The Prayer of the Poor

God (we must be convinced of this by now) can only come to meet us in the measure in which our love is real; and we can only find the realness of love on the road of pure faith; and the road of pure faith passes through that dark region where reason and feelings are reduced to their true dimensions, and "put in their place." Now, such a reduction, such a "stripping down," is required not only by the very nature of purification, but also by the Lord's usual manner of acting since he cannot come near us without our being touched by the fire of his agony and his cross. Those who approach prayer by way of meditation inevitably have to reach this same point, and if they remain faithful, the Holy Spirit will come at the appointed hour and break up the too reasonable, too rational arrangement of their "spiritual life." He will make all meditation impossible for them, so there will be nothing they can do but force their wills in the direction of God alone, beyond all thought and all feeling. For feeling is not prayer any more than meditation is. Feeling is inconstant, and it is only useful to beginners in helping to prime and train the upward movement of their wills. For love, true love, resides in the will.

It must be our absolutely firm conviction that the true part of prayer, the way to union with God, lies beyond feeling and beyond words and ideas. People's idea of prayer is often too small: it is neither real enough nor elevated enough. They do not really believe, not enough, at least, that God himself can come and make their prayer in them. Or else, when they do believe this is possible, they are inclined to think it can only succeed with a small number of people separated from the world, those whom the cloister provides with a framework of silence favorable to meditation.

But why should this be so? Are those who are prevented from meditating by the conditions they live in likewise prevented from praying? Is prayer, then, not above reflection? There is no meditating for the poor. Their minds are elsewhere, they do not have the necessary culture, they have no knowledge of the mechanism of meditation, or else they are too weary. Sharing the lives of the workers as you do, you must also share their way of praying. Your minds are no more ready for meditation than theirs when you come in half deafened by the noise of the machines in your factory, with your backs half broken from your work at the bottom of your mine, with your heads bursting from your long hours of farm work in the sun, giddy from the chemical fumes in your rayon shop, or heavy with sleep after your trawling expedition. How can you meditate? You cannot.

But, if you have the courage and are persistent enough, you can do this: with the simplest, plainest acts of faith and love, you can place yourselves before God, open your being to him, down to the bottom and just as you are, and await him there. There will be expectancy, joined to desire for his coming, and above all awareness of your powerlessness, your misery, and the insufficiency of yourcourage. The result will often be a painful prayer, a confused and muddled prayer, a prayer none too spiritual as far as appearances go. Yet the hunger for God, the hope of his coming which is always there in our depths, will be conveyed by the effort of your faith and the upright attitude of your bodies. For your wills will be praying, or at least desiring prayer and asking for prayer. On certain days, slender material like this will be all you have to present, and it will be for God to make out of it true prayer and a means of union with him.

You may have to use patience, and keep prodding your perseverance, despite your state of numbness or dullness or emptiness. For some of you such continual alertness in so greatly simplified an exercise of the theological virtues may have to last all your lives. Only God himself, who leads you as he thinks best, can tell. But you can indeed you must, all of you ask the Lord incessantly (and of course, humbly) to complete this meagre gift by coming and himself saying in you the ineffable prayer which he alone can say to the Father.

If you bring him your hunger and your hope of his visit, faint and subdued as it may the more often be, hardly recognizable for a prayer as it may seem to you—God can use it as a privileged means for true purification of the mind and the senses, and so lead you to divine union. I can also assure you that in the hard physical life you have adopted, there can be very true union under forms so simple—I might almost say banal—that it will not always be necessary for you to make the distinction.

This conviction must go to the bottom of your hearts. You must believe in such a road; believe that it is a shortcut to union with God in pure faith; believe that God will come and make your prayer for you without your necessarily being aware of it. If one fails to accustom oneself to the idea of formless prayer, it is because one does not believe this enough. And yet God's friends, the saints, have all been through it.

Indeed, if we will only recognize it, we well know that, in the end, when Christ does come into the souls of those who have faithfully desired and awaited him, the meeting has been coriditional upon only one thing: the generosity of a person's faith and love. Of course everything here is the Lord's free gift, and he bestows it as he wishes. But even so, his promise remains:

"If anyone loves me, he will be true to my word; and then he will win my Father's love, and we will both come to him, and make our continual abode with him" (John 14.23).

At the end of any process of evolution in prayer, all find themselves in one and the same mode of union with God, which is without form and without ideas. The routes will have been different, though the direction which the work God's Spirit takes is always the same in all. The route for the Little Brothers is different from that of religious and other persons living apart from the world; and again, for the greater number amongst us, it will not pass by meditation as a usual thing. Or, if it does pass by meditation, it will only be over a short distance: we shall quickly find ourselves constrained to get onto the more obscure road that is the absence of feelings and consolations and mental images, with everything this entails in the way of moments of "dryness" beyond our control, and inner emptiness. Our humble perseverance— humble, but nonetheless full of the desire of Love—will bean entreaty to God to step in and transform all this into a purification of our faith.

Such being our method of prayer, our life of work is not to be thought of as something inferior, an adversity for us to undergo. It is to be approached as something to be resolutely embraced as a privileged means of purification for us and, if God so wills, of introduction into the free gift of divine union. So let it be our desire to go straight into prayer of pure faith, t however painful. Our inability to meditate, though resulting from purely material external circumstances, can then become, under the divine action, a veritable passageway to this kind of prayer. The Lord's promise (remember the sons of Zebedee!) is nothing different. I am certain he accepts such a shortened itinerary where the poor are concerned. But in order to merit that acceptance, I think one must be humble and really little.

You may also put aside alt fear of losing your way by this route. There is nothing to be afraid of, unless it is not persevering with enough courage. This, in fact, is the one essential condition. It is the one thing Jesus has demanded of us. There is something very remarkable in the fact that, when one brings together all of Jesus's teachings on prayer, one finds that they contain practically only one recommendation: perseverance. He repeats and repeats, and keeps coming back to the subject with different parables, all bearing on the same theme—so much so that the discovery is almost disappointing! One would have expected something more "interesting" in the way of initiation! It all seems so rudimentary that one wonders at first whether there has not been some mistake. And some people remain convinced that this is in fact the case; they go looking elsewhere for "directions" that will better satisfytheir curiosity or their taste for the complicated.  The truth is too simple for them.

But people who react like this forget something, the Lord's recommendation to importunate perseverance, in an act he well knew would be so unappealing to our humanity, shows precisely that he means to do the rest himself.

"Ask, and the gift will come; seek, and you shall find; knock, and the door shall be opened to you. Everyone who asks will receive; who seeks will find; who knocks will have the door opened" (Matthew 7.7-8).

So let us not go searching about for other methods than the one the Master of prayer himself has indicated. I do not think we could do much better... If one can correctly say that the Gospel offers a "set of rules" for prayer, it is certainly the best set of rules for the prayer of the poor, for nothing is proposed there that is beyond their reach.