By Dom Hubert Van Zeller

Springfield, Illinois

Nihil Obstat: Georgivs Smith, S.T.D., PH.D.
Imprimatur: E. Morragh Bernard
Westmonaterii: Die XVII Movembris MCML

First Published 1951

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Directness in Prayer

The word 'directness' instead of  'simplicity' is chosen here because although both may come to much the same thing in the actual practice of prayer, the idea of simplicity is open to other suggestions besides that of non-elaboration.  It is important to realise that just as we should be childlike and not childish in our relations with God, so we should be simple in the sense of direct -- rather than simple in the sense of half-baked.

When the soul is urged to be straightforward with God, the meaning is more than merely the willingness to hide nothing from Him.  Everyone realises that it would be absurd to try and hide anything from God.  It means that one must not sweep up a whole lot of artificialities on one's way to Him.  There are certain devices which help to recollect the mind and focus the attention on God, but these should be dropped as soon as the mind is recollected and the attention fixed.  They are devices only, and not ends in themselves.  Artifice must be recognised as artifice, and not be thought of as truth.  A good many excellent devotions are of the let's-pretend variety, and so long as they are treated as start-you-offs there is no harm in using them.  It is when the whole business of the spiritual life is judged in terms of such things -- whether in respect of their number or their elaborate quality or their immediate usefulness -- that there is an inversion.  It is a substitution of the ladder for the loft, of the key for the door, of the microphone for the music.  And now let us explain what we mean.

For instance:  There  are those who find that it helps in the beginning to perform their various household duties in honor of one particular mystery or in the company of one particular saint.  Thus a man may lay the table with great devotion while imagining himself in the holy house of Nazareth.  A woman may remember the forty holy martyrs of Sebaste every time she approaches the frigidaire.  A certain priest, a learned man, claims that every morning as he vests for Mass he pictures St. Joseph helping him; and that when he proceeds from the sacristy to the altar he does so with his guardian angel walking in front clearing the way of any stray devils who might be around at the time.  'This is,' the priest insists, 'because I am so simple.'  By all means let him make use of the devotion -- it is probably helping him to keep far more recollected than he would be otherwise, and if he feels an attraction for it, it is obviously the right thing for him -- but let him not say that he goes in for the devotion because he is so wimple.   It is not at all because he is so simple.  It is because he is so complicated.

We cannot altogether -- particularly in this over-analysed an analytical age -- help being complicated.  We should try, nevertheless, to be direct.  God is reached more directly by the will than by the memory and the imagination.  We must guard against a too technicolor devotion -- just as we must guard against a too whimsy-whamsy idiom.  Anything that savours of affectation or artificiality must go.  Certainly let us speak to God in our own way and using our own ideas about Him, but let us make quite sure that we are not doing so for our own entertainment instead of for His.  God wants us to be natural, to be ourselves.  If it is natural to visualise angels and saints, if it is sincere to speak to God in baby-language, then these are the means which we are intended -- for as long as the attraction lasts -- to employ.  But the moment we feel drawn to a more direct correspondence, we should pray without images and peculiarities of expression.

Singularity is a great obstacle to the spiritual life, and it is not only in outward things that singularity declares itself.  A soul can strike attitudes before itself, and never is it more in peril than when it does so.  If there can be a delusion in a little thing like building up a too elaborate devotion, there can be a delusion of a far more serious kind in building up a false concept of oneself and of the role one is playing in the sight of God.  Directness in prayer leads to directness out of it.  If one is eccentric, or worse still ego-centric, in prayer, one will be the same all along the line.  In man's dealing with God, the first essential is that of giving worship 'in  spirit and in truth.'  All the more need, therefore, for the soul to go out from itself into God.  While it stays behind with self there will always be an element of untruth, indirectness, artificiality.  And for all this the prayer of the will -- dry and pictureless though it may be -- is far, far safer than the prayer of the imagination. 

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