The following letter was written some years ago by a father to his teenage son, who had asked him for advice about how to pray and how to be a better Christian. When OnePeterFive was given a copy of it, we sought permission to share it with our readers.
I’ve intended for a long time to write a letter to you, even as I have written some letters to you in the past.
First, I want to commend you for being so faithful to your morning prayer. God will bless you richly for this fidelity. As Our Lord says: “He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and he who is dishonest in a very little is dishonest in much” (Luke 16:10). The way we grow in holiness is by our faithfulness in very little things. Doing our schoolwork, our chores, our daily tasks, uncomplainingly and thoroughly, is the path to sainthood.
Beware of a subtle temptation to do other things in the morning that might shortchange your prayer time. Certainly, you can afford to take a few minutes to wake up; for many, having a cup of coffee or tea is a sine qua non for subsequent rational activity. But as soon as possible, do the single most important thing of each day: adore, praise, thank, and beseech the Lord. He is good, and His mercy endures forever. He is the rock on which we must build everything else.
In your morning prayer time, make sure you leave time for quiet meditation — for just being silent in the Lord’s presence. Spiritual reading is crucial because it piles up the dry wood and maybe even starts the fire. But once a fire is going, we should sit down next to it — sit still and warm ourselves. We need time and a certain calm for the seed of God’s word to take root and grow. When you have reached a point of stillness, stay there — don’t be in a rush to get to the next thing.
If you get distracted, as we all do, gently bring yourself back to the Lord. Say, “I’m sorry for being distracted,” and put your mind back on Him. If you are feeling very distracted, then you can take up the rosary and pray it slowly, or lean on the Jesus Prayer until your mind and heart are brought back to stillness: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Lord, break through my thick skin and my even thicker head.
Do not hide your face from me.
Make yourself known to me.
Take my heart and make it yours.
Shed your peace in my soul.
Here is something very important: pray from your desires, fears, worries, confusions, disappointments, troubles, joys, delights. When God gives you these things or lets you experience them, He is providing the raw material for your prayer. Whatever you have within you, your experiences, thoughts, and feelings, is where God will meet you and what He wants to hear from you about. Prayer is about our life right now, right here. It is not an escape to somewhere else; it is finding grace in the present moment to be His son.
Postures make a difference in our prayer. Sitting upright, without too much relaxation, is a good posture for meditation, but we also need to kneel on a regular basis, and not be lazy about kneeling squarely on our knees, with an upright back. It’s not easy to do this — and that’s good. We need to learn to deny ourselves, and kneeling forces us to recognize that we are falling before the “great God of heaven and earth” who is our Maker and our Judge.
In advance, decide on a certain amount of time that you will pray in the morning. Let’s say 15 minutes to start with, and eventually 30 minutes. Having decided this, stay committed to your whole prayer time, without cutting corners. The last few minutes tend to be the hardest and the most fruitful. Whenever it’s hard or “dry,” it is then that you are most training your will in the habit of perseverance and fidelity. Starting to pray requires an act of will, but persevering in prayer requires a separate and greater act of will. It’s like the difference between starting to run and continuing to run when out of breath.
Once you asked me what it means to “follow Jesus.” Here is what it means in a nutshell:
To believe in His teaching.
To hope in His promises.
To love God and neighbor.
To follow Christ is to hold on to His words in faith and let them fill our minds and hearts with light; to trust in His mercy at all times and know that He will lead us home; to love Him with all we have got to give, so that His love may conquer us, rise up in us, and then spill out through us into the world. The secret to being happy is to love and to be loved.
Faith is the antidote to our pride and to the limits of our reason. Faith is a gift from God, but it does require assent and exercise on our part. God gives us hands and feet, but we must choose to use them. So, too, He gives us the virtues of faith, hope, and love and the freedom to exercise them. Whenever we use them, they get stronger; they determine more and more the course of our life.
And what is the purpose of my life? To serve God by acknowledging and loving Him, perfecting myself, and serving my neighbor. First we must love God above all; then we must love ourselves rightly; finally, we must love our neighbors as ourselves.
How can I do that today? Every big plan is carried out in small steps. Make a plan, at least a rough plan, for the day, alternating “I ought…” with “I want…” — the things I should do, even if I don’t particularly want to, with the things I’d like to do — and most importantly, give your whole day, and yourself, to the Lord.
Work hard, make yourself proactive and responsible. Take the bull by the horns. Don’t be one who has to be told what to do next. Obviously, if you need help, ask for it. But whatever you do, be active rather than passive, energetic rather than lazy, and eager to go farther rather than content with what you already are or have. Do your schoolwork calmly, without rushing or cutting corners.
What does it mean to “serve others”? Think of it this way: your job is to make other people happy, or at least less unhappy. Whatever you can do to lift or share their burdens; to relieve their troubles and sorrows; and, in general, to be a friend is a way of serving them. You can also think of it as serving the Lord in them, as Jesus said: “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brethren, you do unto me.”
The antithesis of serving others is selfishness. Selfishness means turning in on oneself, being concerned only with one’s own projects and desires. It is closely tied to acquisitiveness — that is, the spirit of wanting lots of stuff, of surrounding oneself with stuff, and feeling entitled to it. Stuff, as far as it goes, is not the problem; but we can quickly lose our balance and our bearings. We can get lost in stuff and forget about where everything is from and what everything is for. If our heart isn’t where it needs to be, then lots of possessions will make us not more contented, but more lonely. If our heart is where it is supposed to be, we will not care so much about possessions — and when we have them, we will know how to use them, and how to live without them. The danger we want to avoid is living for things rather than for God and for the people He gives to us to love.
The most fundamental reality is not subatomic particles, but the love of God, who holds all things in being — who holds me in being, so that I may be loved by God and love Him in return. The most ultimate reality is not the cosmos or its untold millions of galaxies, but the wisdom and goodness of God, who orders all things sweetly and manifests His glory to us, who are His beloved sons. What is deepest is not the bottom of the ocean but the abyss of the human heart, which is dark with sin and selfishness, but also able to be filled with God’s grace. What is highest is not the lofty mountains but the mercy of God that surrounds us and heals us.
Almighty and Eternal God,
You are the author of all things —
without you nothing would exist.
You have called me into being,
and you hold me in being at every moment,
including this very moment when I call upon you in faith.
You are the truth that gives meaning to everything,
the goodness that makes anything lovable,
the beauty that lights up the face of the world.
Give me insight into the truth and the zeal to pursue it.
Open my eyes to your goodness
and make me good, like you.
Capture my heart with your beauty
and never let me depart from you.
With all my love,