PRAYER: The Meaning Of Prayer by Dom I. Ryelandt

The Meaning Of Prayer by Dom I. Ryelandt

From The Quest for God

The secret of the serene grandeur of Saint Benedict’s moral outlook and of the perfect balance of his doctrine is to be found in the habitual elevation of his soul to God.  Saint Benedict was a man of prayer.

Every disciple of the Patriarch, even though he be living in the world, must have the earnest desire to supernaturalize his personal life by prayer.

Too often Christians think of prayer as being simply a hasty recitation of sacred formulas.  Through routine they fail to realize what an honor it is for man to be able to enter into relations with God, to converse with him.

It may be a help to us in our effort to raise up our hearts to God if we consider what are the necessary elements of all prayer.  To pray means to practice recollection – in his presence of God – in order to say something to him – placing our trust in Jesus Christ.


There is a secret affinity between silence and prayer.  It is important to cut oneself off from exterior noise, but still more important is it to achieve a silence or calm of soul.  If the soul is to be ready to receive God, if it is to raise itself up to him, it must be impervious to the whisperings of self-love and to the vehement appeal of the passions; it must also be able to silence the preoccupations, however legitimate of daily work, and duties.  Recollection consists in achieving within oneself this tranquility, this silence.

The angels, being pure spirits, are not under the necessity of exercising this self-control: they are completely self-possessed.  We, on the other hand, on account of our various faculties which are directed towards externals, are inclined to give ourselves constantly to exterior things, to waste ourselves on a variety of futilities: our thoughts, our memories, imaginations, sentiments, and our curiosity all contribute to our difficulty in withdrawing our attention to our inner selves.  Recollection means freeing oneself from this multiplicity of distractions and concentrating on our innermost self.

Recollection is the turning inwards of the mind to our inmost ego: Redire ad essentiam suam.  When a man is recollected he is therefore more essentially himself: he is setting up his true self in opposition to the life he lives at the superficial level.

Recollection in prayer tends therefore to unite the soul in an exclusive attention or rather in an exclusive affective movement towards God.  Distractions are a hindrance to this engagement of all the intimate powers of man in his intercourse with God.

When we gather flowers or reap the blades of corn, they are separate, but we can collect them, that is to say unite them in a single bouquet or a single sheaf.  It is the same for the soul when, entering into itself, it unites for a brief time all its scattered activities and orients them towards God alone.  The Lord becomes then the one center of attraction towards which all our inner aspirations tend and devote themselves.  When we pray with our whole heart we live for a few moments for God alone.

The pagan philosophers appreciated the importance of the habit of recollection.  “Look into yourself,” writes Marcus Aurelius, “there you will find the source of all good; it is an ever living source if you will draw from it”; and again he writes: “Nowhere can man find a more peaceful or more pleasing retreat than in the intimacy of his own soul.” (Thoughts)

We, as Christians, should be much more conscious than these wise men of antiquity of the value of silencing in ourselves these sounds of the outer world and stilling the hurly-burly of our idle thoughts so that we may unite ourselves in the sanctuary of the soul with the infinite source of all good.

In the presence of God

Recollection in prayer differs from every other kind of attention or reflexion.  When a man wants to resolve a theoretical problem or find a practical solution for some difficulty, he pauses; he takes counsel with himself alone.  In prayer, however, the Christian’s recollection is quite different; by it he is introduced into a presence, the presence of a personality which is invisible but supreme and immense.  And this personality sees us, welcomes us, and even loves us.  In prayer, whether it be vocal or mental, the inner consciousness of man is brought face-to-face with the omnipotence and love of the divinity.  In every prayer, even that of simple petition, a relation is established between two persons: God and the human soul are brought face-to-face.  This is why Saint Benedict attaches such importance to an attitude of respect in prayer.  “We must bear in mind,” he says, “how we should conduct ourselves in the presence of the divinity.” (chapters 19 and 20)

At death the soul is freed from its corporal dwelling; but after this separation it is itself again, having a purely intellectual consciousness of its own essence.  Whether it wills it or not it must enter then into that world of realities which we call supernatural.  We should think of this when we pray: through prayer we enter into communication, even in this life, with the powers of the next world: with the absolute sovereignty of God, with Christ, our divine Savior, with the Blessed Virgin, the angels and the saints.  We should try therefore in this life to make frequent contact with all these so that we may experience the same contact of soul in full and radiant hope when we approach the mysterious threshold of eternity.

This certainty that we can enter by prayer into the presence of God and that he is lovingly attentive to us in our poverty cannot spring from religious sentimentality.  We must have a firm and ready faith in the teaching of the church about God and his love.  This faith will protect us from false impressions: we must not fear God when we should cast ourselves into his arms; we must not think that God is indifferent to our wretchedness; we must not let our heart be captured by religious indifference; nor yet allow ourselves to be deceived by an exaggerated mysticism foreign to the spirit of the Gospel.  All these motives urge us to base our prayer on the certainty of truth.

What does our faith tell us?  That God is the “father of mercy,” (2 Corinthians 1:3).  There can be no doubt that he sees us and loves us.  Good will and the faithful quest for the divine are always of value in his eyes; our access to him is in no way hindered by our human weaknesses; on the contrary, if we admit them humbly, they are an added title to the outpouring of his mercy upon us.

Speaking to God

When we practice recollection in the presence of God we can sometimes “hear what he says to us in the secret chamber of the soul”: Audiam quid loquatur in me Dominus, (Psalm 84:9).  But the primary object of our recollection is to address our prayer to God, whether it be a prayer of petition, of thanksgiving, or of praise, or a simple acknowledgement of our misery, a cry of confidence or of love.  In thus addressing him we must be mindful both of the divine majesty and of our own insignificance.  What is God – and what are we in comparison to him?  Without words men would as a general rule find it impossible to express any sentiment to God.  Even in prayer, words are necessary for us to formulate and consolidate our thought.

However, there is no need to speak with our lips in our relations with God.  The fundamental thing in prayer is the movement of the soul, that is to say its interior attitude, its rising up to God.  This movement, which is perceived by the Lord, is the interior voice which is truly heard by him: It is thus that the psalmist prayed when he said: “My heart hath said to thee: my face hath sought thee”: Tibi dixit cor meum, (Psalm 26:8).

Even among humans it is often possible to communicate without speech: we can communicate our thoughts or our feelings by a gesture or even a look.  It can easily be understood therefore that God can hear our prayer even though we have not moved our lips.  He sees the sentiment of petition, desire, resignation, or thanksgiving which we have expressed in our heart.  These sentiments speak more eloquently than any words: “The speech of the soul,” says Saint Gregory, “is its desire; an ardent desire is a great cry from the soul.”  Even when the lips are silent,” says Saint Augustine, “the heart does not cease to pray”: Desiderium semper orat, etsi lingua taceat. (Enarratio in Psalms)

Saint Thomas defines prayer as: “the expression of the intimate desires of man to God”: Quaedam explication propriae voluntatis, (Summa III).  Elsewhere he says that: “Prayer emanates from the desire of charity”: Causa orationis est desiderium caritatis, (Summa II-III).

We find the same teaching in a collect of the missal: “O God before whom every heart lies open and to whom every will speaks”: Cui omne cor patet et cui omnis voluntas loquitur.  It is beyond all question that, unless there is a hidden movement of the will, prayer cannot exist.  We must not, however, underestimate the value of the words recited or chanted.  Though they are not the basis of our intercourse with God, they do constitute an integral part of it and this in three ways.

In the first place they express our inner feelings and thus help the faithful Christian to raise up his soul to God.  In the second place the words used play a very important role by way of suggestion: they provide a formula to which the soul adapts itself in order to converse with God.  By accepting the sentiments suggested by the words we make them the expression of our personal prayer.  Thus when we recite with attention the Pater, the Ave, or the Gloria, or any other prayer approved by the church, we adapt our thoughts and our sentiments to those of Christ as he bequeathed the Pater to his disciples or to those of the angel as he saluted Mary; we associate ourselves with the faith and the praise of the church as it glorifies the Trinity.  Finally, in collective prayer the words, the chant, and the ritual establish a union between the faithful.  In virtue of this union it becomes possible to offer to God an act of social homage.

In the act of prayer therefore we can distinguish the operation of two kinds of activity, which may be termed respectively superficial and inner activities.  The latter comprise all the intimate movements of the will, and it is these alone which give to the words recited or chanted the value of worship or prayer.  Among the superficial activities may be included the attitude we adopt for prayer, the use of our thoughts, our memory, our feelings, and the efforts we make to curb our imagination and to hold our attention fixed.  None of these activities in themselves in prayer, but, when inspired by the desire to pay homage to God and to seek him out, they become an integral part of our converse with the Lord and as such they are acceptable to him.  The interior activity, which alone is essential to prayer, is the act of the will.  It is the role of the will to seek God.  It is the seat of our desires, our fidelity, our resignation, our petitions, love, praise, and thanksgiving.

Relying on Jesus Christ

These three elements are common to all prayer, even among non-Christians.  The devout Mussulman at the hours appointed recollects himself, assumes a devout posture, and invokes God.  The same may be said of the Bonze, the Hindu, and every deist who prays to the God he believes in.  Christian prayer, however, supposes an entirely different outlook.  Our prayer is transformed by our faith in the Incarnation and in the communication which Christ has established between Heaven and Earth.  This faith brings our Lord very close to us.

In fact our raising up of our soul to God is the act, not of a mere creature, but of a son of the kingdom, a son by adoption.  It is, therefore, clothed as it were in Christ, the Son, by nature, supported by his grace and incorporated in his mystical body that we are permitted to enter into communion with the divine majesty, to approach the three persons of the Blessed Trinity and to say, Our Father.  The church gives us in her prayer an example of this constant reliance on the support of Jesus Christ.  The liturgical day centers around the mass, the sacramental immolation of the Savior, and every prayer concludes with the formula, per Christum.

Furthermore, as Saint Augustine says, our prayer is offered in the spirit of faith, hope, and charity, (Epistle 130, 9).  These three virtues are active dispositions infused into the soul so that it may live in Christ; that it may live in the religious truth which he brought to the world, in the life of eternity, and the strength of love which he alone can give us.

Self-adaptation in prayer

In every phase of existence man must adapt himself.  This is the price of happiness.  Every form of work, every social milieu, every state of life requires a certain adaptation.  Married life, widowhood, celibacy, sickness, convalescence, old age, all require each in its own way a certain readjustment of our habits, a certain adaptation.  We cannot achieve this readjustment without a constant effort.  It is only prayer and a deep respect for the divine will which can give us that support and that suppleness which are essential if we are to achieve this.

In order to help the Christian to pray better it may be useful to recall that, apart from mass and communal acts of piety, there are four ways in which we are all invited to approach God: vocal prayer, meditation, prayer in the strict sense of the word, and simple and general recollection of God during the various occupations of the day.

In practice, far from being exclusive, these different forms of prayer are often combined and mutually helpful.  We shall confine ourselves to a few brief suggestions.

Vocal prayer

Saint Benedict urges us to be watchful on two points: Apart from the prayers prescribed we must not lose ourselves in an excess of words: Non in multiloquio.  As we pronounce the words we must establish harmony between the mind and the lips, (chapters 19 and 20).  If in certain prayers such as the psalmody or the rosary it is not easy to have perfect attention to every word, we must make up for it as best we can by some general thought.  We should form the predominant intention of praising God or his blessed mother on Earth; or we might form the explicit desire to give a loving obedience to some directive imposed or suggested by authority.

As regards those short vocal prayers which we call ejaculations they are an efficacious support for the interior life.  We must be quite free in our choice of them according to our inclinations.  The important thing is the elevation to the supernatural, the movement towards God which the formula suggests.

We can make an act of faith with Saint Peter, saying: “Thou art Christ, the Son of the living God,” (Matthew 16:16).  Or we might take his act of faith: “Lord, to whom shall we go?  Thou hast the words of eternal life,” (John 6:69).  It is an excellent practice to make acts of the theological virtues when the occasion offers.


Meditation may be defined as: “reflecting, while conversing with God, on salutary truths in order to live better.”

On all occasions man has to reflect before acting and the same rule applies to piety.

If we are not to lose sight of the values which transcend this world, if we want to integrate the supernatural in our life, we must keep the great religious truths vividly before our minds, and this is done by calmly calling them to mind, deepening our knowledge of them and rendering it more precise.  This is what we call meditation.  It is a prayer because it must be carried out as we converse, tête-à-tête, as it were, with God, and as we invoke him.

According to Saint Benedict it is by spiritual reading, lectio divina, that we learn to reflect on the things of God and to strengthen our belief in them.  For him sacred scripture diligently read is the most fruitful book for meditation.  In every page, whatever its literary form and whatever manner of interpretation this literary form may require, God reveals himself as close to man and rich in mercy.

The writings of the Fathers of the church and many more recent books whose value is well established can also be of help to us.  We should use them freely, but we must always base our spiritual life on the solid certainties of faith.

Affective prayer

By arousing in us stronger convictions, meditation prepares the soul to make interior acts such as full acceptance of the will of God, gratitude towards him, confidence, and love.  It is when these holy impulses of the soul predominate and are constantly renewed that affective prayer in the strict sense may be said to begin.  When, after communion, a soul prostrates itself in adoration before the Savior, exposing before him its unworthiness and offering itself to him, it is making true acts of prayer.  This tends to establish the soul in an attitude of sincerity before God.

As a general rule it would not be possible for the soul to remain attentive without having recourse from time-to-time to some spiritual reflection or repeating some short formula.  For some it will be sufficient merely to repeat the name of Jesus in order to maintain or revive the interior spirit of union.

Normally prayer is at first discursive; that is to say we pass from one act to another without dwelling for long on any one of them.  But when the soul receives the grace of a more profound recollection, it remains for some time absorbed in a single impulse towards God.  This concentration on God, even though it may be of short duration, gives a certain unity in the depths of the soul, and orients it towards God alone in an attitude of humility, resignation, or it may be of simple union.

By devoting itself thus to prayer the soul arrives at a deeper realization of the supernatural relations to which it has been raised by virtue of its Christian faith and the divine adoption.  It learns to surrender itself to him who is the way leading to the Father; it unites itself to Christ the source of all life and sanctity, the one victim of the sacrifice who assimilates to himself our offerings and our personal sacrifice.

In prayer, with the help of divine grace, the soul can in all faith and humility live a life of close union with the Blessed Trinity.  Is this not the primary object of all charity?

Prayer, however perfect it may be, is never entirely spontaneous.  It is dependent first of all on the habitual quest for God proper to each individual.  This desire for God inspires every soul with greater or lesser intensity.  Secondly, faith, vivified by grace and by meditation on revealed truths, is always the foundation on which all prayer is based.  Finally, the power to raise up the soul depends to a great extent on the whole ensemble of our life: if it is lived in a spirit of interior purity, renouncement, fidelity to God and charity for our neighbor, it will call down on us the graces of prayer.  The quality of our converse with God, according to Cassian, is the fruit of our asceticism purifying our whole life, (Conferences, Prayer).

Prayer is a preparation for prayer: to enter into prayer means often resuming in the depths of one’s soul a prayer which has been in a certain sense prepared by other prayers which have been poured forth to God.  These have left in the soul an inclination to revive an act of love of God, above everything, to renew an offering, an admission of our misery, a trustful abandonment of self, sentiments already familiar to it.  These dispositions, hidden in the depths of our conscience, are there, waiting as it were, ready to come to life again, as soon as we are sufficiently recollected to penetrate the inner depth of our consciousness.  They are there within us, latent, but real; as though the heart were waiting for the quiet necessary to enable it to repeat to the Lord those words of submission and love which it had already spoken.

We may add in conclusion that, with the scriptures, the liturgy is a great school of prayer.  The feasts, the psalms, the hymns, the lessons, and the collects provide for all, ample matter for meditation.  As regards prayer in the strict sense the texts of the missal and the breviary are an admirable initiation to intimate converse with God: they suggest to us sincere attitudes of soul: they tend to infuse into the mind of the faithful something of the contemplative faith, of the holy wonder, the enthusiasm, the joy, and the confidence which are the properties of the prayer of the church.  In this way the liturgy fashions after its own manner the personal relations of the Christian with God.

Simple attention to God

Finally, there can be no doubt that to work, to converse, and to walk in the presence of God, as Saint Benedict teaches us, constitutes an habitual elevation of the soul to God.  It connotes an acceptance of our dependence on him and on his holy will; it supposes also, even though it be not explicitly affirmed, a loving quest for God.  These movements of the soul are within the capacity of every Christian.  They are constantly seen by God; they are for him an act of worship, a prayer.

Friendship is simply the appreciation by those who like each other of the harmony existing between them.  By frequent prayer an habitual communication based on confidence and holy love is established between the soul and the Lord.

This is the consummation, the crown, the elevation to which the Christian is conscious of having been called by the grace of baptism.

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