Concrete tips from Saint John Vianney to pray well. By Father Roger J. Landry.
Our prayer should begin, he taught, with what has traditionally been called the “morning offering.” As soon as we get up , we should thank the Lord for the gift of another day and offer him that gift back in prayer. “In the morning, upon waking,” St. John Vianney counseled his parishioners, “we need to offer God our heart, our spirit, our thoughts, our words, our actions, our self, to use them for his glory. We need to renew the promises of our baptism, to thank our guardian angel, to ask his protection to remain at our side during the day.”
He said that we should also petition God for all the graces we’ll need to make the day holy and fruitful. “We should never forget that it is at the beginning of each day that God has the necessary grace for the day ready for us. He knows exactly what opportunities we shall have to sin, and will give us everything we need if we ask him then.” Like with almost anything in life, getting off to a good start is key, and the morning offering is the means St. John Vianney and so many saints have used to begin each day well.
In order for our lives to become a continuous prayer, the Curé of Ars continued, it is important that we have fixed times for prayer. Just as once you get a wood stove in a house burning, it’s easy to keep the fire going and the house warm, so fixed times of prayer allow us to be lit on fire with the slow burn of the love of God so that it’s easier to keep that love burning through the rest of the day.
For this fixed time of prayer, St. John Vianney gave practical advice. He taught, first, that we need to seek solitude, for “it’s in solitude that God speaks.” The solitude he describes is not just exterior solitude — getting away from the noise, from crowds and distractions — but interior solitude, where we can hear the voice of God. Second, we need to be humble. “It’s necessary to pray simply and to say, ‘My God, before you is a very poor soul that has nothing, that can do nothing; give me the grace to love you, to serve you and to know that I am nothing.’”
Third, we need to prepare. “Every prayer done without preparation,” he declared, “is a badly done prayer.” This preparation means not that we go into prayer with a “game-plan” of what we want to discuss with the Lord, but that we look forward to our time of prayer with longing, avoid useless distractions or frivolities in the time immediately preceding prayer, and in general seek the Lord’s face in life. If we are like Martha in worrying about many things in our work, we’re in general not going to be able to pray like her sister Mary at Jesus’ feet. “The thing that keeps us from gaining sanctity,” St. John Vianney warned, “is thoughtlessness.
What we need is deep reflection, together with prayer and an intimate union with our Lord.” The more scattered and superficial one’s life, the worse generally one will pray. The more we reflect on and unite the occurrences of the day with God, the more focused and fruitful will be our prayer.
If we want to pray better, we should try to pray more. “The more we pray,” he said, “the more we wish to pray. Like a fish that at first swims on the surface of the water and afterwards plunges down and is always going deeper, the soul plunges, dives and loses itself in the sweetness of conversing with our Lord in prayer.”
Drawing on his experience as a farmer and the Lord’s parable of the Sower and the Seed, he added, “Prayer is to our soul what rain is to the soil. We need to fertilize the soil ever so richly, for it will remain barren unless fed by frequent rains.” The various practices of piety, like “daily meditation, visits to the Blessed Sacrament, recitation of the holy rosary and careful examinations of our conscience” are opportunities for daily divine irrigation that helps our prayer and life become more spiritually fertile.
What should we pray about? “The Catechism of the Catholic Church” specifies four general “forms” or subject matters of prayer: praising God, which includes adoration, blessing and acts of love; thanking him; asking him for forgiveness; and petitioning him for what others or we need. Sometimes people can think prayer involves only the fourth category, but St. John Vianney strongly and unsurprisingly encouraged his parishioners strongly to emphasize the first three as well.
About praising God, the patron saint of priests reminded his people about how easy it should be. “Looking at the rivers, the mountains, the birds, the fish, the movement of creation, above all the beauty of the sky, the multitude of the stars,” he prayed aloud, “all of this, just like each part of it, animates, exalts and fills us with praise and blessing.”
With regard to prayers of gratitude, he never wanted them to become like the nine healed lepers in the Gospel who never returned to show Jesus their appreciation for their cure. We should never deem, he said, that “it’s too much to give God five minutes to thank him for the graces he accords us in every minute.”
In terms of praying for conversion, he told them confidently, “If you ask God from all your heart for your conversion, you will surely obtain it.” He also stressed that such prayers for conversion are crucial for growth in prayer because we need a pure heart to pray well: “Prayer is like a fragrant rose, but it’s necessary to pray with a pure heart to smell the rose.”
About praying for others, he urged us not to pray principally for their physical health and earthly happiness but above all that they unite themselves to God. “What souls you can bring to God through prayer!,” he constantly reminded his people, drawing, no doubt, on his own personal experience of prayer.
He gave other tips as well: to pray with confidence and without hesitation, because “the good God likes to be interrupted and importuned”; to pray in the name of Jesus, for then “it’s no longer we who pray but Jesus who prays to his Father for us”; to pray with the help our guardian angels, whom we should “charge to pray in our place” whenever we find prayer difficult; and to persevere in prayer through dryness, uniting ourselves to the God of consolations instead of to the consolations of God.
Taken together, those who followed St. John Vianney’s advice started to experience, with their pastor, what Pope Benedict called “an existence made prayer.”
We finish with the holy Curé’s words about the connection between prayer and life. “Go, my soul, you are going to converse with the good God, to work with him, to walk with him, to fight and suffer with him. You will work, but he will bless your labor. You will walk, but he will bless your steps. You will suffer, but he will bless your tears. How great, how noble, how consoling it is, to do everything in the company and under the eyes of the good God, to think that he sees everything, that he takes everything into account.”