The Mystery and Power of Personal Prayer
I am continually amazed at how many Catholics forget the power of personal prayer. There are priestly, consecrated and lay apostles who make significant commitments to the active Christian life, including the Church’s liturgical life, but fail to nourish that commitment through personal prayer. There are Catholic parents who take their Faith seriously but seldom remember to pray for their children. And of course there are many relatively casual Catholics who fail to cultivate a personal prayer life of any kind.
Personal and Private Prayer
There is certainly great power in public prayer, especially the Mass and the Sacraments, by which Christ makes His divine life available to us in a pre-eminent way. Christ also taught that wherever two or three are gathered together in His name, He will be in their midst (Mt 18:20). But the power of Christ’s presence, offered to us in all the various forms of public prayer, cannot be absorbed and released into our own lives without personal prayer. For a deep combination of spiritual and psychological reasons, if we fail to pray personally, we not only miss many opportunities to do good, but we slowly smother our own relationship with Christ—no matter how many times we go through the motions of public or group prayer.
Although liturgical prayer can and should be intensely personal, we cannot learn to pray personally, or ever excel at it, unless we are willing to pray privately. Our Lord tells us this point blank when he warns us not to be hypocrites, who pray only in public, but to go to our rooms, close our doors and pray privately to our Father, who reads the secrets of our hearts (Mt 6). In fact, the New Testament speaks repeatedly about private prayer (and says comparatively little about any other kind). Jesus prayed at his baptism (Lk 3:21), He frequently went aside to pray alone (see Mt 14, Mk 1 & 6, Lk 5 & 6, etc.), He prayed at the time of his Transfiguration (Lk 9), He prayed that Peter would not fail in his faith (Lk 22), and He prayed mightily during his Passion (Mt 26, Mk 14). Even his great priestly prayer at the Last Supper (for all those the Father had given Him in the world) was an intensely personal prayer said in the presence of the Twelve (Jn 17).
Not surprisingly for one who prayed so frequently, Our Lord also taught often about personal and private prayer. He enjoined us to pray for our enemies and those who persecute, curse and calumniate us (Mt 5, Lk 6); He told us to pray for vocations (Mt 9, Lk 10); He urged us to pray against the temptations and trials of the end times (Mt 24, Mk 13); and He warned us to pray unceasingly (Mk 13, Lk 18, Lk 21). He also explained that we would receive whatever we asked in prayer (Mt 21, Mk 11), and He taught us the Our Father so we would know both how to pray and what kinds of things to pray for (Mt 6, Lk 11). The evidence abounds in the gospels, and this emphasis on personal prayer continues in both the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles.
Persistence in Prayer
In the many New Testament texts on prayer, we see Our Lord emphasizing again and again the need to pray persistently, without losing heart. He told two wonderful stories about the importance of persistence, one concerning a widow and an unjust judge (Lk 18), and the other about a man who needed to borrow bread from his neighbor in the middle of the night (Lk 11). Both the judge and the neighbor, neither of whom loved as God loves, succumbed to the onslaught of personal entreaty. Moreover, Jesus sometimes demanded that same persistence from others, as in the case of the Canaanite woman who actually had to argue with the Son of God that even dogs get the crumbs from under their master’s table (Mt 15, Mk 7). The result was that He healed her daughter.
After the story of the importunate neighbor, Our Lord so stressed persistence in prayer that it became a proverb: “I tell you, ask and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened” (Lk 11:9-10). But his next point is even more dramatic. What father, Jesus asks, will give his son a serpent when he asks for a fish, or a scorpion when he asks for an egg? This question is the prelude to Our Lord’s final and greatest lesson about prayer: If we who are evil know how to give good gifts to our children, “how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Lk 11:13)
The Holy Spirit in Prayer
Here Our Lord teaches us that the Holy Spirit is always at work in prayer. By way of introduction, I’ll offer an exceedingly small proof, but of a kind that is commonly experienced. On one occasion when I went to Church for my hour of Eucharistic adoration, there was a man sleeping in the back pew of the small chapel where the Blessed Sacrament was exposed. He was stretched out, flat on his back, and snoring loudly enough to distract even the greatest of saints! This annoyed me, but I decided to wait to take action until I’d spent a little time attempting to pray. Paradoxically, as time went on, the louder he got, the less it bothered me. Occasionally he stirred and muttered something like “Oh my God”, so perhaps he was praying too. In any case, left to my own devices, I would have been driven to anger, yet his unseemly noise soon sounded more like the music of another soul. Clearly, I wasn’t being left to my own devices.
Thérèse of Lisieux often fell asleep at prayer, and it caused her to glory in her littleness. I don’t recommend the technique, which was also employed by the apostles in Gethsemane, yet I leave it to God to understand the effort at wakefulness and render it fruitful, even if it fails. In any case, our topic is not sleep, but the Holy Spirit, Who is actively involved in all prayer. The magnitude of Christ’s teaching is precisely this: Personal prayer is a continuous motion of the Holy Spirit between the one who prays and the Father (or, indeed, the Son). It is the Holy Spirit whom the Father continually gives in prayer, and the Holy Spirit whom the Father continually receives back. St. Paul explains it this way:
We know that the whole creation has been groaning in travail together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves who have the first fruits of the Spirit groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies…. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. (Rm 8:22-27)
The challenge for us is that this astonishing and growing action of the Holy Spirit—this ever-deepening exchange of the Holy Spirit between ourselves and the Father—does not take place within us unless we pray personally, by which I really mean interiorly. There is nothing automatic about it, and the mere external use of rites, group prayers, or verbal formulas avails nothing. True prayer requires our personal, interior participation—that is, our determination to communicate with the Father, honestly lifting ourselves to God with whatever capacity we possess at the time. Even if all we can do is throw ourselves toward God in an occasional moment of fear or longing, we have made a beginning according to our capacity. The intention and the habit of personal prayer can be built on whatever beginning is within our power. It is up to us to practice, to exercise this initially limited ability to pray.
When we do this over time, the Holy Spirit becomes a fountain of life and power within us, uniting us to God Himself. Just as the theological virtues enable us to believe with God’s conviction, hope with God’s strength, and love with God’s love, so too is our capacity for prayer uplifted, amplified and perfected by the power of the Holy Spirit. For this reason, there is nothing on this earth more powerful than a person at prayer. Nothing is better calculated to overcome any conceivable obstacle, and we can give or receive no greater gift than prayer. Indeed, the success of everything else depends on our interaction with the Holy Spirit in prayer. Are we not foolish, then, to so often overlook what should be first, last, and always in our lives?
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