The Prayer of the Poor

Night is coming on. I can hardly see now as I sit by the rock of the Agony. Even in broad daylight, the sombre purplish stained-glass windows give almost no light at all. It is so dark that one is compelled to pray without the help of a book, to pray with one's naked being, to pray with the whole of oneself just as one is... But a thoughtful Franciscan Brother has just brought me a candle, so now I can go on with my letter.

I have many things to say to you about prayer, but they are things which are very difficult to express. To enable you to grasp realities like these, something more than my words would be desirable. I know that only too well. It would take personal experience, that which the Spirit of Jesus alone can give, through secret intuitions. Even the words that came from the Lord's own lips were not enough to complete the apostles' apprenticeship in prayer.

I am thinking of what happened on this very spot, how, after two years of living with the Master of prayer, the best among the apostles were still incapable of "watching" with him "even for an hour." For "the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak." Since you know you too have been chosen by him, is that not the first thing to remind yourself of? Indeed, how could 1 allow myself to think that any teaching of mine could do more for you than Jesus's own words?

What I nevertheless must do is show you how to find the road along which God can then lead you. The heaviness, the helplessness you sometimes feel when you try to pray make you wonder whether there is not some extraordinary method which, could you only find it, would put you on the right road at last. I do not believe there is any such method. And if there were, it could certainly not be at variance with what the Lord has already told us in the Gospel. Jesus was and indeed will always remain, the supreme Master of prayer, not only because of what he knew, but because he prayed better than anyone had ever prayed before him or has ever prayed since. In other words, Jesus lived perfect prayer, and that in the midst of a life which was particularly harassing and sometimes almost overpowering.

The ultimate reason why Jesus must be the master of your prayer, however, is that he alone can put into your minds, your memories, and your hearts the true spirit ofprayer, that gratuitous gift of love. No one ever knows how to pray until Jesus himself has taught that person from within.

Each time the Gospel notes that Jesus wished to have some of his apostles go off and pray with him, it also notes that they went to sleep. Yet they had been specially selected on each occasion. On Mount Tabor, while their Master was conversing with Moses and Elijah about his approaching death,

"Peter and his companions were sunk in sleep" (Luke 9:32)
At Gethscmane,
"He went back and found them asleep; and he said to Peter: 'Simon, are you sleeping? Did you not have the strength to watch even for an hour?'... And when he returned, once more he found them asleep, so heavy their eyelids were; and they did not know what answer to make to him" (Mark 14.37-40).

But Jesus became neither impatient nor discouraged. Why should we become discouraged then? The apostles were strong, rugged men who, for instance, often had to do their fishing by night and were therefore accustomed to catching up on their sleep as they could. And who of us, in the utter weariness of our working life, has never known our body to take its revenge on our spirit in this way? Why, one simply drops off to sleep all of a sudden, anywhere one happens to be. I imagine the Lord himself may well have sometimes made up during the day for the nights when he had been too besieged by visitors to be able to sleep enough, or when he had gotten up to pray too early in the morning. During the crossing of the sea in bad weather recounted in St. Mark, was he not "in the stern, asleep on the pillow there" (Mark 4: 38)?

I remind you of these things because they put us full into the reality of the Gospel atmosphere, and we are thenmore at ease approaching the problem of prayer in our life as Little Brothers. There is really very little to worry about here. Jesus, in spite of it all, succeeded in finding the way to work upon his apostles' hearts enough for them to be able to learn how to pray.

Yet it is not to be concluded from this that you have nothing else to do but wait for the Spirit of Jesus to visit you. You must go to meet the Spirit, you must "fight your way in at the narrow door." You must "fight your way" in prayer and, at the same time, await the Lord, if you are to really pray. There is nothing contradictory about this. Except when the Lord does come and do everything himself, you must make room in you for two different but equally necessary realities: hope of his visit (and this hope must be humble and ceaselessly renewed) and expectancy of his visit (and this must be effortful). Let me now explain a little what I mean.