By praying we learn to pray. In this the proverb holds good: Practice makes perfect. Pray often, and you will find delight in prayer; pray seldom, and it will appear to you irksome and wearisome. God does not regard the length of our supplications but their fervor.
If prayer is to be of utility to us, we must pray:
1. In the name of Jesus; that is, we must ask what is in accordance with Our Lord’s desires.
Our Lord desires whatever promotes the glory of God and the salvation of souls. If we pray for what is opposed to our spiritual welfare, we do not pray in the name of Christ; e.g., if we pray for earthly riches or honors, for the acquisition of superfluities. But we pray in the name of Christ, that is, in union with His intention, in His spirit, if we ask for such things as the means of earning our daily bread, for succor in the time of tribulation, for the conversion of a sinner. The Church prays in the name of Christ, for all her petitions conclude with the words: “Through Jesus Christ Our Lord.” “If you ask the Father anything in My name, He will give it to you” (John xvi. 23). Such is Our Lord’s promise. What monarch could refuse the petition of one who said he was authorized to present it by the king’s own royal son?
2. We must pray with devotion; that is, we must fix our thoughts on God when we pray.
In our prayers we hold intercourse with God. When we hold intercourse with our fellow-mortals, we give them our whole attention; how much more when we converse with God, should we fix our mind I on Him alone! Some people honor God with their lips, while their I heart is far from Him (Matt. xv. 8). Their thoughts wander, they think of their earthly employments, they do not heed what they say. Prayers that are so tepid and distracted avail nothing with God. Who, when pleading before an earthly judge, would turn to those about him and begin to talk to them? He would be put out of court for his disrespectful behavior. How can we expect God to heed our prayers if we do not heed them ourselves? He who prays without devotion and yet looks for an answer to his prayer, is like a man who sows bad grain, and anticipates a crop of first-rate wheat. It is not, however, necessary to have sensible devotion, to experience extraordinary consolation and delight in prayer. That is a supernatural gift, bestowed by God generally as a recompense; it does not add to the value of our prayers. Nor are they necessarily the worse, if we feel distaste and aridity. St. Teresa says that prayer under such circumstances may even be more meritorious because it is painful to nature. That prayer which costs us an effort, which we have to compel ourselves to offer, is perhaps the most acceptable in God’s sight. Do not therefore give up prayer on account of aridity and the disinclination for it. The evil enemy seeks by this means to withdraw us from prayer, and God permits this trial to come upon us, in order that we may feel our own weakness and humble ourselves on account of it. And if during the whole time of prayer we do nothing else but resist temptations and distractions, let us not think we have prayed badly; God looks to our good will, in that He takes pleasure.
In order to pray devoutly we must prepare ourselves before hand, and during the time of prayer we must guard our senses and see that we do not assume an irreverent posture.
“Before prayer prepare thy soul, be not as a man that tempteth God” (Ecclus. xviii. 23). The harper tunes his harp before beginning to play, lest there should be any discord in the melody. How carefully those who are admitted to an audience of some earthly monarch perform their toilet! Before commencing our prayer, we should place ourselves in the presence of God, endeavoring to realize that we stand in His sight, and then banish from our thoughts all worldly cares and interests. Let us imitate the patriarch Abraham, who when about to offer up his son Isaac on Mount Moria, left his servants, his ass, and all that was not wanted for the sacrifice, at the foot of the mountain, saying: “When we have worshipped, we will return unto you.” As Our Lord drove those that sold out of the Temple, so we must banish all worldly affairs from our heart, when it is made a temple of prayer. Yet the distractions that are involuntary are not sinful, only they must be repulsed and withstood. At prayer we must close the door, that is keep custody of the eyes, and withdraw into the secret chamber of the soul. The use of a prayer-book often keeps the eyes from wandering. As a rule one prays with more recollection before the statue of a saint, or in a holy place, where all around breathes an atmosphere of devotion. Our attitude during prayer should not be lacking in reverence; as far as possible we should remain upon our knees as an aid to devotion.
3. We must pray with perseverance, that is, we ought not to desist from prayer, if our petition is not immediately granted.
We should take example from children, who will not leave off clamoring until they get what they want. We mortals are apt to grow angry if a suppliant is too persistent, but it is not so with God; He is pleased when we “batter the gates of heaven with storms of prayer.” Remember the parable of the importunate friend, who continued knocking (Luke xi. 5). God sometimes puts the endurance of the suppliant to a severe test, as was the case with the woman of Chanaan (Matt. xv.). The Jews in Bethulia prayed all night, desiring help of the God of Israel, when Holofernes besieged their city, but the more they prayed, the more desperate the situation appeared. Yet they held out, and God sent them a deliverer in Judith. We have already said that for eighteen long years St. Monica ceased not to pray for her son’s conversion, and how richly her constancy was rewarded! For God loves to come to our aid when our need is greatest. Let us not then be discouraged, as some are, and cease to pray if our prayers are not answered; the wise course would be to pray more earnestly the longer God delays granting our petition. For the longer He keeps us waiting, the more will His succor surpass our expectations. He is able to do abundantly more than we desire or understand (Eph. iii. 20).”We have to wait a whole year,” says St. Francis of Sales, “before the seed we sow in the ground bears fruit; and are we more impatient in regard to the fruit of our prayers?”
4. We must pray with a pure heart; that is, our conscience must be free from grievous sin, or at any rate we must be in penitential dispositions.
The man whose heart is not clean has not power to raise his soul to God, for when he begins to pray, thoughts and images of sin crowd in upon his mind, and hold it captive upon earth. He who prays with an impure heart is like a man who enters the presence of royalty with mud-stained garments, to implore a favor. It is only just that he who will not conform to the divine precepts should be excluded from a share in the divine benefactions. Listen to the commands of God, if you would have Him listen to your supplications. But as soon as the sinner is sincerely contrite, he may hope to obtain a hearing; God will receive his petitions as graciously as if he had never offended Him. In this Pie is unlike men, who are prone to cast former offences in the teeth of those who ask a favor of them. God looks at the present intention, not at the past actions of a man. Remember how the prayer of the penitent publican in the Temple was accepted (Luke xviii. 13).
5. We must pray with humility; that is, we must acknowledge our own weakness and unworthiness.
The prayer of him that humbleth himself shall pierce the clouds (Ecclus. xxxv. 21). How lowly is the obeisance of one who approaches one of the magnates of the earth to present a petition! Prayer is in itself an act of humility, for by it we testify a sense of our dependence upon the Lord of heaven and of earth; we take the position of beggars, knocking at the door of the great Father of mankind.
6. We must pray with confidence, that is, with a firm conviction that of His infinite mercy God will grant what we ask, provided it will tend to His glory and to the true welfare of our souls.
The prayer of him that humbleth himself shall pierce the clouds of what the prayer of faith ought to be (3 Kings xviii.). Our Lord says: “All things whatsoever you shall ask in prayer, believing, you shall receive” (Matt. xxi. 22). Confidence hath a great reward (Heb. x. 35). Let not him that wavereth think that he shall receive any thing of the Lord (Jas. i. 1).
7. We must pray with resignation to the will of God; that is, we must leave the granting of our petition entirely to God’s good pleasure.
“Not My will, but Thine be done” (Luke xxii. 42), was Our Lord’s prayer on the Mount of Olives. God knows best what is for our good; we ought no more to dictate to Him than a sick man, who knows nothing of the healing art, ought to tell the physician what drugs he is to give him. A certain mother once was importunate in prayer for the recovery of her sick child. The priest told her she would do better to ask that God’s will might be done. “No,” she exclaimed indignantly, “God must grant me my desire.” The child was restored to health, took to evil ways, and at last came to the gallows. Happy would it have been for that man had he died in his childhood! How much wiser it is to leave all in the hands of God, for He knows the future.
This article, 3. HOW OUGHT WE TO PRAY? is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
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