Saint Thomas of Canterbury, Bolton

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Prayer

Cardinal Basil Hume

 

Reflection on Prayer

"Prayer is the raising of the mind and heart to God." That definition in the catechism remains, for my part at any rate, the best of all definitions of prayer. But one word was omitted: trying. Prayer is trying to raise our minds and hearts to God.

The only failure in prayer is when we neglect it. The only 'success' in prayer is the sense of God's presence, or a deep peace and sense of well-being, a marvellous moment of inner freedom. When that comes, it is a special gift from God. We have no claim on it, we cannot demand it. Our part is to turn to Him as best we can, trying to raise our minds and hearts to Him.

Friendships need space to develop and grow strong. Friends must waste time together. It is also thus in prayer. Prayer is making friends with God and He with us. Prayer is trying to focus the mind on God, and to admit Him into our hearts. Prayer is wasting time with God. Prayer needs space to develop and grow strong. Reading and reflecting, either alone or with others, on passages from the Gospel leads to our focusing our minds on Christ, his words and actions. It is the discovering of a friend. It is the beginning of prayer.

We cannot get to God Himself except in so far as He enables us to do so. More often than not we get no further than the sense of a presence which is beyond words, images, ideas. It can be likened to being in a room, dark and silent, with a loved one - no words being spoken, no sight vouchsafed, just a sense of the presence of the other. These moments of 'presence' are gift from God, frequent for some, rare for others. Being gift they are neither of right or reward, but more likely to occur to one faithful in prayer and in life.

When you get no consolation in prayer, when you feel you are getting nowhere, that may be the best prayer you have ever said, because you are doing it not for your sake, but for God's. Always seek the God of consolation; never seek the consolations of God. It is always that way round.

Quite often we are in a kind of distraught mood, and simply don't know how to pray, feeling that deep sense of being lost. It is good at such times to see oneself rather like the lost sheep in the parable caught in the briars, surrounded by fog; the more you try to escape from the brambles the more you get entangled. The more you try to rush through the fog the more likely you are to get lost. When you are in that mood just wait in your prayer, wait for Him to come and disentangle you.

 

Private prayer
Personal, private prayer: that is when we find ourselves wanting to steal a few minutes out of the day just to be alone with God, trying to give Him our attention, trying to focus our thoughts on Him, trying to listen when He speaks to us deep within. We are poor, blind, wounded, but those are the best dispositions in order to put ourselves into a situation where we try to raise our minds to think about God and try to purify our desire of Him. When I begin to do that, then I am beginning personal prayer. Once I start doing that then my official response - either attending Mass or Evening Prayer - begins to be a little bit different. Public prayer finds its real soul when we start doing seriously private prayer.

Quite often, perhaps even very often, praying words slowly or reflecting on a passage from the Gospel may seem to be frustrating and unrewarding. Do not be surprised and anxious. Such a situation purifies our motive for praying, which is primarily to please God, not to comfort ourselves. Our perseverance is a proof of our love.

 

The prayer of silence
A very precious way to pray is just through silence. No thoughts or words, just wanting to be silent in the presence of God. Perhaps one of the high points in prayer is where two silences meet: God's silence and our silence. No need for thoughts - and words get in the way.

 

To be alone with God
Meditation is what we do when we steal moments out of the day to be alone with God, however short that time may be; when we wonder what He is like, when we 'explore' God. But we need something to guide us in our exploration. There can be no better starting point than a passage from the Gospel, reading it slowly until it gives up its meaning; then it stirs your heart. When you start to meditate, you will find distractions galore, even boredom, the sense of getting nowhere. The point is you have to stick at it. You have to make an act of faith, because the moments you spend trying to raise your mind to God are moments precious and golden. There is a kind of paradox in the situation because the more you try, the more frustrating the activity seems to become. You have to stick at it and come to recognise the simple truth that if there is any success in prayer it is a gift from God.

 

Prayer before a Crucifix
I think the Crucifix is a great help to prayer. You look and look, and if you are suffering as Jesus did, then that looking will help you understand something about Our Lord, and something about yourself. It gives up its secret. Those are things you cannot write about, things you cannot talk about. Those are things you have to experience. Pray with your eyes in times of stress, no words, no thoughts, just look at the Crucifix. Then take out your rosary and kiss the Crucifix. That is a marvellous prayer.