"Lord, teach us to pray, even as John also taught his disciples" (Lk 11:1).
Then Jesus gave us the Our Father. But that was by no means the limit of His teaching or His example. We hear Jesus bursting out into praise, glorifying the Father for concealing things from the wise and prudent of the world, and revealing them unto babes. We see Him venturing alone into the silence of the mountains to fast and pray. We are with Him at the table of the Last Supper, when He gives the traditional Jewish blessing of the bread and the wine, and then transforms that prayer into the first Eucharist. We watch with Him in the garden, as He kneels and pleads with the Father that His cup of suffering might pass, though "not my will, but thine be done." We hear His terrible cry of loneliness upon the Cross, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" And then the quiet, intimate words of faith and obedience, words that storm the kingdom of death: "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit."
When Jesus is risen from the dead, prayer rises with Him, too. "Peace be with you," He says to the Eleven hiding in fear. When He parts from them, He blesses them, and instructs them to baptize all nations, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. They receive the Holy Spirit on Pentecost and speak in tongues. It is the birthday of the Church, and she has, throughout the centuries, in the power of the Holy Spirit, continued to teach us how to pray.
Yet here I am, Catholic from my infancy, and I am almost as speechless as an infant when it comes to prayer. No doubt I’m partly to blame. But during the dry decades of my youth, the Church’s rich heritage of prayer was quietly stowed away in some subterranean vestry. Formal prayers, except for the few that make up the Rosary, were out; but then so too were those devotional practices, like Eucharistic adoration, or fasting, or keeping silence, that lent themselves to spontaneous prayer, even to those prayers that are the groanings of a troubled heart, to be interpreted only by the Spirit. I recall years ago hearing the Angelus, and suddenly realizing that I could not say it by myself, since I had only a dim recollection of it from childhood.
It’s never too late to learn, but in these matters I feel sometimes like a person who is trying to figure out what baseball is — 30 or 40 years after I should have begun. I open the terrific medieval handbook of spiritual counsel, The Cloud of Unknowing, and read:
Feel sin in its totality — as a lump — without specifying any particular part, and that all of it is you. And then cry ceaselessly in your spirit this one thing: "Sin! Sin! Sin! Help! Help! Help!"
That isn’t meant to be a random impulse. The author attempts to lead his spiritual charges, step by step, away from admiring themselves as they mouth empty words, and into the mystery of the imperious love of God. For He "will brook no rival," says the author. "His will is that you should look at him, and let him have his way." I read these things and hardly know where or when to stand or sit or kneel. Such spiritual discipline as this — in one sense patient and formal, in another utterly thrown open to the cry of the moment — is a part of the Church’s spiritual heritage I can as yet only admire from without, not understanding more than a trace of what is there.
Or I open the Sarum Missal, and read this communion prayer:
LORD Jesus Christ, Who didst commune Thy disciples, eating in common with Thee, with Thy Body and Blood, and as a friend didst establish between them the communion of all their goods: grant me Thy wretched and unworthy servant that in the hour of my death, having worthily and savingly received the same communing, I might be worthy to feast in common with my brethren, the Saints and the Angels, at Thy table. Who with God the Father and the Holy Spirit reignest, God: through all the ages of ages, Amen.
And I know that never once in my life have I returned from communion with such thoughts; never once have I prayed that at the hour of my passing I might one final time partake of the wayfarer’s food, so as to be admitted to the feast that knows no end. I have returned to the pew, knelt down, thought in some perfunctory way of some intention or other, said in my mind one of the few formal prayers I know, and that is all. There’s nothing wrong with that, in itself. But there has been little else in my repertory. And so I have had to make an effort, in some sense an unnatural and awkward effort, to think the thoughts of Catholics who composed and said prayers such as the one above. The effort is far from entirely successful.
Or I open a book of the prayers of St. Anselm, selections of whose philosophy and theology I have taught for many years. And I read:
A thing to be wondered at —
at what a height do I behold the place of Mary!
Nothing equals Mary,
nothing but God is greater than Mary.
Then I understand, with a start, that I really know very little about this Anselm, who could conceive such a prayer. I recall my many years of shame: my being ashamed of what was looked down upon as the foolish devotion of simple old ladies. So I was taught by the theologians au courant, when, for sheer intelligence, not to mention fidelity, Anselm could have bought up the whole lot of them. I know now that the children of Fatima were right and the theologians were wrong; but knowing it still does not restore to me either my knowledge of the saints or a childlike turning to the woman full of grace.
I must exert myself, I know. And there are plenty of handbooks and prayer books now available to help. It’s a start, anyway, to admit that I know far too little for my own good, or for the good of those for whom I am praying. I write this essay mainly in the hope that it will move someone who knows more than I do, and who is in a position to instruct me and thousands of people like me, to get out the rusty keys, open the closet, and take out the Church’s treasures of prayer for all to behold.
Anthony Esolen is a professor of English at Providence College and a senior editor forTouchstone magazine. His latest book is The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery).