The Prayer of the Poor

The problem seems to boil down to this. How are you to meet the conditions requisite to authentic prayer in your working life, and how are you to engage in it generously? This is your constant concern. You may even, at times, have believed it impossible. Face to face with the problem in all its gravity, I confess that at times I too have felt that I was at the start of an unfamiliar and terribly narrow and dangerous road. I have wondered whether I had any right to urge you upon it. But I knew I could not do otherwise. Experience, our own, but still more that of the saints, and the Lord's word in the Gospel, plus the sense of the Church's tradition with regard to prayer, were there to assist my reflection and give me assurance. What I haveto say to you now I can therefore say with a feeling of complete security. The steepest roads are often the best and quickest: the traveller is less inclined to loiter on the way up. Such, I believe, is the road which Jesus wishes to see his Little Brothers climbing.

In my letter from Mar-Elias I pointed out that one of the chief objections people made to ourkind of life was that the noise and fatigue that go with it, and the mental fatigue resulting from the long, hard, physical effort, would seem to remove all possibility of our having a genuine prayer life. I also said I would have more to say to you on this point, it is too important. It is important for you, but also for the millions of poor, the millions of workers who, in order to live, are obliged to subject themselves to work which often weighs on them too heavily.

I knew there had to be an answer to this objection. god was clearly pushing us toward a more complete sharing of the lot of the poor, while at the same time giving us a deeper sense of our vocation to prayer. Then, too, consulting the Gospel, it certainly did not seem that Jesus had ever wished to make prayer something rare, something reserved to people with enough leisure and quiet to be free to, say, indulge in preparatory meditation. That was hardly what he meant when he said.,

"Come to me, all you that labor and are burdened...and you shall find rest for your souls" (Matthew 11: 28-30).

Yes, we must accept the fact: when the time for prayer comes we will most often be incapable of meditating, incapable of really thinking. There must therefore be some other way for us to meet God in prayer.

Now, let it be perfectly clear that, over a certain length of time (longer for some, shorter for others), our dialogue with God will normally and properly begin with an exchange in which ideas, imagination, and emotions will all play a part. After that, however, the dialogue must progress toward a place within us which lies well beyond the senses, beyond mental images and thought.

You must never, at any stage, be afraid of simplifying, nor of meeting God as you actually are. During the beginning period of your prayer life, a period which may last for some time, just open your Gospel, for instance, or your Old Testament, not so much for the purpose of meditating on the divine words as simply to "be" there under their light, slowly reading and re-reading a few verses without trying either to analyse or discuss them with yourselves.

Or you may wish to vary by reciting silently, and equally slowly, the Our Father or the Hail Mary or some other prayer, letting the words sink into you one by one. I cannot help thinking, as I write this, of the rhythmical repetition of the "Jesus Prayer" which our brothers and sisters of the East have been so fond of using for so many centuries.

All this is simple, and easily compatible with the fatigue of your long days of hard work. You will also find it helpful to return to these "beginning" practices from time to time all along the road.

On the other hand, never allow yourselves to become dependent upon any means or method. The way we must go to God is with our entire being, as best we can. We go to him, first of all, through all those human activities which are made "supernatural" by the presence of grace within us. But even before that, and this becomes truer the farther we advance, we are carried into him by the living faith, the living hope, and the living charity within uyou are going to need a great deal of courage. You must therefore know that acting out these virtues in no way depends on how we feel when we do it, on any sense of "consolation" it might give us. It is enough for us to know that we are children of God, and to be certain that we will to give ourselves to God. The best part of us is not the part we feel. We are inclined to forget this. Certainly our thoughts, our acts of will, and our feelings can help us to be conscious of ourselves. But our nature as God's children is beyond our perception. Indeed, which of our faculties would enable us to see the imprint of our baptism, or to touch the reality of the divine life within us? "Religious emotions" take place nearer the surface, and they have other causes than the sensible consciousness of our being as a child of God.

It is by moving in this other direction that you will be able to arrive at a lively exercise of faith, hope, and charity. And this is already very true prayer, stripped almost beyond essentials, as it were. The Lord may then come and complete his mercies in you himself. For you are not to imagine that such divine action can be prevented by your leading the life of the poor. It is quite to the contrary for you, for whom that kind of life is precisely your vocation. The monotonous, hard daily toil can leave God more immediately free to act in you (in the measure of your faithfulness), if he so wills. It can make it easier for him to carry you along in the movement of his own love.

It is unnecessary that you feel this going on. Prayer is never more real, never deeper, than when it occurs beyond the field of our sensible consciousness. Those whoreally pray lose sight of themselves and look only in the direction of God— with a gaze of pure faith, hope, and love, unconsoled by anything sensible, and often without any feeling whatsoever. We must be firmly convinced of this if we are to envisage the evolution of our prayer life with confidence.

In fact, it is when confidence seems to be lacking, when there seems to be nothing for us to lean on, that we begin to be active ori that plane which is truly divine. It is when we think things are taking a bad turn for us that our inner lives at last start taking the shape which God wishes. When we go on in sheer faith; when we simply "hold on" before the Blessed Sacrament without knowing too well either how or why; when we place ourselves at the service of others without feeling any desire to do so, with nothing appealing to us in it; when the words of the Gospel or the Liturgy seem bereft of all power to move or attract, then it is (if we have been faithful and if God so wishes) that the mystery of faith is accomplished in us, and we begin to enter the region of our souls where divine life flows. From this perspective, and from this perspective alone, once we are properly convinced of the truth of it, we can fruitfully reflect upon the problem of prayer.

Meditation, then, is not prayer. At the most, meditation can be a preparation for prayer, and for some, the way in. The road God offers us is the one we should desire. We must pray as it is possible for us to pray and not worry ourselves by trying to pray in a way which cannot be ours. I do not mean that meditation has no part to play for us. I shall come back to the subject in a moment. I only mean that meditation and prayer are two different things, and that meditation is not even essential as a preparation forprayer when God assigns us another road. And there is another road.

Moreover, meditation can sometimes become an obstacle to prayer, a screen between God and us, a road so easy that one is inclined to tarry on it. It takes effort to leave the wide open road for one that is a steep climb. Yet nothing else will do.