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

Mistakes About Prayer

It is irriating always to be told about your faults.  It is irritating, when you are going for a walk in a public garden, to see notices everywhere telling you not to pick the flowers and not to walk on the grass, and on no account to leave bits of paper lying about and to sit on the chairs onlhy if you are prepared to pay two-pence, and to prevent your dog from pulling up the bulbs.  So in telling you the mistakes which you are liable to make when praying I shall probably irritate you.  Give me the credit for wanting to prevent you from turning the garden into a jungle.  All too easily can this particular garden become a cross between a wilderness and a race course and a site for art-and-craft folk-dancing.

We have already seen that it is a mistake to aim at speed and production.  We have noted also the danger of spiritual choreography, chiaroscuro, and ballet performances.  What follows will be a few notes about other mistaken approaches.

The instruction which Our Lord gave with regard to giving alms -- telling his hearers that their left hands were not to know what their right hands were doing -- might equally be applied to giving praise.  In prayer it is a fundamental error to look for a system of measurement.  We must decide not to sit in one side of our brains and watch what is going on in the other.  To do this can become the greatest distraction of all.  Our aim should be to launch out with our prayer left and right, and trust, not looking to either side, that God is being served by what we are trying to give Him.

The next thing to note is that the externals of prayer are meant to assist the internal and not the other way about.  For example, if it helps our recollection to sit down -- sit.  It can become a distraction to kneel upright in order to fulfil a resolution.  One of the commonest mistakes in prayer is that of keeping to a system or a posture or a resolution for no other reason than that it once worked.  If it does not work now, give it up and try another one.  This is not a free permission to unjustified licence; it is an exhortation to liberty of spirit.  So long as the soul determines to go on with the practice of prayer, the great thing is to follow the attraction of the moment.

From the above arises the further mistake of rejecting the grace of the present and striving after some fictitious grace which is believed to relate either to the past or the future.  We try to recall the fervours of the early stages of our experience; we break our brains in the effort to stretch out to a prayer which we have read about and which we think will solve our problem.

The underlying mistake in all this is to imagine that the ability to pray is something which we can choose -- that it is simply a matter of selection out of many alternatives.  What we have to realise is that prayer is not the kind of achievement which we can recognise; it is not the discovery, appreciated and tabulated, of a demonstrable expression.  We do not find prayer as we would find the kind of furniture polish which suits our paticular tables and chairs.  The danger is that because we have picked up the right commodity at the start, we imagine that it is going to be the right one forever.  Merely because God leads us to a prayer which suits us at the beginning, we have no reason to think that the whole question is how to respond to the grace which God is sending now.  People can go on buying the same furniture polish long after the furniture has been changed.

In actual practice it will be found that the choice of this or that kind of prayer gets one nowhere.  One has to take the prayer one gets.  And even that escapes one.  By forcing an external element in one's prayer one may be able to carry a certain conviction -- for there is no limit to the extent of self-deception -- but the only prayer which is pleasing to God, and which at the same time does the soul any good, is the kind of payer which God sends.  And what is said here of prayer -- the acutal time spent in worship -- goes for sanctity as a whole.  It is not the faintest use going about dressed up in a particular fashion of sanctity which can be seen and which happens to be all the rage at the time.  The only kind of sanctity which is any use is God's kind.  And very often this kind cannot be seen either by the contemporary world which one is always to eager to impress or by oneself.

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