For many of us, the ability to stay attentive in prayer is limited, at best. As the old saying goes, “Our hearts may be willing, but our minds…” can’t stay on track. We find ourselves easily distracted by noises on the outside, and fears and emotions within.
The author of The Cloud of Unknowing presents a short treatise entitled “The Letter on Prayer,” in which he stresses the importance of controlling our emotions so that when we pray, we are able to stay attentive and focused on prayer.
The instruction he gives is shocking. He writes: “…the best thing you can do when you start to pray, however long or short your time of prayer is to be, is to tell yourself, and mean it, that you are going to die at the end of your prayer.”
I wonder how different my prayer life would be if I truly took to heart this fourteenth-century writer’s advice. I would hope that my priorities would be realigned, my focus would be on the wondrous love and grace of God, and that my relationship with God would become more deep and intimate. Read this short selection, take heed of the author’s advice; and allow yourselves to pray as if your end comes before the “Amen.”
My dear spiritual friend in God,
Since you have asked me how you should control your feelings when you are praying, let me give you the best answer I can.
Let me start by saying that the best thing you can do when you start to pray, however long or short your time of prayer is to be, is to tell yourself, and mean it, that you are going to die at the end of your prayer. I am not joking when I tell you this: just think how impossible it is to tell yourself—or for anyone living to tell himself or herself—that you are certain of living longer than the time your prayer takes.
When you think of this, you will see that it is quite safe to tell yourself that you are going to die, and I advise you to do so. If you do, you will find that the combination of your general sense of your own unworthiness combined with this special feeling of how short a time you have left to make a firm purpose of amendment, will concentrate your mind wonderfully on a proper fear of the Lord.
You will find this feeling taking real hold of your heart, unless (which God forbid), you manage to coax and cajole your false heart of flesh with the false security (which can only be a false promise) that you are going to live longer. It may well be that you are going to live longer. It may well be that you are going to live beyond the time of your prayer, but it is always a false comfort to promise yourself that this will be the case and to persuade your heart to rely on it. This is because only God can know the truth of the matter, and all you can do is rely blindly on his will, without having any certainty beyond this for a moment, for the time it takes to blink an eye.
So if you want to pray wisely, or “sing psalms with all your art” (Ps. 47:7), as the psalmist counsels you to do, make sure you work your mind into embracing this proper fear of the Lord, which, as the same psalmist tells you later on, is “the beginning of wisdom” (Ps. 111:10). But for all that this is a proper feeling, beware of relying on fear alone, in case you get depressed; so follow this first thought of your imminent death with another: think firmly that whether God’s grace allows you to get through to the end of your prayer, dwelling on every word as you go, or whether you actually die before you get to the end, you are doing what is in you to do, and therefore God will accept it from you in full satisfaction of all the times you have willfully strayed from the straight and narrow path from your birth till that moment.
What I mean is this: provided that you have previously, to the best of your ability and following the dictates of your conscience, confessed your faults as the Church requires, then this short prayer, however little a thing it may be, will be sufficient for God to bring you to salvation if you should die in the act of saying it; and, if you live longer, it will be a great increase of merit in you.
How and Why Their Short Prayer Pierces Heaven
Why does this little prayer of one syllable [such as “Lord!” or “Father!” or “Jesus!”] pierce the heavens? Surely because it is offered with a full spirit, in the height and the depth, in the length and the breadth of the spirit of him who prays.
In the height: that is with the full might of the spirit; in the depth: for in this little syllable all the faculties of the spirit are contained; in the length: because if it could always be experienced as it is in that moment, it would cry as it does then; in the breadth: because it desires for all others all that it desires for itself.
It is in this moment that the soul comprehends with all the saints what is the length and the breadth, the height and the depth of the everlasting, all-loving, almighty and all-wise God, as Saint Paul teaches; not fully, but in some way and to some degree, as is proper to this work.
The eternity of God is his length; his love is his breadth; his power is his height, and his wisdom is his depth. No wonder, then, that the soul which is so nearly conformed by grace to the image and likeness of God his maker is immediately heard by God.
Yes, and even if it were a very sinful soul, one which is, as it were, God’s enemy, as long as it should come, through grace, to cry out with such a little syllable from the height and the depth, the length and the breadth of its spirit, it would always be heard and helped by God in the very vehemence of its shriek.