Prayer, like faith and love, is a central theme of the spiritual life. In his sermon, “Moral Effects of Union with God,” St. John Henry Newman gives a general description of prayer without prescribing a specific method.
“Prayer, praise, thanksgiving, contemplation” he states, “are the peculiar privilege and duty of a Christian, and that for their own sakes, from the exceeding comfort and satisfaction they afford him, and without reference to any definite results to which prayer tends…”
He continues: “What, then, is prayer? It is (if it may be said reverently) conversing with God.” Newman qualifies that is a “reverent” conversing. It is not like conversing with fellow men. It is conversing with God. Newman says: “Prayer, then, is divine converse, differing from human, as God differs from man.”
For him, it is intercourse with God – with the unseen world. As St. Paul says, we are citizens of heaven and we have our intercourse with heavenly things. Through faith we enter into the unseen world; we enter into a special relation with God.
Newman tells us that we enter into that invisible kingdom of God when we pray: “That mysterious Presence of God which encompasses us, which is in us, and around us, which is in our heart, which enfolds us as though with a robe of light, hiding our scarred and discoloured souls from the sight of Divine Purity, and making them shining as the Angels.”
For Newman, prayer is the language of heaven, the language of our relationship with God, which we must learn here. But he is referring to much more than words. It is,
“a habit of prayer, the practice of turning to God and the unseen world, in every season, in every place, in every emergency (let alone its supernatural effect of prevailing with God),—prayer, I say, has what may be called a natural effect, in spiritualizing and elevating the soul.”
There are various difficulties men have with prayer, including such as living by whims, pride and practical interests. Before briefly describing these, Newman points to the most important difficulty: lack of faith. People do not think heaven is real. “Because the next world is not a reality to him; it only exists in his mind in the form of certain conclusions from certain reasonings.”
Jesus teaches us to build our house on rock, and we need to ask: Is our house built on rock or on sand? Is the kingdom of God foremost on our mind? Do we give importance to daily prayer? The seed we received at baptism must grow through prayer.
“All of us must rely on something; all must look up to, admire, court, make themselves one with something. Most men cast in their lot with the visible world; but true Christians with Saints and Angels.” Newman notes that often the world will not understand us, just as it did not understand Jesus. We are like foreigners. We must choose between friendship with the world and friendship with God. By the world Newman means trust and attachment to the world.
“Therefore day by day (the Christian) unlearns the love of this world, and the desire of its praise; he can bear to belong to the nameless family of God, and to seem to the world strange in it and out of place, for so he is.” It’s by prayer that we unlearn this love of the world, because by prayer we learn to love the God who alone can satisfy us.