by Father Gabriel Barry, OCD
So much has been written about prayer that it would be futile to think of compressing it all into a few pages. However in this lesson I will try to cull some practical and stimulating ideas from the abundant literature and present them for your use, and encouragement in developing a deeper life of prayer.
First of all, the entire universe was created by God, and man was assigned a unique position in creation. He is the crowning of God's creative activity. He was put in a position of authority over the rest of creation, a position he has not entirely lost even after sin entered the world. He is the "swinging-door, set between the seen and the unseen." This is one of the lessons we glean from Genesis I and II. Whatever may be the scientific explanation of man's origin and purpose, we cannot get away from the fact that the life of man is intimately related to God, in its beginnings, its end, and in all between. There are two other passages in the Bible that bring out this fact. The one is a well-known passage from Romans I where St. Paul says that God has made the truth about Himself plain to mankind at all times. "Since the beginning of the world, the invisible attributes of God, His eternal power and divinity, have been there for the mind to see, made visible in the things God created."(1) Again, in a sermon of his recorded in the Acts, St. Paul makes the point, that even though in the past, God seemed to let the nations go on their own way, nevertheless, He also never left them without clear evidence of Himself.(2) This is what Vatican II says: "From ancient times down to the present, there has existed among all peoples a certain perception of that hidden power which presides over the course of things and over the events of human life. At times indeed mankind came to recognize a Supreme Divinity and even a Supreme Father too. Such a perception and such a recognition instills into the lives of peoples a deep religious sense."(3) This is what we call religion, an attitude or disposition of mind that binds us, relates us to God, inclining us to recognize our place as creatures and to worship God who made us and who is our Last End.
Religion takes in this entire human person. Since God created both body and soul, He deserves to be worshipped and acknowledged by both. This is not something God Himself needs: but He has made man in such a way that human nature attains to full maturity only when united with God in love. To neglect to develop this religious personality is to frustrate the purpose for which he has been made and to deny God the glory that is His due.
Worship must be interior, because "God is a spirit and they who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth."(4)
Worship must also be exterior, because it is natural for man to express his inward attitudes and experiences by outward signs. This is done by gestures of the body, by the use of sacred words, and of sacred things. (Besides, man is the high-priest of all creation and its spokesman). But it is also well to notice that we worship God not only by the things we give Him and do for Him, but more especially the way we receive things from Him: by cooperating in what He does for us. This is very important, and has special application in prayer.
III. THE MEANING OF PRAYER
It is into this background that we fit prayer. It is one of the vital acts of religion and worship. It is a surrender of the mind to God. It is an expression of our place before God, of our readiness to serve Him, to worship Him, to know Him better and to seek to love Him. One of the outstanding causes of human dignity is man's call to communion with his maker. From the very circumstances of his origin, man is called to converse with God. For man would not exist if he were not created by God's love, and constantly preserved by it. No man can be sincere and true to himself unless he freely acknowledges that love, and dedicates himself to his Creator. Unless the inner life of man is illuminated and guided by prayer, we can never be true witnesses to God. For prayer shows us what we are, our nobility and our meanness. We begin to see that the greatest faculty in us is our capacity to "receive God."
This acute sense of need, and the knowledge that God can fulfill it is the basis of prayer. It is an ever-present need that springs from the very fact that we are creatures. The great French scholar, Pascal, writes in his Reflections: "In every man, is an infinite abyss that can be filled only by the Infinite: that is to say, only by God Himself."(5)
St. John of the Cross too speaks of the "infinite capacity of the human soul." Prayer emerges from this built-in yearning, which is, in very truth, a part of our human selves. All prayer takes for granted that man is not alone: he lives in the presence of Infinite Mystery and Infinite Majesty. This is a difficult thing to admit in a 20th century culture. Everything is designed to convince us that we can "go it alone", that we have no master but ourselves. Prayer is the wholesome antidote to all this.
Prayer enables us to develop a true sense of values; it gives us strength; it helps us to keep our balance. It discovers to us the wonders of creation and grace. But above all, it makes known to us something of the truth and riches of God Himself. This is the principal reason why we pray: to know God better, to love Him better and to bring Him to others.
It seems to me that if some Christians of our time give up the practice of prayer, it is due to the fact that they have a very narrow understanding of what it really is. They tend to think of prayer in materialistic terms, such as petitioning God for temporal things, or sensible consolations as St. Teresa points out. Attitudes like this could never be a solid basis for Christian prayer; it is far grander and more meaningful. Prayer is a "meeting with God", watching for God, "a conversation with One who we know loves us;"(6) an effort to relate ourselves to God; asking Him for the strength to live out or lives in His abiding presence and in accordance with the gospels. The early theologians of the Church, the Greek Fathers, employ the image of climbing a mountain to define the nature of prayer. No doubt they were thinking of Moses ascending Sinai to meet God, or the Israelites as they climbed Mount Zion to the Holy Place, or the apostles on Mount Tabor. When we pray, we begin with a deliberate effort to find God, only to discover that He has been there all the while; as St. John of the Cross says, searching for us more eagerly than we search for Him.(7)
Francis Thompson puts it this way: "I fled Him down the nights and down the days. I fled Him down the arches of the years. I fled Him down the labyrinthine ways of my own mind. And in the mist of tears I hid from Him, and under running laughter. From those strong feet, that followed, followed after."
Men and women of all ages know that when we break through to an awareness of the mystery and majesty of God, we find a presence and a power all about us, pursuing us, coming to meet us, enfolding us. It is a power of healing and reconciliation. It is a presence full of kindness and mercy one that we can address as "Our Father who art in heaven..."
But we have to make this initial effort; it is our response, our climb, toward God. This is why prayer is sometimes described as an ascent of the mind to God. But the reality is in the encounter with Him.
So much about the meaning of prayer. If we can grasp this much, it is a lot. If we know the reality, it is sure to find an outlet in various channels, like an over-flowing fountain. Because prayer is a many-splendor thing, there is public, private prayer, liturgical prayer, vocal prayer, meditative prayer, contemplative prayer, listening, waiting, speaking, silence. And all converge on God.
Genuine prayer is marked by an openness to the Infinite, in Whom the present, the past and the future are all summed up. When we come to pray, we may ask God for the things we need; we may beg that He, in His almighty power would do what we could never do. This dependency, far from abolishing human freedom, is its source. But we must not think of prayer as a means of controlling God. One indispensable condition of Christian prayer is, "Thy will be done." Contrary to what we may imagine, this kind of prayer is tremendously liberating. We entrust ourselves, our lives, our concerns and our future in God's hands. From now on, we are free; He takes care of our destinies.
Prayer does not always lead to human happiness, or freedom from worries. There is no fairy-tale ending to prayer, as far as this life is concerned. The final earthly prayer of Christ was one of supreme anguish. But all sincere prayer will infallibly bring one to a deeper sharing in the life of God, a perception of hope, an insight into the meaning of life; a participation in Love. Surely these are gifts for all seasons; the rest will be ours when God draws back the veil.
1. Please refer to the OCDS Rule of
Life, Articles 2, 4, 5 and 8.
2. The Holy Bible.
3. Living Flame.
ADDENDUM: THE CENTERING PRAYER METHOD
by Father Thomas Keating(8)
1. Over the centuries ways of cultivating contemplative prayer have been called by various names corresponding to the different forms that they have taken. Thus we have Prayer of Faith, Prayer of the Heart, Pure Prayer, Prayer of Simplicity, Prayer of Simple Regard, Active Recollection, Active Quiet and Acquired Contemplation.
2. In our time a number of initiatives have been taken by various religious orders, notably by the Jesuits and Discalced Carmelites, to renew the contemplative orientation of their founders and to share their spirituality with lay persons. The method of Centering Prayer is a further attempt to present the teaching of earlier times in an updated format and to make it available to ordinary people who are experiencing a hunger for a deeper life of prayer and for a support system to sustain it.
3. Centering Prayer is a traditional form of Christian prayer rooted in Scripture and based on the monastic heritage of "Lectio Divina." It is not to be confused with Trans-cendental Meditation or Hindu or Buddhist methods of meditation, nor is it a New Age technique.
Centering Prayer is rooted in the Word of God, both in scripture and in the person of Jesus Christ. It is an effort to renew the Christian contemplative tradition handed down to us in an uninterrupted manner from St. Paul, who writes of the intimate knowledge Of Christ that comes through love.
Centering Prayer is designed to prepare sincere followers of Christ for contemplative prayer in the traditional sense in which spiritual writers understood that term for the first 16 centuries of the Christian era. This tradition is summed up by St. Gregory the Great at the end of the sixth century. He describes contemplation as the knowledge of God impregnated with love.
For Gregory, contemplation was the fruit of reflection on the Word of God in Scripture as well as the precious gift of God. He calls it, "resting in God." In this "resting," the mind and heart are not so much seeking God as beginning to experience, "to taste," what they have been seeking. This taste is not the suspension of all activity, but the reduction of many acts and reflections into a single act or thought to sustain one's consent to God's presence and action.
4. Centering Prayer does not "empty the mind" or "exclude other forms of prayer." It is not a "technique that automatically creates mysticism" or a means "to reach an altered state of consciousness."
It is important not to confuse Centering Prayer with certain Eastern techniques of meditation such as Transcendental Meditation. The use of the Sacred Word in Centering Prayer does not have the particular calming effect attributed to the TM mantra. Nor is the Sacred Word a vehicle leading to the spiritual level of one's being as it is in TM. There is no cause-and-effect relationship between using the Sacred Word and arriving at some altered state of consciousness.
The Sacred Word is merely the symbol of the consent of one's will to God's presence and action within based on faith in the doctrine of the Divine Indwelling. The Sacred Word is simply a means of reaffirming our original intention at the beginning of our period of prayer to be in God's presence and to surrender to the divine action when we are attracted to some other thought, feeling or impression. It is an aid.
Throughout the period of Centering Prayer, our intention predominates: the movement of our will to consent to God's intention, which according to our faith, is to communicate the divine life to us. Hence, unlike TM, Centering Prayer is a personal relationship with God, not a technique.
5. Centering Prayer is designed to deepen the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity and to develop the most ancient of all Christian methods, the practice of Lectio Divina leading to contemplation.
Centering Prayer is fundamentally two things at the same time: first, the deepening of our personal relationship with Christ developed through reflection on scripture; and second, a method of freeing ourselves from attachments that prevent the development of this relationship and the unfolding of the theological virtues of faith, hope and love. It reduces the tendency to over activity in prayer and to depending excessively on concepts in order to go to God. In short it reduces the obstacles in us, especially selfishness, so that we become sensitive to the delicate inspirations of the Holy Spirit that lead to divine union. A large part of the Formation Program is dedicated to Prayer.
1. Romans 1: 19-20
2. Acts 14: 16-17
3. Doc. of Vatican II, p.661
4. John 4: 24
5. Section VII, 425
6. St. Teresa
7. Living Flame III
8. Adapted from the Denver Catholic Register "Viewpoints," December 16, 1992 page 11.
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