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  • Writer's pictureDr. Anthony Lilles

Learning how to pray without really knowing how and St. Philip Neri

Blessed Elisabeth of the Trinity begins one of her retreat reflections for her community with a meditation on the word, Nescivi - I no longer know anything. This she says is the prayer of the soul that has encountered the Lord. Her reflection reveals a curious aspect of Christian prayer: no Christian has really ever mastered prayer in the sense that no one in this life really ever fully knows how to pray. In fact, any deep authentic prayer requires that we acknowledge this ignorance. This teaching is expounded by St. Paul in Romans 8. He explains that as followers of Christ, we do not know how to pray as we ought. When we consider how simple prayer is, it is so peculiar that in all its simplicity, maybe because of its simplicity, we do not really know how to do it, let alone ever master it! You have experienced this if you have ever struggled with those moments when God does not seem to have heard you. Was He really not paying attention or was it that we did not know how to attend to his answer? When it really comes down to it, our limited human intellects cannot know what to pray for or how to pray for it. For those who want to begin to pray, it is helpful to take stock of this truth and allow the ramifications of what it means to inform our hearts. St. Philip Neri discovered this truth in his own attempt to learn how to pray. As a young man, he was a little hot-blooded and sometimes exploded in anger in fights with his brothers. In prayer from the depths of his heart he asked the Lord to give him better self-control. Immediately after he finished his prayer he got into a fight with a brother with whom he had never fought before, a brother with whom he was especially close. This was immediately followed by more strife with yet another brother. He fled as soon as he realized what he was doing and retreated back to prayer complaining to the Lord about his failures, "Lord, I asked you to help me gain self-control -- why didn't you answer my prayer?" The Lord responded to him in his heart with words something like, "But I did hear your prayer and as soon as you finished, I sent your brothers to you to give you new opportunities to learn the self-control you desired." When he started to pray for self-control, St. Philip must have thought the Lord would magically modified his temper, and basically this is what he had hoped for in his prayer. But true gentleness is not the absence of emotion but control of it. Such control is learned and given by the Lord only in the midst of real life trials. If St. Philip continued to insist on the kind of self-control he wanted, the Lord would never be able to give him something better. Somewhere along the line, St. Philip seems to have learned to let go of his way of seeing life and he began to accept the Lord's mind on things. It seems he discovered slowly the great effort to submit every thought to Christ to be held captive by Him. Those who know the life of St. Philip appreciate his beautiful self-effacing humor. Humility informed his wit allowing him to let go of what he thought he knew and to put on the mind of Christ- not a bad example for us. St. Paul also explains in Romans 8 that the Holy Spirit who intercedes in our hearts knows what we really need and how to ask for it. He wants us to understand this too so that we will be grateful to God as we experience his overwhelming generosity. But because the way we see reality is so twisted, the Spirit must work in ever new and unexpected ways to renew how we see life, how we understand God's plan. And what we understand through this work of the Paraclete is never reducible to something that can be grasped by reason - rather we begin to grasp more and more the incomprehensibility of the Lord's merciful and particular love as the Spirit teaches us to pray. That is why sometimes we find holy desires burning in our hearts for which there are no words. Overcome with gratitude, joy and sorrow, we sometime weep before Lord and grandeur of his loving plan. To learn this kind of prayer, how to really pray, can only come at a great personal cost. Indeed, to love in prayer as in the rest of life can only be realized at our own expense. Through accepting trials of every kind we learn to allow the Holy Spirit to teach us how to pray in this love - which really means constantly following his promptings and finding in everything that happens to us the loving Providence of God. Such prayer has been described as a dark night or even a cloud of unknowing. It always involves trust because it always goes beyond what we think we understand. But it is really the prayer of someone deeply in love with God, a soul so smitten that it does not desire to know anything but Him.

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