In the Gospel reading from Thursday, the Lord teaches the need to persist in prayer.
Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened (Matt 7:7-8).
Seeking and knocking indicate persistence. While we might look for something briefly and then give up if we don’t find it, seeking implies an ongoing, perhaps lengthy search. Similarly, we don’t usually knock by softly tapping a door just once and then leaving if there’s no answer; we rap sharply a few times, and if no one comes forth we’ll usually try a few more times.
So, the Lord uses images of repetition for prayer. Indeed, the very word “repetition” comes from Latin roots denoting vigorous, repeated asking (re (again) + petere (to ask, beseech, or even to attack, go at, or strive for)).
Repetition, by its nature, is often vigorous and even pestering. Jesus teaches this concept in the parable about the persistent widow:
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray at all times and not lose heart: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected men. And there was a widow in that town who kept appealing to him, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ For a while he refused, but later he said to himself, ‘Even though I do not fear God or respect men, yet because this widow keeps pestering me, I will give her justice. Then she will stop wearing me out with her perpetual requests.’” And the Lord said, “Listen to the words of the unjust judge. Will not God bring about justice for His elect who cry out to Him day and night? Will He continue to defer their help? I tell you, He will promptly carry out justice on their behalf. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:1-8)
This is a funny parable! In effect, though, Jesus says that we should pray and not lose heart, that we should call out to God day and night. He is teaching us to pray in such a way that we wear the Father out!
Here’s another passage in which Jesus teaches persistence:
Then Jesus said to them, “Suppose one of you goes to his friend at midnight and says, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, because a friend of mine has come to me on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And the one inside answers, ‘Do not bother me. My door is already shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up to give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up to provide for him because of his friendship, yet because of the man’s persistence, he will get up and give him as much as he needs (Luke 11:5-8).
There are other examples, such as the Syrophoenician woman who kept asking Jesus to heal her daughter despite being ignored and even rebuked (Matt 15:20-24), and the blind man at Jericho who kept crying out to Jesus despite being told by the crowd to be quiet (Luke 18:39).
Ponder well this teaching and learn to persist in prayer. Pray to God in such a way as to wear Him out. Yes, pester God a bit. The Lord himself teaches us this. God is neither deaf nor grouchy, but for reasons of His own He wants us to be persistent in our prayers. There may come a time when we are able to discern that His answer to our request is no, but until that is clear, keep knocking, keep seeking; rinse and repeat. Wear God out!
To say that something is “necessary” is to declare that it is so essential that to be without it causes grave if not deadly harm. The word comes from Latin: ne– (not) + cedere (to withdraw, go away, yield). The root sense is that what is necessary is something from which we cannot stray, something from which there is no withdrawal, something we cannot evade. There is an expression in Latin, sine qua non, which literally means “without which not.” Its fuller meaning expresses something so essential that without it, other required things cannot proceed.
Do you see prayer in this way, as necessary, as essential? Do you view at something without which other things cannot happen? Sadly, it would seem that many do not. Prayer is something easily postponed. It’s something to be done if the mood is just right, or if we have an urgent need. It is seldom scheduled and easily skipped in favor of almost any other activity. We seem to be able find time for everything else, but prayer is easily set aside—I’m busy; I’m tired; I forgot; something came up.
These sorts of issues arise because most people don’t really view prayer as necessary.
But prayer is necessary. St. Augustine said, “God who made us without us, will not save us without us.” Jesus stands at the door and knocks (see Rev 3:21), but we must open the door of our heart for him to enter and feed us. Prayer is our way answering, of opening the door. Little else will happen until we open the door each day to Him.
This brief column is not intended as an exhaustive exposition on prayer. Rather, it is intended to remind us that we should see prayer as a necessity. To that end, here are just a few quick thoughts underscoring the essential nature of prayer.
Jesus said, This sort of demon can only be driven out by prayer (Mk 9:29). Those who do not pray and are not prayed over may suffer intractable demonic attacks.
Jesus said, Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation (Matt 26:41). Deadly temptations will certainly assail us if we do not pray. How can we expect to avoid serious temptations and Hell if we do not pray?
Jesus said that we must always pray and not lose heart (Lk 18:1). We must pray, we mustnot give way to discouragement.
James said, You have not because you ask not (James 4:3). How many gifts are lacking for us and others because we do not pray? Some gifts are only unlocked and sent forth by prayer.
John Chrysostom said, “As the body without the soul is dead, so the soul is dead without prayer” (Homily lxxvii). We are dead without prayer!
Augustine said, “God gives, without prayer, the first graces such as the vocation to faith and to repentance; but all other graces, and particularly the gift of perseverance, he gives only to those who ask them” (De Dono Persev, xvi). Notice that it is only to those who ask!
Thomas Aquinas said, “Now after baptism man needs to pray continually, in order to enter heaven: for though sins are remitted through baptism, there still remain the fomes (tinder) of sin assailing us from within, and the world and the devils assailing us from without. And therefore it is said pointedly (Luke 3:21) that ‘Jesus being baptized and praying, heaven was opened’: because, to wit, the faithful after baptism stand in need of prayer” (Summa Theologica, III, q. 39 art. 5).
St Teresa of Avila reasoned, “Ask and you shall receive … then he who does not ask will not receive.” Now that is some straightforward wisdom!
Alphonsus said, “He who prays is certainly saved; he who does not pray is certainly lost” (Considerations on the Eternal Maxims 13.2). Prayer is necessary! It is the sinequanon.
Pray, my brethren; pray. Pray for the gift of prayer. Pray for the desire to pray. Pray! Prayer is necessary; it is essential.
We do not always know everything we should pray for; we do not always remember to pray for everything. God knows our weakness. But failing to pray as a general norm is deadly to our life and our salvation.
It is hard to overestimate the convenience of praying the Liturgy of the Hours from an online breviary. Not only are they convenient but they also help to lessen the complexities that often go with setting up the traditional book. For example,
Do the psalms come from the day or the Common?
Do we use the Common of Pastors or that of the Doctors of the Church?
Do the Advent weekday prayers and antiphons outrank the sanctoral ones?
Is today a memorial or a feast in the U.S.?
Setting the ribbons correctly can be a challenge, and the complexity of the “rules” during the Octave of Christmas is almost nightmarish.
The availability of these breviary apps has lessened the likelihood that we are without a way to pray the Liturgy of the Hours merely because we don’t have our prayer book with us. Most of us today are rarely without our cell phone close at hand.
So, what could be the problem with using an electronic breviary? The problem is the loss of the “sacred.”
To say that something is “sacred” not only indicates that it is holy but that it has been set aside for a unique and special purpose. For example, the chalices used at Mass are not ordinary cups. They are set apart for only one special use: to contain the Precious Blood. It would be wrong to use them in the rectory for a dinner party. It would also be wrong to bring ordinary cups over from the rectory to use as “chalices” for the Precious Blood. Sacred things normally have but one use or are used only for things related to God and the worship of Him.
This also applies to sacred books and texts. In the liturgy it is expected that we normally read the prayers and readings directly from sacred books such as the Lectionary, the Book of Gospels, and the Missal; liturgists and bishops’ conferences have generally frowned upon using digital readers. For example, the bishops of New Zealand banned the use of iPads as Missals in the liturgy, explaining that because “iPads and other electronic devices have a variety of uses, e.g., playing games, using the internet, watching videos, and checking email,” the bishops have decided that “This alone makes their use in the liturgy inappropriate” [*].
Cardinal Robert Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, has a similar view: “Perhaps it is very practical to pray the breviary with my own mobile phone or tablet, but it is not worthy: it desacralizes prayer” [**]. This is not a formal instruction from him in an official capacity, but his views should elicit thoughtful consideration even when it comes to the private recitation of the Liturgy of the Hours.
Some may consider such objections fussy or puritanical, but I think they make some sense. A sacred text, as a general norm, deserves a sacred book where it is preserved and from which it is read.
General norms are not absolute norms, so there will be exceptions, even generous ones, given the pace and mobility of modern life and the seeming need to have many things at hand. Perhaps one is traveling or wants quick reference to the texts in order to pray on a busy day. Maybe the complexity of the Divine Office, which can serve as a barrier to the laity with less liturgical background, can be overcome with the use of a cell phone app to direct prayer.
Striving to protect the general norm of keeping sacred books and texts together accomplishes certain worthy goals. Let me mention just two.
First, it reinforces the idea of the sacred, which has been so eroded today.
To some degree, our sacred actions should look, feel, sound, and be sacred or “set apart” from ordinary things. For example, church buildings should look different, sound different, even smell different from the world around them. Their essential function should be as a place for the worship of God; they should not merely be assembly halls.
The liturgy itself should have a sacral character. In the past this was emphasized by the use of Latin, particular styles of music, and specific gestures and tones of voice. Much of this has been lost today and it is often a difficult or even controversial path to bring it back. Even if the vernacular and a wider variety of music have their place, the sacred “otherness” and “set apart” quality of the Church and the liturgy has severely diminished.
Praying the breviary out of sacred books is a small step in the right direction. This is certainly more important in public recitations of the breviary, but even in our private recitation there is value in keeping that sacred time an experience that is at least somewhat “set apart” from ordinary things.
Second, it reminds us that prayer should involve some sacrifice.
We live in times when people are unduly insistent that everything should be convenient, easy, and fast—and often quick to become indignant when that is not the case.
There will be times when it is helpful to have immediate access to the breviary texts, but we ought not to forget that in biblical thinking, prayer and sacrifice are joined. The notion of prayer without sacrifice is a modern Western one. Biblical prayer involved offering a “sacrifice of praise.” Thanksgivings were made by way of sacrifices such as the offering of first fruits and libations of wine and oil.
Demands for worship that is convenient, quick, and with little cost are not usually indicative of a heart full of extravagant love (see Luke 7:44-47).
We do not want all forms of prayer and worship to become so burdensome or difficult that people avoid them, but certain small sacrifices such as using the sacred book even in private recitation of the breviary can be an act of love and a step back from the excessive insistence on convenience.
As I hold the breviary each day, I feel that I am holding God’s people in my hands as I pray for them and with the universal Church. I just don’t get that feeling when I pray using my iPhone.
More could be said, but allow this to suffice. Please accept these thoughts as general norms or observations; they are not absolutes. There are exceptions we ought not to presume that anyone who does not follow this way of thinking is impious. Every now and again, though, we do well to consider the meanings of even small actions; it is part of living a reflective life.
What is the value of one prayer? I suspect it is far greater than any of us imagine. Prayer changes things, sometimes in obvious ways, but more often in subtle and even paradoxical ways. But prayer is surely important, even when we don’t experience its immediate effects. Perhaps this is why Jesus taught us to pray always and never to lose heart (cf. Luke 18:1). St. Paul echoed this with the simple exhortation, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17). St. James also warned, “You have not because you ask not” (James 4:2).
Praying for the living is a great and wondrous spiritual work of mercy; its value is beyond that of gold or pearls. What is the value of one prayer? The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man is powerful in in its effects (James 5:16). Prayer can avert war, bring healing, cause conversion, bestow peace and serenity, and call down mercy—sweet, necessary, and beautiful mercy. Prayer is a treasure of inestimable value.
Perhaps one of the greatest joys of Heaven will be seeing how much of a difference our prayers made, even the distracted and perfunctory ones. Maybe our simple utterance at the end of a decade of the rosary to “Save us from the fires of Hell” and to “Lead all souls to Heaven” will reach the heart of one lost soul, prompting him to answer the gentle call of God to return. Imagine that in Heaven that very sinner comes up to you and says, “Though we never met, your prayer reached me and God applied His power to me.” Imagine the joy of many such meetings in Heaven. Imagine, too, whom you will joyfully thank for their prayers, people you know and some you never met. But they prayed and the power of their prayers reached you.
While the value of praying for the living is not widely disputed, praying for the dead is a spiritual work of mercy that has suffered in recent decades. Too many Catholics today “miss a step” when a loved one dies. There are often immediate declarations that the deceased is “in Heaven” or “in a better place.” But Scripture doesn’t say that we go right to Heaven when we die. No, indeed. First, there is a brief stopover at the judgment seat of Christ.
The Letter to the Hebrews says, It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment (Heb 9:27). St. Paul writes, For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2 Cor 5:10).
Our deceased loved ones go to the judgment seat of Christ, and that is worth praying about!
What is the judgment for those who lived faithful lives? In such cases, the judgment is not merely about the ultimate destination of Heaven or Hell. The judgment would seem to be “Is My work in you complete?”
Indeed, the Lord has made all of us a promise:You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Mat 5:48). Such a beautiful promise! Yet most of us know that we are not in such a state now. If we were to die today it is clear that much work would still be required. Thus when we send our faithful loved ones to judgment, although we send them with hope, we are aware that finishing work may be necessary. Purgation and purification are necessary before entering Heaven, of which scripture says, Nothing impure will ever enter it (Rev 21:27).
Again, this is worth praying about. It is a great work of mercy we can extend to our deceased loved ones, to remember them with love and to pray, in the words of St. Paul, May God who has begun a good work in you bring it to completion (Phil 1:6). Pray often for the souls in Purgatory. Surely there are joys there for them, knowing that they are on their way to Heaven, but there are also sufferings that purgation must cause. St. Paul says of Purgatory, Each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire (1 Cor 3:13-15). Yes, there is fire, but thank God it is a healing fire. There are tears, too, for Scripture says (regarding the dead) that Jesus will wipe every tear from their eyes (Rev 21:4).
How consoling and merciful our prayers must seem to our beloved who have died! Our prayers must seem like a gentle wind that speeds them along, onward and upward toward Heaven!
Praying for the dead, then, is the last and greatest spiritual work of mercy. By the grace of it, and through its help, souls attain the glory God has prepared for them from the foundation of the world.
The Collect (Opening Prayer) for this week’s Masses (27th Week of the Year), though directed to God, teaches us that our prayer is not always about things with which we are comfortable. It sometimes leads us to examine areas of our life in which we struggle with sin or we struggle to desire to be free of sin. Here is the prayer:
Almighty ever-living God,
who in the abundance of your kindness
surpass the merits and the desires of those who entreat you,
pour out your mercy upon us
to pardon what conscience dreads
and to give what prayer does not dare to ask.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, forever and ever.
After asking for God’s mercy and acknowledging that He offers us more than our minds can grasp, we make the following two requests:
[May you] pardon what conscience dreads.
[May you] give what prayer does not dare to ask.
[May you] pardon what conscience dreads.
The Catechism states the following regarding our conscience:
Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. His conscience is man’s most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths (# 1776).
Our conscience is not merely what we think or what it pleases us to think; it is the voice of God echoing in our depths. Whatever rationalizations we use to try to suppress our conscience, the voice of God still calls us deep inside. Deep down, we know very well what we are doing and we know when it is wrong. No matter how many “teachers” we find who will tell us what our ears want to hear, that voice is still there.
I suspect that this is why the world and its devotees are so angry at the Catholic Church—we remind them of what God says. If our teachings were merely regarded as outdated opinions, the world would not hate us, would not be at war with us. No matter how emphatically people deny that their consciences trouble them, deep down inside they know better. The louder these denials, the less we should be convinced. Why are they forever insisting that the Church change her teachings? If we’re just a pathetic and outdated institution, why do they care what we teach? Because deep down they know that we are right and do not like to be reminded of it.
Our words, the words of Christ, touch something; they prick the conscience and remind people of things they know inside but would rather forget. The voice of God echoes within, convicting them and inciting within them a godly dread of sin and its ultimate consequences.
This is true for believers as well, who, though not as openly hostile, would still prefer to avoid the voice of their conscience and do not enjoy the holy dread of sin it engenders. Note that not all sorrow for sin is from God. St. Paul distinguishes godly sorrow (which draws one to God for healing) from worldly sorrow (which deflates the sinner and has him despair of God’ healing love or of being able to change). The proper dread that conscience incites is always a call of love from God, who bids us to repent and return to Him.
Still, we avoid what conscience dreads. Who likes to experience fear or negative feelings?
However, prayer must often ask us to look honestly at the less pleasing things in our life. This prayer bids us to listen to the dread of conscience (dread of sin and of its due punishments) and to seek pardon.
[May you] give what prayer does not dare to ask.
Some argue that the translation of this clause is not a good one. The Latin used is quod oratio non praesumit. Some prefer a softer translation in which the phrase asks God to give us the things that we are not worthy of requesting, things we do not presume to ask for because it would be too bold for us to do so. Such a translation does not offend the Latin text but does seem to miss the overall context: asking God to help us to overcome personal resistance.
We have already seen how and why many of us resist what conscience dreads and would rather be not hear the voice of God echoing inside, but consider that we resist asking for many things out of fear.
The classic example of this is St. Augustine’s request that God make him chaste … but not yet! Though he could see the value of chastity, Augustine enjoyed his promiscuity and was afraid to ask the Lord to remove something he liked.
There are many things we dare not ask for because we fear actually getting them. The attitude is “Ask not lest ye be answered”! For example, many are not ready to be chaste or to be more generous; they fear the changes that such things would bring. In such situations perhaps one could pray, “Lord, if I’m not chaste, at least give me the desire to be chaste,” or “Lord, if I don’t share sufficiently with the poor, at least give me the desire to do be more generous.” If we begin to desire what God is offering, we will be more chaste and generous we want to be. The fear of what prayer does not dare to ask abates. Then we are ready to ask God for what He really wants to give us.
The prayer is asking us to look at our resistance and fear and to pray out of that very experience rather than suppressing or denying it.
Consider well, then, the beautiful, though difficult and daring invitation of this prayer. Though directed to God, it also bids us to look within and to admit our fears and our resistance.
How do you think of prayer? Is it another thing you “have to do” among many other things on your list? Or is prayer a time when you refrain from doing? Is prayer a requirement you regret or a rest you relish? What is prayer for you?
The danger in answering questions like these is that we may answer them the way we think they “should” be answered rather than in an honest way. Many struggle with prayer and experience it with a lot of negativity: boredom, distraction, drudgery, and so forth.
The fact is, prayer is tough. We are very sensory by nature and used to seeing and hearing the one to whom we speak. To encounter God in silence and without sight is unfamiliar, jarring, and challenging. Some use icons or pictures, some a prayer book; some pray before the Blessed Sacrament. But in the end, the eyes of the flesh cannot see, only the eyes of the heart, the eyes of faith can. This is not only difficult, it is obnoxious to our flesh (i.e., sinful nature), which demands to see and hear on its own terms. And the flesh wages war on our spirit (cf Gal 5:17) and like a fidgeting child protests all throughout prayer.
Of course the best way to address this problem is with honesty. Without honesty we don’t really have a spiritual life. A true journey to God requires that all the masks come off, that all the little lies we like to tell ourselves and all the deceptions be set aside. Start with honesty.
Praying out of what is – When people tell me they have a hard time praying I say, “Then THAT is your prayer. Tell God how absolutely bored you are when you pray. Tell Him that you would rather do just about anything than pray to Him. Tell Him that when it occurs to you that you should pray, or when some crazy priest reminds you to pray, your heart sinks and you put it off and put it off. Tell God you hate praying … And do you know what you are doing as you tell Him all this? You are praying!”
Yes, this is prayer.
“But Father, but Father, I can’t talk to God like that!” “Why not?” I say. God already knows that this is how you feel. It’s a pretty silly thing to sit in front of God wearing a mask that He can see right through: but all things are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account (Heb 4:13). Five minutes of a prayer of honesty is better than two hours of a prayer of rhetoric and “stained glass” themes that we don’t really mean. Pray honestly; talk to God about what is really going on.
The Book of Psalms is the prayer book of the Bible and it has God for its author. And notice how plain-spoken the psalms are.
Every emotion, every experience is grist for the prayer mill: joy, serenity, victory, thanksgiving, petition, anger (even anger at God!), rage, vengefulness, disappointment, loss, grief, fear, and despair. It’s all there and more. There are even psalms that ask God to harm or kill our enemy (69, 109, 137). Even the beautiful Psalm 139 ends with the request that God slay the wicked. But these are feelings we have from time to time and God wants us to talk to Him about them. If the Book of Psalms is a directive for prayer (and it is), then God wants us to speak to Him about everything, even the darkest and most sinful of things. Prayer is conversation with God. But it has to be honest.
And something starts to happen when we become really honest in prayer. Little by little, it becomes more relevant to us and we even start to like it a bit. Now don’t tell your flesh that! But your soul starts to breathe; it starts to exhale. When all the little self-imposed, unbiblical rules about prayer and all the things we’re “not supposed to say to God” get set aside, the soul enjoys freedom, and the honesty is refreshing.
And little by little, prayer becomes not so much another thing to do as it is a rest from all our doing. It is a time to rest, to exhale, to sigh, and to be refreshed by the simple act of being honest with someone who loves us and whom we are growing to love. Someone who, before ever a word is on our lips, knows it through and through (Psalm 139:4). Prayer is the freedom to be honest, to rest from the labor of wearing masks, and to be relieved of the restless anxiety about what others think or expect of us. Prayer is a sigh of truth, a rest from the contradictory demands of an often phony world.
Consider this description of prayer from St. Anselm:
Insignificant man, escape from your everyday business for a short while, hide for a moment from your restless thoughts. Break off from your cares and troubles and be less concerned about your tasks and labors. Make a little time for God and rest a while in him. Enter into your mind’s inner chamber. Shut out everything but God and whatever helps you to seek him. And when you have shut the door, look for him, speak to God … (Proslogion, Chapter 1).
Yes, speak to God. Be honest. Tell Him what is really happening. If you need a manual to assist you, get a good Bible or copy of the psalms—one that gives a title or a brief sentence describing its content. Find one that suits you on this particular day and then read it, slowly. Before long, as the weeks and years tick by, you’ll find you are speaking on your own, in psalm-like honesty. Some of us even grow silent over the years, as words no longer seem necessary or even possible: cor ad cor loquitur (heart speaks to heart).
And when words seem difficult to come by, just sigh. St. Augustine says, This task [of prayer] is generally accomplished more through sighs than words, more through weeping than speech (Letter 130, to Proba). It may seem a strange thing, but sighing is very relaxing, and much is released from the soul by it. I have often thought of Gregorian Chant as a musical sigh to God, and it brings me great peace. I am blessed to have a cavernous Church and to be able to read and sing Chant there.
So pray. Pray honestly. If words are hard, just sigh or sit quietly. But pray. Watch and wait for the Lord. It’s not work, it’s rest.
There is another old hymn that speaks of the delights of true and honest prayer. It is the old classic, “Sweet Hour of Prayer.” Note its lyrics and then answer these questions: “Is this how you think of prayer? If not, why not?” What if your prayer were less “rule-bound” and more just time you spent apart from this dreary world and with God? Pray these words and ask for their reality:
Sweet hour of prayer! sweet hour of prayer! That calls me from a world of care, And bids me at my Father’s throne Make all my wants and wishes known. In seasons of distress and grief, My soul has often found relief, And oft escaped the tempter’s snare, By thy return, sweet hour of prayer!
Sweet hour of prayer! sweet hour of prayer! Thy wings shall my petition bear To Him whose truth and faithfulness Engage the waiting soul to bless. And since He bids me seek His face, Believe His Word and trust His grace, I’ll cast on Him my every care, And wait for thee, sweet hour of prayer!
Sweet hour of prayer! sweet hour of prayer! May I thy consolation share, Till, from Mount Pisgah’s lofty height, I view my home and take my flight. This robe of flesh I’ll drop, and rise To seize the everlasting prize, And shout, while passing through the air, “Farewell, farewell, sweet hour of prayer!”
One of the great night prayer hymns, “All Praise to Thee My God This Night,” appears in numerous hymnals of the English tradition. Sadly, it is not in our current breviary, but I hope that the new one might feature it. It was written by Thomas Ken in 1709 and is most often sung to the beautiful tune of Tallis’ Ordinal, which you can hear in the video below.
Ideally, night prayer should include acts of thanksgiving and praise to God along with repentance for any sins committed. Night prayer is also a time to ponder death and ask God’s graces to be prepared for death and judgment.
This hymn does all of that and more. It is beautiful English poetry, edifying and wonderfully descriptive in just a few verses. It is worth printing out and keeping by your bedside.
Allow me to list its verses and then follow with a short commentary on its themes.
All praise to thee, my God, this night,
for all the blessings of the light:
keep me, O keep me, King of kings,
beneath thine own almighty wings.
Forgive me, Lord, for thy dear Son, the ill that I this day have done; that with the world, myself, and thee, I, ere I sleep, at peace may be.
Teach me to live that I may dread The grave as little as my bed; Teach me to die so that I may Rise glorious at the Judgment Day
O may my soul on thee repose, and with sweet sleep mine eyelids close; sleep that shall me more vigorous make to serve my God when I awake.
When in the night I sleepless lie, My soul with heavenly thoughts supply; Let no ill dreams disturb my rest, No powers of darkness me molest.
And when shall I, in endless day, Forever chase dark sleep away; And hymns divine with angels sing, All praise to thee eternal king?
Praise God, from whom all blessings flow;
praise him, all creatures here below;
praise him above, ye heavenly host:
praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
As I often do, I have named the themes that are set forth in the hymn using alliteration.
Praise – All praise to thee, my God, this night, for all the blessings of the light. For indeed, every good and perfect gift comes from above, comes from you, Lord, the Father lights (James 1:17). The verse bids me to praise you, God, for “all” the blessings. Some of your blessings come in strange packages, but as your Scripture says, all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose (Rom 8:28). Therefore, at night we ought to acknowledge that “all is gift.” Some gifts are obvious; others only show themselves as gifts later. Even our sufferings produce glory if we are in your Christ. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all (2 Cor 4:17). Thus I begin, O Lord, my night prayer, praising God for all your blessings of the day, the obvious and the not-so-obvious.
Preservation– keep me, O keep me, King of kings, beneath thine own almighty wings. That you “keep” us, Lord, surely means that you guard and protect us. And surely we need your protection. Without you we are sitting ducks; we are low-hanging fruit for the evil one. And while this is true in our waking hours, it is even more so in our sleep, for while sleeping we have even less authority over our thoughts. Night is the time of dreams, not all of them good or pleasant. Night is a time when some of our defenses are down and we cannot make sense of every thought or dream. Protect us, Lord! Do not allow Satan, our flesh, or the vain remembrances of worldly things to overwhelm our sleeping minds! Speak your truth to us even as we sleep. Guard our hearts from fear and sinful inclinations!
Pardon – Forgive me, Lord, for thy dear Son, the ill that I this day have done. Yes, even in the bright of day I have sinned. I need your mercy, Lord. Without it I do not stand a chance. My sin is a kind of sickness. So forgive me, but also heal me. Forgive me, Father, considering the death your Son endured for my salvation. Look beyond my fault and see my need. May my sins be nailed to the cross; may my soul be washed in the Blood of the Lamb!
Purified – that with the world, myself, and thee, I, ere I sleep, at peace may be. Of course there is no peace without the forgiveness of sin and the reconciliation with the Father. I need your peace, Lord, not the false peace of the world, which demands silence and compromise with sin in order to avoid conflict. I want to be at peace with the world, by your grace, so that I am no longer enamored by its false promises. I also seek peace within myself, so that with my sins forgiven I no longer am troubled by my conscience, which rightly condemns my unrepented sins. And most fully, I seek peace with you and know that it is my sins alone that separate me from your peace. Yes, Lord, I need your mercy; this alone brings true peace.
Pondering death – Teach me to live that I may dread, the grave as little as my bed.I know, Lord, that for me each night is a dress rehearsal for death. For indeed in a moment I shall lose consciousness and be dead, in a way, to this world. I shall lie in a bed not unlike the coffin in which I will one day rest. As I lie down may I ponder the sober reality that one day I shall lie down and never arise again in this world. Too easily, Lord, when I lie down at night I am assailed by thoughts of resentment, lust, vainglory, or the fear of men and worldly things. Help me, Lord, to ponder death. And may I ponder not only in fear but in longing. For it is death that will bring me out of this exile, this valley of tears, to you! May my fear of death be only of a sudden one for which I am unprepared. Spare me, O Lord, from dying while in serious sin. Preserve me in your grace and love!
Prepared for judgment – Teach me to die so that I may rise glorious at the Judgment Day.Yes, Lord, keep me in your paths; order my steps in your word. Teach me to die daily to my pride and to all sin. Tonight I die to pride because I admit that I am weak and cannot carry on without rest; I am not so strong after all. If I must arise in the night, I stumble about in the darkness and fog of sleepiness. May I learn the lesson of the night and die to myself and to my pride. And through this humility may I thus be able to rise glorious on Judgment Day, trusting in your mercy and grace, for my own strength is inadequate.
Peaceful – O may my soul on thee repose, and with sweet sleep mine eyelids close.Yes, Lord, holy dreams and peaceful slumber grant to me! But it shall only come to me if I sleep upon the support of your love and promises. Keep me stable on the firm foundation of your love. Hold me close with cords of kindness, with ties of love and be to me like a Father who lifts a little child to the cheek on a journey (Hosea 11:4).
Purpose – sleep that shall me more vigorous make to serve my God when I awake. I do not ask these gifts for me alone. I know that I must be strong and rested in order to be able to serve well. I humbly admit this and seek your blessing for my rest, that I may serve you and your people more vigorously, generously, and zealously. Help me, Lord. Without you I fail. Give me peaceful rest that I not fall in battle or under the weight of office.
Protection– When in the night I sleepless lie, My soul with heavenly thoughts supply; Let no ill dreams disturb my rest, No powers of darkness me molest. Too easily, Lord, the evil one assails me while I sleep with thoughts of discouragement, fear, or sin. Please, Lord, surround me with your protection; fill my thoughts with heavenly things. My dreams are often distorted and confusing. Grant me the grace to ignore such disordered (and usually meaningless) rantings. Order my thoughts; give me the remedy of remembering holy things in the confused hours of early morning or in fitful sleep. Enable me to remember that such thoughts are of no import other than to remind me of my need for you and the goodness, beauty, and truth of your godly order and light. Soon enough morning will come and the haze of the dark hours will scatter. From the confusing hours of darkness, from the grip of disordered thoughts, rescue me, O Lord.
Pining – And when shall I, in endless day, Forever chase dark sleep away; And hymns divine with angels sing, All praise to thee eternal king?Yes, Lord, when shall you give me wings to fly away and be at rest with you? I have a natural fear of dying, but my soul longs for you in the night, and daylight will still find me sighing for you. Some bight morning when this life is over, I’ll fly away to a home on your bight, celestial shore. May I die loving you and my neighbor. Meanwhile, Lord, keep me faithful until death and help me to remember that all my desires are really about you. I cannot wait to see you. With every day may I run faster to you, who are the desire of my heart and of the everlasting hills. Soon, Lord, soon may I sing forever to you in Heaven even as I now feebly sing this hymn of the night. May these nights usher in endless day.
In setting forth her teaching, I have substantially reworked the order of her reflections. St. Teresa was able to see the “whole rose” of the topic, jumping from petal to petal without effort. I, being of a vastly inferior intellect and of far less purity of soul, must look to the individual petals in a certain order to understand. If you wish to read the passage in its original order, it is available here: St Teresa on Humility in Prayer.
Following is my presentation of her teaching as best I am able. In effect, St. Teresa summons us to trust in the Lord’s answer to our prayers rather than insisting on our own preferred outcomes and worldly measures of success.
Let’s look at her teaching in five stages. St. Teresa’s teaching is presented in italics while my remarks are shown in plain red text. The passages below are taken from the book The Way of Perfection by Saint Teresa of Avila, virgin (Obras de la gloriosa madre Sta Teresa de Jesus, Tomo 1, Madrid, 1752: 30:1-4 pp. 526-528).
The Prayer Plan –Therefore, the good Jesus bids us repeat these words, this prayer for his kingdom to come in us: Hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. See how wise our Master is! Our good Jesus placed these two petitions side by side … But what do we mean when we pray for this kingdom? … It seems to me that this point deserves serious attention.
Many conceive of prayer as a time to tell God what we need. Intercessory prayer surely has its place, but it ought not to dominate. As St. Teresa reminds us and the Our Father teaches, we ought to acknowledge more consistently the holiness and wisdom of God and seek His kingdom and will in our lives.
Hence, prayer is seeking God’s will, not announcing our own. We all have our preferences in life. We would rather be healthy than ill, financially well off than destitute, in peace than at war. Our ultimate goal, though, is to trust that what God wills or allows is what is best.
Is God holy for us, or is he just a butler who should fetch what we want? Do we love the God of all consolation or merely the consolations of God? To pray, then, is to disclose our heart and seek to conform it to the Kingdom and to the will of God.
The Perfect Picture – O Eternal Wisdom, between you and your Father that was enough; that was how you prayed in the garden. You expressed your desire and fear but surrendered yourself to his will.
St. Teresa points to Jesus Himself as the perfect picture. His human preference is for the cup of suffering to be taken away, but His deepest desire is to be conformed to His Father’s will:
And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matt 26:39).
We are saved by the human decision of a divine person. To be freed from suffering is appealing to Jesus, but not so appealing as to cause Him to violate His Father’s will. Nothing could do that.
Jesus is the ideal picture of prayer. His heart is perfectly united to the Father and His lesser human desire to avoid suffering is subjugated to His ultimate desire: to do whatever the Father wants. It is for us to journey toward this perfect picture. As we grow in the grace and love of God, we increasingly want what He wants, even if it is challenging, even if it leads us to martyrdom.
The Persistent Problem –But as for us, my Lord, you know that we are less submissive to the will of your Father …. You see, the gift our Lord intends for us may be by far the best, but if it is not what we wanted we are quite capable of flinging it back in his face. That is the kind of people we are; ready cash is the only wealth we understand.
Nothing plainer or more accurate could be said. It is normal to have certain preferred outcomes in life and in general it is not wrong to petition God for these things, but we are often very particular about what we want and so quick to become crestfallen and resentful if we do not get what we want, when we want it, and in just the manner. In addition, our desires are too easily worldly and vain.
So often our Lord must repeat what He said to James and John: “You do not know what you are asking” (Mt 20:22). St. Paul also reminds us, For we do not know how we ought to pray, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groans too deep for words. (Rom 8:26).
Thus, we must ask humbly, realizing that God knows what is best. He sees a more complete picture and understands that simply giving us what we want often leads to troublesome results. Despite our momentary disappointments, we often come to realize that some of God’s greatest gifts have been the times when he said no or gave us something other than what we sought. It is interesting, for example, that no matter how many times God warns about wealth in the Scriptures, most of us still want to be wealthy. Our desires can be obtuse and close us in on worldly and fleshly things.
Recall the words of Jesus to the crowds who wanted another free meal after He multiplied the loaves and fishes: Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you (Jn 6:27). Jesus was speaking of the Eucharist, His very self, but they just wanted ordinary bread. They were behaving like the ancient Jews, who tired of the miraculous manna, calling it wretched (Num 21:5), and pining for the melons and leeks of their slave years in Egypt (Num 11:5).
Yes, indeed, all we understand is “ready cash,” as St Teresa observes. How we must wear God out!
The Particular Petition – My Lord, could you not have included all in one word by saying “Father, give us whatever is good for us?” After all, to one who understands everything so perfectly, what need is there to say more?
For our prayer to grow, and our desires to be purified, a simple and filial trust of the Father is the key:
Whatever you want, O Heavenly Father, I want it too. I know it will be best. Even if my first emotional response is less than happy, I know that my truest happiness will be in whatever you will for me.
While the Lord Jesus directs us to present our needs to Him and to persevere in our prayers, it does not follow that we should give God detailed instructions. Doing so would be controlling, not trusting. It is enough to say, “Here are my needs, my concerns. I know that you will do whatever is best. Whatever you want, Lord, I will be fine knowing that you have heard and answered in your own way.
Indeed, there is no safer or better place in the world than inside the will of God. St. Teresa reminds us that humility in prayer comes finally to this: “Father give us whatever is good for us.”
Of course, whatever is good for us is that which will best lead us to Heaven. Hence, St. Teresa concludes with a vision that should always be before us.
The Palliative Perception – Of the many joys that are found in the kingdom of heaven, the greatest seems to me to be the sense of tranquility and well-being that we shall experience when we are free from all concern for earthly things …. Loving him is the soul’s one concern. Indeed it cannot help but love him, for it knows him. Here below our love must necessarily fall short of that perfection and constancy, but even so how different it would be, how much more like that of heaven, if we really knew our Lord!
I use the word palliative here to mean healing. We must look to Heaven to see our prayers and desires healed. There is an old saying, “The end is the beginning.” If we know our destination, then every other decision we make is directed toward that destination.
For example, if I am driving from Washington, D.C. to New York City, I can freely disregard signs for roads that lead south or west, knowing that they will not help me to get there. Even if I have to wait in heavy traffic, drive through heavy storms, or pay tolls, I am not overwhelmed because I know that every mile north and east gets me closer.
In our spiritual journey, we must meditate often on our destiny. Our goal is to be with the Lord forever. Our destination is Heaven, that beautiful place beyond description or imagination, where we are at peace in the presence of our God, lost in wonder and awe, and caught up into the great trinitarian dance of love. Looking into the beautiful face of God for which our soul yearns, all our lesser and often petty desires of this world will be gone.
As St. Teresa notes, however, all this doesn’t have to wait for Heaven. Even here in this world, as we grow to know the Lord more deeply our desires become purer and our prayer more humble. Increasingly, we come to be able to say what St. Thomas Aquinas did when asked by the Lord what he wanted: Nil nisi Te, Domine, nil nisi Te (nothing but You, O Lord, nothing but You). St. Teresa adds her hearty amen.