The dispositions that make prayer fruitful
Now let us tackle the question of discerning the genuineness of our prayer from a different angle: not the fruits it brings, but the way we set about praying.
A first point (which follows from what I am going to say later, but it is good to emphasize it) is that fidelity should be a principle quality of prayer. Jesus does not ask us to pray well; he asks us to pray without ceasing!
Faithfulness (if, of course, it is not just routine, but is motivated by a sincere desire to find God, please Him, and love Him) will produce all the rest. The main battle in the prayer life is perseverance.
As St. Teresa of Avila notes, the devil does all he can to get souls away from faithfulness to prayer, using every possible or imaginable excuse: it’s pointless, you’re not worthy to pray, you’re wasting your time, you’ll pray better if you put it off till tomorrow, there’s this urgent thing you really must do now, it would be a shame to miss that fantastic TV program, what are people going to think of you, etc.
St. Teresa explains that it is natural for the devil to put up a stiff fight on this point, for someone faithful to prayer is quite certainly lost to him. That person may still fall often, but after each fall he or she will have the grace to rise up again even higher than before.
In order to gain his end, the devil is quite right to use no half-measures on this point! Deceiver that he is, he knows that the souls who persevere in prayer are lost to him, that all the falls he brings about only help them, with God’s grace, to spring up again much higher than before and serve our Lord better: hence his determination on this point.
She invites us, therefore, to persevere in prayer,
no matter what happens or could happen, whatever the difficulties or nay-sayers, whether we reach our goal or perish on the way, whether we lack the courage to tackle the trials of the journey or the world collapses around us!
Prayer vivified by faith, hope, and love
The idea I am going to develop now is simple but very important, and it can provide us with some valuable markers on our personal journey, especially in dealing with the difficulties we meet in our prayer life.
It is this: our prayer will be good and fruitful if it is based on faith, hope, and love. It should be supported by the exercise of the three “theological virtues,” as they are classically called, which are given so much importance in Scripture (particularly in the teachings of St. Paul), because it is they that drive all Christian life.
Having decided to dedicate time to personal prayer, we can set about it in all sorts of different ways: meditate on a passage from Scripture; recite a psalm slowly; converse freely with our Lord; let our heart sing; say our Rosary or use some other form of repetitive prayer; just be there in front of our Lord without saying anything, in an attitude of simple availability or adoration; and so on.
We will return to these different possibilities later on; we are free to use them according to what suits us best at a given point.
What matters, however, is not what particular method we use, but to ascertain the basic dispositions of our heart when we pray. It is these inner dispositions, not a technique or particular form of prayer, that guarantee the fruitfulness of our prayer life.
What matters ultimately is that when we start to pray, when we use this or that method in order to pray, we base everything on inner dispositions of faith, hope, and love.
The gateway of faith
Prayer is essentially an act of faith. It is even the first and most natural way to express our faith.
If someone said, “I believe in God, but I don’t pray,” you could reasonably ask that person, “What God do you believe in? If the God you believe in is the God of the Bible, the living God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God with whom Jesus spent his nights in prayer, calling him ‘Abba!’—how could you possibly not feel the slightest desire to talk to him?”
Faith is expressed, renewed, purified, and strengthened when exercised in prayer. Even if we do not realize it (like Monsieur Jourdain in Molière’s comedy Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme, who had been speaking prose all his life without realizing it), as soon as we start to pray we are making an act of faith: that God exists, that it is worthwhile speaking to Him and listening for what He will say, that He loves us, that it is a good thing to spend some of our time with Him, etc.
Every prayer contains an act of faith that is implicit but absolutely fundamental.
It is very encouraging to understand that it is this act of faith that unites us to God. “The more faith a soul has, the more he or she is united to God,” says St. John of the Cross.
What brings about union with God is not feelings or thought processes, but faith.
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