Menu
A+ A A-

The Nature of Prayer

  • FATHER EDWARD LEEN, C.S.SP.

The science of prayer is the science of the intercourse of man with God. Prayer itself is the unfolding of our mind before the most High and in His presence.

"My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your
ways my ways, saith the Lord."
(Isaias iv. 8).

Leenptmp2.jpg

The science of prayer is the science of the intercourse of man with God.  Prayer itself is the unfolding of our mind before the most High and in His presence.  It begins by a desire on the part of the soul to put itself in the presence of its Creator; in its development it tends to become an interchange of thought and affection between the soul and God.  This unfolding of our mind before the Almighty is not an idle and egoistic self- analysis.  It is the exposition of one's sentiments, needs and aspirations.  It is prompted by a desire that God should supply the soul's needs:  it is sustained by the firm confidence that God is disposed to give the soul all that the soul is created to obtain from God the Author of its being.

The ultimate end of the relationship established between the soul and God in prayer, is, that the soul should, by His help, abandon its own natural earthly way of thinking and willing, and enter into God's views and affections, judge things as God judges them, and therefore conform its thought and desires to the thoughts and desires of God.  This conformity of thought and affection between God and the soul, is effected by the soul's conformity in thoughts and affections with Jesus Christ, the God-Man.  There is a significance in the injunction of St. Paul:  "For let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus."[1]  The final end of prayer, considered as a potent means for the development of God's life in the soul, is to emancipate us from natural habits or thought and affection and elevate us to a supernatural manner of thinking and willing, to change our natural outlook on life and things and to make it supernatural.  The function of prayer therefore (and especially of mental prayer)[2]  is to transform our minds and through the transformation of our minds to effect a change in our dispositions and in our hearts.  This mental conversion is not as simple as it is usually taken to be; normally it does not take place in a day or in a year; it involves a process which demands a long time for its completion.

It is not generally realized to what an extent our modes of thought — even when we are leading christian lives — are alien to the modes of thought of God.  To think "christianly" is not an easy matter.  God warns us of this through the Prophet Isaias:  " For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways my ways, saith the Lord.  For as the heavens are exalted above the earth, so are my ways exalted above your ways, and my thoughts above your thoughts."[3]  Prayer aims at bridging over this infinite gulf; it aims at enabling us to enter into the mind of God and from that point of vantage to contemplate all created things and the mysteries of Faith.  To arrive at this view of reality, it is necessary that it be not the spirit of human wisdom or prudence that should shed light upon the objects of our thought, or should reveal what are to be the worthy objects of affection.  It is needful that the light of merely human understanding be replaced by the illumination of the Spirit of God.  For "the things also that are of God no man knoweth, but the spirit of God.  Now we have received not the spirit of this world, but the spirit that is of God:  that we may know the things that are given us from God. . . But the sensual man perceiveth not these things that are of the spirit of God; for it is foolishness to him, and he cannot understand because it is spiritually examined.  But the spiritual man judgeth all things. . . . For who hath known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct him?  But we have the mind of Christ."[4]  To the extent that we remain insensible to the promptings of the Spirit of God within us, to the degree in which we have failed to come under the influence of the Divine communication by God of Himself to us, to that extent we are what the apostle calls "sensual." At the beginning of our "conversion" we are almost entirely "sensual" in our ways of judging and understanding; we are unable to probe the inner meaning and penetrate to the spirit of the mysteries of our faith.  We hold them as true; our knowledge is a knowledge of "possession" and not of "use." These mysteries remain, in a sense, external to us.  We know that they are true.  Their outward features — that is, the formulae in which they are expressed — are familiar to us, but we have little apprehension of their inner meaning; hence they exercise little or no power on the affections of our heart or on the direction of our lives.  For us the vital meanings pent up like life-giving waters within these formulae, and containing in themselves the power to transform and transfigure our human life, have not broken loose and flooded our souls with their refreshing streams.  The habit of prayer, and that alone, can correct all this, for it makes us cease to judge sensually and enables us to acquire the art of judging all things spiritually.[5]

The concluding words of St. Paul in the text cited above, namely, "we have the mind of Christ," perfectly express the result aimed at by the process of mental prayer.  In all the varied forms which our intercourse with God necessarily assumes, the desire to acquire this mentality, the mentality of Jesus Christ, must act as a guiding and unifying principle.

We cannot flatter ourselves to have made any considerable progress in prayer until we have advanced in learning to think with God — understanding Him and His ways.  We cannot be properly intimate with Him until this has taken place.  The reason is obvious for one who studies ordinary human relationships.  How constrained and artificial and labored are our conversations with those with whom we have little in common! How difficult it is to find satisfaction in the company of those who are completely out of sympathy with our attitude towards life! How often it is the lot of Catholics to meet with non-catholics — who are equipped with the ordinary human virtues, men who are fair minded, upright and trustworthy but who have no clear perception or understanding of the supernatural.  A sincere Catholic, no matter how kindly disposed, will inevitably find intimacy with such persons extremely difficult if not impossible.  No matter what apparent agreement there may be in many minor points there is really little or no common ground of understanding.  This difficulty is intensified infinitely in our relations with God.  Prayer is an intercourse or communing of the soul with God according to the words of St. Paul:  — "Our conversation is in heaven; from whence we look for the Savior, our Lord Jesus Christ, who will reform the body of our lowness, made like to the body of His glory, according to the operation whereby he is able to subdue all things unto himself."[6]  "In my opinion," says St. Teresa, "prayer is only a friendly intercourse in which the soul converses alone with Him by Whom she knows she is loved."[7]

Now this personal intercourse cannot exist, or can exist but very imperfectly unless there is some common ground of understanding — some identity of thought and interests.  For it must be remembered that, according to St. Thomas, prayer is an art of the reason, that is to say, it must have a basis in the intelligence.  Growth in prayer is merely a growth in familiarity with God."

In all prayer there are two agents to be considered.  There can be no converse with God unless the soul wants it and actually enters on it, and the soul cannot desire to pray or actually engage in prayer unless God is at hand.  God is the principal agent, prompting the first desire of the soul for intercourse with Him; His Holy Spirit influences the intellect, awakens pious thoughts in the memory, arouses the imagination to develop and preserve these thoughts, draws the reason to examine religious truths and excites holy desires conformable to the thoughts He has inspired.  Desiring more intensely to communicate Himself to the soul, than it could desire union with Him, He directs every effort it makes in its intercourse with Him.  God's action does not exclude that of the soul.  Diligent cooperation on its part is vitally necessary; the soul must petition God for the grace of prayer, and at the same time spare no pains to conform its thoughts and ways to those of God.

The ascension of the soul then, is, through prayer to the acquisition of the spirit of sacrifice, and thence to union with God especially through the Holy Communion.

A very touching and intensely human incident in the Gospel illustrates all this, and carries us rapidly through the various stages of the intercourse of the soul with God, from its initial want of comprehension to the final illumination by which its ignorance of the divine is swept away.  As the evening of the first Easter day was drawing to its close, two of the followers of Jesus of Nazareth left Jerusalem and directed their steps towards a small town about eight miles distant, called Emmaus.  As was natural, their thoughts revolved around the tragic happenings of the previous days.  Seeing nothing in these sad events but the frustration of all their hopes and the end of their ambitious dreams, they were plunged in gloom.  Their state of mind is well portrayed in their own words:  "but we hoped that it was He that should have redeemed Israel:  and now besides all this, today is the third day since the settings were done."[9]  Yet being unable to tear their thoughts away from what they had witnessed, they could speak of nothing else.

As they walked and talked, a stranger drew near, and being anxious to interchange their thoughts with another, they were glad when he came to share their company.  "And it came to pass that while they talked and reasoned with themselves, Jesus Himself also, drawing near, went with them."[10]  The disciples being asked by their new companion what it was that was the subject of their conversation, expressed surprise at any one being ignorant of the terrible scenes which Jerusalem had just witnessed.  "And he said to them:  what are these discourses that you hold one with another as you walk and are sad?  And one of them, whose name was Cleophas, answering, said to him:  art thou only a stranger in Jerusalem, and hast not known the things that have been done there in these days?"[11]  The stranger asked them to explain what they referred to, and straight away both proceeded to sketch the life of Him Whose followers they had been.  He was a great prophet, mighty in word and work; they had expected great things of Him, for on His remarkable power they had based their hopes of the restoration and the freedom of Israel.  And now all had ended in disillusionment and tragedy.  The mighty worker of wonders was seized without difficulty by the priests and princes, and put to death without opposition.  All was over.  "And they said:  concerning Jesus of Nazareth who was a prophet, mighty in word and work before God and all the people; and how our chief priests and princes delivered Him to be condemned to death and crucified Him:  but we hoped that it was He that should have redeemed Israel."[12]  It was true that some women asserted that He had arisen again from the dead, but that was a tale that had its origin in the overwrought imaginations of women, distracted by the cruel sufferings and death of the Jesus whom they loved.  "Yea, and certain women also of our company affrighted us, who before it was light were at the sepulcher, and not finding His Body, came saying that they had also seen a vision of angels, who say that he is alive."[13]

This story of the resurrection the disciples were not prepared to admit.  It conflicted with their sense of what should be the normal development of the events of the three years that had just ended.  Evasion of death they expected, but a death and resurrection did not fit into their habits of thought.  Regarding Jesus, His life, His work and His life's purpose from a viewpoint that was to a large extent natural, and interpreting it from that viewpoint, they completely misjudged the life and misunderstood the Man.  Their appreciation of the events of the last days of Holy Week, showed that they had never properly understood Him Whom they called their Lord and Master.

The stranger after having allowed them to express themselves fully on the subject that filled their thoughts, and having listened to them in silence to the end, began to speak in his turn.  "Then He said to them:  O foolish and slow of heart to believe in all things which the prophets have spoken.  Ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and so to enter into His glory?"[14]  Taking their minds back over the Scriptures, He set before them contemplation after contemplation on the life, the character, the disposition and the sufferings of the Messias.  As feature after feature was drawn for them, from the words of Moses and the Prophets, especially the great Isaias, they began to see, in the career of Him Whom they had followed, the fulfillment of each detail of the prophecies.  At the same time they began to understand Jesus of Nazareth and grasp the inner meaning, the lesson, the purpose, of His life on earth.  It became clear to them that His was not a life of purely human limitations.  The Divine element in it began to show through for them.  "And beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, he expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things that were concerning him."[15]

At length it began to dawn upon them that the Redemption they looked for was to be sought not without but within — not in the emancipation of their persons from a political yoke, but in a subjection of their souls to the deifying influence of the Redeemer.  As the true portrait of the Messias developed for them under the skillful hand of the Master Himself, their minds grew in understanding of, and their hearts began to glow with love of Him Whom they had so misunderstood.  "Was not our heart," they said afterwards to one another, "burning within us, whistle spoke in the way and opened to us the Scriptures?"[16]


This walk and conversation with Jesus was mental prayer in its ordinary form.  As will be seen further on, it sets before us vividly, if only in outline, the ordinary process through which the soul passes, as it grows in knowledge of Jesus.  In considering this Scriptural illustration we should note that:  (a) Jesus Himself drew near and went with them; (b) He led them to expose their thoughts and sentiments; (c) He was ingenious in facilitating intercourse and intimacy — He took the initiative.  In a word, He was the quiet, powerful Master of the whole situation just as He is in prayer, if only the soul responds to His advances.

In the beginning the soul, attracted to Jesus by some impulse of grace, comes to Him, filled with natural thoughts and aspirations, and very ignorant of the supernatural.  It understands neither God nor itself.  It has few intimate relations with the Divinity outside of itself and within itself; but it begins to converse with Jesus.  If it persists in the frequentation of His company the Lord gradually takes an ever-increasing share in the conversation, and begins to enlighten the soul.  In its contemplation of the mysteries of faith, He aids it to penetrate beneath the words and facts and symbols, hitherto known but superficially, and to grasp the inner sense of the supernatural truths contained in these facts or words or symbols.  The Scriptures are gradually opened to the soul.  The well-known texts begin to acquire a new and deeper meaning.  Familiar expressions convey a knowledge which the soul wonders never to have before discovered in them.  All this new light is directed towards giving a fuller and more perfect comprehension of the mysteries of our faith, which are the mysteries of the life of Jesus.  From this comprehension springs a love and sympathy with our Divine Lord.  There is a growing desire for identification with Him.  Union of thought and feeling begets intimacy and constant intercourse; the soul has a constant desire of conversing with Jesus about His interests and its own, which love has made identical.  "Consider how great the happiness given to you," says St. John Chrysostom, "how wonderful the glory bestowed on you, in this that you can discourse to God, hold conversation with Christ, aspire after what you are inclined to, and ask for what is wanting to you."[17]  The soul cannot consort with Jesus without ardently desiring to be like Him, and to liberate itself from whatever can place an obstacle to the freedom of their mutual relations.  It conceives a distaste for all that tends to create in itself an unlikeness to Jesus.  The constant and habitual aspiration of the soul, running as an undercurrent through all its communications with the Lord, is, to be freed from the shackles of all deliberate faults, even the very least, and to be filled with grace.  "All our prayers," says St. Thomas, "ought to be directed to the obtaining of grace and glory."[18]

The soul cannot consort with Jesus without ardently desiring to be like Him, and to liberate itself from whatever can place an obstacle to the freedom of their mutual relations.

The soul, striving after this conformity with Him who has become its Friend, necessarily seeks to enter into and to develop in itself the fundamental and guiding disposition of the Friend's soul.  That disposition is the disposition of sacrifice, or rather, a profound adoration of God finding its expression in sacrifice.  The fundamental disposition of Christ's soul was one of absolute and loving subjection to God.  Jesus Himself expressed this, saying:  "For I do always the things that please Him."[19]  Prayer is a means to the acquisition and cultivation of the spirit of sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Now, when God finds this disposition in the soul, He hastens to communicate to it a participation more and more abundant of that Divine life of which the soul of Jesus is a limitless ocean.  Thus is realized the purpose of Christ's Incarnation:  "I am come," He said, "that they may have life, and have it more abundantly."[20]  To the reception of this life all prayer must be directed:  "This chiefly we must seek in prayer," says St. Thomas, "namely, to be united to God."[21]

The ascension of the soul then, is, through prayer to the acquisition of the spirit of sacrifice, and thence to union with God especially through the Holy Communion.  "The Blessed Eucharist", says Cardinal Billot, "is the chief means that God has ordained for imparting the divine life to the soul.  That outpouring of divine life is proportioned to the dispositions of the soul that receives it.  The more perfectly the soul has entered into the dispositions of Jesus, the more closely it has become akin to Him in taste and outlook, the more abundant is the reception of the divine life that in its plenitude resides in Jesus."[22]  Prayer, Spirit of Jesus developed by mental prayer, Communion — that is the order.  This is perfectly exemplified in the incident cited from the Gospel.  At first the disciples failed to recognize Jesus.  After conversation with Him their faith was purified, their devotion to Him grew and they at length understood and entered into the meaning and spirit of His life and Passion.  He saith to them:  "O foolish and slow of heart to believe in all things which the prophets have spoken.  Ought not Christ to have suffered these things and so enter into His glory?"[23]  And then they understood and accepted the principle of sacrifice for Him and for themselves, as the sole means to that redemption which is of the soul, not of the body.  They had dreamed of a redemption that was wholly political and external, one which changed their worldly status, leaving themselves unchanged.  Now they understood redemption as something wholly internal and spiritual, liberating them from the yoke of their own fallen nature and giving their souls the regal condition of the sonship of God.  The imparting of grace, not the bestowal of earthly position, they now understood to be the object of Christ's relations with them.  But the end was not yet.  All this was a preparation for something further.  "And it came to pass whilst he was at table with them, He took bread, and blessed and brake, and gave to them.  And their eyes were opened and they knew Him."[24]  With the reception of the sacred Host, came an inflow of Divine grace into their souls and their final illumination.

Having sketched in outline the nature and aim of prayer in its fundamental character, it remains to point out the different forms which it takes, to show that growth in the habit of prayer is the same as the development in spirituality, to expose the usual temptations and difficulties which the soul experiences in the cultivation of the interior life, to describe the route which progress in this life follows, to explain the ordinary mechanism (if the word be permitted) by which the intercourse with God is maintained, and finally to disclose the obstacles that impede, as well as the conditions that help advancement.

Endnotes:

  1. Phil.  ii. 5.
  2. Prayer is mental when the thoughts and affections of the soul are not expressed in a previously determined formula.  All prayer ought to participate to some extent in the nature of mental prayer because acts of mind and will are always necessary.  The ideas touched on in this paragraph are developed in The Dialogue of St. Catherine of Siena, Vol. I, chap. xxxvi. (Ed.  Hurtaud).
  3. Isaias iv. 8 - 9. 
  4. I Cor. ii 11-16.
  5. The religious state of the average soul at the beginning of its conversion and prior to its initiation into the interior life, is aptly set forth in the following passage from Newman.  "In our condition as average Christians . . . . we know that God's service is perfect freedom, not a servitude, but this it is in the case of those who have long served Him, at first it is a kind of servitude, it is a task till our likings and tastes come to be in union with those which God has sanctioned . . . . 'The servant knoweth not what his lord doth' (John xv. 15).  The servant is not in his lord's confidence, does not understand what he is aiming at, or why he commands this and forbids that. . . . .  Such is the state of those who begin religious obedience.  They do not see anything come of their devotional or penitential exercises, nor do they take pleasure in them; they are obliged to defer to God's word simply because it is His word. . . . .  We must begin religion with what looks like a form.  Our fault will be, not in beginning it as a form, but in continuing as a form.  It is our duty to be ever striving and praying to enter into the real spirit of our services, and in proportion as we understand them, they will cease to be a form and a task and will be the real expression of our minds.  Thus shall we be gradually changed in heart from servants into sons of almighty God." Parochial Sermons.  Vol. iii Sermon
  6. Phil.  iii. 20-21.
  7. Life. Ch.  viii. St. Thomas quoting St. John Damascene, says that prayer is an ascent or an approach of the mind to God.  ii. ii. Q. 83. a. 17 ad 2.  St. Gregory Nazianzen says that prayer is a conference or conversation of the soul with God.  De. Or. Dom. 1.  According to St. John Chrysostom it is a discoursing with the Divine Majesty.  Hom.  30 in Gen.  St. Augustine speaks of it as an affectionate turning of the mind to God.  "Serm." ix. 3.
  8. (a) The conformity or harmony of will between the soul and God is a conformity of the human will as enlightened by reason and faith.  It doth not exclude an actual opposing in to the Divine on the part of men's lower or sensitive nature.  (b) St. Thomas says the function of friendship with God is to bring about that men should incline to the same things as God.  He quotes with approval Aristotle, saying.  "One of the features of friendship is that friends should have a liking for and choose the same things."
  9. St. Luke xxiv. 21.
  10. St. Luke xxiv. 15.
  11. St. Luke xxiv. 17-18.
  12. St. Luke xxiv. 19, 20, 21.
  13. St. Luke xxiv. 22, 23.
  14. St. Luke xxiv. 25, 26.
  15. St. Luke xxiv. 27. 
  16. St. Luke xxiv. 32.
  17. "Considera quanta est tibi concessa felicitas, quanta gloria attributa orationibus fabulari cum Deo, cum christo miscere colloquia, optare quovelis, quod desideras postulare." St. Chrysostom quoted by St. Thomas, II. II. Q.  83.  a.  2, 3.
  18. "Quia omnes orationes nostrae ordinari debent ad gratiam et gloriam consequendam." St. Th.  II. II. Q.  83.  a.  4 c.
  19. "Quae placita sunt ei facio semper.  St. John viii. 29.
  20. St. John x. 10.
  21. "Quia hoc praecipue est in oratione petendum ut Deo uniamur." St. Th.  II. II. Q.  83.  a.  1, ad 2
  22. "De Eccllesiae Sacramentis." Vo1.  I. p.  94.  Editio quinta.
  23. St. Luke xxiv. 25-26.
  24. St. Luke xxiv. 30-31.

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


dividertop

Acknowledgement

Father Edward Leen, C.S.SP. "The Aim of Mental Prayer." chapter 1 from Progress Through Mental Prayer (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1937) 19-33.

Progress Through Mental Prayer is in the public domain.

space.jpg

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.
back to top