ON SEVERAL EXCUSES FOR NOT ATTENDING TO THE PRACTICE OF PRAYER.
It is generally remarked by the Saints, and is continually confirmed by experience, that the devil, aware of the great advantages which a soul acquires by the practice of prayer, exerts himself to the utmost of his power to deprive her of this blessing. He acts against us as Holofernes did against the city of Bethulia, when, in order to facilitate the taking of it, he destroyed the aqueducts through which the city was supplied with water. Prayer is the aqueduct through which our soul receives the water of grace; it is the principal means by which God fills us with His choicest blessings; and therefore the devil uses his best endeavours to break it, and he strives, by raising a thousand obstacles, to induce us to abandon it. Amongst the various means which he employs in order to encompass his wicked design, one is, to suggest to us several pretexts or excuses, by which he endeavours to persuade us either that prayer is useless, or that it is out of our power to attend to the practice of it.
The principal pretexts or excuses which he suggests for this purpose are the following:
First, To some of those persons who experience no sensible sweetness or devotion in their prayers, he represents that their labour is thrown away; that their dryness and insensibility of heart destroys all the merit of their devotions; that their manner of prayer, instead of being pleasing to God, offends Him and provokes His anger; and that consequently it would be better for them to give up altogether the holy practice. One who is not instructed in the science of the Saints might very easily be induced to listen and follow this suggestion of the enemy; but he would make a great mistake; for what renders our prayers pleasing to God and profitable to our soul, is not the abundance of sensible delight which we experience in performing them, but our humility, our patience, our sincere and solid desire of pleasing Him, and fulfilling with fidelity His holy will. Let us be persuaded that the solidity of the love of God, and the consequent merit of our prayer, does not depend so much on the milk of consolation as on the bread of desolation, which is the food of the strong. Oh, how much more precious was the blood shed by our Redeemer on Calvary, amidst a sea of sorrow and affliction, than the splendour diffused over the mount Tabor in an ocean of sweetness! Contemplate our divine Saviour in the garden of Gethsemane, praying to His heavenly Father prostrated on the ground. The Evangelist tells us that His prayer was accompanied with the greatest anguish and sorrow, with dejection and intense agony of heart; that "His soul was sorrowful even unto death;" and yet who can describe the merit and excellence of this prayer? Who can measure the glory which it rendered to God, and the blessings which it obtained for us 1Let us, then, in time of desolation, look up to our Saviour in His agonising state in the garden, and take courage to bear patiently our cross. 'He who wishes to draw fruit from prayer,' says St. Teresa, 'must make no account of spiritual consolations; for I have learnt from experience that the soul which enters upon this path with a true determination to be quite indifferent whether God bestows or withholds sensible pleasures and delights, and which faithfully acts up to this determination, is already greatly advanced in the way of holiness.' And speaking of herself, she said, 'I do not desire any other prayer than that which is best suited to make me increase in virtue. Hence if I knew that I could advance in sanctity better by means of great aridities and frequent temptations, I should regard them as great blessings.' We read of St. Francis of Sales, that he was never troubled or afflicted when desolations, aridities, and internal abandonments attended his prayers; and he once said to the holy mother St. Jane Frances de Chantel, that 'when engaged in prayer, he never stopped to consider whether he was in consolation or desolation; but that when God filled his soul with spiritual sweetness, he received it with the most profound reverence and simplicity; and that if it was withheld, and he was left desolate, not one thought of discontent ever crossed his mind, but he continued before God in perfect filial confidence as a child of love.' Those who act in this manner will not fail to enjoy great peace, and to acquire great merit before God.
To persevere in prayer and in the service of God when He caresses us with tenderness is not difficult, for we then repose in His bosom, and enjoy the sensible effects of His presence; but to continue constant in prayer, and be entirely resigned to His holy will, when He sends us nothing but bitterness and sorrow, is an act of heroic virtue, which has wonderful efficacy in raising the soul to union with God. We ought to go to prayer, not to please ourselves, but to please God; not to seek the consolations of God} but the God of all consolation. Even the most holy souls are sometimes subject to aridity in their prayers; but on account of their perseverance, God enriches them with His blessings. St. Teresa was afflicted for eighteen years with such distressing aridity, that sometimes she seemed to have for her Beloved neither heart, nor will, nor faith, nor hope, nor love; St. Mary Magdalene of Pazzi at times was so overwhelmed with desolation, that she felt as if she were in the midst of hell; and St. Francis of Assisium was prepared to receive the precious gift of the sacred stigmata by such distressing aridity that he could scarcely speak without discovering in his countenance the sadness by which he was overwhelmed.
In the time of aridity the soul should do nothing but humble herself and ask God's grace; for there is no better time for knowing our own misery than when we are desolate in prayer. We then clearly perceive that of ourselves we can do no good. Hence, whenever we are in such a state, we ought to unite ourselves with Jesus abandoned on the cross, humbling ourselves and asking mercy, and repeating from the bottom of our heart these or similar pious ejaculations: 'Lord help me; Lord have pity on me; my Jesus, mercy.' 'When the soul feels herself oppressed with aridity and spiritual desolation,' says St. Jane Frances de Chantel, 'she must apply herself to make acts of adoration, of confidence, and of conformity to the Divine will, presenting herself before the throne of God as a poor beggar standing in the presence of his prince, and making use of such words as will best express a loving submission to His most holy and adorable will.' 'When God gives spiritual comfort,' we read in the Imitation of Christ, 'receive it with thanksgiving; hut know that it is the bounty of God, not thy merit. Be not puffed up, be not overjoyed, not vainly presume; but rather be the more humble for this gift, and the more cautious and fearful in all thy actions; for this hour will pass away, and temptation will follow. When comfort shall be taken away from thee, do not immediately despair; but wait with humility and patience for the heavenly visit, for God is able to restore thee a greater consolation. This is no new thing, nor strange to those who have experienced the ways of God; for in the great saints and ancient prophets there has often been this kind of variety. Hence one said, at the time when grace was with him, "I said in my abundance, I shall not be moved for ever." But when grace was retired, he immediately tells us what he experienced in himself: "Thou hast turned away Thy face from me, and I became troubled." Yet in the mean time he despairs not, but more earnestly prays to the Lord, and says, "To Thee, O Lord, will I cry, and I will pray to my God." Lastly, he receives the fruit of his prayer, and witnesses that he was heard, saying, "The Lord hath heard me, and hath had mercy on me; the Lord is become my helper." But in what manner [Kempis, book ii. chap. ix] "Thou hast turned," says he, "my mourning into joy to me, and Thou hast encompassed me with gladness." If thus it has been with great Saints, we that are weak and poor must not be discouraged, if we are sometimes fervent, sometimes cold, because the Spirit comes and goes according to His own good pleasure. Wherefore holy Job says: "Thou visitest him early in the morning, and on a sudden Thou triest him."
Prayer made in this manner will be most acceptable to God, and will draw upon us a great abundance of the divine blessings. St. Francis of Sales used to say, 'that a single ounce of prayer offered amidst sorrow and desolation of spirit is of more value than an hundredweight amidst consolation and sweetness.' 'Statues,' says St. Liguori, 'do honour to a prince, by standing in his galleries; whenever, then, the Lord wishes us to remain like statues in His presence, let us be content to honour Him as statues. It will then be enough to say to Him, Lord, I remain here to please Thee.'
Another pretext or excuse by which the devil strives to create in the hearts of Christians a disgust or disrelish for prayer, so as to induce them to abandon it, is to represent to them that the many and frequent distractions which they suffer destroy all the value of their devotions, and render them abominable in the sight of God. Whosoever sincerely desires to advance in virtue, and to secure the attainment of eternal life, must certainly endeavour to repress all wilful distractions during prayer, and to raise his mind and heart to God as much as his infirmity permits; but after he has done this, and endeavoured, with sufficient diligence, to keep his mind and heart recollected in God, let him not trouble himself on account of those distractions which he suffers against his will, but let him rather console himself by reflecting, that all the efforts which he makes to repel the distractions, and to acquire interior recollection, are acts of virtue most pleasing to God and profitable to his soul. St. Francis of Sales, speaking of persons of this description, says that 'if in their prayer they do nothing else than banish distractions and temptations, the prayer is well made.'
'There is one thing,' says the holy mother St. Teresa, 'which greatly afflicts pious souls, which is, the distraction they suffer in prayer On such occasions it is necessary to call back our wandering thoughts by renewing our faith of the presence of God, and by again placing ourselves before Him with reverence and respect; and if we cannot succeed in fixing our mind in the subject of our prayer, then we must endure with resignation and humility the painful cross. For the time will not be thrown away as at first sight might appear; but, on the contrary, one single hour of prayer performed in this manner will oftentimes prove more fruitful than many hours passed in recollection and peace; for each effort which the soul makes to drive away distractions, in order that it may not displease God, but be enabled to serve Him better, is an act of the love of God.' The blessed mother de Chantel gave this advice to her daughters, and was accustomed to follow it herself, that when troubled with distractions in the time of prayer, they should consider patience as their prayer, and say, with humility and love, 'O my God, Thou art the only support of my soul, Thou art my only consolation.' St. John Chrysostom advised that, when a person finds himself troubled with distractions, he should excite himself to fervour by this consideration: 'What! when I am talking with a friend about some idle story, some worldly news, some common trifle, I am full of attention; and yet now that I am treating with the Majesty of God about the pardon of my sins and the means of saving my soul, I am quite languid and indifferent; and though I have assumed the attitude of prayer, I allow my thoughts to wander upon the various cares and pleasures of life! Where, then, is my faith? where my judgment?'
Such must he the conduct of persons who suffer from involuntary distractions. But how should those persons act who have yielded wilfully to distracting thoughts in their prayers? Are they to obey the suggestions of the enemy, and abandon this holy exercise? Far, far from it: as soon as they perceive their distractions, let them humble themselves, and resolve to amend for the future; and then let them continue in their prayer with greater fervour and confidence than ever, despising the temptations of the enemy, and putting him to shame. What advice would you give to a sick person who should happen to have made use in a negligent manner of an excellent remedy which is well calculated to cure his malady? Would you suggest to him to throw it away, and to give up the thought of using it? No, certainly; you would earnestly recommend him to avail himself in a more careful manner of the great blessing which is offered him, and to take the remedy with greater diligence and care. And it is thus we ought to act, when, through our natural weakness, it happens that we have given way to voluntary distractions. Far from abandoning the practice of prayer, which is the most excellent remedy for our spiritual maladies, we must resolve to make use of it with greater diligence and care for the future. If, instead of doing this, we listen to the temptation of the devil, and give up holy prayer, we abandon ourselves into the hands of our enemy, to be conquered and subdued by his infernal power.
The third excuse or pretext by which the devil endeavours to withdraw some persons from prayer is, to represent to them that it is impossible for them to perform well this sacred duty as long as they hold the office in which they are employed. This excuse, like the two former, is only an artifice of the enemy; for he who sincerely desires to love God and to secure his salvation, will always find time for feeding his soul with prayer, whatever his office or employment may he. However distracting may be our employments, we have it always in our power to offer up our actions to God in the morning, to raise our hearts to Him occasionally during the day, to invoke His assistance in time of temptation, to employ in praising and glorifying Him a part of that time which would otherwise be spent in idleness, and perhaps also in sin. The Saints did not lose their courage in the midst of external occupations, but formed for themselves a cell in their own hearts, where they would often retire to offer up acts of adoration and love to their sovereign Lord. What prevents us from doing the same amidst our external duties?
Here, however, it must be remarked, that those persons who allow themselves to be so much overwhelmed with temporal concerns, as to exhaust all the energy of their soul upon them, and deprive themselves of the precious time of prayer, are greatly to be blamed; because they neglect their most necessary and important business, that on which their highest interests for time and eternity depend, in order to purchase some filth and dirt. Gracious God! what is the great, the only object for which we have been drawn out of nothing, and for which alone we ought to live? Is it not that we might devote ourselves to the love and service of Almighty God; and that by doing so, we might deserve to enjoy Him hereafter in His eternal kingdom? Are not all His creatures here below so many means ordained by Providence to help us to attain our most important end? How, then, is it possible that men can be guilty of so enormous a blindness, as to prefer the means to the end; the body to the soul; the creature to the Creator; the filthy pleasures of this life to the joys of Paradise? Oh, great God! is it not an extreme folly to consider the affairs of time more important than those of eternity? Is it not an excess of blindness to look upon the goods of earth as more precious than those of heaven? Alas! if to preserve for a few fleeting years our bodily strength, our corporal life, we so cheerfully and so patiently endure many labours, and make many sacrifices, how is it possible that we can be so indifferent, so careless about the holy exercise of prayer, which is a means so absolutely necessary for the securing of eternal life!
Lastly, another pretext or excuse which the spirit of darkness suggests to some persons, in order to prevail upon them to abandon the practice of prayer is, to represent this holy exercise to them as being most difficult, hard, and laborious.
Whenever the devil attacks us in this way, let us think of those words of our blessed Saviour, that "the kingdom of God suffereth violence, and that the violent only bear it away." 'Remember,' writes St. Francis of Sales, 'that perfection is not acquired by holding one's hands crossed before one; but it is necessary to labour in good earnest to overcome oneself, and to force oneself td live, not according to one's inclinations and passions, but according to reason, rule, and obedience. It is a hard matter so to do, there is no denying it; but it is necessary. Nevertheless, with constant practice, it becomes both easy and full of sweetness.'
The same is the doctrine of St. Philip Neri, who nsed to say that we must not think 'of going to heaven with ease, and, as it were, by coach;' but that we may enter that eternal kingdom, and attain to those mansions of eternal bliss, we must walk, and labour, and suffer. 'Let us not deceive ourselves,' says St. Gregory; 'we cannot attain to the great reward of the elect of God, except we are willing to endure great labours.' Ad magna praemia perveniri non potest nisi per magnos labores. Behold what labours the children of this world undergo in order to gain some temporal advantage; how the merchant toils night and day for a handful of perishable wealth; how the soldier braves every danger to obtain some transient honour! And shall Christians, shall the children of light be so tepid and cold as to draw back, and refuse to endure a little labour, or to undergo a short suffering, which will obtain for them a crown of never fading glory in the mansions of eternal happiness? Ah, surely "the sufferings of this life are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come." Let us, then, labour manfully during the few years of our transitory existence; and the hour will soon come when we shall have the great happiness of exclaiming, with St. Peter of Alcantara, 'Oh, happy sufferings, which have merited for me so exceeding great a glory!'
So far I have gone on the supposition that the practice of prayer requires great labour and sacrifice on our part; I have imagined that, on account of our natural weakness, of our original corruption, we cannot practise it without submitting ourselves to great hardship and suffering; and even under this supposition, I have proved that we ought never to resolve to abandon it, which would be to the utter ruin of our immortal soul. But I now ask, is it true that the practice of prayer is accompanied with, such an enormous difficulty? Is it true that it costs so much violence, and labour, and trouble, and sacrifice, as the enemy of our salvation strives to make us believe? Ah, "No," says the Wise Man, "No : His conversation knows no bitterness, and His company is free from tediousness." [Wisd. viii. 16.] "Taste and see," says the holy David, "how the Lord is sweet." It is true that the act of withdrawing ourselves from creatures, and of raising our mind and heart to God, which are requisite for the due performance of prayer, imports some sacrifice on the part of our corrupt nature. But is there any thing, however hard and laborious, however painful to human nature, which may not become most delightful, and be rendered sweet and easy by the power of Divine grace? Let us listen to Jesus, to the Son of the living God, who has the words of eternal life. "Take My yoke upon you," says He, and try if I am hard and cruel to My friends, and not rather mild and bountiful; try and see whether I do not lighten by My grace all the labours which they undergo in My service. I assure you that " My yoke is sweet, and My burden light,"['Matt. xi. 28-30.] and that those who bear it faithfully shall find rest to their souls. Ah, let us, then, take care to love God; let us beg, with all humility, the powerful assistance of His Divine grace; and, instead of finding the practice of prayer hard and difficult, we shall find therein our greatest pleasure and delight.
Taken from - The Way to Heaven. A Manual of Devotion. By The Very Rev. John Baptist Pagani.