There could not be a better time to reflect on the “life of prayer” than during this 40 day period of Lent, our annual Spring Spiritual Training. I have thus entitled this meditation “Lent: the Practicalities of Prayer.” Lent, after the example of Jesus, is captured so beautifully by the image in the Gospel for the first Sunday of Lent when Jesus was “led by the Spirit” into the desert to fast, to be tempted and importantly to pray. Lent is a time in the desert. Each one of us is lead by the Spirit, if we yield to the Spirit, to pray in the desert of our daily busyness.
But not only are we in Lent, we are also in the Year for Priests this year. During this special year, Pope Benedict has held up the 19th century French Cure of Ars, St. John Vianney, as a model priest for our reflection and admiration. I was struck by a passage from his catechetical instructions. He writes: “Prayer is nothing else but union with God. When one has a heart that is pure and united with God, he is given a kind of serenity and sweetness that makes him ecstatic, a light that surrounds him with marvelous brightness. In this intimate union, God and the soul are fused together like two bits of wax that no one can ever pull apart. This union of God with a tiny creature is a lovely thing. It is happiness beyond understanding.” Catechisme sur la priere: A. Monnin, Esprit du Cure d’Ars, Paris 1899, p.87 (Liturgy of the Hours, Book IV, August 4)
Stated another way, “Prayer is the life of the new heart.” CCC 2697 It is at the very heart of being a follower of Jesus. At one level, prayer can be described as a heart-to-heart conversation with God. Mother Theresa reminds us, moreover, of the importance of silence in this conversation: “In silence he listens to us; in silence He speaks to our souls. In silence we are granted the privilege of listening to His voice.” USCCA 479-80 Lent is such a wonderful time to deepen our daily prayer lives.
I was moved last weekend when 80 John Carroll and Serra members gathered at our annual Lenten Day of Recollection to pray in silence, to listen to the words of our retreat director, to say the rosary together, to adore the Blessed Sacrament exposed, to repent at confession and to participate at holy Mass. These are all faces of the “life of prayer.” They are the activities of the desert, with Jesus, at the oasis, where we are continually refreshed.
Prayer is “the remembrance of God.” CCC 2697 Although the Catechism makes it clear that we are called to pray at all times, it importantly states that “we cannot pray ‘at all times’ if we do not pray at specific times, consciously willing it. These are the special times of Christian prayer, both in intensity and duration.” CCC 2697
For sure, there are specific times each day when prayer is appropriate -- morning and evening, before and after meals, on Sundays at Mass. This simply does not happen. One must consciously choose to pray at these times. Not unlike physical exercise, we must develop a discipline to our prayer and prayer times. There is, in fact, a certain rhythm about praying at specific times each and every day. Undoubtedly, it nourishes us and draws us closer to God. By no means does this mitigate our spontaneous prayer, our consciousness that the Lord is always walking with us with ears towards us.
The Expressions of Prayer
The Catechism lists three types (or expressions) of prayer -- Vocal, Meditative and Contemplative. When the Gospel is read at Mass, we make the sign of the cross on our foreheads, lips and hearts and pray “ ‘May the Lord be in our minds, on our lips, and in our hearts.’ Lips, minds, and hearts -- these symbolize three kinds of prayer: vocal, meditative, and contemplative.” USCCA 473 That is an easy way to remember these three expressions of prayer.
Let’s take a look at each one!
Vocal Prayer (prayer of our lips) -- an obvious example would be the responses we make together at Mass. It is that form of prayer most readily accessible to groups such as praying the rosary together. It puts flesh onto our interior feelings. “We are body and spirit, and we experience the need to translate our feelings externally. We must pray with our whole being to give all power possible to our supplication.” CCC 2702 Jesus teaches a vocal prayer most noteworthy in the prayer He gave us -- the Our Father. Jesus models vocal prayer Himself the night before He died at Gethsemani -- “Abba. Father, all things are possible to you. Take this cup away from me, but not what I will but what you will.” Mk l4:36
Meditative Prayer (prayer of our minds) -- It is above all a prayerful “quest” engaging thought, imagination, emotion and desire. “This mobilization of faculties is necessary in order to deepen our convictions of faith, prompt the conversion of our heart, and strengthen our will to follow Christ.” CCC 2708 Although difficult to maintain, this form of prayer requires attentiveness. “The mind seeks to understand the why and how of the Christian life, in order to adhere and respond to what the Lord is asking.” CCC 2705 There are many good sources for meditation. Above all, of course, is the Holy Scripture -- particularly the Gospels. But, in addition, holy icons, liturgical texts of the day or season, writings of the spiritual fathers and works of spirituality may be used.
How important it is to develop meditation, a listening to the Word of God, each day. Otherwise we run the risk of becoming like the three kinds of soil in the parable of the sower in Mark 4:15-19. When the seed (i.e. the Word) is sown on the path -- “as soon as they hear, Satan comes at once and takes away the word…” When sown on rocky ground, “when they hear the word, [they] receive it at once with joy. But they have no root; they last only for a time. Then when tribulation or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away.” Finally, those sown among thorns react this way: “They are the people who hear the word, but worldly anxiety, the lure of riches, and the craving for other things intrude and choke the word, and it bears no fruit.”
When we meditate on a scripture text, for example, we make it our own by confronting it with the reality of our own lives. We put ourselves in the Gospel story, and under the influence of the Holy Spirit, we begin to identify with the characters and ask questions of ourselves and importantly put on the mind and heart of Christ in a prayerful way. Lectio Divina, the method of St. Benedict, is a reflective reading of the scripture text that leads to deeper meditation.
Contemplative prayer (prayer of our hearts) -- perhaps the most difficult and yet the simplest form of prayer. Its difficulty is the clearing of our minds of all clutter. What’s easy about this form of prayer is the total and clear focus on God alone. St. Theresa describes contemplative prayer as “nothing else than a close sharing between friends.” CCC 2709 “It is a gaze of faith fixed on Jesus.” CCC 2724 “It achieves real union with the prayer of Christ to the extent that it makes us share in his mystery.” CCC 2724 Contemplative prayer is the prayer of simple presence with one’s lover. It can be intense. It is always recollected. It is the prayer of silent listening and love. “Contemplative prayer seeks him ‘whom my soul loves.’” CCC 2709 One must consciously will time with the Lord. To do so requires being recollected under the promptings of the Holy Spirit. It is our poor and loving surrender to the Lord. “‘I look at him and he looks at me’: this is what a certain peasant of Ars used to say to his holy cure about his prayer before the tabernacle.” CCC 2715 There can be no better place for contemplation than in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament exposed.
The Battle of Prayer
Regardless of the type of prayer, be it vocal, meditative or contemplative, the Catechism devotes a whole section on the “The Battle of Prayer.”
You might ask at the outset, against whom is this battle? Quite simply: it is against ourselves and the wiles of the Tempter, the Evil One, the devil. It is certainly not in his interest that we develop a prayerful relationship with the Lord. Quite the contrary! The stakes are high for a follower of Jesus, for those of us who seek to live faithfully the Christian life. “Prayer requires time, attention and effort.” USCCA 476
Christian life -- of necessity -- is one of outward activity and a corresponding need for inner retreat, a time and place to wrestle with our own hearts before God. Without this inner retreat, the Christian life runs the risk of being simply a facade. Too much unreflected activity also leads to burnout, a lack of needed spiritual nourishment. We can easily become sheep without a shepherd -- directionless, helpless and very vulnerable to the seductions and attacks of the evil one.
Prayer is not always easy -- even for the saints. For sure it is BOTH a gift of grace AND a determined response on our part. But so much often gets in the way. It might be that we simply don’t feel liking praying. Perhaps we convince ourselves that we tried to pray but simply failed to experience His presence. We easily give up and lose confidence. These are experiences that each of us has from time to time. “The ‘spiritual battle’ of the Christian’s new life is inseparable from the battle of prayer.” CCC 2725
The Catechism is very pastorally sensitive and practical with respect to the components of the battle for and of prayer. At the outset, it states what prayer is not. It is not psychological activity nor is it an effort at concentration simply to fill a mental void. It is not merely human efforts. This is an implicit misconception on the part of each of us. Prayer is importantly the work of the Holy Spirit. As the late Holy Father John Paul II repeatedly states, prayer is the breath of the Holy Spirit.
For others, the “mentality” of “this present world” can easily, like a thief in the night, penetrate one’s life. In this case, prayer is erroneously seen as an activity that can be considered true if verifiable by reason and science. Yet in reality “prayer is a mystery that overflows our conscious and unconscious lives.” CCC 2727 The “bottom line” mentality also mistakenly turns the “success” of prayer into a profit and loss statement. Prayer being unproductive is seen as useless. Still others see prayer mistakenly as a “flight from the world in reaction against activism; but in fact, Christian prayer is neither an escape from reality nor a divorce from life.” CCC 2727
“Finally, our battle has to confront what we experience as failure in prayer: discouragement during periods of dryness; sadness that, because we have ‘great possessions’ we have not given all to the Lord; disappointment over not being heard according to our own will; wounded pride, stiffened by the indignity that is ours as sinners; our resistance to the idea that prayer is a free and unmerited gift; and so forth. The conclusion is always the same: what good does it do to pray?
To overcome these obstacles, we must battle to gain humility, trust, and perseverance.” CCC 2728
It is as if the Catechism writers were a part of each of our prayer lives. The Catechism specifies so clearly the two leading candidates for the difficulties which we experience in prayer -- distraction and dryness.
We can draw hope from our own Little Flower, from a passage from her autobiography, on her experience of spiritual dryness that should give us some comfort. It is easy to forget that, even though she is always pictured with roses, she suffered terribly from tuberculosis and she hemorrhaged a great deal. She writes:
“When my heart, weary of the enveloping darkness, tries to find some rest and strength in the thought of an everlasting life to come, my anguish only increases. It seems to me that the darkness itself, borrowing the voice of the unbeliever, cries mockingly, ‘You dream of a land of light and fragrance, you believe that the Creator of these wonders will be yours forever, you think to escape one day from the mists in which you now languish. Hope on! Hope on! Look forward to death! It will give you, not what you hope for, but a night darker still, the night of utter nothingness!’
“This description of what I suffer… is as far removed from reality as the painter’s rough outline from the model he copies, but to write more might be to blaspheme…even now I may have said too much. May God forgive me! He knows how I try to live by faith, even though it affords me no consolation. I have made more acts of faith during the past year than in all the rest of my life.” Dorothy Day, Therese, Templegate: Springfield, Il. 1960, p.160.
“Two frequent temptations threaten prayer: lack of faith and acedia -- a form of depression stemming from lax ascetical practice that leads to discouragement.” CCC 2755 Is anyone listening? What if I fail to get what I am praying for? Is He really there? I keep coming back to Jesus’ response: “Apart from me, you can do nothing.” Jn 15:5.
“Some ...stop praying because they think their petition is not heard. Here two questions should be asked: why do we think our petition has not been heard? How is our prayer heard, how is it ‘efficacious’?” CCC 2734
“In the first place, we ought to be astonished by this fact: when we praise God or give him thanks for his benefits in general, we are not particularly concerned whether or not our prayer is acceptable to him. On the other hand, we demand to see the results of our petitions. What is the image of God that motivates our prayer: an instrument to be used? Or the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ?” CCC 2735
“You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly...God cannot answer us, for he desires our well-being, our life...” CCC 2737
“Do not be troubled if you do not immediately receive from God what you ask him; for he desires to do something even greater for you, while you cling to him in prayer.” CCC 2737
How is our prayer efficacious? It is ultimately a matter of our faith, of our filial trust. It is the Holy Spirit of Jesus within us. “The prayer of Jesus makes Christian prayer an efficacious petition. He is its model, He prays in us and with us.” CCC 2740
“Jesus also prays for us -- in our place and on our behalf. All our petitions were gathered up, once for all, in his cry on the Cross and, in his Resurrection, heard by the Father...If our prayer is resolutely united with that of Jesus, in trust and boldness as children, we obtain all that we ask in his name, even more than any particular thing: the Holy Spirit himself, who contains all gifts.” CCC 2741
When all is said and done, precisely because prayer is of the Holy Spirit, our challenge is simply to persevere in love, with all the obstacles and difficulties that I have just mentioned and to yield to the movement of the Holy Spirit within us.
Bishop Morneau once wrote: “Prayer is not a luxury: It is more than a friendly invitation. Prayer is an imperative, a demand, a vital necessity. But our God never imposes a command without giving the necessary resources. Thus we are given the Holy Spirit who prays within us. One of the fundamental teachings of the Church is that we are temples of the Holy Spirit.” (Paths to Prayer, April ‘96)
And “if we do not allow the Spirit to lead us, we fall back into the slavery of sin.” CCC 2744 Examples from Galatians 5:19-21 are immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies and the like.
In the end, “prayer and Christian life are inseparable, for they concern the same love and the same renunciation, proceeding from love; the same filial and loving conformity with the Father’s plan of love; the same transformation in the Holy Spirit who conforms us more and more to Christ Jesus; the same love for all men, the love with which Jesus has loved us. ‘Whatever you ask the Father in my name, he will give it to you. This I command you, to love one another.’” CCC 2745
As you leave here today to return to the desert of your busy lives, be conscious of the Holy Spirit within you. Listen to His voice, the voice of prayer. “…prayer is centered upon God. It is an emptying of oneself not for its own sake, but for the sake of being filled with God and entering into a deeper relationship with him.” USCCA 477 Despite the difficulties, the Holy Spirit will lead you also into the desert. I know this in my life. Hopefully you will find an oasis each day. That oasis is the living presence of God in your lives and you will know Him in your prayer, in His prayer with you.
A blessed Lent!