It is striking to notice what a fascination the very mention of the word prayer has for every type of human being. Describe a man as a man of prayer, and you mark him as something exceptional, something to be revered; mean what you say when you so describe him, and you do him the greatest honour that one man can do another. A man of prayer is understood to be a man apart: he is assumed to possess a learning, and sources of learning, which the best of Universities cannot give him; he sees visions and dreams dreams which the deepest of poets cannot fathom; when he speaks, his words are full of wisdom; when he chooses to act, he is known to be guided by an understanding, an insight, a deliberation, a maturity of judgment which make his deed ineffably fruitful. The man of prayer is the power in the world that tells, the summit of human perfection which is at once our pride and our desire; perhaps also sometimes our despair. Or again, let a book on prayer be written, and it is astonishing how great will be the number of its readers; let it become known that it really does teach something of profit, and its immortality is well-nigh guaranteed. From all this and much more besides the fascination of prayer is manifest; there can be little doubt that human nature longs to pray, that it longs to know how to pray, that to learn how to pray is one at least of the cravings of every human being.

And yet the disappointment of it all! For how many does the desire to pray aright end in something very like despair! At first it seems an easy and sweet thing; the books seem to make it natural and progressive, a straight high-road, with hedges and ditches on each side, and innumerable sign-posts to point the way. The lives of the Saints, and even the lives of some around us who are not yet saints, seem to show us prayer as a realized fact, an habitual atmosphere, and not a mere succession of experiments; and we are led, indeed we are almost compelled, to conclude that it should be the same with ourselves, that if we ourselves were better men, or if we were better instructed, it would be so, and that if we fail it is due either to ourselves and our lack of effort, or to our ignorance of the science. We try to remedy the evil, and the evil always remains; if we seem to succeed in removing it for a time, it still for ever returns. We hunt about eagerly for hints and suggestions, and the hints we get come to nothing. We try new books, we listen to new teachers, we adopt new methods, we alter our subject-matter, and the result is always the same. We go round and round in a circle; our prayer makes no progress. On the contrary, it becomes a weariness; the old interests drop off, the old attractions grow stale, the old order changes, and there is no new order to take its place, and we fall to the ground dizzy and distracted by the unceasing round upon round of the same monotonous routine.

This is surely not as it should be. What is more, it does not appear to have been always the same. Ancient spiritual writers tell us much about prayer, they explain and combat many other difficulties in its way; but the particular kind of despair which is now so common is almost unknown to them. It seems to belong to our own generation, our own peculiar understanding of life; and, indeed, this is probably true. Probably we should find, if we examined closely, that in this, as in other matters, the meaning of the word has changed; that our definition of prayer differs not a little from the definition of it accepted by our forefathers; that we look for that in prayer winch they never dreamt of seeking; and that much of our disappointment is due, not to the prayer itself, nor to any want of progress on our part, but to the simple fact that we fail to find in it that which, if we were wise, we would never try to find.

The first and greatest hindrance to prayer is sufficiently obvious when examined. It arises in part from the spirit of the age in which we live; but partly, too, from the practice of a thing in itself very good. This is an introspective, self-analyzing generation; our novels are full of it, our conversation teems with it, our poetry is almost nothing else. We tear our poor hearts to tatters to see how they are made. When our hearts wince beneath our probing fingers we call ourselves martyrs; when they cease to beat altogether we grow melancholy, disappointed, morbid. So is it, or so is there danger of it being, in the spiritual life as well. At first when we begin to pray there is all the joy of unreflecting childhood in its practice; we leap forward generously to the light, and run, with dilated hearts, in the way of God's Commandments. But presently we are warned to be cautious; we must not go too quickly, in a sense we must not be too expansive, for fear we make a fatal mistake. The warning is only too welcome to a nature such as ours. Immediately we begin to stop short and analyze. We become two persons in our prayer, one of whom watches the other; while we try to pray we also try to study ourselves praying. We analyze our motives, our methods, our results; some fruit that God in His goodness has given us in prayer, we think to gain again by some device of our own. We are no longer little children skipping in the sunshine, we become the nurse that watches lest they fall; or rather, we try to be both nurse and child in one, and so end in being neither. We lose that spontaneity, that simplicity, that self-annihilation in prayer without which progress and relish are impossible. We prevent the bulb from growing by constantly examining its roots; by picking at every bud we destroy all hope of blossom or fruit.

This is not the method of the Saints, not of any one of them. There is much more in prayer than mere Examination of Conscience, more than the mere framing of a resolution, very much more than self-analysis, self-gratification, or the study of one's relation with this life; the very definition of prayer, framed by theologians and Saints, accepted by the Church, and taught to her children young and old, does not include any of these. Prayer is, as the Catechism tells us, "the raising of the mind and heart to God". Self-examination and resolution may be included in it; they are in no way its essential parts. I may examine myself that my prayer be made better; I may discuss the prayer itself that faults may be avoided in the future; resolutions may be the outcome of my prayer, the reaction, as it were, upon this life after one has had some insight into the other; but above and before all else it is the raising of the mind and heart to God that matters, and my prayer is then best when I do this most effectually, leaving earth alone, leaving myself alone, realizing God and even a very little of that which He means, and letting my tiny soul prattle to the Lord in whatever feeble way it may, once it has come in contact with Him. This is of the essence of prayer; without it prayer is not. The most perfect examination of conscience, the most pointed of resolutions, if made for their own sakes, or based on rational motives, and without raising mind and heart to God, may not be rightly called prayer. On the other hand, prayer is possible without either examination or resolve; though underneath it all it is difficult to see how prayer that is deep will not, implicitly at least, contain both the one and the other. He who raises mind and heart to God cannot but be and become a better man; and to become a better man must involve somewhere both self-examination and determination.

It follows from all this that prayer has many forms and many grades. There is no one "method" that satisfies all souls, or even the same soul at all times; and the Jesuit Father was himself an experienced man of prayer who used regularly to advise his clients: "Pray the way you like best." Indeed, this is the one way to learn, the one way to make progress. Prayer is not a philosophy; it is not an abstract science; it cannot be learnt from books; it cannot be taught by theory. To know about prayer and to be a man of prayer are by no means always the same thing. Prayer is a life, an activity, and to make progress in it we need to practise it according as we know it. This alone keeps prayer true; and prayer that is not true is futile vanity, if not worse. This alone keeps prayer real, part of ourselves; and prayer that is not that is sheer imitation. Let us learn to take our poor little souls as we find them. Some of us, a very few, may possibly begin high; the majority of us, who are none the less "called to be Saints," will find perfection on a lower gradient. But whether high or low, our best will be according to our powers; and only by using the powers we actually possess can we learn to do more. For some prayer will be the constant repetition of a word, or a phrase, or a form; for others the concentration upon a single thought or idea; for others, again, who aspire to meditation, a sequence of thoughts leading from one definite point to another; but all - be it never forgotten - raising the mind and heart to God. If I do that I succeed in prayer, from whatever starting-point I set out, in whatever way I proceed, at whatever goal I arrive.