Often people attempt to launch into prayer without any preparation. Getting ready to pray is like an artist preparing a canvas, stretching and priming it to receive the inspired work of art. God is the artist who stretches and primes our hearts to receive His Word in prayer. Prayer is first of all God’s work in us and secondarily our work of cooperating with his gift. We begin our preparation by examining our attitude toward prayer. Have you ever held your breath under water until you had to surface for more oxygen? Prayer is as important to our supernatural life as oxygen is important to our natural life. We need prayer and we need it regularly in order to live the fullness of the life of grace. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit is the breath within us to supply our oxygen, praying in us with inestimable groanings (Rom. 8:26). We only need to breathe in and out in cooperation with the Spirit’s activity.
Are we convinced that prayer, like breathing, is the most important thing we can do? In the gospels, Martha was the sister who was anxious and concerned about many things, especially the sacred duty of hospitality toward none other than the Lord himself. And yet Jesus showed Martha what the highest level of hospitality meant. He pointed to Mary who was sitting at his feet offering him her entire attention, receiving his love and teaching – a symbol of the soul in contemplative prayer. He told Martha that one thing was necessary and that Mary had chosen the better part. Jesus tells us that the one thing necessary is prayer that will encompass the many things that make up our busy lives. Jesus himself practiced what he preached, rising before dawn (Mark 1: 35) each morning to pray to his Father in heaven before engaging in his exhausting ministry. In giving priority to prayer, we are imitating Christ.
Prayer is less about what we accomplish than what God is doing within us. We live in a culture that values achievement above everything else. We feel we must accomplish something in order to feel useful, and we base our self-worth on our achievements. But in prayer we simply receive, enjoying reality and the holy Trinity of persons. We don’t need to justify our existence before God but simply be in his presence. God may in fact move me to activity, but for now I am content to abide in him as he abides in me. The founder of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary, Venerable Bruno Lanteri, wrote: ”In order to facilitate prayer, it is necessary to know that force, study, is not required, but only a word, a sigh, a desire ever so light, a desire in its birth, a desire that we haven’t developed fully in the heart, this same disposition of the heart has already passed through the heart of God.” God desires us in prayer and his desire for us leads us to desire him in return. In prayer, we discover our deepest desire is for God and that only he can satisfy us.
The best preparation for prayer is to stay focused on our desire for God.
Father Greg Cleveland is the author of Awakening Love, due out from Pauline Books and Media in October!