It is not what we do physically speaking or what we accomplish in the temporal realm that is important in life, but what we accomplish in our souls — how we sanctify ourselves. This is the most important thing in life, and our first, last, and most important tool will always be that of prayer.
My dear friends in Christ, prayer is heaven. Perhaps this is a simple way of looking at it, but, as we teach the little children in school, heaven is where God is. Although it is not the same as seeing the Beatific Vision, is it not heaven to be with God? How do we come close to God in this life, if not through prayer, and especially Holy Communion?
Perhaps we have envied Adam and Eve walking in the garden of Paradise, talking to God familiarly in the evening hours of the day, and yet that same opportunity is available for all of us, no matter what the hour of day or night. True, we cannot see God as they did but the contact is no less real. At times, of course, it is difficult to pray because it is an exercise of faith. We are talking to Someone whom we don’t see. This also tells us that prayer must be from the heart. Lip service will not do when we talk about prayer.
This may be a bit of a digression, but Father Tanquery, in his excellent summary of the spiritual life, lists the four interior means of perfection. I would like to spend some time on this subject since it ties in with the theme of this conference.
First of all, in order to become perfect we must have the desire. Without the desire, we will not accomplish anything. The stronger our desire, the more we will be able to accomplish.
The second interior means of perfection is knowledge of God and of self. This is absolutely necessary. Why must we know God? Because He is the terminus, the end for which we are seeking. Unless we have a clear idea of God, and try to grow in our knowledge of Him, we will not be inclined to advance towards Him in the pursuit of perfection. We must grow in our knowledge of God. To do this, we must meditate upon His perfections, His infinite goodness, in order to be inspired to a greater desire to come close to Him.
Along with knowledge of God comes knowledge of self. As our idea of God becomes more and more elevated, we become more and more aware of our sinfulness and unworthiness. Is not this the wellspring of contrition? As we grow in our knowledge of Almighty God through prayer and spiritual exercises, and understand better His infinite goodness, we begin to ask ourselves how we could have ever fallen into those faults and sins we once committed so lightly. To supplement the knowledge of self we acquire in meditation, it is necessary that we examine our consciences. Meditation is good, but examination of conscience roots out those faults that we see in ourselves.
The third interior means of perfection is conformity to the Divine Will. This is done through obedience, and conformity to the crosses and sufferings that God sends us. How much room for reflection is there upon this! It is so hard to obey at times, so hard to resign ourselves to crosses, and yet those things are the Will of God for us, and we must try to accept them.
Finally the fourth means of perfection is prayer. The amazing thing about prayer is that it includes the other three means of perfection. I quote from Father Tanquery: “Prayer embodies and completes all of these three preceding acts. It is itself a desire for perfection since no one would sincerely pray who did not wish to become better. It presupposes some knowledge of God and of self, since it establishes relations between the two.”
What do we do when we pray? We adore, we thank, we offer contrition and reparation for our sins. “Prayer also conforms our will to that of God, since any good prayer contains an act of submission to Almighty God. Prayer, moreover, perfects all these acts by bringing us in all humility before the Majesty of God.” So you see, then, the power of prayer. You can see how St. Alphonsus could say that if a person prays, he will save his soul; if he does not, he will lose his soul. We, of course, should not be concerned with only saving our souls, but with sanctifying our souls.
Some other considerations on prayer are quite elementary. We know that when we pray together we unite the force of our prayer with that of others, so that we get the merit of all the prayers combined. Our Lord, of course, said that where there are two or three gathered together in His Name, He is there with them.
But something I would like to emphasize even more is mental prayer — the prayer of the heart. Of course, vocal prayer, too, is from the heart, but in mental prayer it is just the heart, just the mind operating. When we pray vocally, often we are telling God what we want. That is very good. Without this we would not save our souls. But when we make mental prayer, we should also be listening God to find out what He wants us to do. Do you see the difference? As important as it is to ask God for what we want, it is even more necessary for us to listen to Him. How good are we at listening to God as we make our meditation? Perhaps we are having difficulty in the spiritual life precisely because we are not listening enough to God.
The sentiments we have when we make our mental prayer should not be just feelings, although those are nice to have — but sentiments of adoration, love, praise, thanksgiving, contrition and resolution. Be careful not to fall into the delusion that because you have no feeling, your mental prayer is a waste — not at all! As long as you make the act of the will, you have made mental prayer.
At times you may be so dry that you don’t know what to think or say. If you then just do your best, God will understand. At other times it may seem we cannot even put into words what we need, or what we would like to say. Let me suggest that you then make your sentiments those of the “Our Father,” the perfect prayer. It begins by hallowing the Name of God, by adoring and worshipping. Then we offer to God our wish that His Kingdom come — that His Will be done, in ourselves and in others. Next we ask for our daily bread — both the spiritual food of our soul, and food for our body, our temporal necessities. If we really meditated upon the Our Father, I am sure we would find more than abundant matter to make good mental prayer, especially at those times we find ourselves bereft of the sentiments we would like to have.
Prayer is a penance, and it must be so. It is difficult to cast out distractions. Sometimes we have to fight the whole period through to remove thoughts that should not be there. At other times we are tired, or we don't feel like praying. Let me remind you that penance adds a great value to our prayer. When the three Kings came before Our Divine Lord, they did not bring only frankincense, which signified prayer. They also brought gold, which signifies charity, and myrrh, symbolic of sacrifice. A life of interior prayer is a life of sacrifice. One of the prayers we used to pray in honor of the Holy Kings begged that we might never appear before God empty-handed when we came to pray, but that we would always have some type of sacrifice to bring with us.
When we pray, we must be careful not to be lax with our physical posture. God expects us not to honor Him only with our soul, but with our bodies as well. This takes self-discipline. Surely this is what Our Lord referred to when He said that some devils are cast out only by prayer and fasting. Sometimes we mumble our prayers. If we talked to others as we sometimes speak to God, wouldn't they take insult? Prayer requires attention, an upright posture — these things add to the value of our prayer. Sometimes the prayer itself is the penance — the mortification it takes to pray well.
Allow me to suggest that you keep a little metaphorical box where you can put all your cares, your worries, your plans, your projects, before you go to prayer. Lock it up, throw the key away, so that when you pray, all of those things can stay there. If we allow those thoughts to come with us, is there any purpose of even being in chapel? We take so much away from God; we find Him undeserving of our full attention. St. Aloysius took his prayer so seriously that he made a resolve that if he got a single distraction during his hour of mental prayer, he would start all over. Of course, this is not necessarily something to imitate, but at least we find in him a patron we can pray to for devotedness to our prayer life.
Prayer must be our life. We are told by St. Paul whether we eat or drink we should do all for the glory of God. St. Augustine and St. Thomas tells us how this can be done. The former tells us to converge our life, our actions, our occupations, our meals, even our repose, into a hymn of praise to God's glory. “Let the harmony of your life ever rise as a song so that you may never cease to praise. If you will give praise, sing them, not only with your lips, but sweep the chords upon the psalter of good works.” “Thou dost give praise when thou workest, when thou eatest and drinkest, when thou lyest to rest, when Thou sleepest, thou givest praise, even if thou holdest thy peace.”
By the grace of baptism, we have all been adopted as children of God, and all of our actions should be referred to Almighty God. Let me give you an analogy. Let us suppose that a human being could adopt something of the plant or animal kingdom and somehow raise it to the human level, pouring out upon this adopted “new” human, shall we say, all the privileges of man — dominion over the plant and animal kingdoms, free will, intellect, etc. Wouldn’t you expect this adopted creature always to live up to its new dignity? What would you think if it were to say, “I’m tired of this; I want to go back to being what I was”?
This gives us just a little bit of an idea of the infinite distance that we have traversed through our supernatural adoption. God expects us because of the grace of baptism, to always live a life that conforms to our supernatural state. When we sin, or act from purely natural motives, it is as if we are telling God, “I’m tired of this. I want to go back down to where I was before.” By a life of prayer, we live a life of supernatural adoption.
Our prayer time is limited; we can’t spend all day on our knees praying, so we must make our work a prayer. It was said of Pere Lamy that, because of very unique circumstances, he had time only to pray his Office and offer Holy Mass. In this case, apparently, it was the Will of God--it was all he could do. Despite this, he continued to grow in holiness. How can this happen? Because he made his work a prayer. He did it for the love of God.
Prayer, what a beautiful thing it is! It encompasses all, it leads to all virtue. We often pray the most when we are feeling the weight of the cross, and indeed, I think that is why God sometimes sends us the cross. We often get so comfortable where we are that, without some difficulty to overcome, we would not pray.
There is another mistake we often make, when we feel we need a particular grace and pray fervently to God for it. We have the whole answer painted out in our minds; we have the solution already planned out. What a mistake! Our solution is not the same as God's solution, so we think that He is not listening. Yet God knows we need something else far more and gives us that instead.
In closing, I exhort you to make a firm resolution, one that you will write down, to ensure your stability, growth and perseverance in this all- important means of sanctification. There is a saying that there are more things wrought by the power of prayer than the world can dream of. Let us take that to heart. Prayer gives us the assurance that no matter what the difficulty, we can always reach out to God. We cannot lose with prayer — it is impossible, absolutely impossible. My prayer is that each one of us will grow more and more convinced of this. Let us pray for one another.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.