05 February 2015

One hour of prayer is worth more than the whole world

King David in prayer
With the holy season of Lent now fast approaching (Ash Wednesday is February 18th), we would each do well to give some serious and prayerful consideration to what particular and personal penance(s) we might take up during the penitential days. These penances typically involve an in increase of prayer, fasting, and alms-giving.

Increasing our fasting by decreasing the amount of food we eat is not - for most of us - a tremendously difficult task (even if our stomachs do not agree), nor is increasing the amount of money we give to worthy charitable causes and even to the poor directly. Increasing the time we spend in prayer each day, however, can prove a great challenge, particularly because we are tempted to wonder if our prayer does any good at all.

As if in answer to this concern, Saint Bonaventure wrote these words to the Abbess of the Poor Clares in Longchamps, France in 1259:
Devout prayer has such power that a person can profit from it in all things and at all times: in winter and in summer, in tranquil and rainy times, night and day, on feast days and on ordinary days, in sickness and in health, when young and old, standing, sitting and walking, in the choir and outside the choir [by which he meant the Divine Office]. What is more, sometimes one hour of prayer is worth more than the whole world, because by a brief devout prayer a person gains the kingdom of heaven (On the Perfection of Life, V.1).
If we consider the way in which the Seraphic Doctor expresses the power in all things and at all times, we can see that it resembles in some way the exchange of consent between a husband and his bride. Indeed, this is only fitting because the Church is the Bride of Christ the Bridegroom, and the members of the Church are members of the Bride.

Aside from the question of whether or not our prayers profit us or others, another stumbling block to increasing the amount of time we spend in prayer is not knowing quite what "to do" in prayer.  Again, as if in answer to this concern, Saint Bonaventure suggests three necessary things to arrive at perfect prayer.

The first, he says, "is that when you are prepared to pray, then standing erect with an upright heart and shutting down all your senses, you must noiselessly reflect from a heart bitter and contrite about all of your miseries [sins], present, past and future" (V, 2).

It might seem strange to speak of being "prepared to pray," but preparing to pray is essential. Some things of greater or lesser importance might well distract from our prayer. Such things might be anything from a stack of bills needing to be sent off today, the laundry that needs to go into the drier, the worksheet that needs to be completed before the next class, or even putting gas in the car.

None of this is to say that prayer should be put off until our tasks and chores are complete; rather, it is a matter of knowing ourselves. Will I pray better without the stack of bills waiting for me? If the answer is yes, then pay them first and then go to pray - prepared. Do I pray better in the morning or in the afternoon or in the evening? Other questions might also prudently be considered.

Before a priest offers the Holy Mass, he prepares himself; he prepares himself to pray. He washes his hands. He quiets his thoughts and offers a prayer to celebrate worthily. He puts on the sacred vestments, often praying while doing so. In an analogous way, we, too, should prepare ourselves for a daily prayer.

The second thing needed to arrive at perfect prayer, he says, is to "be grateful, namely for all the benefits already received and those yet to be received" (V, 3). Too often do we go to prayer with a list of requests - and sometimes even demands - to make of the Lord without first humbly giving him thanks.

Finally, the third necessary thing "is that there be nothing else in your mind except what you are praying for" (V, 4). If someone comes to us in a distracted fashion and makes a request of us, we tend not to give much thought to it because - if the person is so distracted - how important can the request be? To be single-minded in the service of God is key.

To be sure, following these three steps in prayer will move us toward perfect prayer, but it will not likely put us their instantly. Prayer is fundamentally about a relationship with the Lord and these three steps will help keep us focused on that relationship so that, in time, we can come to spend even an hour in prayer without feeling forced.

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