ON THE PRINCIPAL DISPOSITIONS WHICH SHOULD ATTEND OUR PRAYERS.
Experience teaches that there are some Christians who often call upon God, and ask for His blessings, and yet God refuses to hear them. This happens not through any want of good will on the part of God, who is ever faithful to His promises, but through our own fault, because we do not take sufficient care to endow our prayers with those holy dispositions, which are required to render them acceptable to God and profitable to our souls. "You ask, and receive not," says the Apostle St. James, "because you ask amiss." [James iv. 3.]
There are five qualifications which our prayers ought to possess: 1, solidity; 2, devotion; 3, humility; 4, confidence; 5, perseverance.
On solidity in our prayers.
The solidity of our prayers consists in asking of God real and substantial blessings; namely, such graces as are truly conducive to the salvation of our souls, and available to the attainment of eternal life. It is most certain that the only thing really good for man is, to serve and love his sovereign Lord here upon earth, and to enjoy Him hereafter in His eternal kingdom. This is the great, the only object for which he was created, and all besides this is vanity and deceit, darkness and illusion. "Fear the Lord," says the Holy Ghost, "and keep His commandments, for this is the whole man." 'Vanity and vanity,' says the Imitation of Christ, 'and all is vanity, except to love God, and to serve Him alone. This is the highest wisdom, to despise the world, and to tend to the everlasting kingdom.'
Setting out from this principle, that all happiness and perfection essentially consist in nothing else hut loving and serving our sovereign Lord in this life, and enjoying Him for ever in the life to come, it follows that we should never ask any thing from God but what can really help and assist us in serving and loving Him, and in securing our eternal salvation. Well did the prophet David understand this truth, when he prayed to the Lord but for one thing, and that earnestly and frequently, which was, that he might obtain the possession of His eternal kingdom. "One thing," says he, "have I asked of the Lord; and this will I seek as long as I live, that I may dwell in the house of the Lord." "Why art thou careful," said Jesus to Martha, "and troublest thyself about many things? there is but one thing necessary." [Luke x. 42] We read in holy Scripture, that the holy Tobias, thinking that he was going to die, called to himself his only son, and spoke thus to him: "Bless God at all times, and desire of Him to direct thy ways, and that all thy counsels may abide in Him." ['Tob. iv. 20.] The same I say to you, O Christian soul,— bless the Lord at all times; and let your mind and heart dwell upon Him alone. In your prayers, ask Him for His grace, His love, His kingdom, and He will not fail to supply all your wants, if expedient for your eternal welfare. "Seek first the kingdom of God," says our divine Redeemer, "and His justice; and the rest shall be added unto you." [Matt. vi. 83] Solomon did not ask God either for long life or riches, or for the overthrow of his enemies, but he petitioned only for wisdom, and the Lord vouchsafed to grant with it long life and riches, and fame and peace, together with a most glorious and prosperous reign. So, in like manner, will He do for you, if you ask for His friendship and love, which are the only true and real wisdom; for in this case you will receive besides them a supply for all your wants, if this be expedient to His glory and to the salvation of your soul. "Inquirentes Dominum," says holy David, "non minuentur omni bono.' [Psalm xxxiii.] —Those who seek the Lord shall not fail to be enriched with every good." "Blessed are they," says Jesus, "that hunger and thirst after justice, for they shall have their fill." [Matt. v. 6.] "He that spared not even His own Son," writes the Apostle St. Paul, "but delivered Him up for us all, how has He not also with Him given us all things!" [Rom. viii. 32.] Behold, then, how the solidity of our prayers properly consists in asking of God such substantial and solid blessings as are conducive to His glory, and as will be profitable to our immortal souls.
To understand this point better, it will be well to observe, that there are several things which we are certainly assured that are conducive to God's honour and glory, and are useful to our souls; such, for instance, as the knowledge of ourselves, the detestation of sin, the victory over temptations, the fulfilment of His holy will, the attainment of His love, and final perseverance in His holy grace. Now, for these and other such blessings we ought to ask, in the first place, and without any limitation or condition, because we are sure that they cannot do us any harm, but will certainly prove beneficial to our eternal salvation. But as regards those things about which we have no certain knowledge, whether they will be useful or prejudicial to our eternal interests,—such as good health, long life, prosperity in business, and the like temporal advantages,—though we are permitted, and it is sometimes also expedient, to petition for them, yet when we ask for them, we must only do it in the second place, that is, after having asked for spiritual blessings with perfect submission to God's holy will, and with the condition that they be pleasing to God and beneficial to our souls.
Of devotion in our prayers.
The consideration that during prayer we are addressing that great Being who fills heaven and earth with the majesty of His glory, ought to inspire us with a deep feeling of reverence and devotion. Were we in the presence of any great personage upon earth, as, for example, his Holiness the Pope, how respectful would be our deportment, how modest and recollected our whole behaviour! What, then, should be our conduct when we present ourselves before the God of heaven, our great Lord and Master!
The devotion which ought to accompany our prayer is twofold, exterior and interior. Exterior devotion consists in the proper and becoming posture of the body, and in keeping a strict guard upon our senses, more particularly the eyes; since there is so close a connexion between body and soul, that, unless we mortify ourselves exteriorly, we cannot obtain interior recollection. This was will known to all the Saints, and hence they were most vigilant over their senses during prayer. St. Francis of Salles, during the whole of the time he was at prayer, even when he was alone and unobserved by others, remained before God in an attitude the most edifying, with an air of the sweetest composure, insensible to all around him, and exhibiting the most profound reverence and devotion. The venerable Berkmas was accustomed to pray on his knees, with his eyes closed, his hands clasped on his breast, his countenance beaming with such an angelic sweetness, and lighted up with such a heavenly ardour, that many persons placed themselves on their knees beside him in order to observe him, and to enkindle in their own souls that heavenly flame which burnt so ardently in his heart. It is related of St. Rosa of Lima, that, as soon as she entered the church, she would retire to some secret corner, and there would remain, with her eyes fixed on the adorable sacrament of the altar for hours together, motionless as a statue, insensible to all that passed around her. Of St. Aloysius we read, that he practised such a watchfulness over his senses, and particularly over his eyes, during prayer, that his countenance seemed more like that of an angel than of a man. By this strict guard which he kept over his senses, he attained to such an eminent gift of interior recollection, that in giving an account of his conscience to his director, he once said, that he thought that during the space of six months he had not been distracted in his prayers so much as would fill the space of one 'Hail Mary.'
Interior devotion consists in the proper attention of the mind, and in the pious affections of the heart to God. This interior devotion is necessary to the very nature of prayer, which, according to the doctrine of the Saints, essentially implies the raising of our mind and heart to God. St. Cyprian says it is an intolerable disrespect in the eyes of God, and a kind of mockery, to perform the act of prayer merely with our lips, having our mind and heart far from God. St. Augustine compares the prayer of those persons who pray in this manner to the barking of dogs. And St. Gregory says, 'How can you expect that God will hear you, when you do not hear yourself?' Whoever, therefore, wishes that his prayers should be pleasing to God, and profitable to his soul, must take care, as much as human infirmity permits, to exclude from his mind and heart all wilful distractions, and to fix his thoughts and affections upon his sovereign Lord. If he wilfully neglect to do this, if he knowingly allow his mind and heart to wander from God, and to be drawn after the consideration and the love of creatures, let him be sure that his prayer will be of no avail to him, since Almighty God rejects the prayer of those "who honour Him by their lips, but their heart is far from Him." [Matt. xv. 8.]
Of humility in our prayers.
The third condition which should accompany our prayers, in order to render them acceptable in the sight of God, and profitable to our souls, is the spirit of humility. "The prayer of him that humbles himself," says the Wise Man, "shall pierce the clouds, and it will not depart until the Most High behold." [Ecclus. xxxv. 21] God treats the proud with scorn, and refuses to grant their petitions; but to the humble He is sweet and liberal, and imparts His favours and blessings in abundance. "God resisteth the proud," says the Apostle St. James, "and gives His grace to the humble." [James iv. 6.] We have a most striking proof of this truth in the conduct of God towards the Pharisee and the Publican of the Gospel; for the proud Pharisee returned from his prayer with added guilt, and became more abominable in the eyes of God; whereas the humble Publican, notwithstanding his own persuasion of his extreme misery and unworthiness, found favour and mercy before God, and returned home renewed and justified.
This humility consists, 1st, in a deep and sincere feeling of the awful majesty of Him whom we are addressing in our prayers; of the greatness and power of God, the immortal King of Glory, the sovereign Lord of the Universe, before whom the angels veil their faces, and the heavens themselves are not without spot. 2dly, It consists in a sincere and true appreciation of our own misery and unworthiness. For reason of which, far from meriting any favour from God, we deserve to be for ever cast away from His face, and deprived of His grace. When we call to mind the original corruption in which we are born, and then add to this our past infidelities, our base ingratitude to God, and the many insults we have offered to Him, we must surely feel convinced that we are unworthy to stand in His presence, that we can claim no right that He should hear our prayers, but that we rather deserve that He should drive us away, and inflict upon us a severe punishment. If we approach God in our prayers, animated by this spirit of humility, we may be sure that He will look down upon us with His merciful eyes, and impart His blessings to us. 'For,' as St. Augustine says, 'when we humble ourselves, God descends and unites Himself to us; but when we raise ourselves on high by pride, God withdraws Himself, and leaves us to our own misery.' He that humbleth himself shall be exalted. "God has regard," says holy David, "to the prayer of the humble," [Psalm ci. 18.] "A contrite and humble heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise." [Psalm xxxi. 10.]
Taken from - The Way to Heaven. A Manual of Devotion. By The Very Rev. John Baptist Pagani.