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Augustine on Prayer

An extract from the book "Making room for others" written by Fr Paul Graham. O.S.A.First published in the Catholic Gazette (March 2000) 20-22, with the title ‘Praying with Saint Augustine’.

‘You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.’ These are perhaps the most famous words in Christian literature, apart from Scripture, and were written by St Augustine in North Africa, where he was a bishop, in the fourth century. The book in which they are found is the famous Confessions, which up to this day has remained one of the classics of the spiritual life. Contrary to what many think, it is not really about how Augustine was converted from being a restless young man who gave up his wayward life to become a Christian. Rather, it is about the discovery of God within and the power of his grace to transform our lives. ‘You were within me,’ he writes, ‘and I was outside myself.’ However, nowhere in the Confessions, which is Augustine’s best known work, will one find any teaching on prayer as such, though he says there many prayerful things and quotations from it are used as prayers. For Augustine’s teaching on prayer we need to look elsewhere.

One has to bear in mind that in the early years of the Church, when Augustine lived, there was very little written on the Christian life, especially on prayer. Indeed, there were very few books and not many people able to read them. The present-day abundance of books and articles on prayer is a relatively recent thing. If one wanted guidance on prayer, one went to a holy person. Augustine himself would seem to have had no intention of writing specifically on prayer until he received a letter from a woman seeking guidance. His reply is now known as Letter 130, To Proba (all quotations are taken from Letters of Saint Augustine, ed. John Leinenweber, Liguori, 1992).

Proba was a Roman noblewoman, the widow of reputedly the richest man in the Roman Empire. As a sincere Christian with time on her hands, she wanted to know how best to pray. Very few women in those days would have had the leisure time and the freedom to explore the spiritual life.

However, what was a privileged life for an aristocratic woman in the fourth century, has now become more common today. Proba, therefore, speaks for many who find they have the time and the opportunity to go more deeply into a relationship with God in prayer. Augustine’s letter may be read profitably by anyone looking for guidance on prayer today.

He begins by saying that no one in this life is free from anxiety; it is part of the human condition. But that anxiety, or restlessness, is already a sign of God’s prompting. Prayer begins there. God is the one who gives us the grace of a yearning for the divine. Sadly, this yearning and anxiety for God, which is common to everyone, does not always lead to a deep relationship with a personal God. Many try to deny this anxiety by turning to other things like worldly success, money, pleasure for its own sake, or perhaps drink and drugs. For many years Augustine himself sought to remove this anxiety by turning to the philosophies of his day, to worldly success and to sexual relations. But God was not to be found in any of these things, and his anxiety remained – until he acknowledged the God within to whom he could turn in prayer.

Augustine put it to Proba that God had given her a ‘holy anxiety’, prompting her to ask for advice on how to pray. He also mentioned that no matter how many comforts we have in this life, and she had many, there will always remain a certain desolation of the spirit, and it is out of that the desire for prayer will come. ‘In the darkness of this present life, in which we live as exiles from the Lord, walking as we do by faith and not by sight,’ he writes, ‘a Christian heart should feel itself desolate so that it will not cease to pray.’ The goal of prayer, therefore, is that true consolation which only God can give. The movement from desolation to consolation may be said to describe our progress to God in prayer. Full and complete consolation, however, will come only in the next life. God, though, does grant us consolation in this life, to help us on our journey towards him and so that we may not become discouraged. These consolations have been described as moments of sweetness, joy, and peace by Augustine and all the great spiritual masters, which come as unbidden gifts from God and as the fruit of prayer.

Yet prayer begins in desolation. ‘Up until this consolation comes to you,’ writes Augustine to Proba, ‘you must remember that you are desolate. Then you may give all your days and nights to prayer, no matter how much you abound in the happiness that temporal blessings bring.’ Until the day we die, there will always be a certain God-shaped emptiness within us that acts as the spur to keep on praying. If we think we have arrived at any moment along the way, then we are only kidding ourselves. Augustine’s spirituality is a spirituality of the journey. We are travellers, voyagers in search of the One who alone can fulfil all our deepest desires and longings. ‘Our hearts are restless…’

Troubled by St Paul’s words that we find it difficult to know how to pray (Rom 8:26), Proba’s principal question in her letter was about this very issue, something which troubles all of us. What do we pray for? Augustine is brief and to the point, shockingly so: ‘Pray for a happy life’. Like so many simple answers, however, there is a catch. Happiness is elusive. Everyone may desire happiness, admits Augustine, but most look for it in the wrong places. Even the professional seekers after truth and happiness, the philosophers, have not been able to find it. People who live corrupt and immoral lives think that by the way they live they can find happiness. Augustine would say, and few would disagree with him, that happiness is the possession of all that it is legitimate to wish for. But of how many can this be said to be true? Life, no matter how fulfilling, always leaves us with some want, some unfulfilled desire, some residue of yearning.

Augustine’s answer to life’s perplexing question about happiness and its true source is to quote from the psalms: ‘There is one thing I ask of the Lord, for this I long, to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold his temple’ (Ps 26/27:4). God is the only legitimate object of happiness. He alone can truly fulfil us. Every single human being in their quest for happiness, for there is no one who does not want to be happy, is seeking after God – if only they knew it and could identify the source of that yearning within them.

However, having created that desire for him in each of us, God also gives us, through the teaching of his Son, Jesus, the helps we need to pray. Firstly, God knows what we want in prayer before we ask him, so there is no need for a lot of words. Rather, what he prefers, according to Augustine, is persistence in prayer, as exemplified in the gospel stories of the widow and the unjust judge and the man who roused the sleeping household to get what he wanted (Lk 18:1-8; 11:5-8). God, in other words, wants us to keep at prayer, even when the going is tough and our prayers seem unanswered. God knows what we want before we ask him for it, and he wants us to have what is for our good – in his own good time, not ours! What God intends, writes Augustine, is for us ‘to exercise our desire in our prayers, so that we are capable of receiving what he is preparing to give us’. God wants to ‘widen our hearts’, to use a phrase of Augustine’s, so that we may grow in our capacity to receive God’s gifts.

So we pray with uninterrupted desire for that happy life which only God can give. But to prevent the flame of desire for prayer from cooling, we need to set aside certain times for prayer.

These set times are reminders of that constant yearning which the preoccupations of the day may prevent us from acknowledging. We make our requests and prayers known to God not for his sake but for our own, ‘to fix our minds on what we desire’.

Constant prayer, however, does not mean many words or a lot of babbling. Augustine cites the example of the desert monks of Egypt, who use short but frequent prayers to maintain their concentration. These prayers may be similar to the prayer-word or mantra favoured by modern-day proponents of meditation. If we do this, our prayer will reach the point where it has no need of words and will become wordless prayer welling up from the depths of the heart. Such prayer, writes Augustine, ‘will consist more in sighing than in speaking, more in tears than in words’.

To help us focus on what is essential in prayer, God, through Jesus, has given us the Our Father. These are God-given words which recall to our minds what we are praying for. ‘Hallowed be thy name’ is a reminder that it is God’s holy name that we desire. ‘Thy Kingdom come’ is not a request put to God, because his Kingdom will surely come. Rather, we arouse our desire for its coming. With the words ‘Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven’, we are asking that we may be obedient to his will. When we ask ‘this day’ for ‘our daily bread’, we desire both our present material needs and, more importantly, the Eucharist for our deeper, spiritual needs.

Augustine continues in this vein, seeing in the Our Father God’s offer to us of help in keeping the flame of desire for him alive. The last phrase of the Lord’s Prayer, asking God to deliver us from all evil, ‘is so comprehensive’ writes Augustine, ‘that Christians can use it to express their sighs, they can pour out their tears by using it, in whatever kind of distress they may find themselves.’ Indeed, the same could be said of the whole prayer. All prayer ultimately leads back to this one great prayer for its origin and inspiration. Those who think otherwise, says Augustine, ‘are praying unspiritually’. The petitions in the Lord’s Prayer point to that ‘happy life’ which Augustine says is the true object of prayer. This will come when, immortal and imperishable in body and spirit, we contemplate the Lord’s beauty for ever.

The Holy Spirit plays a crucial part in all this through what Augustine calls ‘learned ignorance’. That is, the Holy Spirit within us, as St Paul points out in Romans 8:26-27, leads and directs us towards the object of our prayer without our fully knowing what that is. We do not yet know God in his fullness before we can turn to him in prayer. Even though we cannot put into words that for which we long, the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness, in our ignorance. As Augustine rightly points out, if we could see that for which we long, ‘we would not be longing for it and seeking it with sighs’.

Praying with Augustine, therefore, is identifying that ‘holy anxiety’ within each one of us and directing it towards its true object, who is God. Only in this way will we enjoy that ‘happy life’, which is the aim of all human endeavour even when people seek it in wrong places. Prayer does not need many words, as God knows what we want before we ask for it. He is more interested in the yearning of the heart, our desire for him, which is best expressed in ‘sighs and tears’. Augustine’s final words to Proba are: ‘Pray hopefully, pray trustingly and lovingly, pray earnestly and patiently, pray as a widow belonging to Christ’.

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