I am presently reading some of the writings of Saint John Henry Newman, our most recent British Saint. He writes on various subjects and the book I am reading just now is his work ‘Meditations And Devotions’ – this offers reflections on various subjects; reflections for the month of May and on various feasts and titles of the Mother of God; on the Stations of the Cross; and on numerous points of Christian doctrine.
I was curious to discover what Saint John Henry Newman had to say in his general writings about prayer and I found that he offered some very common sense thoughts on the matter. He is explicitly clear on our need for prayer, first of all –
“Prayer is to the spiritual life what the beating pulse and the drawing of breath are to the body.”
Clearly, then, prayer is a spiritual activity which is not simply good, which is more than necessary, and which is, in fact absolutely crucial. Our spiritual lives cannot continue to truly be ‘alive’ without prayer. It maintains spiritual life in us.
Elsewhere, Newman places a very healthy caveat on our prayer. He tells us –
“Learn to do thy part and leave the rest to Heaven.”
Prayer, then, is our part – together with whatever good works we are able to do, for faith requires works to really come to life. ‘Believing’ without ‘doing’ is not enough. But once we have placed an intention before the Lord in prayer, we then need to really, really trust Him – our cause is in His hands now, and could be in no better.
Newman also reminds us that prayer is not an escape from the world or from our duties or our necessary activities. Prayer is part of a broader whole. He writes –
“I sought to hear the voice of God and climbed the topmost steep, but God declared; ‘Go down again – I dwell long the people’.”
In other words, our faith should propel us toward others – never away from them. This makes me think immediately of the first two Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary; once the Blessed Virgin consents to God’s plan and understands what He asks of Her, the first thing She does is go out to help Her cousin, who is in need. I note that She does this immediately (“with haste”, as the Gospel phrases it) and that She remains there for some time. Her place in the plan of the Almighty does not remove Her from others – on the contrary, it directs Her precisely toward them. The love of neighbour always follows the love of God – and it should be the same in our prayers.
Having a strong prayer life does not insulate us from the general trials, difficulties and sorrows of life – but it does allow us to frame them in the best possible way, and it enables us to see a purpose in them. Saint John Henry comments on this point also, when he writes –
“There are wounds of the spirit which never close and are intended in God’s mercy to bring us nearer to Him, and to prevent us leaving Him by their very perpetuity. Such wounds then may almost be taken as a pledge, or at least as a ground for a humble trust, that God will give us the great gift of perseverance to the end. This is how I comfort myself in my own great bereavements.”
These brief quotes from our Saint may come as great insights to us, or they may simply reflect what we already feel within us; regardless, they are useful to us in the pursuit of prayer and in helping us to place it correctly within our lives.
Image: stained glass window detail in the private oratory of St John Henry Newman, Oriel College, Oxford.