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HOW TO PRAY
Eamon Duffy says the simple prayer life of the saint is the result of endless practice
Prayer, says the old catechism, is the raising of the mind and heart to God. That formulation, as comprehensive as it is simple, might seem to set a question mark against the very idea of a book of prayers. When heart speaks to heart, what room can there be for borrowed words? Sincerity and simplicity before God seem to demand that we say only what we mean, and what we mean ourselves. Indeed, the deepest prayer must in the end dispense with words altogether. However hackneyed the story, there is a profound truth in the well-worn preacher’s anecdote about the aged peasant, who, asked why he sat at the back of the church all day apparently doing nothing, replied: “I just look at Him, and He looks back at me.”
One of the greatest modern teachers of prayer, St Thérèse of Lisieux, wrote that “For me, prayer is an aspiration of the heart, it is a simple glance directed to heaven, it is a cry of gratitude and love in the midst of trial as well as joy”. So she was dubious about the value of books like The Heart in Pilgrimage. “I do not have the courage to force myself to search out beautiful prayers in books,” she wrote. “There are so many of them it really gives me a headache! and each prayer is more beautiful than the others. I cannot recite them all, and not knowing which to choose, I do like children who do not know how to read, I say very simply to God what I wish to say, without composing beautiful sentences, and He always understands me.”
Only a fool would argue with the simplicity of a saint. For lesser mortals, however, matters are not always so straightforward. Simplicity requires endless practice. To say what we need to say, and only that, requires a knowledge of our hearts and of the God to whom we speak, a radical sincerity, which few of us attain. When we kneel or stand to pray, we often find ourselves tongue-tied, not only at a loss for the right words, but constrained by the narrow limits of our own imagination and experience. Deep down, we are shallow, and the speech of our own hearts can be inaudible even to ourselves, drowned out by superficial distractions, and the incessant ambient jabber of our immediate desires and needs. Our prayers can too easily fall short of heartfelt talk to God, and become repetitive lists of our wants and fears, the monotonous rehearsal of our conscious insecurities.
This has always and everywhere been true, but it is not a cause for despair. Before we try to pray, we should remember that without God’s Holy Spirit we cannot pray at all. It is the Spirit who moves us to pray, and he himself who prays within us. As St Paul says: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Rom 8:26-7). Prayer is God’s work, before ever it is ours, and we can rest in that.
“In the silence of the heart, God speaks,” wrote Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and a vital part of all prayer is attentive silence, attentive to Scripture, which should always be part of our prayer, above all attentive to the inner voice of God, which is only heard when we still the insistent voices of our own restlessness. “You need a spiritual pilgrimage,” declared one of the Desert Fathers, “make a start: shut up.”
But if the truest and deepest prayer lies beyond all words, we humans cannot manage without speech altogether. As conversational animals, we need to pray in words, to speak to God, and the Church has always sought to give the individual’s words of prayer the depth and solidarity of a wider frame of reference. To learn to pray, we have to learn to be fully human, and since we are social beings, we can neither be properly human, nor pray properly, alone. The fundamental prayer book of the Church is the Psalter, 150 ancient Jewish hymns and poems, in which every conceivable emotion and facet of human nature, nasty as well as nice, is displayed and given voice, from simple trust and faith in God, to shouts of vengeful rage against one’s tribal enemies. Praying the psalms is not always edifying or easy. But in praying the words of ancient Israel we set our hopes and fears here and now within the wider and longer perspective of God’s self-revelation to his people, and the whole history of humanity in all its imperfection on its journey towards God. Jesus himself, in the desolate abandonment of the Cross, spoke to his Father in the words of the psalms.
And what is true of the psalms is true also of the other prayers of the Church and of her saints. As lovers sometimes need the words of great poets to speak their own hearts to one another, so we can find in the prayers of the liturgy or of great Christians, words for the deepest feelings of our own hearts, feelings which sometimes we did not know we had. In the journey of faith and hope and love, the prayers of the liturgy and of the saints are a school of wisdom and experience. Praying their prayers, we are opened to the Spirit, and helped to find our own authentic voice.
The prayers in The Heart in Pilgrimage have been chosen from Scripture, especially the psalms, from the Church’s liturgy and traditions of prayer, from the works of the early Church Fathers and from the Anglican tradition, which has rendered into noble English so much patristic and medieval prayer, and generated newer prayers composed in harmony with that older spirit. The book draws heavily also on the writings of many saints and theologians, like St Symeon the New Theologian, St Thomas Aquinas, St Bonaventure, St Alphonsus Liguori, Blessed John Henry Newman, St Thérèse and St Edith Stein. Much will be familiar, though some even of the most familiar prayers have been freshly rendered for this book. Others will be met here for the first time, especially the prayers drawn from the liturgy and prayer books of the Orthodox tradition and the Churches of the East. Few western Catholic prayer books have included much from the devotional and liturgical treasures of Orthodox and Byzantine Rite Catholic churches, to our great spiritual loss. Blessed John Paul II repeatedly drew attention to the tragic narrowing and impoverishment involved in the separation of the spiritual and theological traditions of East and West. In his encyclical Ut Unum Sint he called on the Church to learn to breathe once more through both its lungs. It is the editor’s hope that the inclusion of such profound and beautiful Eastern prayers as the Akathist Hymn to the Mother of God will do something to advance that process where it matters most, in the prayers of the Christian people.
Men and women are embodied beings, thinking animals. All that we have and are and think is shaped by and dependent upon
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Extract taken from: The Heart in Pilgrimage: A Prayerbook for Catholic Christians, edited by Eamon Duffy, published by Bloomsbury Continuum, priced £20