Sometimes, prayer is the easiest and most natural thing imaginable. We begin to pray and immediately, we know that God is with us and all is right in the world.
Other times, it’s so hard. We just don’t feel it. The world looks flat, our hearts are numb and our minds are preoccupied with what we’re going to eat next. (Hmm, Danish pastry and diet coke? Or some sushi and maybe a latte… Or am I the only one making these tough decisions only I make when I suppose to be praying?)
Because we come to prayer so distracted, St Francis de Sales writes that “it is needful always to rouse the soul to a steadfast remembrance and thought of the Presence of God.”
We can’t begin to talk to God or to listen to Him until we know He’s really there.
The first step in prayer then is to remember Who we are about to pray to. We need to place ourselves in the presence of God. Fortunately for us, St Francis de Sales offers us four ways to do that in the Introduction to the Devout Life.
1. Remember that God is everywhere.
He is everywhere, and in all, and that there is no place, nothing in the world, devoid of His Most Holy Presence, so that, even as birds on the wing meet the air continually, we, let us go where we will, meet with that Presence always and everywhere. It is a truth which all are ready to grant, but all are not equally alive to its importance.
If we are Christians, we know intellectually that God is everywhere. But St Francis de Sales reminds us that we have to remind ourselves that God is here because He is everywhere.
God doesn’t just surround us, He permeates and sustains our very being. In Him, we live and move and have our being. God, wrote St Teresa of Avila, is closer to us than we are to ourselves. How ridiculously amazing is that!?
2. Recognise that God is in your soul.
He is very specially present in your heart and mind, which He kindles and inspires with His Holy Presence, abiding there as Heart of your heart, Spirit of your spirit. Just as the soul animates the whole body… but abides especially in the heart, so God, while present everywhere, yet makes His special abode with our spirit.
Although God is everywhere, He is especially in our souls — in our hearts, minds and spirits.
Jesus says “those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” St Paul describes us as temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19) and prays that “Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.” (Ephesians 3:17)
3. Recall that God the Son looks down on us from heaven.
Our Lord, Who in His Ascended Humanity looks down upon all men, but most particularly on all Christians, because they are His children; above all, on those who pray, over whose doings He keeps watch.
When Jesus rose again from the dead and ascended bodily to the Father, He didn’t lose His humanity. Christ still has — and will always have — a resurrected human body.
At his martyrdom, St Stephen looked up and, “filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” St Francis writes that this is not “mere imagination, it is very truth, and although we see Him not, He is looking down upon us.”
4. Recollect that God the Son is present to us.
The fourth means, St Francis says, is to “exercise your ordinary imagination” by picturing Jesus beside or before you, just like we might imagine talking to a friend. Most of the time, this way will be an imaginary one.
“But when the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar is there, then this Presence is no longer imaginary, but most real; and the sacred species are but as a veil from behind which the Present Saviour beholds and considers us, although we cannot see Him as He is.”
There is no one way place yourself in God’s Presence. God is too big (infinite really!) to be so easily boxed in like that.
And in different moods and at different times, we need different ways.
Sometimes, we’ll need the reminder of His omnipresent grandeur, sometimes the gentle intimacy of the Spirit in our souls, sometimes the powerful victory of Christ enthroned, and sometimes the simple companionship of our Friend and Brother.
Whichever way we choose, though, we do need to know He is Emmanuel — God with us.
Only then, can we truly begin to pray.