A prayer of St. Anselm: “Up now, slight man! flee, for a little while, your occupations; hide yourself, for a time, from your disturbing thoughts. Cast aside, now, your burdensome cares, and put away your toilsome business. Yield room for some little time to God; and rest for a little time in him. Enter the inner chamber of your mind; shut out all thoughts save that of God, and such as can aid you in seeking him; close your door and seek him.” (Proslogion, prologue)
Today, on the feast of St. Anselm, in the midst of a busy and distracting world, this exhortation calls us back to that which is most important: the interior life. The gateway to the interior life is prayer.
The importance of prayer
Before all else we must be convinced of this one truth: there is nothing more powerful in heaven or on earth than prayer, and so there is nothing more necessary than prayer. Without prayer we are lost, but with prayer we remain ever in God’s grace. It is as simple as this: all the damned are in hell for this one reason, they did not pray; but, conversely, all the saints are in heaven on this account, they prayed continually.
St. Anselm—who is perhaps known more for his philosophical and theological work than for his life of prayer—exhorts us to flee from the world and to enter the cloister of prayer. Indeed, the saints and spiritual doctors tell us that without regular and methodical mental prayer (i.e. meditation and contemplation), it is almost impossible to grow in holiness. Daily mental prayer is morally necessary in order to avoid mortal sin for any significant period of time. It is only with great difficulty that a man will find salvation without developing a habit of prayer.
How then do we pray? St. Anselm answers in such simple and beautiful words: “Cast aside your cares, yield some time to God.” This is the first step, if we are going to pray, we must give some time to God, we must set aside some time for prayer. This raises two further questions: How much time? And, When?
How much time for prayer?
St. Theresa has advised that even fifteen minutes of mental prayer each day will be sufficient. Others (like St. Alphonsus) recommend thirty. The Holy Spirit will certainly reveal to each soul what it is that God is asking, if only we are docile and generous with the Lord.
But there is another principle (given especially by St. Ignatius of Loyola) which is often forgotten: if a particular exercise of prayer is difficult or if we are tempted some day to shorten our prayer from whatever amount of time had been previously established, we must respond to this by lengthening our prayer a few minutes (not more than two or three). Thus, if we decide that God is asking us to spend twenty minutes a day in prayer and on a particular day we are strongly tempted to cut that time short and spend only fifteen minutes in prayer, the proper response to this would be to lengthen the prayer that day to twenty-two minutes. When Satan is resisted in this way, he will see that his temptations fail and only serve to increase our holiness!
On the other hand, St. Josemaría Escriva tells us that, as we ought not shorten prayer because of dryness, nor should we lengthen it purely on account of consolations and joys. Rather, he advises that, whatever time has been established beforehand (hopefully in consultation with our confessor or spiritual director) ought to be maintained regardless of difficulty or ease.
When should we pray?
There are two times which are most well suited to prayer: early in the morning and after receiving Holy Communion. Our Lord himself regularly rose early in the morning to go off and pray. Moreover, an ancient antiphon of the Divine Office advises that we follow this example: “It is not vain for you to rise early in the morning before dawn, for the Lord has promised a crown to the vigilant.”
We also pray after receive Holy Communion, since these minutes are the most precious in our lives. Anything we ask for in the name of Christ, whom we have just received, will surely be given us in abundance. Particularly, it is in the time after Communion that we ought to pray for the grace of final perseverance—that we might persevere in God’s grace to the end and, after death, might come into that fullness of life which he has promised to those who eat of his Body and drink of his Blood.
Perhaps in these moments, the words of St. Anselm can become our own:
“Be it mine to look up to your light, O Lord, even from afar, even from the depths. Teach me to seek you, and reveal yourself to me, when I seek you, for I cannot seek you, except you teach me, nor find you, except you reveal yourself. Let me seek you in longing, let me long for you in seeking; let me find you in love, and love you in finding. Amen.” (Proslogion, prologue)