HOW TO ACQUIRE THE SPIRIT OF PRAYER
"I will pour out upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and of prayers." Zacharias 12:10.
After having heard so much of the efficacy and advantages of prayer, you must doubtless be desirous to know how you can acquire that spirit of prayer which the saints possessed, and which the Lord promised to pour out upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem. I answer as St. Francis de Sales did, when asked what one should do to obtain the love of God: "We must love Him," said he; so, in the same way, I say, we must pray, in order to learn how to pray. No art, no trade, no language can be learned without practice; so, also, prayer cannot be learned without constant exercise. It was only by constant practice that the saints obtained the spirit of prayer.
St. Teresa was accustomed to offer herself to God fifty times in the day. St. Martha used to pray a hundred times in the day, and a hundred times in the night. St. Francis Borgias, also, was accustomed to pray a hundred times every day. St. Philip Neri made a kind of rosary of the words: "O God, come to my aid; O Lord, make haste to help me." He recited this rosary sixty-three times in the day, and enjoined on his penitents to do the same. St. Gertrude repeated the prayer: "Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven," three hundred and sixty-five times a day. St. Leonard of Port Maurice recommended himself to the Blessed Virgin Mary two hundred times in a day. St. Francis de Sales was accustomed to offer up short and fervent prayers during the day, and thus kept himself in the presence of God, even amidst his many pressing occupations. Blessed Brother Gerard, C.S.S.R., was often beaten by his foreman, who could not bear to see him praying at his work. St. Elizabeth of Hungary was accustomed, in her childhood's days, to steal away from her playmates during their childish sports, and offer up a "Hail Mary." A certain saint never offered up any other form of prayer during thirty years than the simple words: "Lord, have mercy on me!" At the end of this time, the Lord poured out His mercy upon him most abundantly, bestowing on him a high degree of contemplation, and raising him to an eminent sanctity. St. Leonard of Port Maurice used to say that we should not let a moment pass without repeating the words: "Have mercy on me. O Jesus, have mercy on me!" He said that he knew a man who repeated this prayer: "Jesus, have mercy on me!" one hundred times in less than an hour. St. Bartholomew used to offer to God two hundred adorations daily. We read in the Roman Breviary that St. Patrick, when guarding his master's flock, prayed to God a hundred times in the day and a hundred times in the night; and, when a bishop, he daily said the entire Psalter, containing one hundred and fifty Psalms, and many canticles and hymns, besides two hundred other prayers; he also made three hundred genuflections every day, in honor of the Blessed Trinity, and the Sign of the Cross one hundred times at each canonical hour. Before St. Margaret of Cortona had been raised by God to a high degree of prayer, she was accustomed to pass the time of meditation in reciting the "Our Father." She recited this beautiful prayer as much as a thousand times during the day. She said three hundred "Pater Nesters" in honor of the Blessed Trinity; one hundred in honor of the Blessed Mother of God; one hundred for each of her nearest relations; one hundred in atonement for her sins; one hundred for the Franciscan Order; one hundred for the people of Cortona; one hundred for those who offended her, and many hundred more for the Sovereign Pontiff, for all ecclesiastical Orders, for sinners, heretics, schismatics, Turks, Jews, and heathens.
St. Alphonsus, before going to sleep, used to make the following acts of devotion: ten acts of love; ten acts of confidence; ten acts of sorrow; ten acts of conformity to the will of God; ten acts of love to Jesus Christ; ten acts of love to the Blessed Virgin; ten acts of love to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament; ten acts of confidence in the Blessed Virgin; ten acts of resignation in suffering; ten acts of abandonment to God; ten acts of abandonment to Jesus Christ; ten acts of abandonment to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and ten petitions to know and do the will of God. Now if this saint made so many acts of devotion before going to sleep, how many must he not have made in the course of the entire day?
But how is it possible, you ask, for one to pray so much in the course of the day? St. Alphonsus himself will answer this question. "Give me," says he, "a soul that truly loves God, and she will know how to do it." For a loving soul to think of her Beloved, and to converse frequently and familiarly with Him, is sweet and agreeable.
But you will say: "I cannot pray as much as the saints have done; in order to do this, I should be a saint myself. If I cannot acquire the spirit of prayer unless I do as much as they have done, I must give up all hope of ever acquiring it." Softly, my friend; have a little patience! Rome was not built in one day. The saints did not acquire the spirit of prayer all at once; the practice of prayer was not natural to them either, at first; but they persevered in it in spite of every obstacle, and were at last raised to a high degree of contemplation.
The celebrated missionary of Peru, Father Diego Martinet, who converted so many thousands of heathens by his preaching and virtues, lived in constant communion with God; he used to spend whole nights in prayer. Sometimes he was seen raised in the air even above the tops of the highest trees; at such times he appeared surrounded by a heavenly splendor, and kneeling amid two brilliant columns of fire. But he was not satisfied with praying during the night; he prayed, also, during the entire day. As he was constantly occupied with his missionary labors, he maintained the spirit of prayer and recollection by frequent short and fervent ejaculations; these ejaculations often exceeded four thousand, nay, even five thousand, a day. He acquired this wonderful spirit of prayer only by slow degrees. On entering the Novitiate, he resolved to raise his heart to God seven times in the day. After some time he increased this number of ejaculations to one hundred every day, and, before the end of his novitiate, to five hundred. At last this manner of praying became so familiar to him, that the number of his ejaculations amounted to four or five thousand every day.
The saints made use of short and fervent ejaculations as one of the most efficacious means to acquire the spirit of prayer. You, too, will make great progress in this all-important virtue, provided you make use of this means as the saints did with fervor and perseverance.
But you will ask, "How can I count my ejaculations and aspirations? It is too troublesome!" I answer, "If you truly love your soul you will soon find out a way to count them, just as well as a merchant knows how to count every cent he spends or receives." In order to do this, you may make use of beads after the example of St. Philip Neri, or you may count your ejaculations on your fingers, or by the hours of the day, making a stated number of them during each hour; for until you have acquired the salutary habit of praying everywhere, it will be advisable for you to count your ejaculations, in order to know whether you may progress in prayer or not.
Should you have resolved to say five times in the day the "Our Father," or "Hail Mary," or "Lord, come to my aid," or "Jesus, have mercy on me," or "Jesus, give me the spirit of prayer," or any other aspiration of the kind, you should be careful to make the number of ejaculations you have imposed on yourself; and as soon as you have acquired a facility in making the proposed number in an hour, raise this number to ten; and, after having succeeded in regularly making ten an hour, increase this number again, and so go on until this manner of prayer has become natural to you, and even a real want of your soul. Should you at first feel no relish in making these ejaculations, continue, nevertheless, and by degrees you will, like the saints, be raised to a higher and more perfect form of prayer and contemplation.
In order to make rapid progress in prayer, you must imitate those who are earnestly engaged in the study of the sciences, or of the fine arts; you will find that such persons lay aside everything that is not connected with the object of their study. To this object are directed all their thoughts and all their efforts, by day and by night. Now if you wish to acquire the spirit of prayer in a short time, you, too, must lay aside everything that could hinder you in acquiring this spirit. Give up useless visits, vain and dangerous amusements. You must bid farewell to the ballroom and the theater; you must cast aside those sentimental novels and silly love stories. If you wish to make rapid progress in the spirit of prayer, you must practice self-denial; you must repress your inordinate inclinations; you must detach your heart from the comforts and pleasures of this life; you must not seek the praise of men, nor desire to do your own will in everything. You must mortify that idle curiosity which prompts you to see and hear everything that passes around you. As long as you do not strive earnestly to detach your heart from everything in this world, you will always have to complain of coldness in prayer, and even of great repugnances to the practices of devotion. You cannot gather grapes from thorns, or figs from thistles. As you sow, so you shall reap. If the wheat which you put into the mill be worthless, so also will the flour which comes from the mill be worthless. Your heart will be where your treasure is, says Our Lord in the Gospel. The devil is well aware of this truth. In order to prevent you from praying, he will place before your mind, when you are engaged in prayer, those objects to which you are most attached.
We have a beautiful example of detachment in the Count Rougemont, of whom St. Vincent de Paul relates the following: "I knew," he says, "in the Province of Bresse, the Chevalier Rougemont, who, in his duels, had wounded and killed an almost incredible number. After his conversion to a very edifying life, I had the pleasure of visiting him at his own residence; he began to speak to me about his devout exercises and practices of virtue, and, among others, of trying to acquire a complete detachment from creatures. 'I feel assured,' said he to me, 'that if I am perfectly detached from creatures, I will be most perfectly united to my Lord and God; for this reason I often examine my conscience to see whether I entertain some attachment, either to myself, or to my relatives, friends, or neighbors; or to the riches and comforts of life, or to any passion or disorderly desire whatsoever that might prevent me from being perfectly united to God, and resting entirely in Him alone. I begin to pray to God to enable me to root out at once whatever I notice to be an obstacle to my perfect union with Him.
"I remember," continues St. Vincent de Paul, "a remarkable act of this count, which he himself related to me, and which shows how earnestly he went to work to gain a complete detachment from everything; an act which I can never think of without admiration. 'One day,' he said to me, 'I was riding along on horseback; I stopped to make an offering of myself to God; after this I reflected to find out whether there were still something left to which I might have at least some trivial attachment. After having carefully examined all my occupations, recreations, honors, and even the least affections and inclinations of my heart, I found out that I entertained still some affection for the sword which I wore on my side.
"'Why do you wear this sword? I said to myself. But what evil has it done you? Leave it where it is! It has rendered you many great services; it has enabled you to save yourself in thousands of dangers. Should you again be attacked without it, surely you will be lost; but should you fall out again with your neighbor, would you have sufficient self command to leave it where it is, and not offend God again? My God! What must I do? Shall I still love the instrument of my confusion, and of so many sins? Alas! I see my heart is yet attached to this sword! Now I will not be so mean as to be any longer attached to this miserable instrument! This said, I alighted from my horse, took a stone, and broke my sword into pieces. After this victory over myself I felt completely detached from everything, caring no more for anything in this world, and feeling most powerfully drawn to love God above all things. Behold gentlemen," said St. Vincent, "behold how happy we should be, and what progress we should make in virtue, if, like this nobleman, we would purify our hearts from all earthly affections. If our hearts were completely detached from all creatures, how soon would our souls be united to God!"
Your facility in prayer, and your attraction for it, will increase in proportion to the efforts you make to detach yourself from all earthly things, especially from yourself. One day Christopher Gonzalve, S.J., a disciple of blessed Balthazar Alvarez, was asked by one of his fellow students to tell him by what means he had obtained the extraordinary gift of prayer. He answered: "This did not cost me very much; I had only to follow the inspiration of God, to mortify and renounce entirely my desire of vainglory in scientific matters. I commenced my philosophical studies with an unusual facility. I gained a great preeminence over all my companions. This superiority of talent was a strong lever to ambition, and a source of constant temptation to me. In order to escape these dangerous snares the more securely, I felt inspired to adopt the following means, without, however, neglecting my studies: to cause my companions to lose the high opinion they entertained of my superior talents, I often asked them an explanation of certain points which I understood, perhaps, better than they did. In controversies, I simply gave my opinion, but appeared to be at a loss how to corroborate it; when objections were made, I answered the first, but for the second I pretended to have no answer. The consequence was that my professors and fellow students lost the good opinion they had conceived of my talents, and that my professors gave the most difficult and most honorable theses to others, and to me only such as were very easy, and not productive of any honor. Now this was exactly what I desired and aimed at; for I thus gained a complete victory over self-love and ambition, in recompense for which God bestowed upon me the inestimable gift of sublime contemplation, and great familiarity with Him in prayer."
Thus is true what the Lord said by the Prophet Isaias: "If thou turn away thy foot from doing thy own will... thou shalt be delighted in the Lord, and I will lift thee up above the high places of the earth, and will feed thee with the inheritance of Jacob, thy Father. For the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it." (Is. 58:13-14). Now this promise of the Lord will come true in your regard, also, provided you comply with the conditions, viz.: to purify your heart from all attachment to earthly enjoyments, ambitions, and desires, but especially from all attachment to your own will and judgment. "Yes," says St. Francis de Sales, "God is ready to grant you the gift of prayer, as soon as He sees you empty of your own self-will. If you be very humble, He will not fail to pour it out upon your soul. God will fill your vessel with His ointments, as soon as it is empty of the ointments of this world; that is, as soon as every desire of yours for earthly objects has made room for that of serving and loving Him alone."
The use of frequent and fervent ejaculatory prayers, and the complete detachment of your heart from all creatures, are, it is true, a most powerful means to acquire the spirit of prayer; but in order the most quickly to obtain this inexpressible gift, you must frequently beg it of God; for this grace of prayer is, as St. Francis de Sales assures us, no water of this earth, but of Heaven; therefore you cannot obtain it by any effort of your own, although it be true that you should carefully dispose yourself for the reception of this grace. This care should indeed be great, but humble and calm. You must keep your heart open, waiting for the fall of this heavenly dew; it will fall so much the sooner, the more earnestly and perseveringly you pray and sigh for it every day, especially when you assist at the Divine Sacrifice of Mass, or receive Holy Communion, and visit our most loving Lord in the adorable Sacrament of the Altar. Then you must say to Him: "Lord, teach me how to pray; grant me the spirit of prayer, and a great love for this holy exercise; make me often think of Thee, and find my greatest pleasure and happiness in conversing with Thee; let everything of this world become disgustful to me."
The more frequently and earnestly you make these, or similar petitions, to obtain the spirit of prayer, the more you will receive of this inestimable gift of the Lord, according to the infallible promise of Jesus Christ: "All things whatsoever you ask in prayer, believing, you shall receive." (Matt. 21:22). Continue thus asking, until the Lord will accomplish in you what He has promised by the Prophet Zacharias: "I will pour out upon the house of David and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem the spirit of grace and of prayers." (Zach. 12:10). You clearly perceive, from these words of the Prophet, that this gift of prayer is the spirit and gift of the Lord; you must, then, endeavor to obtain it more by asking it of the Lord with great humility, fervor, confidence, and perseverance, than by imprudent efforts of the brain and mind.
Wait patiently for the hour, but do not neglect to do, at the same time, what has been said in this chapter, and then rest assured that the moment will come in which the conversation with God will be easier to you than the conversation with your most intimate friend; and you will exclaim with St. Augustine: "What is more excellent, more profitable, more sublime, and sweeter for the soul, than prayer." You will, with Fathers Sanchez and Suarez, of the Society of Jesus, prefer the loss of all temporal goods to that of one hour of prayer, for then will be realized in you what St. Paul says in his Epistle to the Romans: "The Spirit also helpeth our infirmity; for we know not what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself asketh for us with unspeakable groanings." (Rom. 8:26). Then the Holy Ghost Himself will pray in you and with you, inspiring such petitions and sighs as are pleasing to and heard by Him. And when the Lord, in His great mercy, has granted you this admirable gift, daily return Him thanks for it, and profit by it, both for your own temporal and spiritual welfare, and that of others.
Say often with the Psalmist: "Take not thy holy spirit from me." (Ps. 50:13). Lord, never withdraw from me this spirit of grace and prayer; send me any other punishment for my sins rather than this. I repeat again, never forget to be thankful for this gift, always remembering that you can never fully understand or sufficiently appreciate it until after death. In this gift are included ail the gifts and graces of the Lord. Be therefore very desirous to obtain it, and take every possible means to acquire it. You should not take less pains, care and trouble, or make less efforts to obtain this great gift from God, than a good student does to learn a language, an architect to erect a costly and splendid edifice, or a general to gain the victory in an important battle. Would to God you understood this great and inestimable grace as perfectly and clearly as the devil does! I think you would take as much trouble to acquire it, and to preserve it when acquired, as he does to prevent you from receiving it, and to make you lose it when you are in its possession.
This sworn archenemy of our eternal happiness will suffer you to perform any kind of good works, such as fasting, scourging yourself, wearing haircloths, etc., rather than see you striving to advance in prayer; the least time you spend in it is for him an insupportable torment. Although he leaves you quiet at all other times, rest assured that in the time of prayer he will use all his power to distract and disturb you in some way or other. In order to prevent you from praying well, he will fill your mind with thoughts and imaginations of the strangest and most curious kind; so much so, that what you would never think of at any other time will come to your mind at the time of prayer, in such a manner even that it would seem you came to prayer for no other purpose than to be distracted and assaulted by a whole army of the most frightful temptations; or he will make you feel peevish, and try to persuade you that prayer is the business of old women who have nothing else to do, but as for you, that it is only a loss of time, which could be spent much more profitably in some other way.
If you are a priest, a religious, or a student of theology, he will artfully represent to you how necessary and profitable it is to possess great learning, for the salvation of souls and the greater honor and glory of God, in order that the application to study may become your principal occupation, and that you may consider prayer as something merely accessory. If a superior in a conference, a confessor in the confessional, or a priest in a sermon, after the example of Our Lord Jesus Christ, His Apostles, and all the saints, and in accordance with the spirit of the Church, repeatedly insists upon the necessity of prayer, the devil will not be slow to suggest: "Oh, that superior, that priest, knows but one rule, but one obligation; he does not care for science, or consider the country and times in which we are living; if you do what he tells, you will never be anything but a real hypocrite and devotee."
Should this malignant enemy not succeed by these and similar artifices to prevent certain souls from prayer, he will then try other means. To St. Anthony the Hermit, when at prayer, he used to appear in the most hideous forms, to frighten him. He sometimes took St. Frances of Rome, shook her, and threw her on the ground. When St. Rose of Lima was at prayer, the devil would come and make a great noise, like taking a basket and jumping about with it. He would often cast large hailstones upon the two holy brothers Simplican and Roman, when they knelt down to pray, in order to make them give up prayer, as is related by St. Gregory of Tours.
This implacable hatred and incessant war of Satan against prayer should alone be sufficient to convince you of the necessity, importance, utility and sublimity of this holy exercise; and at the same time urge you on to apply to it with all possible diligence, that you may the sooner acquire the spirit of prayer. Read the life of the seraphic St. Teresa, that great mistress of prayer, and you will find how she struggled for eighteen years to obtain this spirit of prayer. We read of St. Catherine of Bologna, that when she was abbess, one of her daughters, seeing that her whole time was taken up with business, or by the intercourse she was obliged to have with the servants and strangers, asked her how, with her weak health, she could endure so many fatigues and cares. "Know my daughter," replied the holy mother, "and be assured that my mind is so occupied with the things which are not of this world, that at whatever hour or moment I wish, I am immediately united to God and separated from everything bodily and temporal. I confess that this has cost me innumerable sufferings, for the road of virtue is narrow and hard; but, by perseverance, prayer has become my life, my nurse, my mistress, my consolation, my refreshment, my rest, my fortune, all my wealth. It is prayer that has preserved me from mortal sins and rescued me from death; but it has done more than that: It has nourished me as a tender mother nourishes her infant with milk. I ought to add, too, that prayer drives away all distractions and temptations, gives us the desire of doing penance, enkindles in us the divine love, and, finally, that there is no surer road to perfection."
All the saints, were they to come down from Heaven, would, with St. Catherine of Bologna, make the same acknowledgment. The Kingdom of Heaven suffers violence, and those that use this holy violence will bear it away. Let us, like the saints, use this salutary coercion in regard to ourselves; it will prove to us a source of joy for all eternity. Let us, in imitation of the saints, often read a chapter on the great necessity, importance, advantages and efficacy of prayer, thereby to encourage ourselves constantly to persevere and increase in fervent love for this holy occupation. Let us be firmly convinced that such reading will be more profitable to us than any other, whatever it may be. Let us, also, often make our particular examen of conscience on this subject, and let us firmly believe to be true what I one day heard said by a very holy priest, who was so much given to prayer as to be often elevated in the air whilst engaged in devotion: "Anyone," said he, "who would carefully make his particular examen of conscience for half a year, would not fail to attain unto contemplation."
Suppose the Lord would not favor you in prayer as He has favored certain saints, yet be convinced you will always receive far more than you deserve; do what you can, and leave it to Him to do with you according to His will. "He hath filled the hungry with good things," exclaimed the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Lord not only gives, but overloads with His gifts those who have a real desire for them. Join the deed to your desires for them by making use of the means here laid down to acquire them, and rest assured God will deal with you in a most liberal manner, in accordance with the promptness of His paternal heart. You will experience what one of my fellow students has experienced, who said to me one day: "Since I have given myself up to holy prayer, I am quite a different creature." Would to God you did truly relish all that has been said! If you but knew the gift of God, you would soon see how sweet the Lord is to those who are given up to prayer. You will most assuredly find Him in this holy exercise, for He opens to those who knock, and gives to those who ask. Give it a fair trial. Say with David, "One thing I have asked of the Lord; this will I seek after" (Ps. 26:4), viz.: this gift of prayer, and I will ask for it until it shall be granted to me.