that He sends us. That is why we should often ask Him for the strength to do everything He is asking of us. We are only weak human beings, and therefore we often find it hard to keep God's commandments. It will be easier if we ask His help. We should ask Him, for example, to help us keep this Commandment or that law, or to accept this or that cross or disappointment, or to make us strong enough to keep away from something that we know is unlawful.
Every Prayer is Answered
God guarantees that no prayer will go unanswered. (See Matt. 7:7-11). This does not mean, however, that He will necessarily give us just what we are asking for. Sometimes the things we ask for are not for our good, even though they seem to us most desirable. Because He is our Father, with a father's loving concern for our welfare, God does not grant such requests. Our first prayer then should be for the great grace of resignation to His will.
The story is told of a child who wanted a bicycle for Christmas. The child's father did not believe in God, and thought that he would discourage his child's belief by telling him: "You want a bicycle for Christmas. You believe God can do everything; ask Him for it." Christmas Day arrived, and no bicycle. The father was delighted. "There you are," he said, "God did not give you your bicycle. He did not answer your prayer.”
"Oh, yes He did!" replied the child, "He said 'No'."
Consolation and Desolation
God always hears us. God invites us to talk to Him.
But we must be prepared for times of dryness when prayer does not come at all easily to us. Dryness can even go so far as desolation, when we seem to be speaking to a blank wall with no response from God, with not even tranquillity of mind as a result of our prayers. It is important to know just what to do when these times come.
Consolation is the state of mind when we see the will of God as good in itself and good for us. Our prayer comes easily. We have few distractions. We experience during it and at the end of it a calm of mind and heart which is clearly the gift of God. At such times thank God for the gift of consolation, make the most of it and store up the memory of it for the times of dryness that will surely come.
Desolation is that state of mind when "I hate those things that in my heart I love." I don't feel a bit like praying. The round of religious practices seems empty and meaningless. God seems to have gone. None of my prayers seems to be answered and far from experiencing tranquillity of heart and mind I know only disturbance, anxiety or maybe a cold and hard indifference.
Times of Desolation
This is the way to deal with such times of desolation:
1. On no account give up praying or say less prayer. Rather say more prayer and especially do some act of self-denial. Mortification and self-denial are a tonic to the soul.
2. Keep on praying in the darkness of soul, holding on to God by faith.
3. Thank God that He is allowing you to carry the cross with Him. After all, that is what He asks of all His followers- “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross every day and follow me.” (Luke 9:23).
Times of desolation in prayer are a test of our faith. God deliberately withdraws Himself for a while to see if we love Him enough and trust Him enough to keep on in the dark. Our spiritual life would be a very soft and flabby thing if we did not have some testing period like this.
Notice how very remote this attitude of mind is from that which says: "If I pray when I don't feel like it I am being a hypocrite." Not so. Prayer has not necessarily anything to do with feeling. Feeling, which has been called consolation, is a bonus, a gift from God. Thank Him for it. But the true test of love is when one continues to love and to serve the beloved even though all the superficial "feeling" is for the moment deadened or distracted.
It is often a help to have others pray with us. If we have a time for prayer in the family it will be a reminder and an encouragement to everyone. Those who find it hard to pray will be encouraged by the others. Consider seriously the idea of family prayer in the home each day. The Rosary, for example, makes an ideal family prayer. It will bring countless blessings on the whole family.
Prayer of St. Ignatius
teach me to be generous,
teach me to serve you as you deserve,
to give and not to count the cost,
to fight and not to heed the wound,
to toil and not to seek for rest,
to labour and not to seek reward,
save that of knowing that I do your holy will.
Originally published by the Catholic Enquiry Centre (1969).