The late Fr Bryan Houghton identified the lack of training in prayer as the major reason for his brother priests so easily discarding the prayerfulness of the Old Mass (see Nov. 2009). Faced with a deluge of evil, young parents today will find this 1961 exhortation to train their children in prayer even more relevant.
The Power of Prayer
Prayer is perhaps one of the most important elements of religious practice. It can substitute for the sacraments (in some cases absolutely), even though in God’s ordinary providence these be necessary for eternal salvation. But nothing else can supply the place of prayer. Hence one of the chief tasks of religious education is training in prayer. And yet no duty is perhaps more casually undertaken than just this.
In many cases we Catholics are acquainted with vocal prayer only, and this in set texts and formulas. We are fully acquainted with prayer of petition; we have frequently heard of the prayer of praise, of glorification, of thanks, but scarcely anything of mental prayer. Many, indeed, are in the like case with the new converts in Ephesus mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles:
Paul found certain disciples, and he said to them: Have you received the Holy Ghost since ye believed? But they said to him: We have not so much as heard whether there be a Holy Ghost (Acts 19:1-2).
They had not received Him and they had never heard of Him. Similarly, many of the faithful can say: we have not practised mental prayer, we never even heard of it. Without mental prayer there can be no interior life. Now all Christians are assuredly called to live such a life and, as a consequence, to foster it. And yet many of the laity hold that such an obligation binds priests and religious only, not themselves. Is it a wonder, then, that the spiritual life of many followers of Christ is so sickly and so superficial?
Our religious training is almost wholly confined to instruction on the sacraments; they alone are kept in view. Adults receive a thorough instruction on these before receiving baptism. We are familiar with instruction for First Confession, First Holy Communion and Confirmation.
When at all possible, instruction is given also to engaged and married couples. We need not mention the long training which candidates for the priesthood receive before they are ordained.
In times of emergency and persecution
Instruction with regard to the sacraments is obviously necessary; but it is in fact an instruction which points to the priest. It leads to a certain lack of self-reliance or independence in religious matters. The sacraments are more or less dependent on the priest. BUT WHAT IF THERE ARE NO PRIESTS? That contingency has now become something to be reckoned with.
As a consequence church and tabernacles are empty, and the altar has no significance. If the spiritual life of the faithful is made entirely dependent on priests or sacraments and these outer supports are suddenly withdrawn, then there is great danger of a religious collapse on the part of many. People have to be Catholics and remain Catholics even when there are no priests or sacraments; they have to be Catholics not merely in Catholic but in pagan, even hostile surroundings.
Now the person who does not lead an inner life of prayer is practically totally dependent on the help of priest and sacraments, while he who knows how to pray well can for a time do without them and survive a period of emergency or persecution. He knows his way to God; he can keep in constant touch with Him and draw on Him for help. But where will people get help if they know not how to pray and if there are no priests and sacraments at their disposal? In such cases, as experience unfortunately shows, that is the end of religious practice as far as they are concerned, whereas we need not be too anxious about those who can pray properly.
Training in prayer
Important and necessary as is a training for reception of the sacraments, a training in prayer is still more important. Here too there is question of doing the one and not omitting the other. It is essential that a proper training in prayer be combined with instruction on the sacraments, not only because prayer can substitute for the sacraments in case of necessity, but also because the sacraments, like the spiritual life as a whole, can properly develop only when based on a solid foundation of prayer.
Perhaps it is that the priest’s role is unduly emphasised, and, as a result, his responsibilities and his personal activity loom excessively large. He is minister and dispenser of the mysteries of God (1 Cor.4:1); he distributes sacramental grace to the faithful under his care; he instructs and teaches them; he places his services at their disposal; he mediates for them. That is his task. But it is the essential task of the faithful to exploit and make full use of the graces thus distributed.
Basically, each one is the custodian of his own soul. The priest, the minister of Christ, can only reach to a person’s mind and understanding. But the deciding factor in the spiritual life is not the mind but the heart. Whether or not the heart is touched and inflamed depends on the Holy Ghost and the individual soul in the first place, and not on the priest.
Priests have as a rule a good deal of work, hard work, to face; but in many cases their efforts are unavailing, the reason being that the impression prevails that they have to do all the work and that success depends on themselves. In fact, however, the priest is only the “friend of the Bridegroom” (John 3:29); he can but introduce souls to the Bridegroom; the final decision rests with those so introduced, and depends above all else on their prayer.
Hence pastors of souls must take pains in the matter of a proper training in prayer. If only the faithful knew how to pray then the priest’s labour in planting and watering would not fail in the desired increase (1 Cor. 3:7). If his hearers laid the matter to heart (Is. 57:1) God’s words would blaze within as a burning fire (Jer. 20:9)
Where lies the responsibility for training in prayer? First and foremost with the family, the home, and more particularly with the mother. She promotes devotion in the house. Nothing is more disastrous than a failure in the home, especially in the domain of religion. Neglect here can scarcely ever be made good; preachers and catechists, even the best equipped, will scarcely succeed. Hence due attention to young mothers to see they do justice to their consecrated duty in the home would seem to be the most important duty of a pastor. If we have the mothers we have the families too; we have the young people; we have, in consequence, future generations. If we lose the pious influence over the family then we lose everything. No association, no regimentation, will be effective in the long run.
In the school, we can usually do little more than teach the children their catechism, just as we teach them their poetry. Whether the art of praying can be taught at school, along with the background that makes their prayers real prayer — that is the great question. It may be that prayer is only learnt in a religious atmosphere of silence and calm such as is found in the quiet of home, quiet cultivated and maintained by the mother for herself and her children. Hence first beginnings in the habit of prayer are made most effectively, if partly unconsciously, at a mother’s knee. At school, in church, where there is question of a large number of children this devout atmosphere of prayer can scarcely be created. And even if in school and church children could be taught how to pray, little would be gained if the home fails to cooperate.
If prayerfulness is missing from the home, if no family prayers are said, no prayers morning or night or at meals; if the parents never say their prayers, never get the children to say theirs — then, despite all that is done by teacher or priest, no prayerful spirit will be developed. And if such a spirit of prayer is not fostered in the home then the children forget even the Our Father and the Hail Mary, just as they forget the poems they learnt by heart.
What results can we expect if the family breaks down here? If children from Catholic circles and Catholic families come to school unable to make the sign of the cross or say their Glory be to the Father or their Hail Mary correctly, what hopes can we entertain for the future when Catholic parents adopt an attitude of utter irresponsibility in this matter, saying perhaps to themselves: no need for us to teach our children to pray; our priest is there for that; he is paid for that!
How comes it that so many of our young people abandon to all intents and purposes the practice of their religion as soon as they leave school? They are products of a Catholic upbringing, heirs to century-long Catholic traditions; they have had the benefit of religious instruction for several hours a week for eight full years in Catholic schools, and later in vocational schools. Instead of becoming staunch Catholics, rooted in their attachment to the Church and in the practice of the faith, they have outgrown both. A contrast to what we find in Mission lands where two or three years of catechetical instruction suffice to make quite passable Christians out of people with pagan traditions and living in completely pagan surroundings.