On Prayer: Mine and Yours

A Reflection and a Poem

St. Luke doesn’t tell us who asked the question.1 I take that to mean that it could have been any one of Jesus’ followers that day in Judea. “Teach us to pray” — that was the question. Just as a follower follows, this disciple wanted to do what Jesus did, and He had been praying. It could have been anyone, of course, but I like to think that this disciple was a young girl — children are seldom afraid to ask for directions — and it’s important that she waited until Jesus finished before asking. Surely, she had seen in Jesus what Georges Bernanos described about prayer, that it is a “kind of deepening of the spirit [that] is unlike any other experience, that . . . it ends in sudden total illumination, opening out upon azure light . . . .”2 The infinite below in contact with the infinite above is the way Victor Hugo described it.3 No wonder this disciple asked, teach us.

The urge to pray — and it is an urge, an instinct4 — comes from deep within. Msgr. Ronald Knox wrote that “the will seems to turn towards God of itself.”5 St. Augustine put it best when he explained why our hearts are restless: we are made for God and we are restless — our heart is unquiet (inquietum est cor nostrum) — until we rest in Him.6 A restlessness of heart seeking communion with God, that’s what prayer is. The reason for the restlessness is not important — whether fearful or joyful, anxious or thankful, in riches or in want, it is the need to share with God that is at the heart of prayer.

Too often this need is felt as a last resort because of our illusion of self-sufficiency. As she was dying, Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter realized that:

“She had not come to God with her garland, nor with her sins and her sorrows — not so long as the world still held a drop of sweetness to mix in her cup. But she came now, now she had learned that the world is like a tavern — where he who has naught more to spend is cast out at the door.”7, pp. 992–993.]

None of this matters to God. Christ granted salvation to the Good Thief who was blessed with a personal encounter with the Son of God, hanging there with him in His Own final agony, an opportunity for a face-to-face confession to Jesus at death’s door . . . on the other side of which was eternal life.

And although our own prayers, too, are directed to God, to Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, one of the most comforting reassurances in the Bible — Luke 22:33 and John 17:20, for example — is that Jesus Himself, the Son of God, prays for us. Who better to be an advocate for our salvation?

If Jesus is our advocate, then we ourselves have a role in salvation, that of our own and of others, through intercessory prayer. St. Thomas Aquinas answered the videtur that “we ought not to pray for others” with a respondeo that “charity requires us to pray for others,”8 and Holy Scripture is replete with examples of its fruits. Abraham appealed to God on behalf of the righteous of Sodom and Gomorrah.9 The Israelites murmured against God, and it was Moses’ prayer on their behalf that caused the fire of God’s anger to be swallowed up.10 St. Paul reassured the Colossians that “we have been praying unceasingly for you.”11 And he appealed to Christians in Corinth “that you help me in your prayers for me to God.”12 St. James urged us to “pray for one another that you may be saved.”13 Angels, too, have their part to play. The Old Testament’s Zechariah told us that “The angel of the Lord prayed to the Lord of Hosts for Jerusalem,”14 and the New Testament describes in Revelation an angel who stands before the altar to offer incense with the prayers of all the saints.15

Our faith reassures us that what we learn from Scripture is true: our prayers are heard. Some of the most poignant stories in literature rehearse the lesson for us. In Dante’s Purgatorio, we read about Bonconte da Montefeltro. Having been shot in the throat with an arrow, de Montefeltro enacts what the Ave exhorts in prayer — ora pro nobis nunc et in hora mortis nostrae — when he recounts to Dante:

“And there at once my sight and speech were gone.

I ended with ‘Maria’ on my lips

And fell and left my flesh to die alone.

It’s truth to tell — tell it to all alive!

God’s angel took me, and the one from Hell

Hollered, ‘Oh you from heaven, why deprive

Me of his soul? He sheds one little tear

And you bear his immortal part away.”16

In Brideshead Revisited, daughter Julia and mistress Cara kneel at the foot of the bed while Fr. Mackay anoints the unconscious Lord Marchmain — a Catholic in name only, a scoffer — asking for him to confess his sins. Charles Ryder, a non-Catholic and certainly a skeptic when it comes to matters of faith, kneels too, and offers his own intercessory prayer: “Oh God, if there is a God, forgive him his sins, if there is such a thing as sin.” Longing for a sign, Ryder sees Marchmain rouse and cross himself. “Then I knew that the sign I had asked for was not a little thing . . . and a phrase came back to me from my childhood of the veil of the temple being rent from top to bottom.”17

Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean rescued Marius Pontmercy at the barricade in the street battle in Les Misérables and carried him through the sewers of Paris to safety where:

“. . . coming out of the water . . . he fell upon his knees. This seemed to him fitting, and he remained thus for some time, his soul lost in unspoken prayer to God . . . his soul filled with a strange light.”18

A little later, he encountered another. In fact, he encountered: “. . . Providence appearing in a guise of horror, and the good angel springing out of the ground under the form of Thénardier”19 who, by putting Valjean into the hands of Inspector Javert in his place, actually delivered him unto his ultimate deliverance.

The dialogue of prayer, it seems, is heard in words and seen in actions, of believers and non-believers alike.

*                      *                      *

Jesus answered his disciple’s request by teaching us the most sublime prayer. We are taught that God is our Father; that we are to do His Will; that we are to live in the moment with complete reliance on Him; that to seek forgiveness and to forgive are inherently linked to each other; and that through Him we can overcome the world’s temptations, its evil. St. John of the Cross tells us that “as one who knew so well His Father’s will, He would have told them all that was necessary in order to obtain an answer from the Eternal Father.”20 In fact, He taught them, and He teaches us, only what is necessary, both for our spiritual and temporal needs. 21 What more is there, we might ask?

There is a focus here on the word “taught” — that’s what the disciple asked for, and that’s what Jesus delivered: a lesson. I am certain that Jesus saw in his disciple’s heart the desire to pray. A young priest, the narrator in Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest, had learned from Jesus, too, “that the wish to pray is a prayer in itself . . .”22 And just as surely, Jesus is pleased with any sincere prayer, however awkward the prayer may feel. Willa Cather put it well when she wrote: “The prayers of all good people are good.”23

Even though Bernanos’s young priest continued, “. . . God can ask no more than that of us,”24 it is important that Jesus did not reply to his disciple, “Oh, you’re doing fine; just keep doing what you’re doing.” In fact, George MacDonald may have had Our Lord’s fulsome reply in mind when he wrote, “What father is not pleased with the first tottering attempt of his little one to walk? What father would be satisfied with anything but the manly step of the full-grown son?”25 Elsewhere MacDonald said that “though Jesus Christ is very hard to satisfy, He is very easy to please.”26

And so Jesus’ reply to his disciple, to us, is a lesson that takes a lifetime to learn. Our Lord’s prayer is utterly sublime and infinitely rich . . . and it challenges us to grow more deeply in communion with our Heavenly Father.

*                      *                      *

But this prayer — offered during every Mass, woven into the tapestry of the Holy Rosary — is also familiar. About that, Samuel Johnson pointed out what every teacher knows — that “. . . men more frequently require to be reminded than informed.”27 As One who would spend the night in prayer with His Father,28 Jesus’ example commands our attention: His Pater Noster is at once a unique lesson to us and a reminder of what Scripture has taught through the centuries about God and about our place in His creation.

This familiarity, of course, can take two paths. Here’s one: Pater Edmund Waldstein29 drew a wonderful connection between a passage in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility and what we all hope our time with the Lord in prayer could be. Austen described a scene when Edward and Elinor were staying together at a cottage; she wrote:

“. . . for though a very few hours spent in the hard labor of incessant talking will dispatch more subjects than can really be in common between any two rational creatures, yet with lovers it is different. Between them no subject is finished, no communication is even made, till it has been made at least twenty times over.”30

In exactly the same way, in our richest, most intimate prayer experience it is as if we and God breathe together. St. John of the Cross writes in The Living Flame of Love:

“How gently and lovingly

You wake in my heart,

Where in secret you dwell along;

And in your sweet breathing,

Filled with good and glory,

How tenderly you swell my heart with love.”31

But the familiarity of this prayer can lead in another direction when we are reminded of what many mystics over the centuries, of what many of us have experienced: a certain dryness in our prayer life. St. John of the Cross, who so poignantly described his heart swelling with love, began his Spiritual Canticle in a very different mood:

“Where have you hidden,

Beloved, and left me moaning?

You fled like the stag

after wounding me;

I went out calling you, but you were gone.”32

We can imagine a dialogue between David and Isaiah. The Psalmist tells Isaiah that his enemies asked him, “Where is your God?”33 The Prophet puts their question into context when he explains that, to Israel’s enemies, God is “truly . . . a hidden God.”34 Still, the Psalmist in his pain pleads to God, “Why hide your face from me?”35 The Lord Himself answers in Isaiah, “I have not spoken from hiding . . . I have not said, ‘Look for me in an empty waste’ . . . turn to me and be safe.”36

Writing to a woman about dryness of prayer, Ronald Knox offered this consolation: “It is only by his [God’s] mercy, I think, that religious practices ever become easy for us, now and again, for a few months at a time. We must expect always to have to set our teeth.”37 Knox said of his own prayer life, “In the great bulk of my prayers, vocal and mental, all my life, I have not felt as if I was talking to God in His presence, but rather apostrophising Him in His absence.”38 In The Priestly Life he advised, “Go through the motions of praying, if that is all you can do, and when you have finished, offer it up to God in a spirit of great humility.”39 When he was a student, St. John Henry Newman wrote to Reverend Walter Mayers, one of his early mentors, that “did not ‘feel’ his prayers as he ought, and in spite of ‘all the earnestness I assume, how little does my heart go with my words’.”40

Flannery O’Connor seems to have had similar experiences. She wrote, “The only force I believe in is prayer, and it is a force I apply with more doggedness than attention.”41 She said of herself that “I am not a good prayer. I don’t have a gift for it.”42 This was not a source of discouragement for her, though, because she wrote, “My prayers are unfeeling but habitual, not to say dogged, and I do include you in them.”43 Her letters, with so many mentions of prayer, confirm its importance in her life.

St. Teresa of Calcutta encountered dryness, both in those who sought her consolation and in her own life. Her interpretation is important:

“. . . it [is] simply the dark night of which all masters of spiritual life know . . . There is no human remedy against it. It can be borne only in the assurance of God’s hidden presence and of the union of Jesus who in His passion had to bear the burden and darkness of the sinful world for our salvation . . . No one can long for God unless God is present in his/her heart. Thus the only response to this trial is the total surrender to God and the acceptance of the darkness in union with Jesus.”44

To pray is to spend time with God. It is a blessing when that experience is what Lucy Morris shared with Frank Greystock, her beloved, in Anthony Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds:

“. . . she was allowed to escape into the grounds with her lover, and was made happy with half-an-hour of unalloyed bliss . . . to be alone with the man to whom she is engaged is the woman’s [delight] . . . She can tell him everything, and be told everything . . . He seemed to her all that her heart desired.”45

Ron Hansen’s Mariette received this blessing in an ecstatic description of her prayer experience:

“In prayer I float out of myself . . . [A] sweet power is drawing me . . . then I know that I have been possessed by Jesus and have completely lost myself in him. Oh, what blissful abandonment it is! Everything in my being tells me to stay there . . . I have no use for speech except to praise him. I have no desires except to be held there by him forever.”46

*                      *                      *

Many have pointed out that although it may be an individual person — say, me — who prays Our Lord’s Prayer, the prayer itself is “in the plural” — from its title to its closing petition. And so when I pray this prayer, I pray it “for us” — for the community of believers and nonbelievers. St. John of the Cross wrote that in this prayer, Jesus taught His disciples “only those seven petitions . . . which include all our spiritual and temporal needs.”47 All of them, mine and yours. This prayer which our Lord taught us is, at its core, in its very fabric, an intercessory prayer. And because it is Our Lord’s own prayer, it is our duty to raise our voices to Heaven with our needs and our neighbors’ needs held high, our souls in the balance.

Oremus pro invicem.

 

Numquam Minus Solum Quam Cum Solus

(“Never less lonely than when alone”)

Cicero, De Officiis, Book 3, line 1

 

There’s a loneliness in this fallen world,

Long and deep, bitter-sad and unrelieved.

It oppresses each dimly-lit morning

When dawn’s hopeful new promise is deceived,

And a flag of surrender is unfurled.

 

For that promise, now empty, is replaced

With despair. It grows from darkening fear,

. . . It rises up from anxious forewarning.

Oh, all my dreams, tight-held so close and dear,

Are broken, shattered . . . all my hopes erased.

 

It does not matter . . . nor the reasons why.

It’s just a sadness I cannot express,

Because now I find myself in mourning,

Filled — no! — overwhelmed with empty sadness:

For things I thought were true are now a lie.

 

 “My world taken, a weaver’s thread cut short,

All I had, folded like a shepherd’s tent.

I do not know, nor can I pay, the cost.

Before me lay the claim, but all is spent.

Nowhere, from no one, can I find support.

 

This is not true but little do I care.

Those around me, though, they have other plans.

Through day and through night, nothing will exhaust

Their petitions offered with outstretched hands:

All are united in one fervent prayer.

 

Hearts and souls joined in humble litany:

Pater Noster” and “To you do we sigh.

Spoken words, murmured pleas: a holocaust

Sent heavenward to God Who hears their cry

Of faith in the most Divine Trinity.

 

Then I remember it, the shortest prayer:

I do believe, Lord, help my unbelief.”

Now, thank God, I know that all is not lost.

I am like the one on the right, the thief

Who asked our Lord to remember him there.

 

And so I begin again, alone now,

But never lonely: for Your love sustains

Long days and longer nights, redeemed and crossed

With Your own promise: it ever remains

Your claim on me: a Holy, Sacred Vow.

  1. St. Luke 11:1.
  2. Georges Bernanos, The Diary of a Country Priest (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1937), pp. 104–105.
  3. Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, Cosette, Book 7, Chapter 5 (New York: The Modern Library, 1992), p. 449.
  4. Bernanos, Diary of a Country Priest, p. 268.
  5. Ronald Knox, quoted in Evelyn Waugh, Ronald Knox (London: Chapman and Hall, 1959), p. 259.
  6. St. Augustine, The Confessions, Book 1, paragr. 1.
  7. Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdatter, The Cross, Chapter 4 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1929
  8. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Secunda Secundae Partis, Question 83, Article 7.
  9. Genesis 18:16–33.
  10. Numbers 11:1–2.
  11. Colossians 1:9.
  12. 2 Corinthians 1:11.
  13. James 5:16.
  14. Zechariah 1:12–13.
  15. Revelation 8:3.
  16. Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Purgatorio, Canto 5, trans. Anthony Esolen (New York: The Modern Library, 2003), lines 100–107.
  17. Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited, pp. 338-339. Little, Brown and Co., Boston, 1945.
  18. Hugo, Les Misérables, p. 1120.
  19. Hugo, Les Misérables, p. 1123.
  20. “The Ascent of Mount Carmel,” in The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, trans. Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez (Washington, D.C.: ICS Publ., 1991), pp. 346–347.
  21. Kavanaugh and Rodriguez, The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, 347.
  22. Bernanos, Diary of a Country Priest, 103.
  23. Willa Cather, My Antonia (New York: The Library of America, NY, 1987), 770.
  24. Bernanos, Diary of a Country Priest, 103.
  25. George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons, Second Series, “The Way,” p. 6. Christian Classics Ethereal Library. ccel.org/ccel/m/macdonald/unspoken2/cache/unspoken2.pdf.
  26. George MacDonald, The Father’s Appeal, preached in Westminster Chapel. www.georgemacdonaldquotes.com/hard-to-satisfy/.
  27. Samuel Johnson, The Rambler, No. 2, 24 March 1750. Printed by D. Buchanan, sold by him, and by W. Creech, P. Hill, J. Fairbairn, and A. Constable, Edinburgh: by Ja. A Duncan, Glasgow, MDCCC, Vol. 1, 347 pp., Montrose.
  28. Luke 6:12.
  29. Pater Edmund Waldstein, “A Deeper Longing,” October 21, 2020, The Point. sancrucensis.wordpress.com/2013/12/18/jane-austen-on-prayer-with-sensible-consolations/.
  30. Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility (Cirencester: CRW Publishing Ltd., 2003), pp. 432–433.
  31. Kavanaugh and Rodriguez, The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, “The Living Flame of Love,” stanza 4, p. 640.
  32. Kavanaugh and Rodriguez, The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, “The Spiritual Canticle,” stanza 1, p. 471.
  33. Psalm 42:11.
  34. Isaiah 45:15.
  35. Psalm 88:15.
  36. Isaiah 45:19–22.
  37.  Waugh, Ronald Knox, p. 169.
  38. Waugh, Ronald Knox, p. 260.
  39. Msgr. Ronald Knox, The Priestly Life (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1958), p. 134.
  40. Ian Ker, John Henry Newman, A Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), pp. 12–13.
  41. Sally Fitzgerald, ed., Letters of Flannery O’Connor: The Habit of Being (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979), p. 100.
  42. Fitzgerald, Letters of Flannery O’Connor, p. 572.
  43. Fitzgerald, Letters of Flannery O’Connor, p. 220.
  44. Brian Kolodiejchuk, M.C., ed., Mother Teresa: Come be My Light, The Private Writings of the “Saint of Calcutta” (New York: DoubleDay, 2003), p. 214.
  45. Anthony Trollope, The Eustace Diamonds, Volume I (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1973), pp. 168–168.
  46. Ron Hansen, Mariette in Ecstasy (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), p. 128.
  47. Kavanaugh and Rodriguez, The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross, “The Ascent of Mount Carmel,” p. 347.
David B. Wester About David B. Wester

David B. Wester is the Frances and Peter Swenson Endowed Chair in Rangeland and Restoration Research and is a professor and research scientist at the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute and the Department of Rangeland and Wildlife Sciences at Texas A&M University – Kingsville in Kingsville, Texas. His essays and poems have appeared in The Catholic Leader, The Catholic Poetry Room, Crisis Magazine, First Things, Homiletic & Pastoral Review, and The Imaginative Conservative.

Comments

  1. Avatar Francis Etheredge says:

    Thank you for your thoughts on prayer and your way of praying them in the poem!

    I remember being away from my wife and family for nearly two weeks and, as time went on, the longing to return became almost unbearable and became even worse owing to a variety of delays. This, in its way, expresses some of the impossible necessity of prayer! One thought, then, that comes to mind persistently is that of C.S. Lewis, in Shadowlands, when asked why he prayed during the time of his wife’s illness and death, and he answered that he couldn’t help himself – that it poured out of him.

    There is, then, the almost gasping nature of prayer, like a fish out of water that must get back into it or suffocate; and, in its way, this expresses something of the almost urgent, almost desperate nature of prayer, when no one else seems to know or understand what we are going through or the situation we are praying about, whether it is for ourselves, our family, those we know or what is going on in the world.

    Even as I think about now, I don’t know if I have been able to express this adequately in the books that have started to turn to this theme: “The Prayerful Kiss”, “Honest Rust and Gold” and now the forthcoming “Within Reach of You: A Book of Prose and Prayers”.

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