The section of the Catechism entitled “Christian Prayer” opens with these words: “Great is the mystery of the faith!”
By F. K. Bartels
27 January 2010
The mystery of faith is professed by the Church in the Apostles’ Creed; it is celebrated in the sacramental liturgy; so that “the life of the faithful may be conformed to Christ in the Holy Spirit to the glory of God the Father. This mystery, then, requires that the faithful believe in it, that they celebrate it, and that they live from it in a vital and personal relationship with the living and true God. This relationship is prayer” (cf. No. 2558; emphasis added).
The desire of our heart is to unite with our God who is the source of all love, goodness, and happiness. The Father has inscribed “in the human heart” a need for his love, a thirst which calls man to himself, “because man is created by God and for God”. Only in God will man “find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for” (cf. CCC No. 27). Where before we did not exist, we are drawn to the Giver-of-Life because he has called “every being from nothingness into existence”. Our faithful and loving God’s “initiative of love always comes first; our own first step is always a response. As God gradually reveals himself and reveals man to himself, prayer appears as a reciprocal call, a covenant drama. Through words and actions, this drama engages the heart. It unfolds throughout the whole history of salvation”. God tirelessly draws “each person to that mysterious encounter known as prayer” (cf. CCC No. 2567).
“For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy” – St. Therese of Lisieux
To Pray Or Not To Pray
It is insane not to pray, although there are many who find little time for it. We forget that our Father constantly waits, watches and listens: more present than the air we breathe, our God is a personal God whose concern for us far exceeds our understanding: “The Lord, your God, carried you, as a man carries his child, all along your journey” (Deuteronomy 1:31). When God is ignored, man lives in unpeaceful isolation amidst a world of chaotic noise, placing himself in a self-inflicted state of unrest and tension. “If only you had known what would bring you peace” (Luke 19:42). Some find it necessary to pray only after some tragedy has befallen them; some pray out of duty and others pray out of love rather than duty; still others pray as a way of life. What is the cause of these varying attitudes toward prayer?
Scripture teaches that evil men cling to human passions (1 Pet 4:2); therefore prayer is considered as foolishness by those who cling to the world rather than God. In John 9:39, we learn that those who worship Christ will see, while those who worship the world will be blinded. We are admonished not to love either “this passing world or anything in it, for the love of the Father cannot be in anyone who loves the world” (1 John 2:15). In Proverbs 2:12-15, we learn that men who sin “walk in ways of darkness” along “devious” paths, rejoicing in “perversity”. Clearly, as a consequence of sin, the Spirit can be quenched within us; the heart grows cool, love for God ebbs away, and a willful choice is made to walk in darkness.
If it were possible for God’s heart to break, it would be so from the obstinate failure to open our arms to him: “I had thought: How I should like to treat you as sons, and give you a pleasant land, a heritage most beautiful among the nations! You would call me, “My Father,” I thought, and never cease following me. But like a woman faithless to her lover, even so have you been faithless to me” (Jeremiah 3:19-20).
If a man were to walk in the desert, three days into his journey as his parched tongue cleaved to his mouth, he would know of thirst. But God’s thirst for us surpasses such a physical thirst. The Cross tells us so. Christ walks with us in the desert and asks of us to drink from prayer. It is Christ “who first seeks us and asks us for a drink. Jesus thirsts; his asking arises from the depths of God’s desire for us. Whether we realize it or not, prayer is the encounter of God’s thirst with ours. God thirsts that we may thirst for him” (CCC No. 2560).
Those who thirst for prayer have left the way of the world; they have given themselves entirely to God; they gaze upon the Holy Spirit face to face, so to speak. When a dear friend visits our home, we pay attention to him; we affirm his presence, and we are sincerely interested in whatever he is saying. When we are in love with God, we constantly gaze upon the sacred Humanity of Christ; we are ever-mindful of the Holy Spirit’s inner whispers within our heart, refusing to ignore his delicate, sweet voice. Those who are in love with God go into the desert willingly that they may share water with the Holy Trinity, drinking from the mysterious cup which holds unheard-of delights.
As we read from the saints, we find that the wonders found in the heights of prayer remain unknown lands for many men. However, by leading an ascetic life, filled with charity and fasting and prayer, a life of humility and poverty, a life which is directed toward God with all our strength, the brilliant sunlit slopes which reach into eternity are tasted during mystical encounters with God.
St. John of the Cross, one of the greatest mystics of the Church, wrote of the manner in which, by God’s grace, he departed from himself and drifted on sublime wonders: “This was great happiness and sheer grace for me, because through the annihilation and calming of my faculties, passions, appetites, and affections, by which my experience and satisfaction in God were base, I went out from my human operation and way of acting to God’s operation and way of acting. That is, my intellect departed from itself, changing from human and natural to divine” (Selections From The Dark Night and Other Writings, 2).
Expressions Of Prayer
There are different expressions of prayer. Vocal prayer is an essential element of the Christian life. Jesus teaches vocal prayer in giving us the Our Father; “he prayed aloud the liturgical prayers of the synagogue”; he “raised his voice to express his personal prayer, from exultant blessing of the Father to the agony of Gesthemani” (cf. CCC No. 2701). There is a “need to involved the senses in interior prayer”, which “corresponds to a requirement of our human nature”; we “must pray with our whole being to give all power possible to our supplication”. There, too, is a divine requirement: “God seeks worshippers in Spirit and in Truth” (cf. CCC No. 2703).
In meditative prayer we go on a quest for the Lord. We ask him, “Lord, what do you want me to do?” The methods of meditation are many and varied, but “Christians owe it to themselves to develop the desire to meditate regularly, lest they come to resemble the three first kinds of soil in the parable of the sower” (Mk 4:4-7; 15-19). The “important thing is to advance, with the Holy Spirit, along the one way of prayer: Christ Jesus” (cf. CCC No. 2707; emphasis added).
The way of contemplative prayer is often misunderstood. Contemplative prayer seeks “him ‘whom my soul loves’. It is Jesus, and in him, the Father.” Therefore it is not merely a process of emptying or quieting the mind, nor is it attained through a self-induced meditative state. Contemplative prayer “is a gift, a grace; it can be accepted only in humility and poverty.” One must fervently live the gospel life in order to receive the gift of contemplative prayer. Thus, it is a “covenant relationship established by God within our hearts”; it is a “communion in which the Holy Trinity conforms man, the image of God, ‘to his likeness’”; it is a “gaze of faith, fixed on Jesus”; it is silence and “silent love”; it is a “union with the prayer of Christ”; it is a “communication of love” (cf. CCC No. 2709-19; emphasis added).
Advanced prayer—mystical prayer—is not easily arrived at; rather it is usually achieved only after a great many battles have been fought and won. Serious focus on living the gospel life as the Church transmits it in the fullness of truth is the road by which, with God’s grace, the heights are attained. Fr. Thomas Dubay, in his book Authenticity, a Biblical Theology Of Discernment, observes that “those in our history who have been most marvelously enlightened by the Holy Spirit are the least inclined to consider this enlightenment easy to come by.”
When it pleases our Lord, mystical prayer is granted to those whose hearts thirst in such a way that they have entered into a willful and radical conversion, carefully and consistently cultivating their garden of prayer through a life of Christian virtue. They are careful to study the Faith, submitting in obedience and love to what they have learned. They participate at Mass frequently, even daily; they hold a deep devotion and love for the Eucharist. They fervently love the Church, for she is Christ’s Bride, the loving Mother Church who guides her children with caring hands. They are lovers of the Truth and it is the Truth by which they live. In this rich Catholic Christian life of love and simplicity and obedience, it is the Father and the Son who come to the soul, and Whose love ignites the fires of mystical prayer within it, raising the soul to God. The love of the Holy Spirit then burns in the depths of the soul, transforming its way of acting and knowing, infusing it with hidden things of God. God gives these graces when it pleases him, to those whose lives are lived in humility, obedience, love and purity of heart; who seek after virtue as if it were a treasure of gems and gold.
The Catechism explains that the gift of prayer is not “taken” by prideful means, but rather it is received in humility: “But when we pray, do we speak from the height of our pride and will, or ‘out of the depths’ (Ps 130:1) of a humble and contrite heart? He who humbles himself will be exalted; humility is the foundation of prayer. Only when we humbly acknowledge that ‘we do not know how to pray as we ought,’ are we ready to receive freely the gift of prayer. ‘Man is a beggar before God’” (CCC No. 2559).
“Come, then, O beautiful soul! Since you know now that your desired Beloved lives hidden within your heart, strive to be really hidden with Him, and you will embrace Him within you and experience Him with loving affection”—St. John of the Cross
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Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel. For more, visit YouTube, iTunes and Google Play.