Praying is not always easy for me. It hasn’t been lately. So I thought I would start reading The Art of Praying: the Principles and Methods of Christian Prayer by Msgr. Romano Guardini. (Its original English title was The Practice of Prayer.)
Oh my gosh. As I read, I feel like he is talking directly to me! As if he wrote this book especially for me. Of course, it’s probably just that nearly all Catholics have difficulties with praying, at least occasionally. We probably all fall into the same pitfalls and ways of thinking.
This is the very first paragraph of the book:
It is often asserted that true prayer cannot be willed or ordered, but must flow spontaneously, like water from the spring, from within. If this does not happen, if it does not well up from our innermost being, one had better not pray at all, for forced prayer is untrue and unnatural.
I don’t know about you, but I often get discouraged when I feel like I have to force myself to pray. I try to guard against that, but it slips in very easily, as temptations so often do. I try to remind myself that prayer, like love, is an act of will. Its more than a feeling, more than something that just surges up within us and carries us along. But still that little pang of discouragement strikes me at times, and once that happens, it is just so easy to give up!
Msgr. Guardini goes on to say:
Prayer which springs from inner longing must, on the whole, be considered as the exception. Anyone proposing to build his religious life on this foundation would most probably give up prayer altogether. He would be like a person trying to base his life entirely on intuition and impressions, leaving aside order, discipline, and work. Such a life would be at the mercy of chance; it would become self-indulgent, arbitrary, fanciful; earnestness and steadfastness would vanish. The same would happen to prayer that relied exclusively on inner spontaneity. Anyone who takes his relationship to God seriously soon sees that prayer is not merely an expression of the inner life which will prevail on its own, but is also a service to be performed in faith and obedience. Thus it must be willed and practiced.
This book was originally written in 1957, and I think it speaks very well to our modern mentality and character. Modern life and modern thinking are rife with emotivism and subjectivism. We do often base our lives on intuition and impressions, on what we feel and what we want at any given moment. Our culture is often self-indulgent, arbitrary, and fanciful. The idea that prayer should be spontaneous and if not, then just let it go and not worry about it or work on it fits in very well with all of that. We live in a “go with the flow,” “do whatever feels good” culture. And even if we don’t personally subscribe to those attitudes, we often get carried along with them. We often neglect things like duty, service, faith, and obedience–the latter is especially counter-cultural, I think.
But Msgr. Guardini reminds us that we owe it to God. He later says that “true prayer demands humility,” which he defines as “reverence for the majesty of the Holy.” We owe God our prayer and reverence because He majestic and Holy. I think we often lose the sense of holiness and what it means. We often view God as just a slightly larger version of us. We sometimes tend to create Him in our own image, rather than to regard Him as the supreme Other that He is. It doesn’t help that our liturgy and our churches, how and where we worship, are often devoid of anything otherworldly, mysterious, and reverent.
So, prayer is something we must actively practice, a service we must render whether we feel like it or not, whether it comes easily or not. He briefly lays out the framework of the “practice of prayer”:
Above all, it consists in saying one’s prayers at certain fixed hours: in the morning before starting the tasks of the day and in the evening before retiring. In addition, everyone should do what he thinks right, what he is able to do, and what suits his routine: perhaps grace before and after meals, the Angelus, a short collect before work, or a quiet moment in a church. An essential condition for this practice is to adopt the right attitude, both outwardly and inwardly: recollectedness at the beginning and discipline during prayer are essential, as is the right choice of words and texts, the learning of old, established forms of prayer such as contemplation, the Rosary, and others.
So, even within this framework, we do have some latitude in how we pray. The Church’s prayer tradition is so very rich that any of us can probably find something agreeable to us if we just familiarize ourselves with all the options. But prayer can consist of small and simple things, such as saying grace at meals!
Finally, I have to say that this next section really made me wince when I read it because I just saw so much of myself in it, and it wasn’t pretty:
But whatever routine one may adopt, one should carry it out honestly and conscientiously. In matters of prayer we are only too apt to deceive ourselves because, generally speaking, man does not enjoy praying. … He persuades himself that he has not got the time, that there are other more urgent things to do; but no sooner has he given up prayer than he applies himself to the most trivial tasks. We should stop lying to God. Better to say openly, “I do not wish to pray,” than to make such excuses. … This may sound less decorous, but at least it is the truth which leaves the way open, whereas self-deception does not.
Again, I don’t know about you, but that is a classic description of me at times. I’ll make up excuses, tell myself I’m too busy or too tired… and then proceed to do… nothing important whatsoever. I have to say that the idea of saying, “Lord, I don’t want to pray right now” is very daunting. But then we have to remember that God knows. He already knows. We may deceive ourselves, but there is no way to deceive God! So, I can see where it would be better, more respectful, and certainly more honest to just admit that we don’t feel like praying or want to pray. Who knows, that could perhaps lead us into prayer. But still… it’s really hard to own up to! I mean, what kind of good Catholic doesn’t want to pray? I guess that’s another area where humility must come into play–seeing things as they really are. How can you do better unless you understand that you need to do better?
I’ve only read the first few pages of this book, and I already feel like I’ve been underlining every other sentence! I look forward to digging in and seeing how he delves into all of these points and additional ones. Have I mentioned how much I love Msgr. Guardini’s books?