By Prof. Michael Ogunu
You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You” (St. Augustine).
The above famous quotation from St. Augustine’s touching autobiography, The Confessions, resonate in our hearts in our daily experiences of life as we seek to find happiness in the pursuit of material things.
We all, one time or the other, have felt deep need to go in search of the presence of the Lord, but failed to hear His voice because of the cares and worries of life. At such times, like the deer longing for running streams, on fire with thirst, we keep going in search of Him hoping to find Him. “My soul is thirsting for the Lord; when shall I see Him face to face?” (Ps. 42)
Fr. Stephen Njoku in his book on contemplative prayer entitled, Seeking the Presence of God in Solitude speaks for us all, in his account of his personal experience of the universal human need to encounter the divine presence:
I myself, so very often, have some emptiness in me. At such times, I longed to talk to God, not out of routine or from a textbook, but as a person talks to a person, face to face, if possible. I wanted … a willing ear into which I could empty the noise in me. I wanted God to be there to take it all. O! I needed a centre for all my troubles. Not only that, I wanted the welcoming arms of a Beloved Father thrown wide open, so that I could cast myself into them and find deep peace and security…
Union with God, which is the ultimate goal of man’s existence can be achieved only through prayer and uniting one’s will with the will of God.
In this article, the writer will attempt to show how one can meet God in prayer.
“There are two ways of praying”, says Cardinal John Henry Newman in his Sermons on prayer (Sermons 15, 19 and 20): “the recitation of prayers at a set time and in a set formula, or the continuous union with God throughout the day, living in God’s presence, in accordance with the injunction of St. Paul, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thes 5:17). He asserts that this second type of prayer, which he calls “habitual inward prayer”, is really a duty that flows from the very nature of religion and is therefore required of every authentic Christian. “It would be as absurd as to suppose that life could last when the body was cold and motionless and senseless as to call a soul alive which does not pray. The state or habit of spiritual life … consists in the continual activity of prayer”.
Cardinal Newman observes that many persons “neither pray at fixed times, nor do they cultivate an habitual communion with Almighty God, … They pray now and then, when they feel particular need of God’s assistance; when they are in trouble or in apprehension of danger or when their feelings are unusually excited. They do not know what it is either to be habitually religious, or to devote a certain number of minutes at fixed times to the thought of God”.
Do we fail in the conscientious fulfilment of our duty to pray? Is God habitually in our thoughts? Do we think of him and of his Son our Saviour, through the day? When we eat and drink, do we thank him not as a mere matter of form, but in spirit? When we do things in themselves right, do we lift up our minds to him, and desire to promote his glory? When we are in the exercise of our callings, do we still think of him, acting ever conscientiously, desiring to know his will more exactly than we do at present, and aiming at fulfilling it more completely and abundantly? Do we wait on his grace to enlighten, renew and strengthen us?
It is not a question of forming many words or even of having explicit thoughts about God and religion. To pray without ceasing means to live in the presence of God, to be constantly aware of our dependence on God.
Whether a person prays according to a set formula and at a set time, or practices habitual mental prayer, the practice of prayer is not a privilege or an optional choice but a duty. It follows from the very nature of religion.
But is it enough to keep our minds fixed upon God through the day, and to commune with him in our hearts, or is it necessary, over and above this habitual faith to set apart particular times for the more systematic and earnest exercise of it? Need we pray at certain times of the day in a set manner?
Public prayer, such as the liturgy, by its very nature requires set places, times and forms; but personal private prayer does not require a set time or place or formula. However, “certain times for private prayer, over and above the secret thought of God which must ever be alive in us, are clearly enjoined; and the practice of good men in Scripture gives us an example in confirmation of the command. Even our Saviour had private times in which He communed with God. … We read of his going up ‘into a mountain apart to pray’, and again, of his ‘continuing all night in prayer to God’ ”.
Consequently, in accordance with the teaching and the example of Christ, regular and periodical private prayer is required for all Christians. Cardinal Newman gives two reasons for this: “First, while it is true that prayer throughout the day is characteristic of a Christian spirit, we may be sure that, in most cases, those who do not pray at stated times in a more solemn and direct manner, will never pray well at other times.
… Some men have not leisure for this; but for morning and evening prayer all men can and should make leisure”. Secondly, private prayer at stated times is also “a more direct means of gaining from God an answer to our requests. … And, as he has thus promised an answer to our poor prayers, so it is no more strange that prayers offered up at particular times, and in a particular way, should have especially prevailing power with him”.
For some people, fidelity to one’s schedule of private prayer becomes such an irksome task that one is tempted to give up the practice. “Nothing is more difficult,” says Cardinal Newman, “than to be disciplined and regular in our religion. It is very easy to be religious by fits and starts, and to keep up our feelings by artificial stimulants; but regularity seems to trammel us, and we become impatient”.
To abandon the practice of private prayer, says the Cardinal, is to set out on “the path which leads to death. Men first leave off private prayer; then they neglect the due observance of the Lord’s day (which is a stated observance of the same kind); then they gradually let slip form their minds the very idea of obedience to a fixed external law; then they actually allow themselves in things which their conscience condemns; then they lose the direction of their conscience, which being ill used, at length refuses to direct them.
Exterior solitude, withdrawing physically from the noise, from the occupations and preoccupations of this world is a great means, and even, at least to a certain point, an indispensable means for leading a serious interior life.
Every rule of religious life, even of a simple secular institute, prescribes certain hours for prayer, during which every occupation must be firmly laid aside, and one must retire into solitude in order to renew one’s spirit by means of a more direct and more intense contact with God.
Without these prayerful intervals, it is a real illusion to pretend to live a spiritual life – not only a serious one, but even the most elementary one.
Every activity, no matter how important or urgent it is, must therefore be suspended at the prescribed time, so that all the strength of the soul may be concentrated in the supreme activity of prayer. These hours are sacred. A soul consecrated to God cannot, of its own initiative, subtract even a small part of this time under the pain of seeing its spiritual life weaken.
St. John of the Cross says, “…shutting the door upon thee (that is to say, shutting thy will upon all things), pray to thy Father in secret” (SC, 1, 9). This does not mean to shut only the material door of our room, but that it is necessary to close our will to everything, that is, as the Saint again says, to “shut all thy faculties upon all creatures”.
If we wish to find God in prayer, we must begin by making this very firm decision of our will: to put aside everything – all care, all preoccupation with human beings – and concentrate all the powers of our souls on God alone.
“I leave all my duties and all my earthly cares to recollect myself in the little heaven of my soul, to place myself in intimate contact with God” (Divine Intimacy, p. 35).
St. Teresa of Avila offers the following advice: “Since we have resolved to devote to Him this very brief period of time … let us give it to Him freely with our minds unoccupied by other things and with a firm resolve never to take it back again, whatever we may suffer through trials, annoyances, or aridities” (Way of Perfection, 23).
We often give the prescribed time to prayer, but we do not give our hearts to it; they are still preoccupied with earthly cares. We go to the chapel or our room, but do not know how to withdraw ourselves from the thoughts and cares of life; therefore, we cannot reach that inner Sanctum, that intimate interior hiding-place where God conceals himself or what St. Teresa calls “the Interior Castle”.
A soul who longs for a life of intimacy with God is not satisfied to limit its relations with Him to the time of prayer, but tries to extend them throughout the whole day.
It is our appointed task, every moment of the day, to live for God.
To live for God … Therein lies mankind’s only true happiness. I can be happy only in so far as I live for Him, surrendering myself to His will, to His honour, obeying His decrees and serving Him to His good pleasure. The practical application of this, is that whatsoever is in me which is not directed to living for God, serving Him to his honour and glory – my love of self or of another human being, my work, my regard for honour among men, my preoccupation with business or gain, with health and comfort – are vanity, madness and loss. Only what is done,