Meditations for Layfolks - Prayer the Upraising of the Mind

Prayer has been defined to be the raising up of the mind and heart to God; but it would be more descriptive, and perhaps more accurate, to say that it is the raising up of the heart through the mind to God, for it is a commonplace of conversion that knowledge precedes love. It is true, of course, that the opposite statement would be equally valid, for I cannot know anyone till I am in love (i.e. in sympathy) with them. But though this is so, I must still begin by having some rudimentary knowledge of the existence of that which I love; that is to say, I must at least know of a thing before I can love it. Since, then, prayer means getting into communication with God, it is clear that I have always, consciously or not, to get into my mind some truth about God. Let us suppose a mother is praying to God to save her son from peril. She really has convinced herself (either deliberately, or simply without realizing what she is doing) of two quite definite things: first, that God is certainly able to help her; and, secondly, that He can be affected by her loneliness and desolation of heart. In other words, she is holding to two dogmatic truths the omnipotence and mercy of God. And whenever we analyze prayer, our own or another's, we shall find that at the back of it lies some truth about God which we or they have accepted; and it is only because of that particular truth that we turn to that particular prayer. Thus, again, we often praise God because of His greatness, etc.; i.e. we first believe Him to be great and then praise Him for it: but belief, in any case, comes first. Unless I believed in His mercy or His power or His justice or beauty, or one or other of His many attributes, I should never turn to Him at all.

Notice that in all this the word "belief" is used, for our real knowledge of God as He is in Himself comes to us only by faith. Reason can (says the Council of the Vatican) prove the existence of God; but it is at least possible that my reason never has proved it. My reason may never feel convinced by its own reasoning. In any case the real knowledge of God as a supernatural power, with the full heights and depths of His Divine life, cannot obviously be attained to by the reason, except in so far as it is illumined by supernatural light; and it is just this supernatural light that we call faith. It is a vision. No doubt it is true, as Cardinal Newman has admirably phrased it, that the act of faith is partly an act of will. There must be the wish to believe at the back of me, a movement of the grace of God. All the arguments in the world cannot prove the supernatural status of the Church, for arguments are obviously rational, whereas the supernatural transcends reason. Ultimately, therefore, the mind that says "I believe," does so because its reason shows that the Church is eminently credible; and its will takes the one further step ("the leap in the dark "), and, under the direct interference of God, completes the act by asserting, " I must believe." Yet in spite of the fact that this act of will is essential, the gift of faith is still in its purpose and in its effect an enlightenment, an apocalypse, a revelation. This vision is an entrance into the kingdom of truth, for it tells us about God and the soul, this life and the after-life. We become as little children in implicit obedience, and gain also the clear sight of a child. Prayer, then, is based on the knowledge of God, therefore on revelation, therefore on faith.

Consequently when I look at my prayers I must see what part faith or the Creed plays in them. I must get my faith quite clear, or at least as clear as I can, before I can settle down to pray. Before the Crib, or before the Tabernacle, I must begin by making myself conscious of what exactly I believe. I must go over in my mind the significance of the Incarnation; why did He come? what purpose had He in coming? what was He going to effect? what motive had He in coming? etc. I fix upon one single point and try to see really what I know about it. He came, for example, to redeem me. Yes, but what does Redemption mean? It is a common word, frequently on my lips; do I realize what it implies? . . . and so on. This is the only way to pray. Perhaps I begin at once in prayer by thanking or asking or praising; then I find I have nothing more to say; I am used up. Really I have begun all wrong; I have begun in the middle. Let me start always by some act of faith, and then go on quite slowly. Notice the liturgical prayers of the Church. They begin generally in some such fashion as this: "O God, who by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, etc.," i.e. they begin from some dogmatic truth. So, again, our Lord's own prayer, "Our Father, who art in Heaven." This, too, is a piece of information which faith alone makes known to me. If I leave faith aside, no wonder my prayers are dull, monotonous, a bore to me. But, then, I shall have to learn all about my faith? Certainly: I must go back to my catechism. I shall find prayer growing easier as my knowledge of God increases. The two run parallel, prayer and faith; the absence of either, or their disuse, paralyzes the practice of the other.

- text taken from Meditations for Layfolk by Father Bede Jarrett, O.P.