Pope Francis encouraged Catholics on Wednesday to read a 19th-century Russian spiritual classic.
Speaking at his general audience on April 21, the pope said that everyone could benefit from reading “The Way of a Pilgrim,” the story of an unnamed pilgrim who travels across Russia seeking to discover the secret of constant prayer.
He said: “We all have something to learn from the perseverance of the Russian pilgrim, mentioned in a famous work on spirituality, who learned the art of prayer by repeating the same invocation over and over again: ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, Lord, have mercy on us, sinners!’ He repeated only this…”
“If graces arrive in our life, if prayer becomes so warm one day that the presence of the Kingdom were perceived here among us, if that vision could be transformed until it became like that of a child, it would be because we have insisted on reciting a simple Christian exclamation. In the end, it becomes part of our breathing.”
He added: “It is beautiful, the story of the Russian pilgrim: it is a book that is accessible to all. I recommend you read it; it will help you to understand what vocal prayer is.”
The pope gave his address, dedicated to vocal prayer, in the library of the Apostolic Palace due to coronavirus restrictions.
The speech was the 30th reflection in his cycle of catechesis on prayer, which he launched in May and resumed in October following nine addresses on healing the world after the pandemic.
Pope Francis meditated on the role of words in prayer.
“We create words, but they are also our mothers, and to some extent they shape us. The words of a prayer get us safely through a dark valley, direct us towards green meadows rich in water, and enable us to feast in front of the eyes of an enemy, as the Psalm teaches us,” he said, referring to the celebrated Psalm 23.
He noted that words both spring from feelings and can help to shape them.
He said: “This is why Sacred Scripture teaches us to pray, sometimes even with bold words. The sacred writers do not want to deceive us about the human person: they know that our hearts harbor also unedifying feelings, even hatred.”
“None of us are born holy, and when these negative feelings come knocking at the door of our hearts, we must be capable of defusing them with prayer and God’s words.”
The pope said that reciting prayers out loud is a sure way of praying because it is not dependent on our feelings.
“Although we are all aware that praying does not mean repeating words, vocal prayer is nevertheless the surest, and can always be practiced,” he said.
“Feelings, on the other hand, however noble, are always uncertain: they come and go, they leave us and return.”
He contrasted what he called “the prayer of the lips” with the “prayer of the heart.”
“The prayer of the heart is mysterious, and at certain times it is lacking,” he explained. “Instead, the prayer of the lips, that which is whispered or recited chorally, is always accessible, and is as necessary as manual labor.”
He continued: “We should all have the humility of certain elderly people who, in church, perhaps because their hearing is no longer acute, recite quietly the prayers they learned as children, filling the nave with whispers. That prayer does not disturb the silence, but testifies to their fidelity to the duty of prayer, practiced throughout their lives without fail.”
“These practitioners of humble prayer are often the great intercessors in parishes: they are the oaks that from year to year spread their branches to offer shade to the greatest number of people.”
“Only God knows when and how much their hearts have been united to those prayers they recited: surely these people too had to face nights and empty moments. But one can always remain faithful to vocal prayer. It is like an anchor: one can hold on to the rope and remain, faithful, come what may.”
Concluding his address, he urged Catholics not to overlook vocal prayer.
He said: “One might say, ‘Ah, this is for children, for ignorant folk; I am seeking mental prayer, meditation, the inner void so that God might come to me…’ Please! Do not succumb to the pride of scorning vocal prayer.”