HOW WE MUST PRAY
Taken from INSTRUCTIONS FOR CHILDREN by Monseigneur De Segue, Imprimatured 1891.
It is not enough to pray only; we must pray WELL. A child may wash himself every day and still remain very dirty; if he does not wash and dry himself properly. In order to be a good Christian your prayers must be said with faith, attention, and respect, with confidence and love; they must be fervent, simple, and humble; they must be strong and persevering.
1. First, your prayer must be a CHRISTIAN prayer, or it cannot reach God’s heart; and our prayer is Christian only when it is united with the holy prayer of Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, the only Mediator of men with God. When a ray of sunshine passes through the window of a church it becomes red, blue, and green, according to the color of the window. Thus your prayer becomes Christian when it goes to God through Jesus. Our prayers cannot go up to God unless Jesus takes them and raises them up. It is by Jesus alone that God comes down to us; it is by Jesus only that we can go up to God. He says to all, "Without Me you can do nothing; and no one can go to the Father without me." The more we unite ourselves to Jesus in praying the nearer we get to God; the more we live with Jesus the more we find God, because God is only to be found in Jesus. Now I have already told you, my child that Jesus is within you by grace, and before you in the tabernacles of our churches, hidden in the mystery of the Holy Eucharist. There it is we must seek him in prayer—there you will find him—at the foot of his altar, and in the depths of faithful hearts.
Oh! how delightful it is to pray with Jesus in this way! His prayer, all divine, all perfect, makes up for what is wanting in our prayers, which are always imperfect and little worthy of the infinite majesty of God. Before you begin your prayers, take care always to unite yourself in this way with Jesus, and to pray with him and in him. We never do this enough. Ask him to give you grace to pray well—to pray in the way He wishes, and as he Himself prayed at Nazareth, when he was a child like you. Then the prayer of Jesus will become your prayer, and your prayer will become that of Jesus, your heavenly brother. Then you may say with truth, "Our Father, who art in Heaven." It is not necessary to think of this all the time you are at your prayers, but the more you keep yourself in the holy presence of God, the more pleasing these prayers will be to him.
2. Then you must pray with attention and respect.
St. Francis, of Assisi when at prayer saw and talked to our Lord as we talk to each other. This was because he had great faith. We have faith (because we are not heretics), but we have not the spirit of faith, that is to say a lively, ardent, practical faith, the perfect faith of the saints.
The greater our faith, the greater will be our attention and respect. Very often we come and present ourselves before God without thinking properly what we have come for; we have thought very little of what we are going to ask, and still less of the great King in whose presence we are. We enter into prayer as flies enter a prince’s palace. Some children go to God as if they were going to say, "I am going to say two or three words to you just to get rid of you." Alas! to think that these are Christians. Where is their faith? Where is their baptism?
My dear child, it is at the beginning of your prayers that you must try with all your strength to recollect yourself if you wish to pray well. Before making the sign of the Cross—before opening your mouth, stop for one moment and place yourself with Jesus in the presence of God, shut your eyes so as to keep out distractions, keep quiet for an instant, and when you feel your mind quiet begin your prayers. Never forget to make this little preparation; it is very useful and very necessary. "Before you pray, prepare your souls," says Holy Scripture. It is a very good thing to pray aloud when we are quite alone. In the early ages this was the custom among the faithful, and even in the places of public worship. In reciting in this manner the OUR FATHER, the HAIL MARY, the CREED, and the CONFITEOR, and other prayers, you will find it much easier to keep up your attention than in saying them in the mind by yourself. The tongue and ear will help the mind to keep in the presence of God, and so you will be more devout and attentive. It is different with the eyes: at your age a fly is enough to give you distractions, and make you forget God. Thus I advise you to acquire the habit of saying your prayers with your eyes closed.
You know, my child, that distractions are not even venial sins when they are not wilful. When you have done what you can to prevent them, never mind them at all. The best way is to pay no attention to them, but go on quietly with your prayers. Then you must humble yourself, for it is very humiliating for a Christian to be so weak, but you must not let this trouble or discourage you. God asks you to give him your heart and your will, and when your imagination wanders about, your heart, united to Jesus, continues to pray. When you are thinking of other things without knowing it, Jesus, the interior companion of your soul, prays for you, and obtains mercy and forgiveness for your miserable little prayer. How consoling this is!
But, if these distractions last nearly all the time, as they often do with giddy people, before leaving God we must say some little word of sorrow, and make a few acts of adoration, contrition, and a firm resolution to do better next time. When our distractions are wilful we commit a sin against the first commandment; it is disrespectful towards the sovereign King of heaven and earth. But it is not a sin unless they have been very long and altogether wilful. A wilful distraction is thinking of something which has nothing to do with our prayer and dwelling upon it without trying to put it away. This is like a traveler who, having gone out of the right road, does not take the trouble to retrace his steps.
Do not wander in this manner, my child, during the journey of prayer. Go to God with all your heart. Never offend him when you appear before him by preferring one of his creatures to him. Suppose you found yourself in the presence of the Pope, would you dare to forget yourself so far as not to listen to him, to think of anything but him, in one word to act as if he was not there? God must surely be very good to listen to and receive as he does so many miserable prayers, careless, and full of distractions. In the second place, then, your prayers must be good, attentive, and full of religious devotion.
3. Your prayers must be loving and confident. If you wish to pray well, my child, the way is very simple, and very sweet. Love, love God dearly. The more you love, the better you will pray. The more a child loves his mother the more he will talk of the things she loves to hear. If you knew how God loves you! If you knew how glad Jesus your Saviour is to live in your little soul by baptism! When you pray, or when He sees you coming, He leans towards His little creature like a good father who stoops to his little child to hear his lisping words. For this reason you must always pray with great love and with great confidence.
You must not fear God. You must be afraid to offend Him; you must fear to displease Him, because He is so good and so holy; but you must never be afraid of Him, because He ALWAYS, always loves you, a hundred times more than you can ever imagine. On earth do you fear those who love you? Certainly not; then you should not fear your Heavenly Friend—your good Father, who loves you dearly.
Our Lord has said in the Gospel; "I will never reject anyone who comes to me." And he says to you, as to St. Peter, "Be of good heart; it is I; fear not." Even when you ave been naughty do not be afraid to throw yourself before God, praying and beseeching forgiveness. Do not act like Adam and Eve, who having sinned, sought to hide themselves in a grotto and thus escape God, who came every day in a human form to visit them in the garden.
When you have been so unhappy as to offend your father or mother what do you do? Do you not know by experience that the sweetest way to get into their good graces is to go simply, beg pardon, and embrace them lovingly? This is just the way we must act towards God.
Confidence, then, confidence and love in prayer; confidence and love for Jesus, because he loves you more than even the best of fathers—more than the most tender mother.
4. Prayer must be FERVENT, that is to say that we must never pray lazily, without piety or devotion. God deserves that we should pray zealously, lovingly, fervently, with all our hearts and souls.
Fervor is like hot water, boiling water, without which we cannot boil eggs. Put an egg into lukewarm water, it will never be cooked, and you could not eat it. Our actions are like eggs that must be cooked; fervor is the heart which makes the water boil; it is the fire of the Heart of Jesus, which penetrates our prayers and sanctifies all our actions.
Fervor in prayer does not mean to weep, and FEEL that we love God very much. This is very pleasant and agreeable, but this sweetness is not real fervor. Fervor is in our will. We pray fervently when we do all that we can to pray well, and try to please God. Fervor is the opposite of laziness and indifference. To be fervent it is not necessary to have great consolations, it is sufficiently to belong entirely to God. These consolations are like jam to luncheon; jam is very agreeable, and helps us to eat our bread with a better appetite, but really it is the bread that nourishes us and not the jam. When you. have this grace of fervor, thank God who does not spoil you, as your good kind grandma does. When you do not feel this fervor, keep yourself quiet, and pray as well as you can. A Christian should be brave enough to eat his bread dry, without feeling the want of sweet things.
There are many kinds of birds; some, like the hen, the duck, and the turkey, are heavy, with little wings with which they can hardly raise themselves off the ground; others are like the peacock, which could fly well if it were not for the enormous tail which drags it down; others, again, like pigeons, larks, nightingales, and sparrows, fly easily but have not strength enough to remain for long flying in the air; others, stronger again, fly very high and for a longtime, like the tiny swallow; others, like the eagle, fly far out of sight, and are never so happy as when they are high up in the clouds.
Thus it is with different degrees of fervor. Certain children, children who are greedy, sensual, indifferent, and lazy, have so little fervor that they never raise themselves to God; others, spoiled, worldly, and vain, are so much kept back by pleasure that they never think of things relating to God; other dear, good little children, say their prayers devoutly, and are a little fervent; others, like the tiny swallows, are still better; others (but they are very few) receive a special grace from Jesus, and they are really fervent—they pray with all the ardor of their little hearts, and think constantly of our dear Lord and live for him alone, and love him above everything in the world—they are never so happy as when they repose upon his Sacred Heart. These are dear little eagles, real treasures of the Church, true birds of paradise—of that beautiful paradise to which we shall go one day.
Do not forget that fervor is an affair of the will, not mere sentiment; and it always depends on you whether or not you will be fervent at your prayers. Do you know an excellent way to excite fervor? It is, when you are alone, to say your prayers aloud, as l have already advised you, or to pray with your arms stretched out, or crossed upon your breast. These little actions excite us to pray well, just as the whip and spur excite a lazy, indolent horse to trot quickly along.
5. Our prayers must be SIMPLE. The more simple the better. God asks for our heart alone; he does not wish for the grand high-flown language which some people put into their prayers. No, my child; this is not the way to pray to God. The purer the sky the more the sun shines; the clearer the water the more delicious it is. In the same way, the simpler we are in our prayers the more pleasing we are to God.
There is nothing more simple than the prayer OUR FATHER, and it is the best of all prayers. What is more simple than the AVE MARIA! It is the most beautiful prayer we could say to the Blessed Virgin. What is more simple than the MAGNIFICAT, the act of faith called the CREDO, and the act of contrition so full of humility and confidence, the CONFITEOR? We never grow tired saying these prayers, because we feel that God never tires of hearing them.
It would take too long to explain this fully. But do not be afraid, when you pray, to repeat the same thing ten times over; if it comes from the heart it is always new. Look at our Lord in the Garden of Olives during his long three-hours prayer. How simple was his prayer! "My Father, if it be possible let this chalice pass from me; nevertheless not as l will, but as thou wilt." The Gospel remarks expressly that Jesus repeated the same prayer all the time of his dreadful agony. One day in Rome I entered a little chapel, and knelt down beside a holy religious, who prayed with so much attention, piety, and recollection, that he did not perceive that I was there; it was the Venerable P. Roothan, General of the Society of Jesus, who died in the odour of sanctity in 1852. During more than a quarter of an hour I heard him repeat the same thing, "JESU, MISERERE," which means" Jesus, have pity on me." He said nothing else. Oh! holy prayer! How much I longed to be in this holy man’s place! Then, my dear little child, be simple, very simple with God. Do not forget that the grace of prayer comes from heaven, like all other graces; that without Jesus and his Holy Spirit we cannot pray; that all human ways and means are useless without the grace of prayer, which is always granted to those who are humble of heart. "Lord," said the apostles to Jesus, "teach us how to pray." Imitate them, and have this great simplicity of faith, that makes us expect everything from the grace of God. Without this, prayer is most difficult, even impossible; with this, it is as simple, as easy as to see plainly at mid-day.
Some say, "I do not know what words to use when l want to pray." If they were simple they would easily find plenty of words to say. Have they not always the OUR FATHER? It is in our heart, and not in our mind, that we ought to find what we should pray for.
6. HUMILITY. This quality is absolutely necessary to a Christian’s prayer. We must be very humble, or we cannot pray well. If we wish God to hear us, we must present ourselves before him as miserable sinners, unworthy to be listened to. The Blessed Virgin looked upon herself as the least and most humble servant of God. This is the reason she became the Mother of God, the most happy Queen of angels and of men . The more you humble yourself before God the more he will raise you up and make you powerful by prayer. The humble prayer of the good thief, "Lord, remember me when thou shalt come into thy kingdom," sanctified and saved him. The prodigal son humbled himself profoundly, and was forgiven at once. "Father," he said, "I have sinned against heaven, and before thee: I am not now worthy to be called thy son ." His good father received him at once, embracing him, and restoring to him his beautiful white robe and royal ring which he had lost. Magdalen was purified by humility when she prostrated herself at our Lord’s feet in the Pharisee’s house. Humility saved Simon the publican. It is this holy virtue that makes the prayers of the saints ascend like incense before the throne of God. Humility will make all your prayers perfect. Be humble in adoring God; humble in thanking him; humble in asking all graces for yourself and others. Be humble, profoundly humble, when you ask pardon for your sins. Proud people, who think themselves saints, pray; but, when their prayers reach God, they are so bad that he turns from them, as we should from a disgusting visitor.
7. The last and most important quality is; that our prayers must be STRONG and PERSEVERING.
"He who perseveres to the end shall be saved." This is true of prayer as well as of other things. We must never be discouraged. Who knows, my child, but perhaps the instant you stop discouraged, is just the time you were going to receive the grace you asked of God? Could you be willing to be shipwrecked within a few yards of the harbor?
And then our Lord has secrets which you do not know. If you knew them, you would know why what you ask is not given to you, and why what you believe good for you is not so in reality. In eternity you will see all this, and you will bless God because he did not grant you all you asked for, in such and such a circumstance, or at such and such a critical time. His divine Heart, which refuses us when we ask for foolish things, is sure to grant us something of more real value, even if it be only the grace and courage to persevere.
Never say, "My prayers are worth nothing; l ask, and never receive anything; there is no use in my praying; l never obtain what l ask." These are only devices of the devil, who seeks to discourage us, and, if possible, to make us give up and abandon the service of God. Above all things, he wishes to prevent us praying, because he knows that prayer and salvation are one and the same thing. When he whispers his blasphemies in your ear, do not listen, but chase him quickly away; unite yourself to Jesus, and with him say to the old serpent. "Begone, liar!" And go on with your prayer more courageously than ever, as our Lord did in the Garden of Olives.
This perseverance, my child, will be your sanctification; it will be your salvation. Perhaps after your death those for whom you prayed will receive the benefit of your prayers; like laborers, who cut down in autumn the corn that they sowed in the summer. We must be courageous and energetic when we have the honor of being Christians; we must know how to be patient with God as well as with men. "it is by patience," says our Lord, "that you will be masters of your souls." All the saints, without exception, became in this manner masters of their souls, because they all persevered in prayer until their last breath.
These, dear child, are the qualities which, with the grace of God, you must try to give to your prayers. Then they will be Christian, respectful, confident, and full of love; they will be fervent, simple, humble; and you will persevere in spite of everything. You must take care to revive and strengthen them by frequenting the holy sacraments regularly. Everything depends upon piety, prayer, and the sacraments. One cannot live without the other. Very often we pray badly because we do not practise enough . Remember that a Christian prayer always has some effect when it is well said. When we do not obtain what we ask, we may know that there is a reason against it. We ask something we must not have, or our prayers are badly said. "O Good Jesus! living and praying in us your servants, give us grace always to pray well!"
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