The Total Happiness of Man on Earth, The Anchor, September 18, 2009

Fr. Roger J. Landry
The Anchor
Putting Into the Deep
September 18, 2009

Last week we looked at how St. John Vianney, the patron saint of priests, was an example of “an existence made prayer.” The focus of all his pastoral work in Ars was to help his parishioners experience a similar transforming union with God in prayer. He did that not just by his saintly example, but through his homilies and catecheses.

What’s great about his teaching on prayer is that it’s accessible to everyone, from little children to senior citizens, from those with little education to those with much. The Curé of Ars was too humble ever to have thought of writing a book-length systematic treatise on prayer, but his thoughts — which flowed from his own interior encounter with God as well as directing well over 100,000 others in the confessional — are easy to put into a synthesis. Today, we’ll tackle what he taught about prayer in general. Next Friday, we’ll focus on some of the concrete, practical tips he gives us about how to pray well.

The first lesson St. John Vianney stressed about prayer is that it is not meant to be just a repetition of words. “In praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do,” Jesus said in the Gospel, “for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Mt 6:7-8). Prayer, in other words, is more than “saying our prayers.” Vianney would often give a gentle correction to mothers who are normally the teachers of prayer in the family: “There are some poor women who imagine that the more they speak, the more they pray!” He did not by any means wish to disparage what Christian tradition has called vocal prayers, but, rather, to stress that vocal prayers are meant to be a bridge to meditation and contemplation, not an end in themselves. He pointed to a better way: “One doesn’t have to speak much to pray well. We know that the good God is there in the holy tabernacle; we open our heart to him, we take pleasure in his holy presence. This is the best prayer!”

This is his second lesson on prayer: prayer is an interior recognition of God’s loving glance and an interior look at him. With tears of joy, he would tell the story of Louis Chaffangeon, one of his simple parishioners, who would leave his hoe at the door of the Church and then come in to pray before work. When fellow farmers asked him what he was doing, he replied, “I am looking at the good God and he is looking at me.” Fr. Vianney would never cease to add, after telling the story, “How beautiful this is, my children, how beautiful!” This interior mutual exchange of love in prayer is what tradition has generally called contemplation. He would urge his parishioners to follow Chaffangeon’s example, saying, “Direct the look of your soul to the heart of God and remain there, without saying a word.” Four months before he was continuing to make the same point: “You can pray by putting yourself quite simply in touch with God. When one finds nothing more to say to him, but still knows that he is there – that in itself is the best of prayers.”

Prayer, therefore, begins with a dual movement of the heart: God’s loving search for us and our loving quest for him. This is the third point of St. John Vianney’s catechesis on prayer. Prayer is not principally about “learning something,” but about “loving someone” and being loved. It is a heart-to-heart dialogue. “God communicates himself to us heart to heart,” he stressed. To those who asked how they with all their problems and weakness could love God at God’s level, he replied, “You do have a small heart, but prayer enlarges it and makes it capable of loving God. … Prayer is a scale that lifts us toward the good God and brings him down to us.” Therefore, he tried to teach them how to climb up on that divine see-saw by praying sincerely from the heart: “It’s not long, beautiful prayers that God wants,” he emphasized, “but those that come from the bottom of the heart, with a great respect for and true desire to please God.”

Since the interior loving glance of the heart is so crucial to prayer, Fr. Vianney always stressed that we will not be able to pray well unless our heart genuinely seeks God and the things of God. This is the fourth part of his catechesis. Jesus had taught in the Gospel, “where your treasure is, there will your heart be” (Mt 6:21); the Curé of Ars taught as a result that the quality of our prayer depends on the strength of our desire for God, heaven and eternity. “The Christian’s treasure is not on earth but in heaven,” he underscored, “and so then, our thoughts ought to be directed to where our treasure is.”

He also highlighted, correlatively, that the more we pray well, the more our heart will seek heaven. “If we take up prayer again,” he said to those who had given up prayer and naturally started to see their lives unravel as they sought increasingly lower worldly ends, “we will feel ourselves reborn in thinking about and desiring the things of heaven.” Using one of his famous analogies, he said, “Prayer is like the fire that fills up the hot air balloons and makes them climb toward heaven.” Prayer, for that reason, gives us a glimpse of eternity. “When one is before God, the hours pass like minutes,” he said from personal experience. “It’s a foretaste of heaven.”

Since heaven is not so much a “place” but a state of eternal existence in God, the saintly pastor taught that the reason why we experience a foretaste of heaven in prayer, the explanation of how “paradise is in the heart of the spiritually perfect,” is precisely because “prayer is nothing other than a union with God.” This is his fifth and most important teaching on prayer. Prayer, he instilled, brings about the “beautiful union” between God and “his small creature.” This union is nuptial. “Because they live for the good God in their heart, there is no longer two,” he described, echoing the words of Jesus about marriage (Mt 19:6). “In this intimate union, God and the soul are like two candles in which the wax melts together.” This union is the means by which we are able to have an “existence made prayer” — as Pope Benedict said of St. John Vianney — through maintaining this prayerful, loving fusion throughout the day. “We should lose the presence of God no more than we stop breathing.”

Our prayer, he said ultimately, is meant to imitate Jesus’ and be the “sweet union of a son with his father.” Because the “good God is our father and loves us very much,” he taught, “we should pray like four year olds… who tell their mothers everything.” Prayer not only is a great privilege, but is meant by God to be for us a great happiness, a “sweet friendship,” a “stunning family bond,” a “bath of love in which the soul is plunged.”

“Prayer is the total happiness of man on earth,” St. John Vianney would declare late in life, with words that show not only why he was so happy in prayer and in life. “Oh, what a beautiful life is the beautiful union of the soul with Our Lord. Eternity will not be long enough to understand this happiness!”

He understood a little of that happiness in this world and sought to have his parishioners experience it as well. Now from heaven, where he understands this happiness much more deeply, he is doubtless interceding for us that we, too, will come to experience the full beauty of such a life of prayer.