This text is published as Chapter 1 of How to Pray (Part One: Foundations), entitled 'How to Prepare'. An introduction to the life of prayer with much practical advice about how to deepen your prayer life.
1 HOW TO PREPARE
UNION WITH GOD. CHURCH. SACRAMENTS.
Everything we need for holiness.
Believe in God, and in His goodness.
Believe that it’s possible to achieve union with God.
Believe that every spiritual gift you need can be given to you; and remember: whatever you might have heard before now, there’s no need for anyone to be despondent about prayer, or about the possibility of achieving union with God. It’s widely suggested that there are no ‘easy answers’ today, on the subjects of Faith, Church, or prayer. Yet our age lacks none of the great spiritual blessings which have been showered upon people in past ages. God in His love and wisdom has given us everything we could possibly need - and even more than we need - so that we can love and serve Him, and hope to achieve holiness and peace - and Heaven.
List the good things you’ve already been given. It’s true that life is hard. It’s true that, as Christ told us, “IT IS A NARROW GATE AND A HARD ROAD THAT LEADS TO LIFE” [Mt 7:14], but the help we can have is astonishing, if only we’ll accept it; and if we’re listing God’s principal blessings and helps, we’re wise to be grateful, first, for life itself.
God: the Source of all good things.
Remind yourself that it was God Who gave life to each one of us: with a mind to know, and a heart to love, and with unique opportunities and gifts, no matter how blighted might be our circumstances. Furthermore, it’s God Who gives faith to those who will open their hearts to truth; and He increases that faith in hundreds of ways, if we allow Him to do so.
Think about the heart of the Faith: about the fact that God the Father sent His Son to earth to live amongst us, and to die for us, and to rise from the dead - and to take His place in Heaven, and then to send us His Holy Spirit Who gives us the hope that we can one day join Christ in Glory. This really happened. It makes a difference to our lives, when we believe it and see the significance of it.
Believe that God is looking lovingly upon you at every moment: with Infinite tenderness. What makes Christianity unique is that Christians pray to God with the confidence of little children before their beloved Father; and it’s right that we know how this has been made possible. When Almighty God, Who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, was long ago planning to rescue mankind from the slavery of sin, He prepared the Virgin Mary for a special role in His plan; then He worked the marvel which we call the Incarnation.
Understand that the Holy Trinity was at work as God the Father sent His Son to take flesh from Mary, by the power of the Holy Spirit; and that’s how Jesus came to be born and to live amongst us as God and man. He didn’t just live here, and teach and heal; He died for our sins. He rose from the dead and returned to Heaven, where He waits - as it were - for us to join Him. Because of this we can be sure that we who now believe in Jesus, and have been baptised into His Life (or hope to be baptised,) and who follow His example, guided by His Holy Spirit, are allowed to address Almighty God not only as “God” or “Your Majesty” - as if on our knees - but as “Father”, or “Abba”: which means “Daddy”. It’s because Jesus is the Son of God, and because we are now bound to Jesus, that we too are children of God: adopted children: heirs to the Kingdom. This is why we pray to God our Father “IN THE NAME OF JESUS” [Ac 3:6]. It’s as though, when we pray in Jesus’ name, we’re standing side by side with Jesus, offering one prayer to the Father; and the Father hears and grants our prayers for Jesus’ sake.
The reason for our trust.
Consider what it means, that you are an adopted child of God. It’s solely because - through baptism or through our desire for baptism - we now belong to Jesus, that we have the right to stand before God and to ask for and expect His help. We don’t have to grovel, through ignorance, as though before a ruthless tyrant. We must bear in mind what a privilege and marvel it is, however, that through Jesus’ suffering and death the sins we’ve committed against our infinitely holy and compassionate Creator can be forgiven.
Think about the God-given security to be found within the Catholic Church. Christ, the Divine Son, left behind one holy Church on earth of which He is the Head, even though perhaps more of its members are sinners than Saints; and it’s truly holy, this marvellous Communion that we can join - or perhaps have already entered - in order to find sure teaching about what Christ is like, what He wants of us, and how we can imitate Him.
Imagine how your attitude will change, when you really believe that Christ’s Holy Spirit guides the Catholic Church. Today, as ever, He guides it to choose leaders who, by Divine authority, teach the Church and the world about how repentance brings peace-of-soul and about the joys of ‘life-in-Christ’. Here in the Church we can find sure teaching about how to please our Heavenly Father, and about what to believe and what to do so that we can live and die with the sure hope of reaching Eternal Life when our earthly struggles are ended.
Holy Scripture, and a living Tradition.
Don’t be cynical about the sure teaching which Christ offers us through His Church. There’s no matter of importance - whether about how to achieve Salvation, or how best to love God and our neighbour in daily life and struggle - on which we cannot find sure guidance from Christ’s Church. We are guided through the living Tradition which continues, still, and through the Holy Scriptures which the Church long ago selected and of which the Church is now the supreme interpreter, and through the authoritative teachings of the Holy Father with the other faithful Bishops.
An unending Source of life.
Treasure the sacraments. We who believe in God and in His Son, Jesus Christ, can be baptised into His Church, can have our sins forgiven, and can receive the Divine Life which enables us to live on earth as true children of God, clothed in the graces and virtues which are God’s free gifts to all who will accept them. We can allow an unending stream of Divine help and grace to pour upon us through the sacraments, which are Christ’s special gifts to His Church. New members are initiated through the sacraments, and the Faithful are helped in particular needs.
Be confident about the power of the sacraments, which is Christ’s power. A sacrament is a visible and touchable sign: a way in which Christ Himself, through the Church, gives His special graces, by which we mean His power and holiness. We can know, whenever we see a sacrament being validly conferred, that Christ is powerfully at work in a special way. There is no area of life, of course, where God cannot act or ‘enter’; but it’s when valid sacraments are celebrated that we have cause for special confidence in God’s power, since Christ Himself has arranged that we can go to Him for His extraordinary help at each significant moment of our lives.
The seven sacraments.
Consider the seven sacraments. First, think what a marvel it is when sin is banished from our souls and Divine Life is given, and we are each made a member of the Church, in the Sacrament of Baptism. What a marvel it is that the Holy Spirit is given to us in Confirmation. Isn’t it wonderful that whenever Christ’s Church is united in prayer, as Our Lord commanded, in order to celebrate the Mass, which is a living memorial of His saving work, we can receive the greatest sacrament - the Eucharist! Christ Himself is Present with us in sacramental form, under the appearance of bread and wine; and this King and Friend is made Present amongst us during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass which surpasses every other type of worship on earth and which is the most perfect act of worship that can be offered by the Church.
Keep in mind the whole human life-span, and then realise that there’s a sacrament for when we’re in need of God’s forgiveness because we’ve given in to mortal sin - and then look for reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance, often called Confession. There’s a sacrament for our wedding - Christian Matrimony; and there’s a sacrament provided by Christ for when a man has accepted a vocation to be a deacon or a priest or a bishop and is ready to be sent out to do his work: Holy Orders or Ordination; and there’s a sacrament for when we’re sick and helpless or dying - the sacrament of the anointing of the sick.
Pause for a moment to think about God’s lavish generosity. As if the graces listed above weren’t enough, we have Heavenly companions to help us. They’re unseen at present; but we have the joy of knowing - by faith - that Christ’s own Mother, Mary, is praying for us, as are the other Saints in Glory. We are united, through Christ, with the Holy Souls who have gone before us. The Holy Angels guard and guide us today as always, as God intends; and whether we are free or imprisoned, sick or healthy, hard at work or made redundant, surrounded by good-hearted people or lonely, we can know, if we have only a mustard-seed of faith, that God the Holy Trinity - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - listens to our every whisper whenever we turn to Him in prayer, and leaves no prayer unanswered. We will meet hardship and persecution; but God can give us the courage to endure everything and to hope for perfect joy in Heaven.
Courage is needed.
Ask yourself: surely this is Good News? Yet although it’s all true, it’s also true that courage is needed to start acting upon it: to confide in God, to ask for His help, to give up sin, and to turn to His Church to receive the Divine graces that will make possible a way of life which, for those who persevere, will bring peace and joy beyond their wildest dreams. But that life must usually be lived out in a society and a world which heaps scorn upon simple faith: upon the idea of ‘putting God first’. Indeed, many people don’t believe that it’s possible to know enough about God and His wishes to be able to aim for sanctity. Don’t be amongst them.
Pray to be given grace and wisdom so that you listen to what God is teaching us through the Catholic Church. Practice your faith. Don’t be afraid to say with conviction to other people that some ways of life are good and some are evil, that God alone can lead us to choose to do good, and that God alone can give us the graces necessary to achieve holiness and Salvation.
Be determined to love and serve Christ, and to be faithful to the Catholic Church, which He founded. It’s not the most important answers which are lacking, in the Church today. What is lacking, rather, is the faith to accept the answers now being offered by Christ, through His Church. What is lacking is the courage to make the sacrifices which must be made by anyone who hopes to draw close to Christ, to ‘run the race’ to the finish, and to be with Him in Heaven forever. It’s through prayer that we can say ‘Yes’ to God’s friendship, ‘Yes’ to His wish that we love Him and our neighbour whatever the cost, and ‘Yes’ to His offer of unceasing and loving help on our journey to sanctity; and so I hope and pray that something within this little book on prayer will touch a few hearts and minds, and will encourage some of you to listen to Christ, and to enter the “NARROW GATE” [Mt 7:14] which is mentioned in Saint Matthew’s Gospel.
Beginning with ‘the basics’.
Try to learn a little about the sort of devotions which are commonplace but valuable, in Catholic life. We can omit some of our devotions, temporarily, in times of illness or crisis; but it’s best never to omit the ‘basics’, by which I mean daily praise and thanksgiving to God, no matter in what ‘shape’ it’s offered, nor how briefly.
Don’t believe that you have to pray in precisely the same way as everyone else. I’ve included numerous details not in order to persuade everyone to pray in the same way but only to show that the true prayer-in-union which some of us hope to achieve needs a firm foundation. Although it’s true that we can only pray because God in His kindness has first prompted us to do so, and then has enabled us to pray to Him by the power of His Spirit, and in the Name of Jesus, it’s also true that each of us needs to make important choices: first, whether or not to pray, and secondly, when to start, if we’re willing.
Don’t be ashamed to admit that you’ve never prayed sincerely, or regularly, and don’t really know how to start. It’s a wonderful thing to see the truth, and to admit it.
Private prayer: an introduction.
Accept this assurance that I’m going to write about a way of praying which is fairly straightforward and which will bring whoever chooses to practice it closer to God. But I’m not saying that it’s the best or the only way. If I met someone who asked me to teach her how to swim, I’d probably teach her the side-stroke; but another person might teach her how to do ‘the crawl’; but in either case, she’d learn how to move in such a way that - at the same time - she stayed afloat in the water and also moved swiftly to the other side of the pool. So with prayer; methods might vary, but the main aims should be unchanging.
Be content to pray in the way which God has brought to your attention through a book, perhaps, or through a prayerful friend - as long as that prayer involves belief in God, with reverent and trusting attention as you approach Him in the Name of Christ. I’ll explain more about Christ in a moment; but every reliable Christian teacher wants to help people to raise their hearts and minds to God; and so all methods and recommendations can be judged - where this is necessary - by whether or not they do indeed encourage you to move towards God in sincere praise, thanksgiving, contrition and trust.
Take a look at the next few pages, where you’ll see most of the things I’ve suggested to people who’ve asked me about prayer in the past few years, though, as I’ve said, there are numerous valid and worthwhile ‘approaches’; and of course we can pray absolutely anywhere, at any time; but my aim has always been to encourage people to develop the habit of prayer; hence the details below about place and time and posture, as well as about our attitude.
Think about friendship, if you want to look clearly at God and at the subject of prayer. If you have friends or relatives on earth whom you love and admire enormously, you probably make sure they’re involved in your life. So it should be between ourselves and our loving Creator.
Recognise the pattern you follow whenever you meet someone who seems to admire you, and who is good company, or can be helpful. You probably want to know more about him. You long to see him, or even to visit places connected with him or with his family. You long to be worthy of his friendship. You have perhaps decided to make good changes in your way of life in order to please him; and perhaps you’ve told your friends about this great person. So it can be with you and your Divine Saviour, if you’re sincere about becoming His friend and companion.
Look at Christ’s life, to learn about prayer. Prayer to His Father was important to Him, and frequent and trusting; and Christ prayed before every major event, decision or new venture.
Be reverent before God. True prayer can scarcely begin in hearts which are cynical, arrogant or greedy: hence the importance of reverence before God, with contrition and trust, and gratitude and love. These are the virtues by which we open the ‘door’ of our hearts to the Invisible but Infinitely-beautiful and tender God Who is inviting us to meet Him; and surely - if our Eternity is to be spent with Him - we’d be sensible to meet Him now, instead of pushing Him aside, so to speak, until the day when, without preparation, we risk being overwhelmed by the contrast between His Glory and purity and our sinfulness.
It wasn’t my idea to write a book on “How to pray”. But now that I’ve finished the book I hope it will be useful.
I’m a ‘convert’ Catholic. It’s thirty years since I was received into full Communion; and it’s because I want to encourage other Catholics to pray regularly that I’ve included suggestions for people at different stages of the spiritual life. There are things here for beginners as well as for long-time praying people. In just over a hundred pages, there’s some practical advice about how to start praying; and this includes “How to pray the Mass”. There’s a rather daunting description - for determined souls - of the various stages of purification which are usually experienced before a sinful soul is ready for the bliss and glory and holiness of Heaven; and there are some illustrations which I hope will lift a few hearts and minds towards Heavenly realities, and which might provide a reminder that God and Heaven are more real and glorious than what we usually call ‘real life’ on Earth.
Christ has been my companion at each moment of my own prayer-journey, even when it’s been so dark that I haven’t been able to see Him. I’ve held onto Him by faith at each step of the long climb; and it’s because I’ve come to know Him through prayer - and have also encountered the astonishing love of the Father and of the Holy Spirit - that I’m now willing to say to everyone who will listen: “Learn about God. Love Him. Love your neighbour, for His sake. Keep on praying. Never give up! His friendship is worth every sacrifice; so go to Confession; go to Mass and Holy Communion. Words can’t describe the peace which is given when we make our peace with God and accept His love and forgiveness; and whether we’re five, twenty-five or fifty-five, there’s no joy like the joy which is God’s gift to His friends.”
Feast of the Epiphany