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Cardinal John Henry Newman's Thoughts on Prayer

by Ian Ker

In order to live in Christ's presence, one must pray, for prayer is "divine converse." Not to pray is not to "claim" one's citizenship in heaven." Apart from having "a natural effect, in spiritualizing and elevating the soul," prayer makes "the next world" a "reality" to the Christian.

Prayer and fasting are the so-called wings of the soul, and they who neither fast or pray, cannot follow Christ. They cannot lift up their hearts to Him. They have no treasure above, but their treasure, and their heart, and their faculties are all upon the earth; the earth is their portion, and not heaven.

It would be impossible for Newman to talk about prayer without referring to the indwelling of the Holy Spirit: since we are, in the words of St. Paul, temples of the Holy Spirit, our prayer is really the work of the Holy Spirit. But prayer also reveals to us the fact that the Spirit is present in us: for "as our bodily life discovers itself by its activity, so is the presence of the Holy Spirit in us discovered by a spiritual activity; and this activity is the spirit of continual prayer. Prayer is to spiritual life what the beating of the pulse and the drawing of the breath are to the life of the body." The reason contemplative prayer does not come naturally to us is that the fall has deprived us of ‘man's happiness in Paradise, not to think about himself or to be conscious of himself:|" — "for what is contemplation but a resting in the thought of God to the forgetfulness of self?" And Newman urges the importance of meditation, of "thinking habitually and constantly of Him and of His deeds and suffering . . . And by this, and nothing short of this, will our hearts come to feel as they ought." It is through prayer that we receive the spirit of holiness, Newman explains with a striking image:

We have stony hearts, hearts as hard as the highways; the history of Christ makes no impression on them. And yet, if we would be saved, we must have tender, sensitive, living hearts; our hearts must be broken, must be broken up like ground, and dug, and watered, and tended, and cultivated, till they become as gardens, gardens of Eden, acceptable to our God, gardens in which the Lord God may walk and dwell.

Like holiness, prayer is not just for a Christian elite: "holding communion with God, or living in God's sight . . . may be done all through the day, wherever we are, and is commanded us as the duty, or rather the characteristic, of those who are really servants and friends of Jesus Christ."

Newman does not attempt to disguise the difficulty of prayer, "because our thoughts are so apt to wander." Certainly it is easy to pray if that simply means "a rush of feelings", but "it is not at all easy to be in the habit day after day and hour after hour, in all frames of mind, and under all outward circumstances, to bring before God a calm, collected, awakened soul." It involves a real self-sacrifice, and Newman again emphasizes the need for regularity, for "certain times for private prayer, over and above the secret thought of God which must ever be alive in us." For,

if we leave religion as a subject of thought for all hours of the day equally, it will be thought of in none. In all things it is by small beginnings and appointed channels that an advance is made to extensive works. Stated times of prayer put us in that posture . . . in which we ought ever to be; they urge us forward in a heavenly direction, and then the stream carries us on.

There is another reason for regularity in our prayer life: it is "a principle means of reminding" us that "spiritual life is obedience . . . not a mere feeling or a taste." Again, Jesus told us to pray for our "daily bread"; but "if you have not prayed for it this morning, it will profit you little that you prayed for it yesterday. You did then pray and you obtained, — but not a supply for two days." Newman warns solemnly that we "gradually become weaker without knowing it" as a result of omitting our daily prayers.