Prayer is essential for Christian life. Jesus gave his disciples example of prayer and taught them the Lord’s Prayer. Since his sojourn on earth the saints have continued teaching us about prayer. In their writings there are different accents which vary with the early Christians, the Fathers of the Desert, St. Augustine, the Benedictines, the Spanish Contemplatives – St. Teresa of Ávila and St. John of the Cross, St. Ignatius, St. Francis de Sales, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, St. Josemaría Escrivá.
Blessed Newman also teaches us about prayer: the need for prayer, the right attitude in prayer, and the characteristics of prayer.
First, prayer is the condition for holiness. Prayer is necessary for blessedness. He expounds on this truth in one of his first homilies, commenting on a passage of the Letter to the Hebrews. In this homily, he explains that prayer prepares us for heaven; he has us consider that if it were possible for a person who did not like to pray and did not enjoy church services to enter heaven, that person would actually find it a great suffering to be in heaven.
The same could be said of countless persons who seek happiness without concern for prayer; they think that, since God is good, they will one day in the afterlife enjoy happiness without having prayed here on earth, earning a place with God without ever spending time with him during life. It is a sort of wishful and superficial way of thinking.
Instead, Newman writes: It is God alone. This is that true supernatural life; and if I would live a supernatural life on earth, and attain to the supernatural eternal life which is in heaven, I have one thing to do, viz. to live on the thought of God here. Teach me this, O God; give me Thy supernatural grace to practise it; to have my reason, affections, intentions, aims, all penetrated and possessed by the love of Thee, plunged and drowned in the one Vision of Thee.
The proper attitude for prayer, according to Newman, is one of worship of the creator, an awareness of being God’s creatures. Thus, he rouses his listeners to recognize the greatness of God and the smallness of man, and to praise God fittingly.
His written meditations convey the sense of a filial attitude and trust in divine providence. That God is almighty and all-knowing does not crush the human being. God’s children are small in the face of God, but they know that in baptism they become his children by grace. Newman expresses in his prayer a filial trust in God.
Throughout his life he was also keenly aware that God’s provident care provides for his children. The following passage indicates this trust:
Therefore I will trust Him. Whatever, wherever I am, I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him; in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him; if I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. My sickness, or perplexity, or sorrow may be necessary causes of some great end, which is quite beyond us. He does nothing in vain; He may prolong my life, He may shorten it; He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends, He may throw me among strangers, He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide the future from me—still He knows what He is about.
The English saint teaches us to turn to the Holy Spirit asking for his light. He prays:
LEAD, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home—
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene—one step enough for me.
Newman places special emphasis on revelation and doctrine in his prayer; it was biblical and doctrinal. This is evident in reading his Meditations and Devotions in which the mysteries of creation, the Blessed Trinity, Christ, the Holy Spirit, sin, salvation and the sacraments appear often.
At the same time his prayer was also simple and loving. He asks God: O may I never lose, as years pass away, and the heart shuts up, and all things are a burden, let me never lose this youthful, eager, elastic love of Thee.
Upon becoming Catholic, Newman’s love for Mary, the Mother of God, grew. His considerations for the Month of May show his love for her both doctrinal and filial. He writes, for instance:
Tota pulchra es, Maria!” Nothing of the deformity of sin was ever hers. Thus she differs from all saints. There have been great missionaries, confessors, bishops, doctors, pastors. They have done great works, and have taken with them numberless converts or penitents to heaven. They have suffered much, and have a superabundance of merits to show. But Mary in this way resembles her Divine Son, viz., that, as He, being God, is separate by holiness from all creatures, so she is separate from all Saints and Angels, as being “full of grace.
After this brief exposition of Newman’s teachings, we can ask ourselves: What are the characteristics of my prayer and what can I learn from Newman about prayer? And if I were to meet God this very day, would he be like a distant relative with whom I’ve only spoken infrequently? Or would he be my closest friend, my Creator and loving Savior?