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Perseverance in Prayer & Vocal Prayer

  • FATHER EDWARD LEEN, C.S.SP.

All our dealings with God must have a background of pleading in them; a note of entreaty must run through the varied movements of the soul towards its God.

"My heart hath said to Thee, I have sought Thy face.
 Thy face, O Lord I will seek."
Ps. xxvi. 7.

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Without prayer salvation is impossible.  To neglect it is to neglect the only means given us to remain in touch with Almighty God; if we lose hold of Him we necessarily fall back upon ourselves, and in ourselves we can find nothing that can advance us towards eternal life.  Everything that appertains to that must come to us from God.  Every gift in the supernatural order is an effect of His bounty, "for every best gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights."[1]  God has ordained that these gifts be given to us on condition of our valuing them, desiring them and petitioning Him humbly for them.  He says to us:  "Ask and you shall receive." This implies — "if you do not ask you shall not receive." We do not beg except for what we prize highly and are desirous of possessing.  There is no true prayer where there is not a real longing for the things pertaining to the development of the spiritual life.  All that tends to impart, to strengthen, to develop and perfect that life, are the gifts which God is prepared to give the soul, if the soul nourishes in itself a holy desire for them, acknowledges its need of them, and confesses its dependence on God for them.

The most necessary resolution for one that wishes to draw near to God and to grow in intimacy with Him, the resolution that embraces and involves all the others, is that of persevering in prayer in spite of all the difficulties and trials to be met with in it.[2]  For though it is true that prayer is supernatural, "for no man can say the Lord Jesus, but by the Holy Ghost,"[3]  still the habit of prayer is fixed and strengthened and developed in much the same way as natural habits are formed and developed in us.  It depends, therefore, for its firmness and force on our own diligence, knowledge and industry, aided of course as is always to be understood, by the grace of God.

It is an entirely mistaken notion to think that the gift of prayer is something which in no wise depends upon us, but is altogether God-given.  Prayer, it is to be emphatically stated, does not 'happen' to us; we do not 'contract' spirituality as people contract a disease — by accident.  Such a view fosters spiritual sloth, by which the soul excuses itself for not entering into relations with God on the grounds that it feels no taste of inclination towards such intercourse and waits until God imparts this devotional taste before beginning.

Again it is certain that the power to pray is a grace; but this grace is infallibly given if we on our side fulfill the conditions required of us.  Our cooperation is necessary.  We must not wait until influenced by pious sentiments or emotions, or driven by necessity to address ourselves to God.  These pious feelings are not of the essence of prayer.  We must be so trained in the exercise of the divine converse, that we can approach God with as much constancy when we feel a positive distaste for the supernatural as when carried away by an access of sensible devotion.  We must learn to speak to God independently of our tastes and feelings.  The difficulty in prayer is not in prayer itself.  It all comes from our want of decision in electing definitely to find our unique satisfaction of mind, will and imagination in the supernatural and in definitely renouncing the tendency to seek in the natural world any form of satisfaction that does not lead to God.  If we are strong enough and resolute enough to choose God as the term not of some, but of all our activity, if we are resolute enough not to be continually oscillating between Him and creatures, prayer is easy.  As regards petition, there is no difficulty in asking for what we like.[4]  The whole world is daily occupied in that.  Most deputations are concerned with it.  It is the characteristic action of childhood.  But there is a real difficulty in liking what we, as children of God, should ask for.  Naturally we have no taste for the things of the spiritual life.  It is intelligible that we should be very half-hearted in our petitions for what we do not strongly desire.  We are not prone to be very insistent in our demands for what we are not very eager to have.  Of course, Christians as a rule are not conscious of this distaste for the supernatural.  They sincerely believe that they are quite earnestly beseeching God for the things of eternal life.  There is a certain amount of unconscious self- deception in this matter.  The petition for the things of eternal life is accompanied very often, in fact most frequently, by a keen desire of, and longing for things that are an impediment to that life.  One desire, of necessity, negatives, at least partially, the other and renders it to some extent illusory.  If what is actually longed for is in contradiction with the life of grace or opposed to its development, the prayer for the things of the spirit is but an idle formula, a complete self-delusion.  The cherishing in the soul of desires incompatible with the longing for God, is the secret of the vast number of failures in the spiritual life.[5]  Of the many that embark on the interior life, few, comparatively, succeed.  The reason lies in this, that they have never resolutely chosen God to the rejection of all else beside, or that having once made the choice, they afterwards allow themselves to develop likings that impede or conflict with the growth of God's life in the soul.  They allow themselves to drift into choosing other things as well as God.  This inevitably tends to not choosing God at all.  Many will plead that they find the spiritual life a difficulty, because they find prayer a difficulty.  The truth is that men begin to find prayer a difficulty when they have begun to find God a difficulty.  This comes when God has ceased to interest them because other things have begun to interest them more.[6]  The essential condition of success in the spiritual life is to train oneself "to want" God and to school oneself "not to want" what does not lead to Him.  Hence it is that St. Catherine of Siena in her Dialogue, stresses so much the necessity of stirring up and nourishing in the soul this holy desire.[7]

Endnotes:

  1. St. James I. 17.
  2. Cf.  Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena. God the Father speaking to the Saint says:  " Know, my daughter, that it is by persevering in prayer that is humble, incessant and full of faith, that all the virtues are acquired by the soul It ought, then, to persevere and never to allow itself to be forced to give up, either by the illusions of the devil or by its own frailty, that is, by the thoughts that harass it, nor by the restlessness of the body, nor by the talk that the devil puts in the mouths of men, to turn the soul from prayer."
  3. I Cor. xiii. 3. cf. Ss. Theol.  II. II. Q. 83. a. 13 c.
  4. Prayer of Petition is prayer in the most restricted and precise sense.  St. Thomas referring to petition says:  "Prayer is a certain manifestation of the human will," and again:  "Prayer is a certain unfolding of our will to God that He may fulfill it." III. Q. 21. a. 1.
  5. St. John of the Cross develops the importance of mortifying our desires in the Ascent, Book I.
  6. Cf. Ss. Th. II. II. Q. 35. a. I and 2, which articles treat of this state of soul.
  7. Dialogue Vol. I, chap. 36.

Chapter III:  Vocal Prayer

"All ye works of the Lord, bless the Lord." Dan.  iii. 57.

There are two distinct ways in which the soul presents itself before its Creator; that is, there are two distinct types of prayer, namely, vocal and mental.  Now, though a mental attention either to the meaning of what we are saying, or to the Person we are addressing, is required, in order that the formulae we utter with our lips merit the name of prayer, there is, nevertheless, a fundamental difference in the nature and the purpose and the effects of these two modes of communicating with God.

The word prayer is derived from the most characteristic act of this exercise, that is, petition.  All our dealings with God must have a background of pleading in them; a note of entreaty must run through the varied movements of the soul towards its God.  There is always one ultimate object which is aimed at in the converse of men with God, and to this object all others must be subordinated; that is, that God communicate Himself to His creatures in this life as a preparation for union in the next.  We are indigent before God; we need everything and He alone can give us what we want.  If we had not fallen, our utterances would mainly consist of words of praise and adoration and worship.  And though now, as has been said, there is an element of petition always present in our intercourse with God, yet praise, adoration and thanksgiving; are still the most characteristic functions of prayer when it is vocal.  For this reason it has to be more formal than mental prayer.  In the latter the operation is more personal and intimate.  In the former, God is the direct object of our acts.  In mental prayer we can have our own soul and its states as the object on which will or understanding is exercised.  Though people pray vocally in private, yet it is characteristic of, and usual for vocal prayer to be recited in common.  Vocal prayer is always to a certain degree a public act, and as such is something that is done to honor and reverence God.  Of course prayers in common are often recited, as in times of calamity, to express repentance, to plead for mercy, to placate God's justice or to obtain His blessings.  But the distinctive function of vocal prayer remains that of honoring, reverencing and worshipping God.

The most sublime form of vocal prayer is the Divine Office.  This is formed of language inspired for the most part by the Holy Ghost Himself to give expression to the thoughts that should animate all created supernaturalised intelligences in the presence of the great Lord of all.  The ideas contained in the Psalms and the words in which they are clothed are such as man, were he a perfect child of God, would use to give expression to his admiration, love, reverence and esteem for his heavenly Father.  The holy Pope Pius X, quoting Saint Augustine, writes:  "That God might be praised in a fitting manner by man, God Himself composed the praises of Himself.  And because God deigned to praise Himself, man found the terms in which to sound God's praises."[1]  The Psalms are, therefore, a divine composition which God's servants are to repeat in His presence to honor Him.  In doing this they stand in a relation to God similar to that of the beatified who ever stand before His throne honoring Him by heavenly canticles.  God desires that we should deal with Him much in the same manner as that in which we deal with one another.  It is our custom at school, for instance, when we wish to honor a distinguished guest, to have passages from some famous author declaimed, or musical pieces from a great composer performed in the presence of him whom we wish to honor.  In a somewhat similar manner the Holy Ghost has inspired for us the praises which we are to recite or chant before God to honor Him.

To acquit ourselves perfectly of vocal prayer, it is necessary to raise to God our mind by attention, our heart by devotion, and our will by submission.

The nature of public vocal prayer demands that we acquit ourselves of it with great reverence and respect; our every gesture, tone and attitude must be made to signify the honor we wish to pay to the Great Being in whose presence we are.  For the merit and perfection of our act it is not demanded that we should necessarily advert to the meaning of the words we use; if the whole action is directed towards God, if we realize that the formulae we use are in themselves eminently pleasing to Him, and if from the beginning we form the intention of acquitting ourselves well of the duty we are undertaking, the whole function is meritorious and pleasing to God whom we honor.[2]  Any subsequent distraction or want of attention, as long as it is indeliberate, does not destroy the initial intention.  This intention extends its influence over the whole multitude of acts which constitute the service.

The monastic choir is as a stage arranged before the King of heaven a stage on which those who recite the Divine Office should endeavor to execute with great expression and feeling, attention and perfection, those chants in honor of God, composed by the Divine Spirit.  Those who recite the Divine Office should remember their role in the divine drama.  It is that of the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, the Church, w hose inmost thoughts and feelings, whose mystical life, whose states of soul and whose love and devotion to God the Father, the divine hymns express in terms of wonderful variety and perfection.  The Divine Office differs from all other vocal prayers.  It is the official utterance of the Spouse of Christ, whose accents exercise an unparalleled influence over the heart of God.  "The Church by her faith, her confidence, her love and her union with Jesus, annihilates the distance that separates her from God and chants His praise like the Word in the Bosom of the Trinity.  She, united with Christ, sings the very praises of God under the eyes of God."[3]

What has been said of the Divine Office is true in its degree and measure of all vocal prayer.  In every case there is a recital of a formula, composed nearly always by a person different from him who prays.  It does not necessarily express the disposition of soul of the person employing the formula; if it be an approved prayer, it voices sentiments, thoughts and emotions which are in themselves pleasing to God.  Of course the more perfectly one identifies oneself with the thoughts expressed in these recited formulae, the higher the value of the prayer.  But it is clear from what has been said that in the form of address one stands on a more formal and distant relationship with Almighty God, than in the case of mental prayer.[4]

The effect of vocal prayer upon the soul varies with the stage of development the soul has reached in the spiritual life.  For those who do not lead an interior life, the role of such prayer is restricted to exciting a sense of the supernatural and a sense of the duty of raising the mind to God; for those advanced in the spiritual life, the liturgical prayers are of a sovereign efficacy for bringing their souls into union with the intellectual illuminations and affective impulses of the Holy Spirit.  The prayers and chants of Holy Church become for such souls the natural and spontaneous outlet in which the pent up emotions of the heart acquired in mental prayer find due expression.[5]

To acquit ourselves perfectly of vocal prayer, it is necessary to raise to God our mind by attention, our heart by devotion, and our will by submission.  These dispositions deliberately stirred up in the soul at the beginning will color the whole exercise, in spite of distractions.  Actual attention all the time is not vital.  Our prayer is meritorious and obtains its effect provided we begin with an attention that is not afterwards retracted by any voluntary distraction.  Of course actual attention the whole way through is to be aimed at, for ii gives additional force and efficacy to our words.[6]  We should make it a point to begin well, by deliberately putting ourselves in the presence of God, and by withdrawing our powers from outward things, recollecting them in ourselves and fixing them on God.  If distractions come, we must aim at having all our distractions turn on Divine things; this we can do by learning to view all things in God's light.  The power to do so is the direct effect of the cultivation of the habit of mental prayer.

Endnotes:

  1. "Divine Afflatu."
  2. God the Father speaking to St. Catherine of Siena says:  — "The soul must not separate vocal from mental prayer; while it pronounces the words, let it strive to lift up its thoughts and direct them towards my love:  to this let it unite the consideration, in general, of its faults and of the precious Blood of my Son, in which she may recognize the bountifulness of my charity and the remission of its sins. - Dialogue:  Vol.  I, chap. 36.
  3. Cf.  Marmion. Christ the Ideal of the Monk. chap. xiii, Part iii, p. 299.  The public prayer of the Church is in very truth the prayer of Christ. Sharing as we do in His life, forming but one body in Him, we become His instruments, by which He can praise God.  If we place ourselves wholly at His disposal, it is He who prays in us, with us, by us.  Thus we become one in a very full sense with the eternal Praise and glory of His Father.
  4. A recollected bearing, a reverential attitude and a becoming posture are demanded for the due acquittal of vocal prayer.  When vocal prayers are recited in common, the exercise should be marked by something of the decorum and dignity that surrounds the choral recitation of the Divine Office.  Such an exercise should always be begun with the express intention that God should receive thereby a due measure of honor and worship.
  5. The soul is turned into the fire of love and therefore every word is like a spark rising from a fire inflaming and enlightening the powers of the soul, that she listeth ever to pray and do nothing else.  And the body, is an instrument, and a trumpet of the soul in which the soul bloweth sweet notes of spiritual prayers to God.  Hilton.  Scale of Perfection. c. 12.
  6. The words of St. Thomas, marked as usual by clarity as well as wisdom are to be quoted in this connection.  "Now prayer has three effects.  The first is common to all acts informed by Charity, and this is merit.  In order to realize this effect, it is not necessary that prayer should be attentive throughout, because the vigor of the original intention with which one begins to pray makes the whole prayer meritorious, as is the case with other meritorious acts.  The second effect of prayer is proper to it alone, and consists in impetration:  and again the original intention, to which God looks chiefly, suffices to obtain this effect.  But if the original intention is absent, prayer lacks both merit and impetration:  because as Gregory says ("Moral" xxii.) "God hears not the prayer of those who have no intention of praying." The third effect of prayer is one which it produces immediately; this is the spiritual refreshment of the mind and for this effect attention is a necessary condition:  wherefore St. Paul writes:  (I Cor. xiv. 14):  'If I pray in a tongue . . . my understanding is without fruit.'

    "It must be noted however that there are three kinds of attention that can be brought to vocal prayer:  one which watches the words, lest we say them wrong, another which attends to the sense of the words, and a third which aims at the end of prayer, namely, God and to the thing we are praying for.  This last kind of attention is most necessary and even the untutored are capable of it." (IIa.  IIae. Q. 83. 2. 13.)

Progress Through Mental Prayer
by Edward Leen, C.S.Sp.

Part I
The Nature of Prayer

                  Introduction
Chapter 1 - The Aim of Mental Prayer
Chapter 2 - Perseverance in Prayer
Chapter 3 - Vocal Prayer
Chapter 4 - The Ordinary Process of Mental Prayer
Chapter 5 - The Transforming Effect of Mental Prayer
Chapter 6 - The First Stage in the Transformation
Chapter 7 - The Second Stage in the Transformation
Chapter 8 - The Third Stage in the Transformation
Chapter 9 - Mount Thabor

Part II
Method in Mental Prayer Considered
in its Fundamental Principles

Chapter 10 - The Vision of Faith Purified by Mental Prayer
Chapter 11 - The Preliminary Acts in Mental Prayer
Chapter 12 - The Body of Mental Prayer
Chapter 13 - Progress in Mental Prayer: Its Effect on Method

Part III
Elements that make for
Progress in Mental Prayer

Chapter 14 - Dispositions Requisite for Mental Prayer
Chapter 15 - Spiritual Reading
Chapter 16 - Mortification: A Condition of Life
Chapter 17 - Silence: A Means to Recollection


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Acknowledgement

Father Edward Leen, C.S.SP. "Perseverance in Prayer" & "Vocal Prayer." chapter 2 & 3 from Progress Through Mental Prayer (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1937) 34-45.

Progress Through Mental Prayer is in the public domain.

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The Author

Father Edward Leen, C.S.SP. was born in Ireland in 1885 and entered the Holy Ghost Fathers being ordained in 1914. He was president of Blackrock College in Ireland from 1925 to 1931 and then became professor of philosophy at Kimmage Manor, Dublin. During this time he gave many retreats and conferences, especially to religious communities and he became widely known as a master of spiritual matters. His conference and lecture notes became the basis for his many books on prayer and the spiritual life. He visited the United States once in 1939. He died in 1944 in Dublin. He is the author of Progress Through Mental Prayer, The Holy Spirit, Why the Cross?, In the Likeness of Christ, The Voice of a Priest, and In the Likeness of Christ.

Copyright © Father Edward Leen, C.S.SP.
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