Prayer – the Spark of Divine Love
by Sr Tamsin Mary Geach o.p.
Why do we want to pray? Prayer is at base the development of our relationship of Love with God. While I was preparing this talk I was given a firm reminder of my place in all this by a reading from the Divine Office:
‘Love of God is not something that can be taught. We did not learn from someone else how to rejoice in light or want to live, or to love our parents or guardians. It is the same – perhaps even more so – with our love for God: it does not come by another’s teaching. As soon as the living creature (that is, man) comes to be, a power of reason is implanted in us like a seed, containing within it the ability and the need to love. When the school of God’s law admits this power of reason, it cultivates it diligently, skilfully nurtures it, and with God’s help brings it to perfection.
For this reason, as by God’s gift, I find you with the zeal necessary to attain this end, and you on your part help me with your prayers
I will try to fan into flame the spark of divine love that is hidden within you, as far as I am able through the power of the Holy Spirit.’ From the Detailed Rules for Monks by Saint Basil the Great, bishop.
So in general prayer is the development of that relationship of love. But it has many forms: In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we find St John Damascene’s definition of prayer as ‘"the raising of one's mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God." (CCC 2590). Already here we find two separate definitions: a relational movement towards God, and asking for things. If one explores further one can find many types of prayer listed: There is the classical list of Petition, Adoration Contrition, Thanksgiving, (which can be remembered by the acronym ‘Pact’, but there are other longer lists that include a distinction between Adoration and Contemplation, between intercession and petition, between confession of sin and contrition, between private prayer and communal prayer, between ‘mental prayer’ and vocal prayer.
There are also passionately held opinions about bodily posture: To kneel or not to kneel, to use the practices of other religious traditions or not, and so on. (I’m not going to talk at length about posture: Simply remember that you are not angels, and that you pray with your body as well as your soul, so the position adopted in prayer should be reverent, comfortable, and appropriate to the dignity of prayer). If one embarks on a spiritual journey, one looks for guidance, and even before the internet, the problem was not a lack of resources, but an embaras de richesse. Now if you google the word ‘prayer’ you are confronted with a ’staggering 2,990,000,000 results! What you need in this vast ocean of information is a Guide, a Helmsman to guide you through the billowing tides to safe harbour, and a good ship to travel in. We have such a one, Our Saviour Jesus Christ, and such a ship, the Church.
What follows then is not supposed to be a comprehensive guide on how to deepen your spiritual life, but rather, as a spiritual director of mine once put it, my being as it were one ‘old salt’, one sailor talking to others about the journeys that can be made, and how best to keep one’s eyes fixed on the Helmsman, Our Blessed Lord, to reach our destination safely.
The first thing that is truly important in order to grow in prayer is to pray. And the second is to keep praying.
I could just stop there. If you have come today, you probably have a life of prayer, and what you want to know is how to deepen it. The way to deepen it is to continue in it. There, job done!
Instead of stopping here, however, I shall look at some of the ways of praying above, show some scriptural context, and suggest how we can grow in each way of praying.
A few words first on what you might call prayer prep. Give time to prayer, but do not make resolves that don’t fit your state in life. As Francis de Sales says
A different exercise of devotion is required of each--the noble, the artisan, the servant, the prince, the maiden and the wife; and furthermore such practice must be modified according to the strength, the calling, and the duties of each individual… would it be fitting that a Bishop should seek to lead the solitary life of a Carthusian? And if the father of a family were as regardless in making provision for the future as a Capuchin, if the artisan spent the day in church like a Religious, if the Religious involved himself in all manner of business on his neighbour's behalf as a Bishop is called upon to do, would not such a devotion be ridiculous, ill-regulated, and intolerable?’ (Introduction to the devout life, ch.3)
Your resolution to pray more is more likely to succeed if you take three considerations into account: Firstly, What are you already doing? Make sure that the habits of prayer you already have are firmly established, and do not take on anything extra, except perhaps during Lent or for a limited time, until you are really doing in prayer what you see as the baseline, making sure that that baseline is realistic. Secondly, and relatedly, ask yourself what kind of person you are, and what can you realistically do? Thirdly, if you do decide to make a change, do one thing at a time, and make it develop incrementally. Try not to undertake a whole huge regime of prayer today that you will abandon in two days. Rather choose one thing perhaps or two at most from the smorgasbord I put before you, and only when that one thing or those two things are firmly established move onto anything else extra. If you do not pray daily, decide to pray for one minute a day. Or five. If you never go to daily Mass, start going once a week, or do it as a Lenten observance and see how it goes. And so on. See the things I suggest here as suggestions, not sticks to beat yourselves with. In particular, I know some of you have small children, so what I am suggesting here may not be very easy to achieve. I hope something may bear fruit, and I will give time to praying for you all.
So how to start praying? if it is at all possible, before Mass or when you are preparing to pray, have a space of silence (maybe thirty seconds) before you even begin to try to pray. Remember that you are in the presence of God, and use your imagination to achieve this: Maybe think about how God is present everywhere and in all things, or focus on His presence in your heart and soul; or picture Jesus, either looking down from heaven, or present with you.
The second stage of prayer is what you might call tidying up. Our messy lives involve us in sinful behaviours, which block us from our relationship with God. So we begin every Mass with the penitential rite, and private and personal prayer should also involve a prayer of repentance. We need to be a bit careful with this, however. Wallowing in a sense of sin can be almost as damaging as ignoring our sins altogether. The focus needs to be upon God, and upon our relationship with Him, and not turn into a prideful focus on our uniquely awful sinfulness! So any contemplation of our sins should be honest, God-directed and confident in the loving mercy of our God who, in the words of the prophet Micah, ‘pardons iniquity, and passes over transgression’ Who
‘does not retain his anger forever
because he delights in mercy,
He will again have compassion upon us,
he will tread our iniquities underfoot
And will ‘cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.’(Micah 7.18-19)
After becoming still, placing ourselves in the presence of God, and having made a brief act of sorrow for sin, we should then turn to what might be called ‘prayer proper’
So what is prayer? The most obvious way of praying is to ask for things, both for ourselves and for other people – ‘praying for’. Various traps surround this: One may feel a block about asking for specific small things for oneself or for others. One might vaguely feel that one's prayers should be ‘worthy’ and that there is something ‘unworthy’ about asking for God’s help in finding a contact lens or stopping the rain on one’s birthday. One may prefer to ask a saint to pray for these ‘lesser intentions’ and reserve the larger matters like world peace or an end to the pandemic for God. (though if He cannot help with finding a contact lens, He certainly cannot bring about world peace!) One may think there is a sort of impertinence about telling the Creator of all that is what to do in fine detail. One may also develop, or fear developing, a picture of God as a sort of slot machine – prayer in, result out, and resort to thumping the machine or yelling at God if the ‘right’ result does not ensue. You might also ask the question ‘why pray for things God knows we need or want, rather than just trusting Him to give us what we need at the right time?’
Three points on this. The first is that we are directly commanded by Our Saviour to pray for what we need, in the Our Father. ‘give us this day our daily bread… deliver us from evil’ covers the spectrum of things from our most basic needs through to deliverance from all that afflicts us. My parents had the good fortune of being instructed in their faith by a Dominican friar, and both of them asked him (independently) what it was all right to pray for. His answer was, ‘Anything it is all right to want.’ ‘What it is all right to want’ may be more complicated than it seems at first glance, but the process of prayer is in part the purification of our desires. Jesus frequently asked people who approached Him ‘What do you want?’ Being honest about what we actually want lies at the heart of a real relationship with God.
The second point is that we are told to enter the Kingdom of Heaven like children, and I suspect that one of the ways in which we are supposed to do this is that we should ask directly for what we want, without prettying it up. ‘Please let the maths test be cancelled’ ‘please make today a good day’ ‘please help me to find my rabbit’ can reasonably become ‘please let me get this job’ ‘please let my child be all right in school today’ ‘Please let today be a good day’. When did we become so grown up that we feel unable to approach God with the things that we actually care about, however small they may seem sub specie aeternitatis?
A form of prayer that never gets space in prayer manuals, as far as I can see, but which is real enough to comprise at least a third of all of the psalms is the good old-fashioned wallow in abject self-pity! The scriptural precedent is there plainly to be seen. For example, there is this in Psalm 6:
‘I am exhausted with my groaning;
every night I drench my bed with tears,
I bedew my couch with weeping.
My eyes waste away with grief;
I have grown old surrounded by all my foes.’
So long as your attention is turned towards God, a certain level of anger misery and rage, even complaint, is part of the great tradition of prayer. In this sort of context find a good moany psalm, or use your own words, and let God have it. He is big enough, He can take it, and He gave us the psalms to pray with! Keep it real.
The third point is related to this: If we stop asking God about the things we care about, we will stop talking to him. Imagine if a small child felt they could only talk to you when they were happy and about what they understood you to be interested in. How much conversation would you have? Yet a good parent wants their child to share their joys and their griefs with a confidence that their parent will listen. God is that good parent. He does not want you to construct a whole language of prayer about ‘important things’ that has nothing to do with what you are living through, thinking and feeling in other contexts. Pray about those things. Let the worrisome interior dialogue about stuff be turned into a conversation with God.
Intercession, praying for others may be less problematic. It is certainly scriptural: From Abraham onwards we see intercession being made: Abraham prays for Sodom and Gomorrah, Moses for the Hebrew people, Elijah for the healing of the son of the Widow at Zarephath. As St Paul tells us, even Christ Who ‘died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, …intercedes for us.’
In praying for others we should try to pray for what will bring their eternal salvation, but also for what they immediately want and need – it might be worth asking them specifically what they want and need, so as to bring this to prayer.
With both petition and intercession, it is important to persist, to keep on praying for things – to pester God as did the widow with the unjust judge in the parable. Not all prayer will be answered with a ‘yes’, since God knows what we need, and will not give us a snake when we ask for one, but the very fact of continuing to ask develops the relationship. And some prayers God cannot refuse: As Sr Mary Magdalene may repeat this afternoon, the prayer that God in His mercy will always grant is that which we pray for ourselves, which is necessary for salvation, which we pray ‘pie et perseveranter’ (with loving respect and perseveringly). So never give up praying, and only move on from a prayer for some particular thing when either you perceive in prayer that God is moving you on, or the thing has resolved in one way or another.
The next big area of prayer is thanksgiving. Having asked for things and maybe received them, we should give thanks. Here the teaching of scripture is deeply counter-cultural: St. Paul tells us in 1. Thessalonians ‘give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.’ This is because ‘We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.’(Rom. 8.28). Everything. Which means we should be like Job, who having lost everything prayed ‘The Lord gave, The Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord’ and “Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 1.21, 2.10)
Instead, often enough, although we have prayed earnestly for some good thing, we are like the nine lepers healed by Christ who did not then go back to thank Him. And we are frequently very far from the spirit of Corrie Ten Boom’s sister, who gave thanks for the fleas in the prison hut in Ravensbruck and was vindicated later by the revelation that the guards never came into their hut or discovered their bible reading activities because of the fleas. Growth in prayer requires growth in humility and in gratitude, and while we cannot all be like Betsy Ten Boom, trying to thank God at least for the things we perceive as goodwill bear fruit in our lives of prayer.
The final, obvious way of praying is to give praise to God. Praising God forever is the end to which we look forward as Christians: As the psalmist says
praise God in His Holy place
praise him in his mighty heaven
Praise him for his powerful deeds;
praise his surpassing greatness.
3O praise him with sound of trumpet;
praise him with lute and harp.
4Praise him with timbrel and dance;
praise him with strings and pipes.
5O praise him with resounding cymbals;
praise him with clashing of cymbals.
6Let everything that breathes praise the LORD!
The chief joy of Heaven is the knowledge and sight of God. A sneaking fear that that might get a bit boring and noisy (all those cymbals!) may have tempted us at times, but the practice of giving praise and honour, thanksgiving and praise to God does bring us joy, even here on earth. The Christmas before last I saw grown men weep for joy when finally, after long CoVid restrictions, we were allowed to sing a couple of Carols outside in the cold in front of the priory.
The simplest way to practice the praise of God in this life is to look at the good things in our created world – a flower, a landscape, a bird in flight or whatever, and turn the act of looking into a prayer of praise, for which no words are needed. Heaven will be like that only infinitely more, things that
‘No eye has seen, nor ear heard,
nor the heart of man conceived,
what God has prepared for those who love him’ (I Cor 2.9)
God does not need our thanks and praise, it is we who are fulfilled at the deepest level when we pray. As it says in one of the prefaces in the Mass:
It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation,
always and everywhere to give you thanks,
Lord, holy Father, almighty and eternal God.
For, although you have no need of our praise,
yet our thanksgiving is itself your gift,
since our praises add nothing to your greatness
but profit us for salvation
through Christ our Lord.
Scripture fits into the picture of any discussion of how to pray. As St. Jerome famously said: ‘Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.’ Praying with the scriptures is a time-honoured way of drawing closer to Christ. Many people have gained great spiritual benefits from using a bible study programme such as Fr. Mike Schmitz’s ‘Bible in a Year’ programme, but praying with the scripture may be done in a variety of ways: Find a way that suits you, rather than forcing yourself into a mould. Lectio Divina, whereby you read a scripture passage very slowly and meditatively, several times is one way. Reading the story and imagining yourself into the story as a participant is another, while seeing yourself as in conversation with God through the words of scripture is a third. Some engagement with scripture will enrichen your life of prayer.
Where does praying with other people fit in with this? There is a sort of mythology about what Our Lord said about prayer that suggests that there is some intrinsic superiority to praying in private, and that other ways of praying are a bit suspect. In fact Our Lord explicitly gives instruction about three ways of praying: First of all, as discussed, prayer in private: ‘when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.’(Matt. 6.5). The other contexts for prayer that Our Lord discusses are the communal, about which He says ‘ if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”(Matt. 18.20) and liturgical, about which He says ‘ if you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.’(Matt 5.23-4)
So prayer in common is powerfully recommended, but with a health warning: Your prayer should be directed to God, not to yourself in any way. A way forward with this is to have as it were an inner space where the private communication between you and God goes on, which may not be visible to the outside world, or if it is, that is not your concern. Cultivating this inner space of prayer can be done by developing a habit of turning frequently towards God in the course of your day in a fairly informal way.
St Paul exhorts us ‘ Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.’ (Thess. 5.16-18) But how can we ‘pray constantly’? There are various ways of doing this. You could set your phone to remind you to pray briefly at intervals during the day – the Angelus, or the Divine Office(the prayer of the Church – use the ibreviary or the Universalis app) are good devotions for these purposes. You could also try to make the interior dialogue that accompanies you all the time be turned towards God at least some of the time. You could develop a habit of saying short ‘arrow prayers’ (these used to be called ejaculatory prayers, but it means the same and does not sound so odd). Examples of these might include the Jesus prayer, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me!’ or simply ‘Praise God’. It has to be a prayer that ‘works’ for you, not just a noise. Another time-honoured way to pray constantly is to pray decades of the Rosary in moments when one is filling in time, instead of zoning out on the internet.
It also develops the life of faith of your family, especially your children if you pray together. My parents had a short form of prayer that we said morning and evening every day, including the Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory be, a psalm and various other short prayers. All my brothers and sisters have kept the faith.
To recapitulate: Prayer is the breath of the life of Heaven, which we are beginning to breathe now. To grow in relationship with God requires a life of prayer, but it does not require a particular life of prayer. The methods and types of prayer I have put before you here are central, but how you balance this out, whether you use a particular devotion or not, is individual. Allow yourself space and time to pray, and leave the rest to God, with confidence that you can never outdo Him in generosity, and that whatever you put in will be repaid a hundredfold. The end of prayer is this relationship with God, and everything else is only a means to that end.
It is a good idea to have a spiritual director or a prayer group to support you in your life of prayer and to help you to move in the right direction. If you cannot find such a person, there are also the great spiritual teachers of our tradition, St Theresa of Avila, St Catherine of Siena, St Therese of Lisieux, St John of the Cross, and so on. A personal favourite of mine is St Francis de Sales.
I append to this talk links to various Spiritual classics available on the internet