HOW TO PRAY: PART I, PREPARATION
by Br. Alexis Bugnolo
One of the most necessary things which most Catholics do poorly or omit frequently is prayer. And if you have had the grace and occasion to read the life of a true Saint, the first thing see in them is that they were devoted to God in prayer.
Without a doubt all Catholics pray and thus know how to pray to a certain degree. But why is it that so few become great Saints? — It is because nearly all of us for nearly all our lives never learn to pray correctly or well.
Yet prayer is the essence of faith, because, if faith leads us to assent to what God has revealed, then what is faith if it is not put into action by prayer. It is not only dead, it is frozen. Yes, faith is a virtue in the intellect and which governs the will, but a faith which does not pray is like a human being who has lobotomized himself. It is simply unnatural.
A definition of prayer
Saint John Bosco, whose feast was celebrated yesterday, held that the best way to educate students is to start with the best definitions.
Prayer is defined best of all as conversation or communication with God or one of His Saints in Heaven: by Saints, I mean the Holy Angels, Our Lady, Saint Joseph, and all the holy souls who have merited to be glorified with God in Heaven.
Motives for prayer
As we can see from our mundane human life, it is hard to live without talking to someone some of the time. Even the most reclusive hermit must speak with some human beings for those necessities which he cannot procure with the work of his own hands.
And this observation helps us understand that there are fundamental reasons for prayer. We pray for what we need, or for what we see others need. Our prayer can be motivated by trials or tribulations, which shock us into realizing we are in need. Or it can be motivated by our hope for better things in the future, or by our compassion for those who are in need, especially for those in darkness, doubt, despair, want, or confusion.
A lot of motives can bring us to pray, just as a lot of motives can bring us to talk to another person.
As Our Lord explained in the Book of Job, the motivation is not so important, as the praying. Even if you motives are not perfect or even wrong, you pay God respect by speaking with Him, even more respect than theologians who speak about Him but not to Him, as Jobs friends did.
How to dispose yourself to prayer
But it behooves, us, just as when speaking to other human beings, that when we pray to God or a Saint, we are properly disposed. Being properly disposed regards things interior and exterior and things spiritual and material. It also regards things supernatural and natural. So let’s examine these.
INTERIOR AND EXTERIOR DISPOSITIONS
Obviously you cannot pray if you are thinking of something else. This is the first interior disposition. And obviously, unless you are quite adept of mind, you cannot pray intensely if you are doing something else. This is the first exterior disposition.
Now, in the modern world, when everyone is trying to do as much as possible, it seems strange to say this. But this necessity of not doing or thinking of something else is just as necessary when talking to others. Yes, if you are watching TV you can still respond to your wife’s question about who is going to take out the garbage. But when you go to a job interview you better not watch TV on your cellphone, during the interview!
Get my point?
Yes, there are times and there should be times that we praise God and express our affection for Him and His Saints when we are doing other things. This is true and right and very good. But such expressions are the matter of praise, and are obligations of faith and charity and hope. They help us sanctify the day in all we do. But they are low grade prayer, because they do not give God the attention He deserves, which is infinitely beyond the attention we should give someone who is considering to hire us for a job. — I say low grade, not according to their essence, because to praise God is the highest and perhaps the most meritorious of all prayers, but they are low grade in the way they are offered, while doing something else.
SPIRITUAL AND MATERIAL DISPOSITIONS
Spiritually, then, we should put aside all other thoughts or imaginations, and clear the clutter of our minds. This can only be done by an act of will. But not all understand that their will has this power, because they have never done it. This ability is like the ability to clean up your own room. If you never have done it, you do not know how to start and get it done. If you do it regularly, there is not much to do and you finish quickly.
For this reason, mortification, self denial and abstinence and fasting are corporal practices which help us clear the mind, because the distractions of the mind are all tied to things which are external or imaginations of things which are external. When we break with things which we love too much, we will clear our minds of the thoughts of them. This is why spiritual and material disposition go hand in hand. In fact, the first year students in Scholastic Theology at Paris in the 13th century were confronted by the shocking truth, told by Master Peter Lombard, that it is wrong to rejoice in anything, but God. Meditate on that for a while, and it will help you clear your mind by enabling to see how all the clutter in it opposes true joy and is a warning sign of idolatry of some kind or another.
There is also the material disposition of putting yourself in a place suitable for prayer and removing things from your presence which are distracting. This rule for prayer is why the Catholic Church has built so many Churches and Chapels and Convents and Shrines.
SUPERNATURAL AND NATURAL DISPOSITIONS
Naturally, we should dispose ourselves for prayer by proper preparation, that is, by doing things which raise our mind to God and prepare us to enter into prayer, such as being silent and still, turning our eyes to Sacred Images, or even reading some Scripture or part of a life of a Saint who inspires us.
Supernaturally we dispose ourselves to prayer by the practice of Key Virtues.
FAITH in God, that He is who He has revealed Himself to be.
HOPE in God, that He will be faithful to His promises to reward those who seek Him and who call upon Him.
LOVE for God, by which we exalt God above all our other desires and make ready to sacrifice not only the time of prayer but all other things which keep us from Him.
HUMILITY before God, by recognizing we do not deserve anything but punishment for our sins.
DISDAIN AND REVULSION for sin and vice, by which we detach our soul from things which drag us down to Hell.
The Crown of all, though, is being in the State of Grace
Without faith, it is impossible to please God. This is the teaching of Saint Paul. And this means if you believe the whole and true Catholic Faith, you can have the right motivation to beg God for grace even if you are in the state of Mortal sin, where you cannot merit to obtain anything from God, even if you do pray.
We cannot merit in the state of mortal sin or outside the state of grace, because we are not in communion with God. Our souls, in such a state, reek with sin and darkness and are revolting to God. But we can even in such a state, by faith, beg for grace and beg the Saints to pray for us. And our having true Faith will merit us to be heard if we are humble, penitent and truly wish to be saved at all costs, and persevere until we obtain the grace of repentence, even if we must seek it for years on end.
But the State of Grace is the absolute necessity for efficacious prayer for all other graces, because just as the TV will not work without electricity, so the soul which is not plugged into the Holy Spirit, as it were, by being in the state of sanctifying grace, cannot function properly in prayer.
And Thus Confession is the door to efficacious Prayer
The Saints in life obtained great things by their prayers. And yet we might ask ourselves why this is not the case with us. This is because a lot more of us are in the state of mortal sin than we realize. Even those of us who have confessed our sins: not because the Sacrament of Confession does not work, but because we never went with a truly contrite heart and with a firm resolution. And in most cases this is because the priest never explained to us the evil of our sin and how to avoid it, and the roots of our sin and how to uproot them.
For example, some weeks go, I wrote an article on purity. See here. I can tell you that in my more than 45 years of going to confession regularly, I have never met a priest who knows how to explain in what consists the sin of impurity. Nearly all are confused into thinking it consists in looking or thinking or admiration. Few of them know how to describe consent to the movement of lust, which is what the sin consists in. That means that all those who go to confession to them are most likely never freed from their vice and thus remain objectively in mortal sin.
As Saint Alphonsus says, we should never presume before a sin, that God will give us true repentance. This is especially true of the sins of impurity. They are a deeply addictive scourge from which few escape even after lives of fidelity to God in all other things. These folks may not be judged by God as guilty of remaining in the vice, because they are so ignorant and have no one to shepherd them, but God nevertheless must justly judge them as liable for the sins and vice and must, therefore, withhold His graces in prayer.
This is why Confession and confessing well, scrubbing the soul down to our deepest desires and affections and hating and detesting with all the force of our minds and hearts the movements of our soul and body which led us to sin, is absolutely essential preparation for prayer. And this is why Saint Theresa of Avila says the first part of the spiritual life is learning to break from sin and mortify our evil passions. Only once we do that, are we, as it were plugged into God and can benefit by prayer in something more than the grace to repent. Until that time, we should beg God for the grace to be truly sorry for our sins and examine our consciences with no self respect until, in tears and groanings, we lament our wickedness and realize not only that without God we are nothing and merit the everlasting damnation of Hell fire, but that the very evil movements of our soul, which we have long permitted, are our eternal enemies and the works which we must entirely and forever reject.
In this regard, alas, most priests have been poorly trained. If you start to cry in confession or express doubt that you are truly sorry, they attempt to convince you that you are overdoing it or taking religion too seriously or are unstable or upset or scrupulous. The pitiable penances given after Vatican II show that the clergy have not received the proper formation to save souls. They think they are there to assuage consciences.
There is so much evil in the world today, that I do not think there is anyone actually scrupulous too much about how sorry he should be for his sins. Most saints wept their entire life for the few sins of their youth, and yet we, after a confession prance out of the Confessional as if we were sinless. That is totally wrong.
The Church in ancient times had a practice which was saner, in my opinion. The priests first imposed a penance, which lasted months or years, and only after faithfully completing it, did you receive absolution and were readmitted to communion. Many a Saint is a saint, because having realized the enormity of his sins, he became a monk or religious so as to do a life time of penance for the horrors he committed in his youth.
The obsession of so many clergy today to have married men ordained or ordained men allowed to marry, is a clear sign that many even in the clergy, have never made a good confession. For a contrite man fears the occasions of sin. And if God Incarnate Who could not sin and Whose human Flesh had no inclination to sin, never married, how much more ought we sinful men avoid the occasions of impurity, especially if we are called to the sublime service of God! — And do not quote the practice of the Eastern Rites. Married clergy was allowed in Council to keep priests from fornicating, not to make them holier priests!
So if you want to pray well, prepare well for prayer. Prayer is the only thing the Saints do in Heaven, it is literally our eternal destiny. Dedication to humble prayer is a sign of predestination. Preparation for praying well is preparation for Heaven.
Therefore, be humble, prepare and pray!
CREDITS: The Featured Image is a faithful reproduction of Duccio di Buoninsegna’s, Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane and is in the public domain. Our Lord’s prayer in the Garden is a model for the prayers of sinners who need to break with sin, choosing repentance at the cost of all sacrifice rather than eternal death, as well as the proper dispositions we should have when we seek God’s favors for ourselves or for others in prayer.
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