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By Deacon Frederick Bartels
27 April, 2017
It is the case today that, even among those few who attend Mass each Sunday, many Catholics do not enjoy a personal, intimate relationship of communion with Christ and the rich, transformative prayer life this union entails.
There’s a long list of possible reasons for this unfortunate situation, running from lack of evangelization and catechesis and widespread secularization to indifference, faulty priorities, anemic prayer and worship, and grave and/or mortal sin. One prominent reason is ignorance: a failure to understand the sublime depth and beauty inherent in the experience of God found in an intimate, personal relationship with Christ.
God is love! (1 Jn 4:16). The ineffable beauty of God’s personal and infinite love is this: he is capable of making you feel as if you are alone in the universe with him and all his love is directed especially at you. You are the object of his delight, firmly held in his sublime, divine embrace. The beauty of God is beyond imagination, and he desires to have you partake of it. It is for this reason and others that Christ died for you.
Catholics and other Christians are often unaware of the beauty of the prayer life to which they are called by God, its fruits and its exquisite life-fulfilling nature. If prayer is viewed as a laborious and difficult requirement to be met in order to keep one on “God’s good side,” then it is misunderstood and the life of prayer will remain stagnant. Sometimes prayer is insincere or it may be only occasionally directed at God in time of need, merely in request of his aid or to issue demands, rather than a frequent lifting of one’s entire self in an act of personal gift to God in gratitude for his perfect love and goodness. One has to ask, “How do I view God?” Is he something to be used and manipulated, or is he someone to be known, cherished and loved?
The subject of prayer could fill a large part of an entire library. The Catechism of the Catholic Church treats on Christian prayer in its fourth of four pillars. Suffice it to say, prayer and the Catholic spiritual life is far more than people realize. It is a new and often unexplored horizon which can unfold upon unsurpassed joy, peace and fulfillment.
Prayer is a requirement of salvation because a life devoid of prayer is a life lived in indifference or rejection of God. Salvation requires a relationship with Christ, for he said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn 14:6). How important is building a relationship with Jesus? There’s nothing more important. How much time and energy do you devote to it?
But prayer is about much more than “getting saved.” It is the key to really living. Prayer is the doorway to human fulfillment, joy and unending happiness. Loving God, truly loving him, is the fullest possible way to live one’s life because in God alone is one truly complete. Life with God brings divine light and energy to the heart and soul; it gives life direction and purpose; it brings true and lasting peace as one enters upon a new horizon of human existence.
On the subject of prayer, Pope St. John Paul II wrote in Novo Millennio Inuente about the great mystical tradition of prayer in the Church:
It shows how prayer can progress, as a genuine dialogue of love, to the point of rendering the person wholly possessed by the divine Beloved, vibrating at the Spirit’s touch, resting filially within the Father’s heart. This is the lived experience of Christ’s promise: “He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him” (Jn 14:21). It is a journey totally sustained by grace, which nonetheless demands an intense spiritual commitment and is no stranger to painful purifications (the “dark night”). But it leads, in various possible ways, to the ineffable joy experienced by the mystics as “nuptial union”….
Yes, dear brothers and sisters, our Christian communities must become genuine “schools” of prayer, where the meeting with Christ is expressed not just in imploring help but also in thanksgiving, praise, adoration, contemplation, listening and ardent devotion, until the heart truly “falls in love”. Intense prayer, yes, but it does not distract us from our commitment to history: by opening our heart to the love of God it also opens it to the love of our brothers and sisters, and makes us capable of shaping history according to God’s plan. (33)
…. it would be wrong to think that ordinary Christians can be content with a shallow prayer that is unable to fill their whole life. Especially in the face of the many trials to which today’s world subjects faith, they would be not only mediocre Christians but “Christians at risk”. (34)
Are you an “at risk Christian” who wants to change things? Are you interested in fostering a rich prayer life, entering into intimate communion with Christ and experiencing the sublime beauty and love of God? These things truly are the goal of Christian life since they are God’s will for his people and all people. We know this because, according to God’s saving plan of love, all people are called to assumption into eternal communion with the Tripersonal God. It is the gift of life God offers in his incarnate Son in virtue of his sacrifice on the cross. It is the gift of life Christ won for you by his intentional and sacrificial death for your sake—for the sake of love.
Primary to entering into union with Christ are faith, baptism, and living fully the Catholic sacramental life of worship in the heart of the Church. Additionally, a relationship of intimate communion with Jesus requires a personal self-entrustment to him as an act of faith. This includes commitment to prayer and persistence in meditation on the Word of God, among other things. It is important here to stress dedication to giving oneself over entirely to Jesus Christ. Christ must become the primary object of your life and your love. It matters not what your vocation or state in life is.
Now is the Time; Today is the Day of Salvation
In the Catholic spiritual tradition, there are three main levels of spirituality one travels through as he advances in prayer and grows in intimacy with Christ: 1) the purgative way (way of beginners); 2) the illuminative way (the proficient); and 3) the way of union (the perfect).
Do you want to be happy? Do you want to enjoy the fulness of human life? The place to start, of course, is what St. Teresa of Avila, the Doctor of Prayer, called “the way of beginners.”
To begin the purgative way:
1. Pray for an increase in faith, courage and strength. The Holy Spirit is essential in these matters; thus implore his divine assistance. Leave all mortal sin behind and frequently receive the sacrament of Penance (once each month or more often is a good starting point). Work on eliminating as much venial sin as possible. Do not become discouraged. Remember, you have the help of the Triune God!
2. Become a dedicated, fully practicing Catholic who is committed in complete obedience to the belief and teaching of the Church. This will require courage, dedication, persistence, and study. Note that if your dedication to the Church is tepid, indifferent or absent, so too is your faith. If you are uninterested in learning the belief of the Church, you are uninterested in Christ. A nominal Catholic’s spiritual life will normally remain stagnant and unfulfilled. The reason for this is that God requires your sincere, heartfelt love, not a feigned, superficial fabrication of it. The Spirit-guided Church transmits the voice of Christ to the world; those who reject this voice or are indifferent to it would do well to meditate on Jesus’ words given to his disciples on this matter: “Whoever listens to you listens to me; whoever rejects you rejects me; but whoever rejects me rejects him who sent me” (Lk 10:16).
3. Commit to regular, frequent prayer and meditation on the Word of God. This does not mean one has to pray hours each day, but it does mean you will have to set aside time for prayer. It is necessary to have the intention, the will to pray. Begin in a quiet place and recollect your soul before God and pray with focus and sincerity to Christ. Ask him to increase your faith. Meditate on Scripture and practice the ancient prayer tradition of Lectio Divina, or perhaps the Ignatian method of meditation. Begin with a reasonable amount of set time for prayer. Perhaps 20 minutes is a good starting point. It is often said that when we pray, we communicate with Christ; when we read Scripture, Christ communicates with us. St. Jerome famously observed: “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.”
4. Work on building virtue. A virtuous life is the life of excellence and is indispensable in advancing in the way of prayer. Virtue is essentially a good habit which becomes habitual or natural through practice. Therefore practice virtue.
5. Know that the evil spirit (the devil and his cohorts) will at this point try to influence you in two main ways. First, to prevent you from conversion, he will instill in you these kinds of thoughts: “Sin is no big deal, don’t worry about it, God is merciful and he loves you. You’re fine. Every good person gets to go to heaven.” Secondly, after you’ve committed to God and therefore are of converted heart, he will fill your soul with turmoil and anxiety (see St. Ignatius of Loyola). Thus he will instill these kinds of thoughts: “You’re not good enough to do this; you will lose your friends (and you may well lose some); no one will like you; this path is far too difficult; it is impossible.” Of course, these are all lies from the Father of lies, designed to prevent your conversion and guide you to a spiritually destructive end.
6. Last, have faith. Don’t give up. Know that God loves you and Christ died for you. In the words of Pope Francis: “Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you” (Evangelii Gaudium 164).
We are all called to the beautiful, exquisite and life transforming experience of an encounter of intimate communion with Christ in advanced prayer. Let the journey begin!
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