Here I am, a Christian for more than four decades, still trying to figure out how to pray.
One of the sillier obstacles I’ve placed in my own path, it turns out, is avoiding Difficulties in Mental Prayer, by Eugene Boylan. I'm not certain why I did this. Maybe the title wasn’t sufficiently scintillating. Maybe I was prejudiced against people named Eugene. But I’d gotten it into my head that this was one of those pedantic but edifying books, and that my most palatable option was to continue feeling guilty for not having read it.
I’m happy to report I was wrong, This is a very helpful book.
Boylan has a gift for demolishing self-imposed, imaginary obstacles that can stall a person’s spiritual life indefinitely. Many people experience prayer as a never-ending burden, but persevere anyhow.
Others give up altogether, turning to God only in case of emergency. Why is that?
Well, it depends, but one reason is a misguided fear of irreverence.
We sit (or kneel) down to pray and we imagine we’re supposed to be unremittingly formal and ceremonious.
We imagine that offering God our best means composing eloquent prose, to be spoken in an artificially solemn or emotional tone of voice. Persevering in such orations gets old fast.
But, Boylan advises:
…”fine speeches” should be avoided like a plague in private prayer.
Not only does our Lord not look for fine speeches, but He does not even ask for good grammar.
Sometimes the deepest prayer is the most inarticulate of all.
He even gets specific about word choice:
If the style of the Church’s public prayer comes naturally to one, well and good; if not, no attempt should be made to cast one’s prayers in such a style. “Vouchsafe” and other words of that sort are best left unsaid.
It comes down to treating God as a person, rather than an inanimate foil for our own lofty compositions.
For many souls, an abstract or impersonal view of virtue, of perfection, of the joy of heaven, or of any such consideration, will generally leave the heart untouched and excite no desires. It neither produces prayer nor presses one on to the practice of virtue. Personal contact with our Lord puts the whole spiritual life in an entirely different light…”
Boylan shows a healthy respect for differences of temperament and personality throughout, but I suspect lots of his advice would be helpful to just about everybody. The theme is interacting with God as one person with another.
People who favor rote prayer and archaic language can let fear of irreverence interfere. But those who think they're praying spontaneously can also get into ruts, spiritual “templates,” reeling off casual phrases on automatic pilot. I read a funny article once about how it would sound if kids talked to their parents the way some people talk to God. It might go something like this:
Oh, Dad, I just wanna praise you and thank you this day, as we come together in the living room. I just wanna thank you and praise you. And, Dad, if it be your will, I ask that you shower me with a couple dollars to go to the candy store…
See what I mean?
The good news is, since it would be the height of silliness and futility to try to put on an act so as to "make an impression with" God, we can spare ourselves the exertions of trying.
If treating other human beings like that is disrespectful to their personhood, doing so with God is disrespectful to common sense, too.
(Just to be clear, this is by no means an argument against elevated language in either liturgy or personal prayer. It's no brief for the sort of flat and banal phrases that the new translation of the Mass did away with a couple years ago.)
Boylan has a lot more to say, a lot more pseudo-obstacles to pull down. This is just the gist of the first few chapters, with many more to come, including "The Difficulties of Not Praying."
So stay tuned.