The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Although I am an ordained deacon of the Catholic Church, the opinions expressed in this blog are my personal opinions. In offering these personal opinions I am not acting as a representative of the Church or any Church organization.

Monday, June 29, 2020

COVID-19 Bible Study Reflection #9: A Prayerful Attitude

In our last reflection (#8), we took a brief look at the Book of Psalms and its place in our spirituality as a source, a starting point, for different forms of prayer. In today’s reflection, I hope to focus on a prayerful attitude, the state of mind best suited to mental prayer, or meditative and contemplative prayer. (This, too, will be no more than a brief introduction.) 

Such prayer is really a wonderful way to enter into the kind of personal relationship with God that He desires for each of us. In a very real sense, mental prayer becomes a pathway to the joy that comes from this relationship, enabling us to "taste and see that the Lord is good" [Ps 34:9].

So then, how do we prepare ourselves, how do we develop the attitude of prayer that opens us to be receptive to God’s prayerful grace? Why not begin with the words of Our Lord? In His Sermon on the Mount Jesus instructed His disciples:
"When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you" [Mt 6:6].
In saying this, Jesus wasn’t telling us not to engage in communal or liturgical prayer; not at all. Indeed, Jesus often encouraged communal prayer, and the “Our Father” is, in fact, a beautiful example, one of the reasons the Church includes it in its sacramental rites. We also find Jesus praying with His apostles and calling them to communal prayer. Just read the final words of His last discourse as described in the Gospel according to John [Jn 17] and you will encounter a prayerful Jesus who, by His words, teaches the apostles how to pray. And Matthew, in his Gospel, tells us how Jesus concluded the Last Supper with a hymn, which is simply communal prayer as song.
“Then, after singing a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives” [Mt 26:30].
And what prayer could be more communal and liturgical than the prayer of those gathered in the New Jerusalem in heaven:
“Then I heard something like the sound of a great multitude or the sound of rushing water or mighty peals of thunder, as they said: ‘Alleluia! The Lord has established his reign, our God, the almighty. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory’” [Rev 19:6-7].
No, Jesus wasn’t discouraging communal prayer. His concern was for those who prayed only to be seen by others, for whom prayer was a means to glorify themselves rather than God. By praying “to your Father in secret,” you avoid this form of hypocrisy. 

Perhaps we can begin by saying what mental prayer isn't. It's not the result of technique; it's not something we do. Rather it's a gift; it's something God does for us.

This, then, is our first truth: mental prayer is, quite simply, a grace.

Among other things, this is what separates Christian mental prayer from such Eastern meditation methods as yoga or Zen. We make a serious mistake when we try to reduce everything to technique, when we try to make life, even our spiritual life, into something to be manipulated at will. Mental prayer is not Christian yoga. Mental doesn't rely on human effort. There's certainly room for initiative and activity on our part, but we must understand that the foundation of a life of prayer is built on God's initiative and grace, on God giving of Himself freely.

Since we needn’t worry about mastering techniques, let’s focus instead on the necessary conditions, the dispositions of heart, for receiving the gift. Understanding this is critical since one of the temptations of the spiritual life is to rely on our efforts and not on God's freely given mercy.

St. Teresa of Avila gives us our second truth: the entire edifice of prayer is founded on humility. Teresa stressed that Mary’s humility is the perfect model: a humility not only capable of receiving God, but of holding Him, and safeguarding all received graces. Growth, Teresa, added is “not concerned with receiving graces, but of becoming capable of not losing them.”

St Peter also stressed humility when he instructed the early Christian community:
“…clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for: ‘God opposes the proud but bestows favor on the humble’” [1 Pet 5:5].
In other words, we ourselves can do nothing, and it is God alone who produces good in our souls. True mental prayer is, then, abandonment. (You might want to revisit our Reflection #6 on this subject.) 

Unlike community or liturgical prayer, when we’re immersed in solitude and silence before God, we find ourselves unsupported, alone with the reality of ourselves and our poverty. Jesus reminded us of this spiritual poverty when He instructed His apostles:
“I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing” [Jn 15:5].
If we allow these words to sink in, we come to appreciate three things: (1) that God’s greatness is beyond our imagining; but that (2) He wants to connect with us in the most intimate way; and (3) He is in complete charge and we need only accept this. 

In Reflection #6 I included Blessed Charles de Foucauld’s prayer of abandonment, but here’s another, perhaps more relevant for some people today. It was written by the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself; and that I think I am following your will does not mean I am actually doing so.
But I believe the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all I am doing. I hope I will never do anything apart from that desire. I know if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
Possessed of the attitude exemplified by this example of simple, humble abandonment, we can approach mental prayer in a way most pleasing to Our Lord. Our human pride might rebel at this, but such abandonment is actually liberating since God, who loves us, will carry us farther than we can ever go on our own.

There's another wonderful, liberating consequence of true Christian prayer. Since it's not based on technique, it's never a matter of some people possessing the necessary skill while others don't. We can all partake in it. This, then, leads us to our third truth: God’s call to holiness is universal.

Holiness demands prayer, and because God's call to holiness is universal, nobody is excluded. Jesus calls every single one of us to holiness and to prayer without exception. The life of prayer isn’t reserved for some religious elite; it’s for everyone. And God will provide the graces and the strength each person needs.

Through our faith we believe that all people without exception – wise and foolish, just and sinners, well-balanced and deeply wounded – are called to an authentic life of prayer in which God communicates and reveals Himself to us. 

Just turn to the Gospels, Who is called by Jesus? The poor, the wealthy, the ill, the dying, the wise, the foolish, the blind, the possessed, the young, the old, the loved, the despised, the ruled, and those who rule…Jesus calls them all.

This is hard for some people to accept. Their faith, distorted by pride, leads them to dismiss some others as unworthy, when in truth we’re all unworthy. It’s the same pride we encountered over the centuries in all the heresies that rose up to attack the Church. In every instance heresy begins with someone believing and asserting, “I am holier than the Church.”

Each of us, then, with our different personalities, and our weaknesses and strengths, can have a deep mental prayer life by being faithfully open to God's grace. But our God sees each person uniquely; after all, He created each of us in a unique act of personal love. We should not, therefore, expect that every person will experience God’s prayerful graces in the same manner. Let God direct your prayer life as He desires.

This leads us to our fourth truth: Faith is the basis of all mental prayer.

Prayer always involves struggle; and it’s a struggle that can overwhelm us. This is why we need faith, for faith strengthens us and gives us the confidence to persevere. Indeed, faith is our capacity to act according to what we are told by Jesus Christ, the Word of God Incarnate. And God cannot lie. 

Speaking of faith, Pope Benedict XVI wrote:
“This faith, however, is not a thought, an opinion, an idea. This faith is communion with Christ, which the Lord gives to us, and which thus becomes life, becomes conformity with him…Faith is looking at Christ, entrusting oneself to Christ, being united to Christ, conformed to Christ, to his life.”
This, then, must be the basis, the very foundation, of our prayer: to become more Christ-like, for that’s what growing in holiness is all about.

Our fifth truth is another of those wonderful revelations that should change our thinking and our lives. It states, quite simply, that God desires us infinitely more than we desire Him.

This, of course, is the essence of the Good News, the same truth that Jesus spoke to Nicodemus on that dark night in Jerusalem:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” [Jn 3:16-17].
If God desires us, and if He is omnipotent, then He must always be with us. And so, He is always present when we pray. 

No matter what I feel, or how poorly prepared or inarticulate or confused I am, regardless of my inner state, my sinfulness, God is there, listening and helping and loving. He is there not because of my worthiness, but because He promised: “…pray to your Father who is there in secret…” 

And in John 6, Jesus promises: “I will not reject anyone who comes to me” [Jn 6:37]. How often do we think about that? It should really drive us to our knees in thankfulness and joy.

Our next truth, number six, is one of those unexpected truths, but it’s the logical outgrowth of all the others: The fruits of a life of prayer are infinite.

Just consider what prayer does. It transforms us, sanctifies us, heals us, deepens our knowledge and love for God, makes us fervent and generous in our love of neighbor, and leads us to the perfection Christ wants for us
. If you persevere in mental prayer, you can be certain of this and much more. So, don’t get discouraged when you stumble or when your prayer seems sterile or arid.

People often give up mental prayer because they don’t see quick results. Reject this temptation. Make an act of faith that God’s promise will be fulfilled in His time. Remember what St. James wrote:
“Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You too must be patient. Make your hearts firm, because the coming of the Lord is at hand” [Jas 5:7-8].
Yes, indeed, the Lord is at hand. He is with you even when you seem so very alone. Remain open to His presence and He will make Himself known.

And from this, we’re led to another truth: Pray faithfully, every day, even when your prayer is poor, brief, and distracted.

Daily, faithful prayer, even when it encounters dryness or obstacles or is interrupted by the distractions of our lives, is worth more than on-again, off-again sublime prayer.

Once, years ago, I experienced what can only be described as a kind of vision, the presence of Jesus before me as I prayed. It was so real I believed I could reach out and touch Him. It was a wonderful, unforgettable encounter with Our Lord, and for a while afterwards I tried to find a spiritual path that would let me experience this beatitude once again. But I finally realized it had been a gift, a one-time blessing to strengthen my faith and lead me to a deeper prayer life. It came at a time when the need was particularly great, and for some reason known only to God, he sent me this particular grace.

The battle to be faithful is not easily won, especially since Satan wants to keep you from daily prayer. You see, Satan knows that one who is faithful in daily mental prayer has escaped him. It is faithfulness alone that enables the life of prayer to bear its wonderful fruit.

Finally, truth number eight: Mental prayer is no more than an exercise in loving God. This, then, must be our intention. Faith and fidelity are important, but without purity of intention, our prayer has no life in it. How did Jesus put it?
“Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God” [Mt 5:8].
Who are the pure of heart? The sinless? No, not at all. The pure of heart are those who are inspired in all they do by a sincere intention of forgetting themselves in order to please God, living not for themselves but for Him. They are those who truly love God.

Pure love doesn’t seek its own interests but seeks only to give joy to another. And so, we pray to please God simply because He asks us to do so and we want to please Him.
This purity of heart, this self-forgetting and loving intention, doesn’t come easy. It takes time, and for most it is never fully attained. But God is pleased that we’ve simply undertaken the journey, so long as we strive to realize in our hearts an ever-purer love for God.

Once again, Satan will try to discourage you by demonstrating how weak and self-seeking you are. Ignore him. God wants only your effort. Tell God, very simply, that you want to love Him with a pure love, and then abandon yourself totally and trustingly to him. He will purify you.

As I said earlier, these truths are dispositions, and form the foundational attitude necessary to deepen your life of prayer. I hope they will help you as they have helped me. I’ve learned most of them the hard way, through constant spiritual struggle. And I still struggle, and will no doubt continue to do so until my last breath. But, believe me, God will hold your hand and lift you up as you progress. He’ll be there with you always, in the easy times and the hard times.
God’s peace…

Here are a few books I have found helpful when it comes to prayer (with Amazon links):

von Balthasar, Hans Urs – Prayer

Bouyer, Louis – Introduction to the Spiritual Life 

Daniélou, Jean – Prayer, the Mission of the Church

Dubay, Thomas – Prayer Primer, Igniting a Fire Within

Garrigou-Lagrange, Reginald – Knowing the Love of God (Ch.12-15 on prayer)

Graef, Hilda – The Commonsense Book of Catholic Prayer and Meditation

Merton, Thomas – Contemplative Prayer

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