How to Ready Oneself to Pray

I am not very good at prayer, although I try to be praying all the time, like breathing. (In fact, I have at times asked God — when I am too ill or too tired to think in words — to take my breathing as a prayer.) It is an inner conversation, wordless often, marked just by attentiveness. Every detail of every event is speaking. It comes forth from the creative insight of God.

When I want to ready myself to think about God, I place myself quietly and humbly in His presence. I try to shut out other thoughts, and then quietly think about the most beautiful and ennobling and stunning things I have seen in life — all my favorite things. There are two views in the Alps — in Grindelwald and in Bressanone — that I have especially loved. The peacefulness of an ocean on a quiet day, the blue water barely rippling, never fails to move my heart. And the sunsets — in Iowa, in Wyoming, on the seacoast of Delaware — and that most peculiar green sunset on the plain above Mexico City where the sun drops over the edge of the plain before it disappears behind the earth, so that the light during that interval is eerie and prolonged and unforgettable.

I think then of favorite music of mine, Mozart, Bach, Haydn, Vivaldi, Dvorak’s Stabat Mater, the most beautiful of all, written after the sudden death of his much loved daughter. I think of favorite paintings from the Pitti and the Uffizi, and the convent walls painted by Fra Angelico. And sculptors. And poets. And philosophers and other writers whose work has thrilled me. (One of my most unforgettable moments as a young man was reading Maritain’s Creative Intuition in Art and Poetry; it was so beautiful I had to get up and take a long walk down to the lake, almost speechless in silent wonder.) For several years, every Easter I have read one of Dostoevsky’s long novels, followed in later years by War and Peace and Anna Karenina. I think of God as the Creator of all these great minds and artists. I wonder how much greater than they are God’s own mind and sense of beauty. I would love to share in contemplation of such works and such persons for all eternity. And all the more so in His beauty.

Then I think of the loves I have known. Close friends, childhood buddies, grandparents, uncles and aunts and cousins, my three brothers and one sister, my dear parents — and then Karen, whose name means what she is, Clara, the clear light of my life — and our solid, noble, and strong children and grandchildren. All these loves make me think that God’s love is more than the sum of these, of a different order entirely, and yet the source of all of them. “Where there is caritas and amor,” the old hymn goes, “there God is.” That is my favorite hymn.

Jesus asks us not only to be just to our enemies, not only to be merciful, not only to forgive. He asks us to resist evil, yes, and to be like steel against unjust aggressors — to defeat them thoroughly — but also, in the end, to be able to see that even our enemies are also children of the one Creator. When all the evil has been drained out of their aggression, we need to be ready to welcome them back into the human community.

The United States and our allies did this rather nicely, I have always thought, in regard to Germany and Japan after World War II. If there is ever to be even a simulacrum of a brotherly world — all right, at least a relatively tranquil world — even one based upon fear of greater power, reaching out in tests of amity and voluntary cooperation is a necessity of human life in our time. Here is one point at which I think Christianity has led the way. It once united all Europe in a common civilization. It has suffused the secular humanism of compassion and solidarity and individual freedom. It is helping to shape one global civilization, with respect for individual liberty, as well as for human solidarity.

If I had to pick out one human experience that for me seems most god-like — the best, the highest that I know — I would choose the experience of choosing to love Karen, and to be loved by her in return. Second would come acts of insight — those little bursts of fire that come when we are puzzling things through. In many ways, these two experiences are related, but saying how that is so would delay us too long right here. Suffice it to say that those are my choices for the best in life — the achievement of mutual love, and the firing off of insight after insight in pursuit of understanding. That eros of understanding is almost as powerful (in some ways more so) than the eros of love; yet the latter is primary, and is profoundly influential upon understanding. Understanding keeps love from erring badly, but in the dark, love often leads the way for understanding.

Adapted from Michael Novak’s latest book No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers.

Michael Novak (1933-2017) was George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy from the American Enterprise Institute, is an author, philosopher, and theologian. He was also a trustee and a visiting professor at Ave Maria University.