I have found that there are generally two types of practical books about prayer (here I am not refering to advanced treatises like van Balthasar's theology of prayer). One is an insipid string of clichés;s about "who, what, when, where, how, and why," that fails to stimulate a spirit of prayer and most often fails to provoke anything other than yawns. The other type is a book so thoroughly practical, so dense with helpful advice and with insights that it is virtually impossible to finish because its main effect is to make you abandon the book and start praying--truly an effective work on prayer.
It is into this latter category that I classify Romano Guardini's wonderful The Art of Prayer. It is one of those books that rather than underlining, one would do better to use a black magic marker to delete the one or two sentences per chapter that you wouldn't read again, except that would deprive you of their help when you next came back to it.
This makes it most difficult to choose what to share, what stirkes one, and what might be most helpful. But I will endeavor to share a bit of what the book has given me:
from The Art of Prayer
It is a great mystery that man, whose life springs from God, should have such difficulty in communing with Him; that indeed he should experience disinclination to do so and should sieze on any pretext to evade Him. If man merely followed his natural feelings he would soon have no desire to pray. It would, however, be highly dangerous to conclude that this is his proper condition and that he had better accept it, rather than try to change it. . . . Are a sick man's feelings a reliable standrad of truth? Common sense tells us that his feelings may well be unrealiable and he should therefore, guided by superior knowledge--for instance, the judgment of an experienced doctor--establish a regime and persevere in it. In this manner and with time, his feelings may be restored to health. Only then will they be reliable. We are like the sick man; we are sick in our relationship to God and to the world. We cannot therefore make our natural feelings the true standard for our religious attitude, but must follow enlightened opinion in order to put ourselves and our feelings right. The supposed truthfulness which consists in doing what inclination demands is frequently an evasion of truth. In the practice of prayer therefore, we must also endeavor to seek what is right and to do it loyally and, if need be, against our inclinations.
Even those of us inclined to prayer spend much of our time being disinclined. It is grace and the Holy Spirit that lead us "with leashes of love" to the royal throneroom. Prayer is very, very hard to start, and extremely easy to abandon. Satan has used our own natures and allowed them to accumulate the spiritual equivalents of inertia and friction any motion is difficult to begin and requires a constant effort to maintain.
As a result those of us inclined to pray spend a great deal of time reading books about prayer, books about God, books about how to stop reading books about prayer and start doing, and using all manner of clever dodges for avoiding prayer and calling it preparing for prayer.
Or maybe not. Perhaps I'm the only person caught in such a cycle, though from speaking to others, I suspect not.
Routine is helpful. This is why, a while back, I spent some time encouraging the daily practice of the liturgy of the hours. There was a notably dampening response to that suggestion--intimating that it was too difficult, too time consuming, not necessary for sanctity or furthering prayer life. And yet I note that when I am faithful to the Liturgy of the Hours all other prayer flows more easily (not to say spontaneously), and when I break that routine, I shatter the rest of my prayer life as well.
A fixed time and a set place are a good beginning to a constant prayer life. When vocal prayer becomes habit, when its lines and contours are known and well worn, then it can begin to deepen and take root in the soul. St. Teresa of Avila advises us that a well-formed vocal prayer is already a mental prayer.
This is one of the reasons that the Rosary is so effective a mechanism for encouraging the contemplative life. The words of the prayers form a known and set rhythm and it is on this undulating tide that the meditations on the mysteries take place. The words form the backdrop and the prayer can center on the mysteries. So too with the Jesus Prayer or with the Divine Mercy Chaplet. The words are less important that the meditation that goes with them. When this meditation continues for a long enough period than mere images are no longer necessary and we enter into the realm of contemplative prayer. I suspect few of us get there because we will not settle into a routine.
We've been told (incorrectly) that prayer should be spontaneous and not in fixed modes. The devotions the Church used to encourage are less welcome among some modern clerics. And while spontaneous prayer is good and a wonderful way to "practice the presence" it is a serious mistake to abandon or repudiate time-honored methods of prayer.
Good, solid prayer takes root in well-worked soil. And well worked-soil comes about only through constant application and routine. The great old devotions and prayers of the Church are exquisite ground for beginning a prayer life than can lead directly to union with God. In addition, these well traveled routes have been followed by all the great Saints upon whose intercession we can rely for help as we set out to join God.
The Ascent of Mount Carmel to union with God in prayer is not a solitary road. Along it we have the help of the ages--well-worn, comfortable prayers, and clouds of witnesses, legions of Saints who have pledged their lives and their heavens to assisting those of us too weak to stand on our own. The Ascent is always done in a community of prayer and we all can make the Ascent if we set our minds on doing so and rely upon grace and the prayer of the Communion of Saints to make it happen.