The Point About Prayer by Dom Hubert van Zeller, O.S.B.
People are apt to make two mistakes
about prayer: they either imagine it to be so easy that they can manage it
at once, or else so difficult that it is not worth while going on with.
The answer is that because it is
open to all it can't be very difficult, and because it is part of the
burden of religion it can't be very easy. Whether we find it difficult or
easy we have got to do it, so the more we get ourselves used to the
practice and the less we worry about our reactions to it the better. But
taken all in all it is perhaps more satisfactory to think that
prayer is going to be easy than to think it is going to be difficult,
because it means that we shall at least start off:
If we look only at the difficulties we are handicapped by discouragement before we begin. And right the way through this business of prayer there is nothing that acts as a more formidable obstacle than discouragement. So it will be mainly about this that the following paragraphs are concerned.
St. Paul's "Pray without ceasing" should provide the answer to those who are weighed down by the sense of their insufficiency. The saint is not exhorting to the almost impossible. He is telling every one-even the people who feel they are no use at it and that for them it is a complete waste of time-that their whole life can become a prayer. "You must make a habit of prayer," St. Paul is telling us, "and to make a habit of anything you must repeat and extend the act." First easy acts, then difficult ones. It is like learning a language: easy to make oneself understood, difficult to become really fluent. The way to become fluent is to practice often. Prayer is learned by repeated acts.
There is no short cut to a habit. A resolution to go on once one has begun is not a short cut. It is a good start but it is not a short cut. A method learned from a book is not a short cut. It may be a further step towards acquiring the habit, but it is not a short cut. A book of meditations is not a short cut. It is a guide to fall back upon when the habit is wearing thin, but it is not a short cut. In other words there is no substitute for the work of cultivating the habit of prayer. You have to do the thing before you can live the thing. And in order to do the thing properly you not only have to be faithful to your purpose but you have to be ruthless in the treatment of your feelings. You must not allow yourself to judge of the success or failure of your effort by whether you feel the presence or absence of devotion. What we feel, after all, is only the result of the effect of conditions on matter. The whole point about prayer is the effect it has on God. Our feelings will give us no true estimate of this.
Though there may be difficulty connected with forming the habit of prayer, there is no habit so easily drawn upon once it is there. So habitual can prayer become that the natural movement of the mind is towards God instead of towards creatures. I say "natural" movement and not "automatic" movement, because for prayer to have any value it must be non-mechanical. There is all the difference in the world between an instinctive direction of the soul and a purely routine action.
St. Anthony may have said that a man's prayer is still imperfect while he remembers that he prays, but he would never have said that the perfect man need not remember to pray. We don't begin our prayer, however brief and spontaneous, without some sort of desire to do so. Intention is necessary even if attention escapes us. Desire for God is the condition of prayer, and very often recollection is nothing else than that. Awareness of God's presence is not always prayer-the sinner can be aware of God's presence and rebel against it-but the desire for God's glory always is. And to become a man of prayer it is necessary so to extend this desire that it becomes habitual.
"Am I to believe then," it might be asked, "that as long as I have the general intention of praising God, I can have as many distractions as I like?" "As many as you get," would be the answer, "not as many as you like." Once we start liking a distraction enough to follow it up, it is a distraction in the fully guilty sense. But if we haven't been made aware of the fact that it is going on, if we had no intention of pursuing it once we knew it was there, if we have no intention of letting go the thought of God, if in other words we have no affection for the wretched thing even though we can't help being interested in it while it is there, then, though we may spend half an hour in thinking all round it, there is nothing in the least bit wrong in having had it. Fortunately this is a fact, which has been stressed by present-day writers, and most people are prepared to believe it.
That people are less prepared to believe is that not only is a prayer not wasted when it is distracted but that it may be, on account of the distractions, a better prayer. It is better for the humiliation which its obvious insufficiency occasions. If there is one disposition more necessary than the determination to go on with it, it is the disposition of feeling that you are so bad at it that it hardly seems worthwhile if you do. If you persevere in the prayer of stupidity, unable to fix your mind on holy things for the entire time of your prayer, and feeling throughout that you are the last person who should be attempting this sort of thing, and that though you seem to be at the mercy of distractions which you can't for the life of you remember afterwards but which you hate having, then you are doing what countless people have done before you and exactly what God wants you to be doing at the present moment.
The worry about being distracted can itself become such a distraction that the whole business is complicated far more than it need be.This is not to suggest that distractions should be admitted on the grounds that the effort to get rid of them is more distracting than the distractions themselves, it is merely to point out that the whole of the soul's energy in prayer should not be expended in driving away these maddening cross-currents of thought: love is the occupation of the soul, not struggle. Banishing distractions can become the preoccupation. The same situation can arise outside prayer time as regards bad thoughts: we can become obsessed with the necessity of suppressing them and so become involved in the thoughts themselves. In the case of distractions, as in the case of bad thoughts, the safest thing is to turn calmly towards God in the depths of the soul, and to tell Him that whatever is going on near the surface is no concern of ours . . . we despise and repudiate the disturbance, and we are not going to let ourselves get worked up about it. In this way we by-pass the unruly elements, delaying at them only for as long a time as it takes to assure ourselves that they are powerless to delay us.
If we can habituate ourselves to the knowledge that what goes on without our consent in the sensitive part of the soul is no obstacle to progress, the spiritual life loses many of its problems. What we have to do is to make ourselves responsible for the citadel of the soul, asking God to see to the dispositions for us, and not to work ourselves into a nervous state about what is going on in the outskirts. Serious rebellions seldom start in the suburbs. The only distractions which we have reason to fear are those that we have admitted to the mind.
Condensed from We Die Standing Up by Dom Hubert Van Zeller, O.S.B. © 1949 Sheed & Ward, NY
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