After having heard so much of the efficacy and advantages of prayer, you must doubtless be desirous to know how you can acquire that spirit of prayer which the saints possessed, and which the Lord promised to pour out upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem. I answer as St. Francis de Sales did, when asked what one should do to obtain the love of God: “We must love Him,” said he; so, in the same way, I say, we must pray, in order to learn how to pray. No art, no trade, no language can be learned without practice; so, also, prayer cannot be learned without constant exercise. It was only by constant practice that the saints obtained the spirit of prayer.
St. Teresa was accustomed to offer herself to God fifty times in the day. St. Martha used to pray a hundred times in the day, and a hundred times in the night. St. Francis Borgias, also, was accustomed to pray a hundred times every day. St. Philip Neri made a kind of rosary of the words: “O God, come to my aid; O Lord, make haste to help me.” He recited this rosary sixty-three times in the day, and enjoined on his penitents to do the same. St. Gertrude repeated the prayer: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven,” three hundred and sixty-five times a day. St. Leonard of Port Maurice recommended himself to the Blessed Virgin Mary two hundred times in a day. St. Francis de Sales was accustomed to offer up short and fervent prayers during the day, and thus kept himself in the presence of God, even amidst his many pressing occupations.
But you will say: “I cannot pray as much as the saints have done; in order to do this, I should be a saint myself. If I cannot acquire the spirit of prayer unless I do as much as they have done, I must give up all hope of ever acquiring it.” Softly, my friend; have a little patience! Rome was not built in one day. The saints did not acquire the spirit of prayer all at once; the practice of prayer was not natural to them either, at first; but they persevered in it in spite of every obstacle, and were at last raised to a high degree of contemplation.
The saints made use of short and fervent aspirations as one of the most efficacious means to acquire the spirit of prayer. You, too, will make great progress in this all-important virtue, provided you make use of this means as the saints did — with fervor and perseverance.
But you will ask, “How can I count my aspirations? It is too troublesome!” I answer, “If you truly love your soul you will soon find out a way to count them, just as well as a merchant knows how to count every cent he spends or receives.” In order to do this, you may make use of beads after the example of St. Philip Neri, or you may count your aspirations on your fingers, or by the hours of the day, making a stated number of them during each hour; for until you have acquired the salutary habit of praying everywhere, it will be advisable for you to count your aspirations, in order to know whether you may progress in prayer or not.
The use of frequent and fervent ejaculatory prayers, and the complete detachment of your heart from all creatures, are, it is true, a most powerful means to acquire the spirit of prayer; but in order the most quickly to obtain this inexpressible gift, you must frequently beg it of God; for this grace of prayer is, as St. Francis de Sales assures us, no water of this earth, but of Heaven; therefore you cannot obtain it by any effort of your own, although it be true that you should carefully dispose yourself for the reception of this grace. This care should indeed be great, but humble and calm. You must keep your heart open, waiting for the fall of this heavenly dew; it will fall so much the sooner, the more earnestly and perseveringly you pray and sigh for it every day, especially when you assist at the Divine Sacrifice of Mass, or receive Holy Communion, and visit our most loving Lord in the adorable Sacrament of the Altar. Then you must say to Him: “Lord, teach me how to pray; grant me the spirit of prayer, and a great love for this holy exercise; make me often think of Thee, and find my greatest pleasure and happiness in conversing with Thee; let everything of this world become disgustful to me.”