Sunday, August 14, 2016

On Prayer When One Wakes in the Morning

“When you wake from sleep, and are ready to pray, you will feel yourself fleshly and heavy, tending downwards to vain thoughts…then it is necessary to quicken your heart by prayer and stir yourself up to some devotion…but take care to draw your thoughts from beholding any bodily thing” [Walter Hilton, The Scale of Perfection, Part II, Ch.1, a paraphrase].

Which is why, when you wake you should not make it the first thing you do to check on the social media, or other news, which will immediately draw you into the worries, concerns, and lusts of the world. Social media in particular is insistent that it should be heard; but turn off the sound on your cell phone so that it doesn’t sound for attention in your time of prayer.

By all means make your coffee or tea, or whatever helps you awake, and take yourself into a quiet place to pray. Pray a Morning Office; either Vigil or Morning Prayer. Praying a Prayer Book Office is particularly helpful at the beginning of the day. Leaning on the saints who went before you will help you focus, rather than being drawn away by subjectivity when you are stirring yourself up to pray.

Take care at the beginning to labour at paying attention, but be patient with yourself and labour with the assistance of Divine Grace to connect your mouth with your mind and your heart as you pray. St. Paul tells us that our approach to God requires both our effort and the grace of God, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” [Philippians 2:12-13].   

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Prayer: Silent and Vocal

Sometimes we make prayer more complicated, more “mystical” than it really needs to be. Prayer is a conversation with God, a dialogue, not a monologue. But bear in mind that not everyone in St. Augustine’s day was literate. Some then and now, who need to hear what God has to say to them; need to have it read aloud to them by others. Prayer is a dialogue. Your prayer is a conversation with God. When you read, God speaks to you; when you pray, you speak to God....[i]

Reading silently in St. Augustine’s day was revolutionary. Augustine, remarked about St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, that, “When he read, his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.”[ii]  In our culture today most of us read silently, and in our private prayers pray silently.

Whether reading silently or aloud it is important to be hearing the word and praying in response, not just with the ears, but also with the heart, as St. Benedict says, “Let us therefore consider how we ought to conduct ourselves in sight of the Godhead and of His Angels, and let us take part in the psalmody in such a way that our mind may be in harmony with our voice.”[iii]

In public prayer, of necessity we pray aloud, but in private prayer we may pray silently, or aloud. Praying aloud may help us to remain focused both on the presence of God and on our part of the dialogue with Him; but silent prayer also has its own great benefits. “St. John Damascene says: "Prayer is the ascent of the mind towards God,"[iv] and silent prayer and meditation is a very legitimate aspect of practicing the awareness of the Presence of God. In the silence, by grace, one turns one’s attention to the abiding Presence and simply rests in God in quiet adoration. 
Such silent prayer is often referred to as “Mental Prayer — “a silent elevation and application of our mind and heart to God in order to offer Him our homage and promote His glory by our advancement in virtue” (Adolphe Tanquerey). In Saint Theresa’s definition from her Life she says:[v] “Mental Prayer is nothing else than an intimate friendship, a frequent heart-to-heart with Him by whom we know ourselves to be loved.”[vi]

Lovers know that love need not always be spoken aloud but may be sometimes just silently enjoyed. The challenge posed by Mental Prayer is that of remaining in that place of quiet. It is so easy to drift away. Brother Lawrence would caution us against emotional acts of penitence when we wander away from the Presence, saying that all that is required is a small apology and a simple return to the Presence of God.[vii] There is both a time for Mental Prayer, and a time for vocal prayer in our private devotions.

            In speaking of vocal prayer and devotional acts St. Thomas Aquinas says, “Firstly, in order to excite interior devotion whereby our minds may, when we pray, be lifted up to God; . . . men's minds are moved by external signs, whether words or acts so that we may be able”[viii] to understand, and, by consequence, also to feel. Wherefore St. Augustine says to Proba “‘By words and other signs we vehemently stir ourselves up so as to increase our holy desires.’ Hence in private prayer we must make such use of words and other signs as shall avail to rouse our minds interiorly.”[ix] Sometimes silent prayer is not enough, and sometimes kneeling, or standing, or raising the hands and other similar acts help us to quicken both mind and emotions in prayer.

            C. S. Lewis gives us insight into a third way of prayer in his opinion on the proper way to read poetry.  He held that poetry was meant to be read aloud; that’s the only way that you can connect with the rhythm of poetry, at the very least when reading poetry one’s lips should be moving.  Writing to his brother Warnie, Lewis says, “I most fully agree with you about ‘the lips being invited to share the banquet’ in poetry, and always mouth it when you read, though not in a way that would be audible to other people in the room.”[x]  Sometimes when praying either silently or aloud doesn’t feel effective, invite your lips to share the banquet of prayer, and mouth the words you pray.

            Always in considering prayer we have to bear in mind the frailty of human nature. It is hard for us to continue to pay attention, and while we may begin with good intention, whether our prayers are silent or vocal, we may wander away from a keen focus on the presence of God, and even from what we are saying in our prayers. 

            Aquinas is reassuring on this point and says, “it is not necessarily required that attention should be kept up throughout the prayer, but the initial intention with which a man comes to prayer renders the whole prayer meritorious, as, indeed, is the case in all other meritorious acts.”[xi] God is generous and always looks on us through grace, accepting even our dimmest attempts at prayer. 

In light of this St. Augustine prays, “Give joy to the soul of Thy servant, for to Thee, O Lord, I have lifted up my soul. For Thou, O Lord, art sweet and mild.” [xii] Aquinas goes on to say, “It seems to me that he calls God "mild" because He endures all our vagaries, and only awaits our prayers that He may perfect us. And when we offer Him our prayers He accepts them gratefully and hears them. Neither does He reflect on the careless way in which we pour them out, He even accepts prayers of which we are hardly conscious![xiii]  When you find yourself in that state, make a simple apology, and turn again with your full attention to your prayers.

[i] Augustine in St. Thomas Aquinas On Prayer and Contemplation
[ii] St. Augustine, The Confessions, c. 397-400
[iii] The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 19
[iv] St. Thomas Aquinas On Prayer and Contemplation
[v] Words in italics are added to make sense of the passage, ed. RPS.
[vi] Brother André Marie
[vii] Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God.
[viii] Added words are in italics
[ix] Ibid.
[x] C. S. Lewis Letters, 1932, April 8.
[xi] Aquinas
[xii] Augustine in Aquinas
[xiii] Aquinas