Aug 15, 2019

Dr. Stephen J. Loughlin

I have often wondered how I would respond if asked about my understanding and practice of prayer. It’s not just the fact that such things are, to my mind, rather personal, somewhat akin to asking about the intimate details of one’s marriage. Nor is it the fact that my prayer is frankly unremarkable in its external manifestations: there are no histrionics, no swaying movements of my body, no ecstatic words flung from my mouth, no inner locutions, no slayings in the spirit, nothing to entice or titillate. Rather, it’s the difficulty in trying to relate just what goes into its practice.

Prayer, to my mind, is not the acquisition of some technique, as if it were a task to be mastered, a skill to be honed, or a problem to be overcome. Much that I have read about prayer falls unwittingly into these categories, even some of the great works of spirituality. While there may be something to be said about such approaches, the personal nature of prayer, its sheer intimacy and relational character seem, to my mind, to require something more than impersonal skills and techniques, something that at least does not restrict this most important of relationships to the domain of the expert or the learned. This intimacy and the relational nature of prayer are especially well understood by St. Thomas Aquinas.

Prayer, he states, is “the unfolding of our will to God that He may fulfill it.”[1] Quoting Dionysius, he says that “when we call upon God in our prayers, we unveil our mind in His presence.” Referencing St. John Damascene’s view on the matter, he states further that “prayer is the raising up of the mind (ascensus intellectus) to God.”[2] In the course of explaining prayer’s utility, he bids us consider that “we pray, not that we may change the Divine disposition, but…‘that by asking, (we) may deserve to receive what Almighty God from eternity has disposed to give,’ as Gregory says.”[3] He considers prayer to be an act of religio which is a type of justice as it reverences God insofar as, through our prayer, we “subject ourselves to Him, and by praying confess that we need Him as the Author of our goods.”[4] “By praying we surrender our minds to God, since we subject it to Him with reverence and, so to speak, present it to Him, as appears from the words of Dionysius…”[5] just quoted. Finally, The Lord’s Prayer is offered as the model for all prayer.[6]

Stop and consider carefully what Thomas says: prayer unfolds our will to God; prayer unveils our mind to God; prayer makes us readily disposed to receive what God from eternity has poured out upon us; prayer subjects us to God; in prayer, we confess that we stand in need of the Author of everything that is good; prayer allows us to surrender our minds to Him; and finally, so that we might pray as we should, Jesus has given us the perfect example in His own prayer, not to mention the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the sacraments, all of which are most effective aids in our prayer to God. At the very least, we should note here the total absence of the fantastical, and, dare I say, the mystical. While many may be relieved by the absence of what has sometimes been referred to as evangelical manifestations of prayer, the plain nature of Thomas’s description can leave some wanting for more, something that is satisfied, perhaps, by the masters of mystical prayer like a John of the Cross or a Teresa of Avila. While we are all called to the end of mystical prayer, namely union in mind and heart with God Himself, “one should not despise the imperfect for the sake of the perfect,” as a former professor of mine always used to say. This good disciple of St. Thomas took every opportunity to remind the seminarians among our undergraduate class of the nature-grace distinction so important to all the areas of our lives as Christians. He held that the advice to despise the things of this world and, in some cases, the relations that we might enjoy with others, was often misunderstood by the importation of the notion that they were in some fashion defective, even intrinsically evil, and thus to be shunned. This cannot be so: the manifestation of God’s person in the act of creation precludes such. Rather, he would say, the call is to not allow one’s heart, and thus one’s love, to be captivated by such things or friends, and that the call is to their right regard and use, something that could only occur if one’s love were rightly directed to the highest and best of things, namely God Himself. He could not repeat this lesson enough, dreading, as he did, the wraith of Manichaeism ever looming in the shadows of the intellectual and spiritual lives of his religious charges.

In applying such things to prayer, Thomas’s approach is simple in its demand that we pay full attention to its most basic essential elements. There is, first, the unfolding of our will to God so that He might fulfill it. The word for “unfold” is explicatio, which literally indicates an uncoiling, a disentangling of the manifold complexity of our desire, so that the many and varied reasons of our hearts might be revealed in a brutally honest way and therein discover what lies at the very core not only of our petition, but also of the desire from which they spring. One could indeed spend a lifetime engaged just in this one endeavor! Second, there is the unveiling of our mind in His presence. The Latin here is revelata mente, literally a bringing forth into the light that which had previously been hidden, the laying out of our minds in all their nakedness before that Light in which we see light itself, with no dissimulation, fantasy, or fabrication on our part, but rather in childlike humility and simplicity before the Father who has loved and cherished us like no one else has or can. In this vein, I am reminded of the report of Thomas’s final confession wherein the priest who heard it could only say that this saint’s confession was like that of a child’s. Again, a lifetime could be exerted in the pursuit of this posture. Third, prayer makes us readily disposed to receive what God from eternity has poured out upon us. This should take us aback immediately. For within these few words is revealed the plain reality of the bountiful goodness that is our God, the God who, from the beginning, wills all good to His people, a goodness that we ourselves shall never be able to contain, but to which we are called as those in the Gospel story who are called to the banquet, but who must, nonetheless, be properly attired in order to receive that true food that will never fail. Herein do we find one of the great fruits of the scholar’s life, one spent beholding, in his or her respective area, the ever unfolding greatness and beauty of creation itself writ small in that to which he or she happens to be turned. Fourth, prayer subjects us to God, wherein we recognize actively and directly our status as created beings and give praise to our God for drawing us out of nothingness and into a participation of His eternal life. Herein we find the purity and authenticity of our prayer, our proper stance before the Lord of all being. Fifth, in prayer, we confess the poverty of our nature, that we stand in utter need of the Author of everything that is good without whom we would sink back into the nothingness from which we had been drawn originally. Sixth, we surrender our minds to God, not being content to lay them bare before Him, but desirous that they be filled with all that is from Him, and that is Him. Here, again, I am reminded of Thomas’s prayer before the crucifix where, having written on the Eucharist in the Christological section of his Summa Theologiae, he asked Christ if he had done so well. And Christ’s response came from the cross saying that he had indeed written well. Christ then asked Thomas what he would like in reward. “Nothing other than Thee my Lord” was his response, one that animates the entire life of this saint and every word that he wrote.

The simplicity and the humility of this approach underscores not only the intensely personal and relational nature of this prayer, but also reveals what is required in order to engage in it fully, namely, an active concern for the things of the intellectual and the moral life, a desire to fill one’s mind with the things of God, to pursue all the virtues so that one’s energies might be best focused upon one’s pursuit of this best and most worthy of all lovers. To fill your person with these things allows you the best chance to behold yourself most truly, to place this in all of its poverty and glory before God, and to make the prayer of the saints your own. And in your poverty, you see not only the works of grace itself, but also the beauty that is the sacramental life, the aid that it provides in your aspirations to be united with God, and the wisdom and love with which it has been provided, and this at the cost of Christ’s passion and death. It is from such mustard seeds that the Kingdom of God arises, that from a simple approach to prayer is born the mystical union we all seek. Thus, we return to the wise advice of my good Thomist, never to despise the imperfect for the sake of the perfect. For it is through the lowly things and practices of our lives, that the perfect are realized.

[1] Summa Theologiae. III. 21. 1.

[2] ST. II-II. 83. 1. ad2

[3] ST. II-II. 83. 2

[4] ST. II-II. 83. 3

[5] ST. II-II. 83. 3. ad3

[6] ST. II-II. 83. 9

Dr. Stephen J. Loughlin is President and Associate Professor of Philosophy at St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Rochester, NY. Dr. Loughlin earned his Master's and Doctorate in Philosophy at the University of Toronto. Before coming to St. Bernard’s last year, Dr. Loughlin was an Associate Professor of Philosophy and the Chair of the Department of Philosophy and Theology at DeSales University in Center Valley, PA., a position he held for almost 20 years. Dr. Loughlin’s academic work has appeared in The Thomist, Nova et Vetera, Pro Ecclesia, and Josephinum, and his areas of research interest include Medieval philosophy, and Thomistic anthropology. Dr. Loughlin deeply loves teaching, having engaged in the profession for 25 years. Dr. Loughlin has been married for the past 30 years to his lovely wife Carol who just recently retired as a NICU nurse.