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"Prayer: Gift and Response" Part 4: "Prayer in the Life of the Church and Our Lives"

Byline: Msgr. Peter J. Vaghi
Posted: February 4, 2010

We are devoting this year, the remaining five meditations, to a continuation of our reflections on PRAYER -- that relatively brief but most beautiful last section of the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults. In the first three talks since October, we have focused on how it is that prayer is revealed in the scripture, especially in the Old Testament and significantly by Jesus Himself, the Master of prayer. Prayer was also a significant dimension in the life of the early Church. The Bible can thus be seen as a large “prayer” book.

Today, in this our first meditation of 2010, our meditation is entitled: “Prayer in the Life of the Church and our Lives.” It is good for us to reflect on prayer especially as we approach the beginning of Lent in a week and a half.

Prayer in the Age of the Church

From the earliest days of the Church, the day of Pentecost, we see how the disciples were gathered together in one place. Significantly, Acts 1:14 tells us that while awaiting the Spirit “all these with one accord devoted themselves to prayer.” We learn from Acts 2:42 that the first community of believers at Jerusalem devoted themselves to the teaching of the Apostles, fellowship, breaking of the bread and prayer. “The infant Church was born in prayer, lived in prayer, and thrived in prayer.” USCCA 467 It should be no different for you and me in our day.

We learn, moreover, from the letters of St. Paul that he was a man of intense prayer, especially in times of difficulty.

The Holy Spirit has taught and continues to teach the Church, in every age, ways and expressions of prayer. As examples, there is the prayer of adoration (our acknowledgement before God that we are His creatures); the prayer of petition (the evidence of our dependence on God); the prayer of intercession (requests of God on behalf of the needs of others); the prayer of thanksgiving (the posture of thanking  God for all His blessings for us) and the prayer of praise (the continuing recognition that God is God).

The Tradition of Prayer

God reveals Himself and the importance of prayer through sacred scripture. But He also continues to reveal Himself, and teach us about prayer, through the life and worship and doctrine of the Church.  That is what we call Tradition, that which is handed down through the centuries and every day of our lives and of the lives of those who have gone before us. One of the great benefits of being Catholic is our long tradition of prayer. We need not begin at square one and reinvent prayer. It has been an integral part of our lives as followers of Jesus from the very beginning.

God also continues to reveal Himself to us precisely when we are at prayer, when we are pondering a sacred text or when we are celebrating the sacraments or listening to the Word of God broken open for us.

Importantly, “prayer cannot be reduced to the spontaneous outpouring of interior impulse.” CCC 2650   No kind of exercise, and prayer is a spiritual exercise, can take place without the will to exercise and the knowledge how to exercise. I have certainly learned that of late, now that I turned 62 years old and have a treadmill in my room. There must be that will but importantly there must be the knowledge how to work the treadmill.

Who then teaches us to pray?  In a word, it is the Holy Spirit. Our late Holy Father Pope John Paul used to say that the Holy Spirit is the “breath of prayer.”

And it is always good for us to come to know better this third person of the Blessed Trinity and how it is that the Holy Spirit reveals Himself in our lives, particularly in our prayer lives.

The Wellsprings of Prayer

The Catechism repeatedly links the Holy Spirit to prayer. At the outset, it calls the Holy Spirit “the living water ‘welling up to eternal life’ in the heart that prays.” CCC 2652 The Catechism states also that “the Holy Spirit, whose anointing permeates our whole being, is the interior Master of Christian prayer. He is the artisan of the living tradition of prayer...It is in the communion of the Holy Spirit that Christian prayer is prayer in the Church.” CCC 2672 The Catechism states in addition that “the Holy Spirit, who thus keeps the memory of Christ alive in his Church at prayer, also leads her toward the fullness of truth and inspires new formulations expressing the unfathomable mystery of Christ at work in his Church’s life, sacraments and mission.” CCC 2625

What a wonderful description of the Holy Spirit -- the breath of prayer, the interior Master of prayer, the artisan of the living tradition of prayer, the living water welling up in the heart that prayers. If the Holy Spirit is the living water, where then, you might ask, is the wellspring?

The Catechism sets forth four such wellsprings “where Christ awaits us to enable us to drink of the Holy Spirit.” CCC 2652  And they are very practical.

First -- The Word of God

God’s holy Word is alive and active. It strikes to the heart like a two-edged sword. This happens precisely because of the Holy Spirit. It is not a dead letter. Our challenge is to read prayerfully each day (frequently) His Word.  What a wonderful goal as we approach Lent this year -- to develop that prayerful dialogue between God and us, each and every day at a specific time in a specific place!  We are challenged to receive God’s Word, to listen to it from the heart, to reflect on it, to respond to it and to relish it. His Word will change our lives for sure. I would suggest developing the habit of “lectio divina” (divine reading) which means reading scripture or approved spiritual writings in a reflective and meditative way. “Seek in reading and you will find in meditating; knock in mental prayer and it will be opened to you by contemplation.” CCC 2654

Second -- The Liturgy of the Church

It is in the sacramental liturgy of the Church that Christ and the Holy Spirit “proclaims, makes present, and communicates the mystery of salvation, which is continued in the heart that prays.” CCC 2655 This refers to all the sacraments but I wish to emphasize today our holy Mass. The mystery of our relationship with the living God is more deeply internalized and progressively assimilated by dwelling in prayer on the texts of the Liturgy -- before, during and after Mass. The Mass is, after all, the highest form of prayer, “the source and summit of our lives as Christians.” We can never stop encouraging each other and those close and not so close to us to participate regularly at Sunday Mass and during the week.

Third -- The Theological Virtues (Faith, Hope & Charity)

One enters prayer through the narrow gate of faith. We come to Mass, that highest form of prayer, because we believe that a piece of bread will become the Body of the Son of God and that a cup of wine will become His precious blood. This is a tremendous act of faith and a source of our prayer.

“The Holy Spirit, who instructs us to celebrate the liturgy in expectation of Christ’s return, teaches us to pray in hope. The Our Father is the prayer of hope, par excellance. Following the Our Father at Mass, we pray: “Deliver us Lord from every evil and grant us peace in our day. In Your mercy keep us free from sin and protect us from all anxiety as we wait in joyful hope for the coming our Savior, Jesus Christ,” Prayer must reflect our hope and hope is a source of our prayer.

Love is the source of all prayer. Love is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit. “Prayer, formed by the liturgical life, draws everything into the love by which we are loved in Christ and which enables us to respond to him by loving as he has loved us.” CCC 2658

Fourth -- “Today”

The Holy Spirit is offered to us at all times -- in the events of our everyday lives. Our challenge is to be aware of the presence of the living God at every moment of the day -- to listen and to respond to Him. “O that today you would hearken to his voice!  Harden not your hearts.”

The Way of Prayer: The Father, Son and Holy Spirit

Having spoken of the “source” of prayer, what about the “way” of prayer? The Catechism teaches us that authentic Christian prayer is Trinitarian, I.e. it is addressed to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit and it is done in communion with the holy Mother of God.

At the heart of all prayer is Jesus Christ. We have access to the Father only if we pray “in the name” of Jesus. CCC 2664 He is what prayer is all about for those of us who are Christians. I often reflect on what the great St. Patrick wore on his breastplate -- “Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ above me, Christ beneath me, Christ all around me, Christ in the mouth of friend and stranger.” That is truly the meaning of prayer. Jesus is the one name that contains everything. Jesus means Yahweh saves.  “To pray ‘Jesus’ is to invoke Him and to call Him within us.  His name is the only one that contains the presence it signifies.” CCC 2666

At the same time, “‘No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.” Every time we begin to pray to Jesus it is the Holy Spirit who draws us on the way of prayer by his prevenient grace.” CCC 2670 In his book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, the late Holy Father John Paul II, when asked how, for whom and for what do you pray, he answered: “You would have to ask the Holy Spirit! The Pope prays as the Holy Spirit permits him to pray. I think he has to pray in a way in which, deepening the mystery revealed in Christ, he can better fulfill his ministry. The Holy Spirit certainly guides him in this.  But man must not put up obstacles. ‘The Spirit too comes to help us in our weakness.’” (p.19) The simplest and most direct prayer to the Holy Spirit is “Come Holy Spirit.”

An example of prayer also worthy of use is: “Father, I put my life in your hands. Jesus, I want to follow you. Holy Spirit, make me wise and holy.” Abandonment, discipleship, truth and love are the key ingredients of faithful prayer.

The Way of Prayer: In Communion with Mary, the Mother of God

In addition to the Trinity, our prayer as Catholics is directed and in communion with Mary, the Mother of God. The Catechism teaches that “In prayer the Holy Spirit unites us to the person of the only Son, in his glorified humanity, through which and in which our prayer unites us in the Church with the Mother of Jesus.” CCC 2673

Mary, the Mother of God, shows us the way to her Son. To Him she always leads us. In our prayer to Mary, there are generally two movements: the first “magnifies” the Lord for the “great things” He has done for His lowly servant and through her for all human beings. The second movement entrusts the supplications and praises of the children of God to the Mother of Jesus. This two-fold movement is exemplified in the great Marian prayer -- The Hail Mary.

The Catechism analyzes the Hail Mary sentence by sentence -- one of the most often recited prayers in our treasury of prayers.

Focus on the “Hail Mary” with me. It is after all the predominate prayer of the rosary. The totality of the rosary is 150 Hail Mary’s paralleling the 150 Psalms.

Listen to the words --

Hail Mary--the opening words. That is the greeting of the angel Gabriel. It is God Himself, through the intermediary of an angel, who greets Mary. It is thus God’s prayer. Regarding this angelic salutation, St. Louis de Montfort writes: “Since the salvation of mankind began through the Hail Mary, the salvation of each individual soul is linked up with this prayer...It was this prayer which caused the Fruit of Life to spring up in this dry and barren world, and it is this same prayer, devoutly said, which must cause the word of God to germinate in our souls, and to bear the Fruit of Life, Jesus Christ... This prayer is a heavenly dew which seeps gently into the soil of the human soul, to bring forth fruit in due season.” To say Hail Mary brings us now into that mystical encounter between God and Mary. By our prayer, we unite ourselves with Mary at prayer and assume her worshipful spirit of humility, openness and total self-donation. God took the initiative with Mary as He continues to do with us.

Full of Grace, the Lord is with you -- Mary is full of grace because the Lord is with her.  It is God who told her that through the angel. The grace is the presence of Him who is full of grace. It is as if “full of grace” were her name given by God. It is her essence, her identity and the very meaning of her life.

Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb Jesus -- Now we move to Elizabeth and her greeting.  She is at the beginning of a long line who will call Mary “Blessed.” Mary is “blessed” precisely because she believed. The entire posture of her life is an “obedience of faith” -- not my will but your will be done. That is the essence of prayer--her prayer and every prayer. With regard to the name of Jesus, Archbishop DiNoia states “Through Mary, then, we receive the Holy Name of Jesus by which the Lord manifests himself to us, hands himself over to us, and beckons us to know him personally and intimately.” (The Love That Never Ends, 140)

Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death -- we acknowledge our sinfulness at the end of the prayer and pray that our Blessed Mother will be with us at the hour of our death as she was at the hour of her Son’s death.

St. Louis de Montfort writes: “I have no more effective way of discovering whether a person is of God, than by inquiring whether he loves to say the Hail Mary...The Hail Mary has been the means whereby the whole world was saved.”

Because of her singular cooperation with the action of the Holy Spirit, the Church loves to pray in communion with the Virgin Mary. “Mary is the perfect ORANS (pray-er) a figure of the Church. When we pray to her, we are adhering with her to the plan of the Father, who sends his Son to save all men. Like the beloved disciple we welcome Jesus’ mother into our homes, for she has become the mother of all the living. We can pray with and to her.” CCC 2679

A Cloud of Witnesses

And there are others, in addition to our Blessed Mother, who make up the living tradition of prayer in the Church. We are not alone. We are never alone.

I speak now of that great “cloud of witnesses” who have preceded us into the kingdom. Some are officially canonized by the Church as saints; others are known to us by their holiness of life. How is it that those whom the Church recognized as saints “share in the living tradition of prayer?”

The Catechism answers that question this way: “by the example of their lives, the transmission of their writings, and their prayer today...Their intercession is their most exalted service to God’s plan. We can and should ask them to intercede for us and for the whole world.” CCC 2683  Our prayer can profit from the rich variety of spiritualities which exist in the communion of saints, e.g. Franciscan, Dominican, Jesuit, Benedictine etc. Each developed at a given time and responded to the need of that time and each has perdured to this day. The saints can be powerful intercessors in the living tradition of the church. That is one reason why I encourage couples to choose a saint’s name for a child ready to be baptized.

Servants of Prayer

There are many places where we receive guidance in prayer and how to pray. First and foremost is the Christian family (the domestic church) -- the first place of education in prayer. In our family home, we always said grace before meals and we do it to this day. We always were taught to pray before bedtime -- to pray for our parents and those in need. If a child does not learn to pray as a child, when will that happen? Will it in fact ever happen?

The Catechism also speaks of the responsibilities of ordained ministers and religious in teaching prayer. This cannot be underestimated. It speaks of spiritual directors and prayer groups. It speaks specifically of the catechesis of young people. The Catechism underscores that “the memorization of basic prayers offers an essential support to the life of prayer, but it is important to help learners savor their meaning.” CCC 2688 Sadly, I cannot tell you how many young people and young adults come to confession and do not know the act of contrition. Something very important is missing and our constant job is to help correct that.

We can pray at any time of the day and at any place; yet there are some places more conducive to prayer than others. The Catechism mentions the church, God’s house, as the proper place for liturgical prayer. It is also a wonderful place to adore the Blessed Sacrament reserved. I would agree with the Catechism’s suggestion that we should cultivate a “prayer corner” in our homes where a copy of the scripture is prominently displayed. In our rectory we are blessed to have a chapel for meditation before the Blessed Sacrament.

The Catechism also mentions pilgrimages that “evoke our earthly journey toward heaven and are traditionally very special occasions for renewal in prayer.” CCC 2691 Having led many John Carroll Society pilgrimages, I can attest -- as I know others will agree with me -- that a pilgrimage can be a wonderful opportunity to learn to pray in new forms and deepen one’s own prayer life in addition to having a good time.

With all of these guides to prayer, each of us should rejoice in the living Tradition of prayer in our Church -- prayer that is the life of the new heart and the heart of our relationship with Jesus Christ, His Father and their Spirit.