“The soul must never be discouraged by the fruitlessness of its repeated efforts. It seems to be laws of the spiritual life that, since all progress ultimately depends on God, He lets us first learn our complete helplessness by long and weary efforts that come to naught. But we have His word: ‘I Myself will come and save you!’ ” (Dom Eugene Boylan)
Today’s post was requested by several readers who have asked for more articles to help with their practice of prayer. Many are noticing a spiritual lassitude and an unaccustomed resistance to their devotions. A book that has helped me is Dom Boylan’s “Difficulties in Mental Prayer” which I obtained a long time ago second hand. It is now quite expensive through Amazon but Abe Books has it reasonably priced. If you find this helpful and would like more posts in this line, let me know.
One quick note before we get into this, please help the brave and wonderful faithful of Ireland with their 40 Days of Prayer and Penance. See the article on Lifesite News and please, wherever you are, make it a priority to support this wonderful effort. Many of us owe the faith we have today to the unflagging efforts and greatness of soul of the Irish priests, nuns and brothers who brought the faith to our families many generations ago. My own family was brought back to the faith by a fiery Irish priest who shamed my mother into returning to the faith and getting her heathen children catechised. And Matt Talbot is amighty warrior for those of us who battle alchoholism on behalf of our poor family members too weak to defend themselves. So, please, let’s help the Irish who have helped the Church so much!
† . † . †
Prayer develops just as human intimacy develops, and, like it, has its seasons and its variations. If, therefore, our way of praying is not adapted to the particular state of our intimacy with God, there is bound to be difficulty.
If, for example, one is ready and fitted for affective prayer, meditation–that is, discursive prayer–becomes a profitless burden; if, perhaps, one act or one type of act is sufficient to keep the soul occupied at prayer, then any striving to multiply these acts will be found most difficult and disturbing. If the heart wants to speak to God without words, any attempt to force it to make a series of distinct acts may destroy the prayer.
Again, if God gives His grace to the will alone, and wishes us to unite ourselves to Him in naked faith, any effort to set the mind or the imagination to work will only be a distraction, and is really a resistance to grace. Then, too, souls who have once reached a high degree of prayer and then fallen into some serious infidelity, cannot resume their former manner of praying without repairing the fault; and though they will not have to climb up the whole of the ladder again, yet their restoration has its own problems. Thus, each degree of intimacy with Our Lord has its proper manner of prayer, and difficulties can arise from failure to choose the right one.
But the greatest difficulties in prayer, and the greatest obstacles to its progress, have their roots outside prayer in the general condition of our spiritual life. On the sincerity of our purpose, the truth of our loyalty, the genuineness of our love–on such things does our prayer greatly depend. Everything that can make or mar friendship and its intimacy will make or mar prayer. We have already noted how the familiarity with God and His teaching that comes from spiritual reading is essential to prayer, and can be a great help for its progress; this, however, is by no means sufficient.
The fundamental dispositions from which prayer flows, and on which its progress depends, are humility, confidence, and a thirst and need for God which shows itself in seeking Him in prayer and, in fact, at all times by doing His Divine will. Any defect in these dispositions will be reflected in a corresponding failure in prayer.
Purity of Conscience
Prayer will not develop unless the soul is advancing towards the fourfold purity of conscience, of heart, of mind, and of action. As to the first of these, prayer is a loving intimacy with God. Now, this is impossible if the conscience is stained with a deliberate habit of sin, for that is a direct denial of love to God and a definite withdrawal of part of our heart and our life from Him. Even an habitual infringement of a rule, in which we deliberately persist after we have adverted to it, makes it impossible for us to try to look God in the face, so to speak, to go into His presence with that readiness of heart for His service, which is the secret of all true devotion and prayer.
That is why it is so important that every priest or religious, and every soul who wishes to advance, should try to look God in the face, in all reverence, at least once every day, without rushing into some form of vocal prayer.
In its perfection, purity of conscience consists in a firm disposition of the will never to consent deliberately to any offence against God or to any departure from His holy will, and is such that as soon as any act is seen to be opposed to the will of God, it is immediately retracted. Faults of frailty and thoughtlessness will always occur, but we must try more and more to prevent all deliberate faults; and as often as they occur, even be it seventy times seven times in the day, we must so often immediately renounce them and seek God’s pardon by a glance of contrition and confidence in His mercy.
In this way we shall gain more in humility than we have lost by our fault, and the confident return to God can give Him more honor than the offence has denied to Him. It is, therefore, an illusion to hope to become a man of prayer while one comes to terms with the enemy. Human weakness and bad habits will cause many a defeat, but the war must be kept up with unceasing courage, and with a grim determination to keep the conscience clean of all that can offend God.
Purity of heart
Purity of heart consists in keeping all the affections of the heart for God alone. It is not enough to rule out all sinful attachments, for if our heart is divided by any inordinate attachment, even to lawful recreations, to our work, to persons, or to anything else, we cannot say we love God with our whole heart. There always will be attachments in the human heart, but they must be subordinate to God and to His will, so that they can never usurp His place as the mainspring of our actions.
The spiritual life is a love affair with Jesus; He has given us His whole Heart, pouring out for US’ the last drop of His Blood in the agonizing death of the Cross; He demands the whole of our heart, and we cannot refuse to want, at least, to give it all to Him. Without this willingness it is impossible to remain in loving silence before Our Lord.
Nothing so darkens our gaze on God, nothing so weakens our desire for God, nothing so lessens our striving for God, nothing so deafens our hearing for God, as a single inordinate attachment. That is the great source of many difficulties in prayer. Nor are the baneful effects of such attachments confined to this simplified prayer of silence. The very first “act” we try to make at prayer rings hollow and false in our own ears, as soon as we are conscious that we are dividing our heart between God and His creatures. And we cannot be intimate with God for long before He points out to us some of those attachments that cause rapine in the holocaust; for God is a jealous God–He is a consuming fire.
Purity of mind
Under purity of mind we include the careful and constant control of our thoughts and memories, by prudently excluding all that is unnecessary, frivolous and vain, and by gradually building up a continual recollection of God and His works. This is also one of the most important of all mortifications for those who would progress in the spiritual life, and far more effective than the most penitential macerations of the flesh. In fact, without it, corporal penance is almost useless. This internal mortification should be extended to the control of our emotions, especially those of anger, fear, hope, sorrow and joy.
The man whose hope, love and trust are fixed in God does not give way to anger when God sends him trials or when people try his patience to its limits, nor does he vainly fear God’s loving Providence, which he knows covers every single detail of his life. Nor, again, does sorrow at his material losses enter deeply into his heart when it is set on the riches of God; and the joys of this life seem trivial, aye, unworthy even, to one who knows the delight of God’s love.
Purity of action
Purity of action, which is often called purity of intention, consists in a continual watch over the motives which animate our actions, and in a constant effort to act only for the love of God and according to His will. It demands a relentless war on that self–love that is always seeking to inspire all our deeds.
When a religious has settled down in the religious life, and has become faithful in his observance of the rule, further progress is to be sought for, not in violent efforts to do extraordinary actions, but in an ever–increasing purity of intention in the ordinary works of everyday life. This is the surest way, in fact–apart from very special cases–it is the only way, to fulfill that law of Christian perfection, which St. John the Baptist so well laid down: “He must increase–I must decrease.”
All search for our own honor, for our own undue ease, all self–seeking, however much it be cloaked by the plea of altruistic motives, or the search of higher sanctity, is directly opposed to that great rule given us by Christ of denying ourselves and following Him. This, perhaps, may seem too hard, and might lead only to discouragement. But perfection of this fourfold purity is not required for progress in prayer, for such perfection is synonymous with sanctity; we must, however, continually strive towards these dispositions of purity. We must desire this purity, we must pray for it, we must make earnest efforts to acquire it.
But without a special help from God, it is unlikely that we should achieve a sufficient measure of it. There is, however, no limit to God’s goodness, and it is at this stage that He is accustomed to intervene, taking compassion on our infirmities; after we have been toiling all night and caught little or nothing, He acts through His special Providence, and in a short time He has advanced us beyond all expectation. But He demands that we do our part that we keep on putting out to sea, so to speak, and persevere in our attempts to make ourselves pleasing to Him, and to pray to Him, no matter how fruitless they appear.
The perfect picture that St. Therese of Lisieux has drawn of the spiritual life will help to give us courage. She sees it as a stairway to be climbed, at the top of which God is waiting, looking down in Fatherly love at His child’s efforts to surmount the first step. The child, who represents ourselves, fails to manage to climb even the first step; it can only keep on lifting up its tiny little foot. Sooner or later God takes pity on it, and comes down and sweeps the child right up to the top in His arms; but–and St. Therese insists on this as much as she insists on God’s loving kindness–we must keep on lifting up our foot.
The soul must never be discouraged by the fruitlessness of its repeated efforts. It seems to be laws of the spiritual life that, since all progress ultimately depends on God, He lets us first learn our complete helplessness by long and weary efforts that come to naught. But we have His word: “I Myself will come and save you!”
† . † . †
“The greatest difficulties in prayer, and the greatest obstacles to its progress, have their roots outside prayer in the general condition of our spiritual life.” Our Lord told Sister Lucia that the reparation He desires is that we fulfill the duties of our state in life in a faithful manner. This is a call to humble obedience in the little, but demanding, trying tasks that humble and exasperate us day by day.
“Try to look God in the face, in all reverence, at least once every day, without rushing into some form of vocal prayer.” This is precisely what my confessor told me some time ago. “You must begin by kneeling before the Crucifix and do not talk. Be silent before Him and allow Him to speak to your heart.”
“All search for our own honor, for our own undue ease, all self–seeking, however much it be cloaked by the plea of altruistic motives, or the search of higher sanctity, is directly opposed to that great rule given us by Christ of denying ourselves and following Him.” This is sometimes a very humbling and hard lesson. It is only when we realize how little and utterly helpless we are and surrender ourselves to Him with humble resignation that He lifts us up. And often that takes a bit of time. Patience.
“I Myself will come and save you!”
Please, Pray the Rosary and confound satan and those who serve him!
†Immaculate Heart of Mary, Queen of our hearts, Mother of the Church, do thou offer to the Eternal Father the Precious Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, for the conversion of poor sinners, especially our Pontiff.