This week I’m featuring a multiple post from Guardini’s classic The Art of Praying. Nothing is more essential to our faith, our health and well being than prayer. Learning to pray is one of the great challenges of our being Catholic. From a good review: “This is no promotion of a vague kind of spirituality designed simply to make a person feel good. Prayer as Guardini speaks of it is to be always centered on Christ and his work of salvation for us.
This is a compassionate book. Guardini warns that prayer is almost always difficult, that we have an innate tendency to resist it, and that we should simply persevere. However, he also speaks with sympathy regarding times of darkness and depression, and he urges honesty before God. At all times, the focus of the book is about how prayer draws us closer to Christ and better fits us to dwell with Him eternally; it is not a “how-to” book on demanding wealth, fame and riches from a God whom we conceive to be a great Santa Claus. One of the most helpful and practical books on the Christian life I’ve ever read.”
Spend some time here this week with one of the great masters of Catholic Life.
God is Worthy Of Praise
The greatness of God is expressed in the very names by which we call Him. He is the Uncreated, who has made everything; the One without beginning who is self-sustained; the Infinite; the Immortal; the Eternal. Because He is master of Himself, Lord of His own divinity, He is the Master and Lord of all that is. Thus the universe is His by dominion and by right.
Man inclines himself in adoration before Him completely and unconditionally, in freedom and dignity. In the Scriptures, God’s greatness and His majesty are experienced also as splendor and glory, terms which convey the all-penetrating radiance — the effulgence of the Divine Reality — before which adoration assumes the character of praise and jubilation. Thus the Scriptures contain passage after passage proclaiming the splendor of God, singing His praise, extolling His holiness, majesty, might, eternity, infinite freedom, justice, goodness, mercy, and patience.
One might object that there is something embarrassing about such fulsomeness; that it savors of the submissiveness of the weak, of the sycophancy of the defenseless, which is contrary to the dignity of man and even more so to the dignity of God.
No doubt, when the motives are not absolutely pure, praise — especially the praise of God — deserves this criticism. But when the motives are pure, bestowing praise is perfectly consistent with dignity and honor. One may, for example, have occasion to commend a person for his reliability. Ought one to refrain from it for fear of being thought a flatterer? Indeed, it may sometimes be a real act of friendship to let a person know how highly we think of him and how much we rely upon him. To convey to a person spontaneously and gladly what we find attractive or praiseworthy about him is not flattery but a form of praise which makes for the beauty of human relations.
God certainly does not need our assurance that we value His lofty qualities, yet it is “meet and just” and a form of the purest and truest prayer when man rejoices in God and glorifies Him. The Scriptures, as has been noted, abound in songs of praise. Among the Psalms there are many which, springing from man’s profound experience of the glory of God, pour forth holy emotion in praising His qualities and His works one by one. In the Prophets also, praise of the Lord breaks through again and again, to give as an example only the great song of praise of the Seraphim in Isaiah’s vision: “And they cried one to another, and said: `Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God of Hosts, all the earth is full of His glory.’ [Isaiah 6:3]
In the New Testament we find the Magnificat [Luke 1:46-55] and the song of Zachariah. [Luke 1:68-79] The Liturgy, too, is permeated by songs of praise such as the Te Deum and many hymns and sequences.
Sometimes it is as though the praise of God filled the world; as if it went out to and enfolded all creation, as for instance the Psalms of creation [Psalms 32, 46, 95, and 99 should be given special mention (RSV: Psalms 33, 47, 96, and 100)] or in the response which those songs have found in the hearts of God-enraptured people such as St. Francis of Assisi. In the last of the Psalms mentioned above, creation and creatures are exhorted to praise God:
Praise ye the Lord from the heavens:
praise ye Him in the high places.
Praise ye Him, all His angels:
praise ye Him, all His hosts.
Praise ye Him, O sun and moon:
praise Him, all ye stars and light.
Praise Him, ye heavens of heavens:
and let all the waters that are above the heavens
Praise the name of the Lord.
For He spoke,
and they were made:
and they were created.
He hath established them for ever,
and for ages of ages:
He hath made a decree,
and it shall not pass away.
Praise the Lord from the earth,
ye dragons, and all ye deeps:
Fire, hail, snow, ice, stormy winds,
which fulfill His word:
Mountains and all hills,
fruitful trees and all cedars: Beasts and all cattle:
serpents and feathered fowls.
[Psalms 148:1-10 (RSV: Psalms 148: 1-10).]
This is not a fairy-tale approach to nature in which the sun and the moon, the trees, and so forth are personalized and given voices with which to sing the praise of God; it is an inspired poetic rendering of the idea that the sun and the moon and all created things are a mirror of God’s glory because, as His creation, they reflect something of His nature. In so doing, they praise Him by their very existence. They themselves know nothing of it, but man does; he can think himself into their silent song of praise; he can voice it on their behalf, offer it up to God and thus act as the spokesman of creation.
When discussing adoration we said that man humbles himself before God, not because God is all-powerful, but because He is truth and goodness and worthy of adoration. In other words, God proves — if one may express it thus — His divinity by His character. With Him, being and doing are one; essence and existence are one; promise and fulfillment are one. From this derives the ultimate justification of praise.
“Lord, Thou art almighty” is synonymous with “Lord, Thou art worthy of being almighty; Thou livest Thy almightiness — with Thy character and acts. Thy almightiness is the supreme consummation of justice and truth.” It is therefore fitting to praise God.
Man’s spirit rejoices that God is that He is. This joy pours forth in praise. The attributes of God which man is able to name are merely like so many rays of that effulgent light, like so many emanations of that arch-unity of being and necessity that is His inmost essence which cannot be named, in short, like so many emanations of the Who Am (“God said to Moses: `I Am Who Am’ ,) [Exodus 3:14.]
It is Who Am which enkindles in man the flame of gladness which turns to gratitude and finds expression in praise. We praise God and give thanks to Him for the glorious reality of His being. In the words of the Gloria: “We give thanks for Thy great glory, O Lord God, heavenly king, God the Father.” And in the words of the Preface: “It is truly meet and just that we should always, and in all places give thanks to Thee, all-holy Lord, Father Almighty, Eternal God.”
Praise Elevates the Person Praising
The praise is the purer, the more profound the experience of God’s glory and the truer the joy to which it gives rise. In praise, man himself becomes pure and great, for his greatness derives not only from what he is in himself, but from his ability to value and honor that which is greater than himself.
Therefore, it is “meet and just” to do homage to Him who is the supreme greatness and glory; at the same time this act of homage is an act of self-realization for him who performs it. Man’s real world is, as it were, above him. Praising God means ascending into that homeland of our spirit where, it may be said, we truly live.
Thus we should practice giving praise to God. This discipline widens and edifies the spirit. The whole day assumes a different character if, on waking in the morning, rested and refreshed from the night, we recite the words of the Te Deum or of the 148th Psalm. There are no morning prayers more beautiful than these.
Certainly it is right for us to ask in prayer and to put before God the problems of our burdensome existence. Yet it might profit us more if we directed our gaze away from ourselves toward Him. Our cares and needs would not be forgotten for, in Christ’s words, “Your Father knoweth what is needful for you, before you ask Him. [Matthew 6:8]
The Loving God is Generous and Bountiful
God’s being is inexhaustible. Ever new aspects of His being reveal themselves to us in contemplation and religious experience, and to every one of them our souls can respond in prayer. Thus theology itself almost becomes a school for prayer.
This book is merely an introduction; we shall therefore confine ourselves here to considering a final group of divine attributes to which we make direct appeal in our prayers: God is bountiful and generous. He cares for man; He values and loves him. Two forms of prayer in particular — petition and thanksgiving — go out to these aspects of God.
God Loves Us
Some conceptions of the Deity preclude all possibility of either petition or thanksgiving (for example, that God is merely the First Cause — the unmoved mover of the universe — or the idea of the good). To such a god the heart of man could not turn when in distress. In his sight, petition would be as futile as gratitude; awe and admiration would be the only possible reaction to a god conceived in this way.
However, the Scriptures tell us that God is vis viva; that He is the power of willing and of action; that He is Person, able to listen and respond. God is spirit, not in the impersonal sense of an intellectual principle in which the word is often understood, but in the sense given to it by the Scriptures when they refer to Him as the “living God.”
God is the creative, the inexhaustible, the ever close and benevolent One. He is also the “rich” God, as the spiritual masters put it, who is willing to share the abundance of His being with us. He is the ever giving, who can never suffer diminution by His gifts; who never tires in His generosity; who can never be disappointed, for He does not depend on the response of those to whom He gives. He gives creatively. To such a god the heart of man can turn.
Our God does not dwell in Olympian heights, in blissful self-sufficiency, indifferent to the plight of human existence. If this were so, prayer would be of no avail; indeed, it would be undignified and hopeless from the start. The Scriptures tell us that God is concerned with man and that He loves him. God’s love for man is the main theme of the Gospel and the whole of Christ’s life proclaims it. This is true Revelation — that is, something which the mind of man could not have grasped on its own.
This love, so revealed, means not only that God wishes His creatures well but that He truly loves them with an earnestness to which the Incarnation bears witness. It means that God has given Himself in this love, making it — if we may thus express it — His destiny.
This love prepares the ground for its ultimate self-revelation by the creation of the world; its design becomes more distinct in the course of the sacred history which leads up to Christ. In His life and His teaching it comes out into the open, to spread in the pattern of Divine Providence through space and time to its final consummation in the new creation and in the coming of the kingdom of God.
A profound mystery surrounds the origin of divine love, so that to the question as to why God loves man, man himself cannot give an answer. God’s love must be regarded as pure gift, as the creative cause of itself.
There is another aspect to this love, which must be understood in order to get a balanced picture. God’s love for man must be worthy of God Himself: this it can be only if it is worthy of man as a person. Having invested man with the dignity of free will and responsibility, God treats him in a manner befitting this status; in other words, He honors man.
This does not imply that man possesses anything in his own right which would compel God’s respect, for whatever man possesses, including his status as a person, God has given to him. But having given it to him, God treats him accordingly. For the sake of His own honor, God maintains the dignity of man.
This must be strongly emphasized, for there is a manner of interpreting the sovereign, absolute status of God which consists in contrasting it with the contingent, doubtful status of man. This interpretation does not serve the glory either of God or of His creature, for one does not honor God by degrading man.
It is true that man is but a creature, and a fallen, erring one at that. But he is not mere nothingness or sheer demerit; he has significance in the sight of God when God loves him.
Prayers of Petition
To this God we lift up our hearts in prayer. We turn to Him, the omnipotent being, of whose love we feel certain, as the child in distress turns to his mother or as we turn to a friend when we need comfort or help. Christ taught us that we should turn to the Father and ask Him to “give us this day our daily bread” — meaning the necessities of our daily life. He admonished us to do it simply and trustingly, because “your Father knoweth what is needful for you, before you ask Him. [Matthew 6:8]
Christ Teaches us to Ask for Assistance
How simple and natural is this asking we know from the incident related in the eleventh chapter in the Gospel according to St. Luke. There the disciples come to the Master asking Him to teach them to pray. He teaches them the Lord’s Prayer, which is one long petition. It encompasses the whole of our existence, acknowledges its dependence on God, and receives it from His hand.
We are taught to pray for everything: for the necessities of life, for strength in our labors, for comfort in spiritual distress, for support in our moral struggles, for the understanding of truth, for greater charity and righteousness. Man is ever conscious of his want and helplessness; it is only right, therefore, that he should turn to the bountiful and almighty God, who is not only ready to give and to help, but greatly rejoices in it.
Prayers of Petition Acknowledge God’s Bountifulness
Asking for help means more than turning to God only when we have reached the end of our resources. His help does more than merely fill the gaps in our own ability. Therefore, what we ask for in prayer is, strictly speaking, not help in the sense of something additional or supplementary to what we have — our whole life is founded in God. Everything we do comes to us from Him and goes out to Him. There is no such thing as a complete, self-sufficient human being, a human being at his own risk and responsibility. To be man is to have one’s being from and in God. This fact is constantly stressed in the Scriptures.
Prayer, therefore, is not really a call for help but the acknowledgment of the fact that man receives substance and existence, life and meaning, freedom and strength, through God’s creative dispensation — that he exists by the grace of God. All this may be called grace in a wider sense, because he receives as a free favor what he can neither claim nor enforce.
Grace in the strict meaning of the term is everything that comes to us by God’s redeeming love in the form of light, strength, guidance, spiritual comfort, and liberation. Thus all petition in prayer is ultimately petition for grace in the wider as well as the more precise meaning of the term. This prayer for grace must be constantly renewed, since at every instant we have our being by the grace of God. Prayer for grace is as essential to life as breath.