"We ought always to pray and not to faint."
According to the teaching of the angelic St. Thomas, the worship of God takes the first place in the order of moral virtues; it is occupied more with God and leads us nearer to Him than the others. For every Christian, therefore, who is striving after perfection it must be a matter of no little concern to make this virtue his own in the highest degree.
Vocal prayer, or prayer pronounced by the lips, is very pleasing to God because by it the endless Majesty of God is acknowledged and glorified. "The sacrifice of praise shall glorify me," says the Lord by the mouth of the prophet David, "and there is the way by which I will show him the salvation of God." (Ps. 49:23). St. Mary Magdalen of Pazzi was almost beside herself with joy when she heard the sound of the bell that called the community to prayer. She left everything at once to devote herself to this holy exercise, for she felt that she was performing the function of an angel in proclaiming the praises of God.
In order, however that vocal prayer may tend to God's glory and our own salvation, it must be accompanied by attention and devotion. Not only the pronouncing of the words, says St. Gregory, but also the devotion of the heart is required for true prayer; for in the eyes of God, our sentiments are of greater worth than the sound of our voice. If we wish, therefore, to please God we must pray not
only with the lips, but also with the heart. Prayer made with attention and devotion is like sweet-smelling incense that is agreeable to God and wins for us treasures of graces. On the other hand, prayer without recollection is insulting and offensive to God and calls down His wrath on the offender.
If a subject came into the presence of his sovereign, and while petitioning some favor, gazed about and occupied himself with irrelevant matters in such a way that he scarcely knew what he was saying, would not that sovereign be justly offended? For this reason St. Thomas teaches that he who permits his mind to wander about during prayer cannot be excused from sin, because by such conduct he seems to be guilty of contempt of God. The Lord might well say of many Christians what He once said of the Jews: "They honor me with their lips but their heart is far from me." (Matt. 15:8).
It is easy to understand why the devil is so intent upon turning our thoughts towards worldly affairs during prayer. On the one hand, he desires to rob us of the benefit we derive from fervent prayer; and on the other he wishes to make us guilty of disrespect towards God, and therefore, deserving of punishment. But just on this account we ought to strive most earnestly to pray with the greatest attention and devotion.
Remember that the angels are looking upon you and are standing, as Blessed Herman saw them one day, with golden censers, prepared to offer your prayers and holy affections to God as sweet-smelling incense. The angels that St. John the Evangelist saw held golden vials of incense and odors which were the prayers of the saints. (Apoc. 5:8). In a word, think before prayer that you are going to converse with God and to treat with Him about some very important affairs. Then the Lord will look upon you with a gracious eye and turn an attentive ear to your petitions.
Offer Him beforehand the prayers you intend to say, and beg Him to preserve you from distractions. During prayer, avoid haste. Many people, when praying, seem to be intent only on reaching the end of their prayers, as if it were a torture that must be endured, but during the shortest possible time. Such irreverent haste can hardly be pleasing to god or profitable to ourselves. "Zeal and fervor," says St. Augustine, "gradually cool off and, like a fire, become extinct unless they are kept alive." Endeavor from time to time to renew your attention while at your prayers and devotions.
Attention during prayer must be both interior and exterior. Exterior attention requires that you abstain from everything that is incompatible with interior recollection. For example, it would hardly be proper during prayer to speak with others or to listen to a conversation that is going on, or to gaze about at every distracting object. Interior attention is threefold: it may be directed to the words you utter, or to their sense, or finally, to God. Attention is directed to the words when you are careful to pronounce them well; it is directed to the sense of the words when you try to understand their meaning in order to unite suitable affections of the heart with the verbal utterance. You direct your attention to God, and this is the best kind of attention, when during prayer your mind is fixed on God with a view to adore Him, to thank Him, to love Him or to ask Him for his graces.
(Adapted from: The 12 Steps to Holiness and Salvation)