By Raoul Plus, SJ
To remain in a state of prayer, it is not necessary to be always actively praying.
Every action done for God rises to His throne as an act of homage. It constitutes a lifting up of our whole being to His supreme majesty, a recognition — which, although not always explicit, is nonetheless real — of His sovereign due, and is the filial act of the creature offering everything to his Creator and his Father.
In practice, what is required of one who wishes to pray always?
He must give to each of his intentions the maximum of supernatural perfection that is humanly possible. And in this he will be aided greatly if he tries to perform his actions with the maximum professional skill of which he is humanly capable.
In other words, he has to purify the underlying motives of all his actions, and he has to do his best under all circumstances.
Have a pure intention
We do not think sufficiently of the goodness of God in the mechanism of the doctrine of intention. When we reflect upon the pettiness of our habitual actions and the feeble result they produce, we are alarmed.
How do we spend the twenty-four hours of the day? In extraordinarily hackneyed actions. Eight hours or more in bed, one or two in feeding ourselves, and what about the rest of the time?
Even in the case of persons whose work is of a more exalted character — the artist, the writer, the poet — what is the value of their masterpieces in the sight of God, and how much of their time is spent in duties other than artistic labors and creative work? There are proofs to be corrected, publishing accounts to be reckoned, and other things. How is it possible to amass eternal merit with such trifles as the sweeping of a room for the mother of a family, or the cooking for a general servant, or the explanation fifteen times repeated of a passage from Caesar or Virgil for a classical master?
If a supernatural intention is introduced into the actions, large or small, of daily life, it is as if leaven had been added, for immediately they begin to have life and to rise heavenward. A hidden fermentation is working in them. They have been changed from insignificant detail into eloquent praise offerings to almighty God. That which was a lifeless atom is now a living poem.
Henceforward nothing is base or vile; the poet’s verse, the sauce for the luncheon, the speculative theorizing at the Sorbonne University, or a bundle of posts standing in a corner of the carpenter’s workshop — all these can be supernaturalized. And how is this miracle to be accomplished? By the intention.
We would indeed be unfortunate if God were to judge our acts on their own merit. It is only the privileged few who are permitted to do great things. We shall be judged by the motive of our actions; and what a consoling thought it is to know that an unimportant existence, inspired by high motives, is incomparably greater than that which the world calls a noble life, but which is paved only with petty motives.
The whole of man is in the will that lies behind the thoughts and affections, and not in the broom, the brush, or the pen. Happy is the life beyond the veil, where true values will be made plain; there it will be manifested to all men that those personages who performed startling deeds are nothing but gas bags, while the woman pointed out by St. Francis of Assisi to Brother Juniper, surpasses in supernatural dignity the lukewarm monk or nun.
It is not sufficient to admire the beauty of a good intention; we must realize the difficulties in the way. The greater number of our motives are “mixed.” The case of the evildoer, who seeks to do wrong, may be laid aside. Here we are speaking of the good Christian, the fervent soul. There is no doubt that he is searching for God, but not God alone; it is God with the addition of some whim, some satisfaction of self-love, or the desire of well-being or of vanity.
The author of the Imitation of Christ recommends that we have a “simple eye that aims at nothing but God”— that is to say, an exclusively supernatural aim, which the multiplicity of human motives cannot alter or disturb. St. Ignatius proposes the same ideal to his sons: “That in all things, they may seek God, and God alone.” We have here a counsel given by all the masters of the spiritual life, and one of which we should remind ourselves continually.
Man belittles everything with which he comes into contact. He is made of spirit and matter, and this dual characteristic makes itself visible in all that he touches. He is born of two parents and seems to have a mania for what is complex.
We should keep a watch over this habit and frequently examine the motives of our actions and purity of intention. The author of the book Paraître describes someone whose perpetual preoccupation was to “think of himself.” What others are thinking, what they will say, or maybe what they might say — if we could only realize how little, as a general rule, others think about us, and still more how lacking in interest are their opinions, and how little they deserve to influence us!
The greater number of human beings are led by shadows. Let us cast a strong light upon them. For whom and for what object am I doing this? To win a smile of approval from Jack or Peter, for the probable approbation of Mrs. So-and-so, which often never comes off. Be done with it!
In certain cases, it is wise, before an action, to make a determined effort to get rid of this complexity, if it exists, so as gradually to succeed in suppressing it quite naturally on every occasion. But it is better still to get into the habit of acting from the highest motive that is apparent.
There is some work that I have to do. It can be done because it is my duty and the will of God; and this is a perfect motive. Or it can be done because it is a means of assuring my position and of enabling me to provide suitably for my family — also an excellent motive, but of a natural order and greatly inferior to the former, which was wholly supernatural. Or thirdly, it can be done because it makes people think well of me and gives me the opportunity of shining in the public eye, and this is a far less honorable motive. It must not be thought that all is lost because a lower motive may have intervened during the course of the action.
Clearly, if it is a case of a manifestly bad intention which entirely swallows up the former good intention so as completely to destroy it (we must note these two conditions) the result will be a bad action, and the gravity of this is to be ascertained according to the ordinary moral laws affecting sin.
But more often, the former intention remains. I give alms out of compassion and charity; the secondary intention that glides in is that others may see me, for example, but it does not totally destroy it, although it alters it a little by adding a purely human element to an act that at the first was entirely supernatural. The action remains good, but the merit is somewhat diminished by the intrusion of a less noble motive; the simplest method of getting over it is to address this upsetting underhanded intruder in the words of St. Bernard: “I did not begin this for you, and I have no intention of finishing it for you.”
Do your best in everything
We often long that our lives might be different. We would like them to be full of other events and to have a varied career, that our home duties would be less monotonous and of a more startling character. It is no secret that no one is content with his lot. Everyone would like to change places with his neighbor.
Now, God does not ask us to do something different, but to do what has to be donedifferently — to change, not our daily actions, but the manner in which we perform them.
Each one of us, if he carefully examines his conscience, will discover that on many occasions he slacks off or even goes on strike. The saints did not behave in this manner. Whatever had to be done they did, and here is the most elementary, as well as the most profound, mark of sanctity. Some of them accomplished great things, but they did not become saints for that reason, and they were permitted to do great deeds only as a reward for fidelity in small things. There are many among the blessed, such as St. John Berchmans, who are honored precisely because, in a short life, they realized perfection in their ordinary actions.
One who was asked his opinion of Father Chevrier, the evangelist of Marseilles, replied, “I know nothing about him except that he always keeps his door shut.” The answer was made half-jokingly, but it was expressive, for it implied complete self-control and fidelity in small things. To live a life of uninterrupted prayer that will beautify the grey monotony of our daily duties — who is there who could not become a saint in this way?
The great secret of a fervent life is to take as our ideal the maxim: “Act on all occasions as our Lord would have acted, had He been in our place.” And it is to be noted that this is not an imaginary situation, more or less fictitious, but a reality. Each one of us in a state of grace is a living member of Christ, and therefore the acts we perform from a supernatural motive, Christ, as head of the human race, accomplishes in us and by us.
How would Christ fulfill this humble detail of my life? I must do it in the same manner.
If we adopt this counsel as the practical guide for our lives, we shall not have to look elsewhere for the road to sanctity; it is found already, and there is no more rapid or efficacious method.
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from Fr. Plus’ How To Pray Always, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.