Since God is our Father, naturally we want to listen to Him and speak with Him about ourselves. Regular Mass attendance does not offer enough time spent with the Father for the child of God. In other times and places this time with God has been called by different names: mental prayer, devotions, conversation with God – as the founder of Opus Dei, St. Josemaría Escrivá liked to describe it, or, simply, private prayer. How to converse with God is the subject of Blessed John Henry Newman’s sermon, “Forms of Private Prayer.”
It does not seem necessary to learn how to do something as simple as conversation until one tries to converse with God. But the Scripture Blessed Newman draws from – the disciples’ request to Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples” – reveals the difficulty of prayer for all men and women. Understanding our need, God, through His Church, has provided certain forms of prayer to help us: “All of us in childhood, and most men ever after, require direction how to pray; and hence the use of Forms of prayer, which have always obtained in the Church. John taught his disciples; Christ gave the Apostles the prayer which is distinguished by the name of the Lord’s Prayer. . .”
While these forms of prayer have been passed down to us from ancient times, in Blessed Newman’s day, and more emphatically in our own, the sincerity and necessity of these forms are called into question. His defense of these forms is rooted in his understanding of God, the nature of man, and a deep life of prayer.
Newman begins by reminding his hearers of the awesomeness of God. When we enter into prayer, we must understand whose presence we are entering. The holiness of God should move us to reverence and silence. We come before Him as unworthy servants who need forgiveness. “Therefore, to avoid the irreverence of many or unfit words and rude half-religious thoughts, it is necessary to pray from book or memory, and not at random.”
Newman then turns to the nature of man, which is so easily distracted. How often do our minds move from petition about our work or family to thinking about how we will get this or that task done, or our feelings towards a co-worker or family member? Newman says: “This wandering of mind is in good measure prevented, under God’s blessing, by Forms of prayer. Thus a chief use of them is that of fixing the attention.”
Newman also praises the forms of prayer for their ability to manage religious emotionalism and to help us remember what we should pray for. Newman points to the sobriety and simplicity of the Lord’s Prayer, which also reminds us of what is important. We do not want to leave it to the chance that our minds will remember what needs prayer.
Besides these practical considerations, Newman exhorts his hearers to take full joy in reciting these prayers that join us with the Church and the whole Communion of Saints. He warns all believers not to make their faith about sentiment, but about practice. Like St. Josemaría Escrivá, who said “love means deeds, not sweet words,” Newman says, “the works of every day, these are the tests of our glorious contemplations.”
When the Lord answered His disciples’ plea and taught them how to pray, he taught us as well. We would do well to begin with this prayer and use these words handed down to us by our Lord Himself to help us approach God, our Creator and our Father.