instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Tuesday, February 24, 2004


Lent is a time when Catholics traditionally try to develop or strengthen their discipline of prayer, by adding something to, or returning to, or creating from nothing, their daily prayers.

There aren't many principles governing this that apply to everyone. Maybe just, "Try to do an act of prayer every day during Lent that you didn't do every day in the forty days prior to Lent." But then you've got the people whose prayers are already numerous -- the Liturgy of the Hours, the Rosary, lectio divina, the Angelus, a personalized set of litanies and standard prayers -- who are better off simply trying to say their prayers better.

It occurs to me, though, that beyond this work on one's discipline of prayer lies the goal of a habit of prayer.

If prayer, broadly speaking, is a facing toward God, then although prayer at regular intervals during the day is a great good, it seems to imply that, during the longer intervals between prayers one isn't facing toward God. You just know that's no good, even without calling to mind St. Paul's exhortation, "Pray without ceasing."

I get the sense that St. Thomas took the "Pray without ceasing" command too literally, and therefore not literally enough: since he didn't think it's literally possible to pray without ceasing (prayer being, for him, an act of reason), he sort of explains the verse away:
The cause of prayer is the desire of charity, from which prayer ought to arise: and this desire ought to be in us continually, either actually or virtually, for the virtue of this desire remains in whatever we do out of charity; and we ought to "do all things to the glory of God" (1 Cor. 10:31). From this point of view prayer ought to be continual: wherefore Augustine says (ad Probam, Ep. cxxx, 9): "Faith, hope and charity are by themselves a prayer of continual longing." But prayer, considered in itself, cannot be continual, because we have to be busy about other works....

One may pray continually, either through having a continual desire, as stated above; or through praying at certain fixed times, though interruptedly; or by reason of the effect, whether in the person who prays--because he remains more devout even after praying, or in some other person--as when by his kindness a man incites another to pray for him, even after he himself has ceased praying.
What St. Thomas does think we can do continually is have the desire of charity, whether we're acting on it or not.

As far as I know, St. Thomas wasn't aware of the Eastern custom of praying the Jesus Prayer continually, or at least regularly enough that your body begins to pray it even in your sleep. (Or so The Way of the Pilgrim teaches; I wouldn't know from personal experience. In any case, according to this page, people who don't have a spiritual guide should only recite the Jesus Prayer for short periods of time.)

But the Roman Catholic Church does have the custom of (and even a plenary indulgence for) ejaculatory prayer:
A partial indulgence is granted to the Christian faithful who, while performing their duties and enduring the difficulties of life, raise their minds in humble trust to God and make, at least mentally, some pious invocation.
Someone with the habit of prayer will raise his mind to God over and over throughout the day, as will a young man turn to look at his beloved or a mother to look at her child. God becomes always present -- or rather, the awareness of God's presence is always present.

My awareness of God's presence waxes and wanes with my habit of prayer, which in turn depends on my discipline of prayer. The better I pray my regular prayers -- the Liturgy of the Hours and the Rosary -- the more likely I am to raise my mind to God betweentimes, and the more likely my mind is to raise itself to God (in the same way I find myself whistling a song I'd been singing earlier). And the more aware I am of God's presence, the fewer bad things happen, and the more good things.

(As a very simple and unremarkable example, I have found the simple habit of saying, "Bless the LORD through the night," from Psalm 134, whenever I wake during the night to be a great way to carry the prayerfulness of Night Prayer through to Morning Prayer. (I think I sleep better, too.))

Being aware of God's presence is the special and supreme case of being aware of the present, and a habit of being aware of the present supports the habit of being aware of God's presence. Both acts are forms of contemplation, that word of countless meanings. There's an old St. Anthony Messenger article on "How to Pray Always" that looks
at how to discover the contemplative dimension of everyday life, in other words, how to do the things we do each and every day with contemplative ease. The sun rising in the kitchen window, the walk to the post office, the church bell ringing on Sunday morning, the little niece's kiss on her uncle's cheek, the bright red tomato in the salad: They are all an opportunity to breathe deeply and "be filled with all the fullness of God" (Ephesians 3:19).

We will look at five dimensions of daily life: seeing, breathing, walking, eating and speaking.
The article discusses a different route to the habit of prayer, not directly based on a daily prayer regimen. There are no doubt many other routes as well.