Introductory Note:

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.”

Linda Christians
September 2016

Excerpt from Spiritual Classics

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. 

Pray­ing wisely 

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. 

Excerpt tak­en from Spir­i­tu­al Clas­sics: Select­ed Read­ings on the Twelve Spir­i­tu­al Dis­ci­plines (Richard Fos­ter and Emi­lie Grif­fin, Edi­tors. Harper­collins, 2000.)

Pho­to by Jesse Bows­er on Unsplash

Text First Published January 2000 · Last Featured on September 2022

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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