We must learn that we cannot ask for the superficial and comfortable things that we desire at this moment—that meagre, misplaced hope that leads us away from God. We must learn to purify our desires and our hopes. We must free ourselves from the hidden lies with which we deceive ourselves. God sees through them, and when we come before God, we too are forced to recognize them. “But who can discern his errors? Clear me from hidden faults” prays the Psalmist. Failure to recognize my guilt, the illusion of my innocence, does not justify me and does not save me, because I am culpable for the numbness of my conscience and my incapacity to recognize the evil in me for what it is. If God does not exist, perhaps I have to seek refuge in these lies, because there is no one who can forgive me; no one who is the true criterion. Yet my encounter with God awakens my conscience in such a way that it no longer aims at self-justification, and is no longer a mere reflection of me and those of my contemporaries who shape my thinking, but it becomes a capacity for listening to the Good itself.
For prayer to develop this power of purification, it must on the one hand be something very personal, an encounter between my intimate self and God, the living God. On the other hand it must be constantly guided and enlightened by the great prayers of the Church and of the saints, by liturgical prayer, in which the Lord teaches us again and again how to pray properly. Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan, in his book of spiritual exercises, tells us that during his life there were long periods when he was unable to pray and that he would hold fast to the texts of the Church's prayer: the Our Father, the Hail Mary and the prayers of the liturgy. Praying must always involve this intermingling of public and personal prayer. This is how we can speak to God and how God speaks to us.
Spe Salvi, Pope Benedict XVI
Prayer is a subject I find fascinating but an activity I find very difficult. I'm ashamed at my own ignorance when it comes to prayer. I know few of the traditional prayers of the Church and I keep meaning to learn more but putting it off.
When I go to Mass, I'm always impressed and envious by how many prayers, hymns, litanies and other elements of Catholic lore live in the heads of the older members of the congregation. (Come to think of it, even the few younger members of the congregation seem to know them all off by heart.) I feel self-conscious, standing there silently, not knowing them. The last time this happened was Maundy Thursday when the entire congregation, led by the priest, sang something in Latin while the Blessed Sacrament was being led to the altar of repose. Often they sing recessional hymns such as 'The Bells of the Angelus', 'Hail Glorious Saint Patrick' or 'Holy God we Praise Thy Name' which I've never learned. (To be honest, I don't think any of the above are very good hymns, despite being traditional-- as opposed to 'Hail Queen of Heaven', which is haunting and beautiful, and which I always join in eagerly, although I find the line "remind thy son that he has paid the price of our iniquity' rather comical. Is he likely to forget something like that?)
I'm also impressed by their prayer stamina. On Bank Holiday Mondays, for the last few years, I've gone to morning Mass in the Holy Spirit Church in Ballymun. After Mass, most of the congregation stay behind and launch into a novena and the Rosary and goodness knows what else-- I've never stayed long enough to find out where it ends. I usually rather shamefacedly shuffle out, eager for my breakfast.
Sometimes the amount of prayer in my day is minimal. Like yesterday. I went out for drinks with some work friends and by the time I got home it was late and I was tired. My prayers consisted of a few mental intentions while I was lying on my bed with my eyes closed. Until quite recently--a few months ago-- I got through a whole list of intentions each and every day. Then, through reading what the Popes and various Marian visionaries have said about the Rosary, I decided I would try to say the Rosary every day, as my 'scheduled' prayer, and say my intentions as I went about my business during the day. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, I've never really kept to the second part of the plan.
Prayer is a funny thing. On the one hand, nothing is more natural-- I'd bet my back teeth that every man, woman and child on this green Earth prays spontaneously, at one time or another, no matter how unbelieving they claim to be. On the other hand, nothing feels more 'odd'-- the idea that you could affect reality by merely thinking, or speaking. (Of course, I'm talking about petitionary prayer here. The other types of prayer don't really seem strange. But have you noticed that most of the traditional prayers of the Church are petitionary prayers?)
But, on the other hand, knowing other people are praying for me encourages me a great deal. I have often asked for prayers from readers of this blog, which they have very kindly offered. It always meant a lot to me. I suppose a rationalist could say that it means a lot simply because you know other people are thinking about you, and that everybody likes sympathy and consideration and attention. And, of course, there is an element of that. But I really do believe that I appreciate prayers because I believe in their supernatural efficacy-- or, at least, their potential efficacy, since it is after all a prayer and a not a spell. (Incidentally, I do often pray for readers of this blog, individually in the case of those who comment and collectively for everyone else.)
Prayer is such a nice thought. The idea of prayer is so attractive. The sight and sound of prayer, whether in reality or in fictional or artistic depiction, is very alluring. (For instance, one of my favourite moments in my favourite movie of all time, Groundhog Day, is when Phil mutters "Amen" to his own silent prayer, after offering a toast to world peace. He's only doing it to impress a chick, but it's still strangely beautiful.)
So why is the actual activity so difficult? I never finish my prayers without a sense of relief. I do pray to God to give me an appetite for prayer, along with an appetite for Scripture and an appetite for, well, being good. I'm still waiting for that one to come through.