7 Prayer: Foundation of Our Lives and Work – Rector’s Conference, Fall 2011

In my rector’s conferences for this formation year, I would like to focus on the gift of vocation, or rather the idea of vocation as a gift. In his very interesting book on the Catholic priesthood, Matthew Levering focuses on the centrality of giftedness and receptivity in the exercise of God’s salvific power. All that we have comes from God, whether we acknowledge that central truth or not. All that we need to do is to offer a proper thanksgiving for his manifold gifts.

Our lives become confused when we fail to seriously recognize this giftedness, when we fail to acknowledge that we are nothing without Him. And yet, our dilemma must be that of the psalmist who asked: “How can I make a return to the Lord for all the good He has given me?” How do we respond to God’s singular invitation to intimacy? Obviously, the answer is first and foremost in prayer.

What is prayer? Prayer is the activity of cultivating a relationship with God. Theologically speaking, it is “raising one’s mind and heart to God,” according to St. John Damascene. Or perhaps we prefer St. Therese of Lisieux: “For me prayer is an upward leap of the heart, an untroubled glance toward heaven, a cry of gratitude and love which I utter from the depths of sorrow as well as from the heights of joy.”

As the cultivation of that essential relationship, prayer is the foundation of our lives and work as disciples of Jesus and a forteriori as priests. There is no priestly life without prayer. In the last chapter of St. John’s Gospel, Jesus confronts St. Peter after the events of the passion, events over which St. Peter had reason to be trebly ashamed.

Our Lord asks St. Peter a series of questions: “Do you love me?” To St. Peter’s affirmative answer, Jesus then gives the commission to feed, tend, feed. The intention of this conditional question is clear: Ministry depends upon one thing, a firm and stable relationship with God in Christ. We may undertake the laudable tasks of counseling, teaching, guiding and serving others in a context in which faith is not a part of the equation. These things are not ministry.

Ministry demands that the Divine Persons be in the midst of the human activity and this is only accomplished through a relationship of love with those same Divine Persons. We do what we do as disciples of Christ when we make Christ the center of what we do. This centrality is cultivated in an active life of prayer.

There are many ways to engage the life of prayer and all of these ways can be fruitful. I will speak more directly about these various ways below. First, however, I would like to point to the central reality of a life of prayer and the principle motivation for cultivating a life of prayer: It is simply the understanding that: You are not alone. This is the cornerstone of prayer. Jesus said: And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.

This is, in effect, the essence of all prayer and all theology grounded in the Holy Trinity. It is the essence of God’s love for us, which is so great that He gave his only son. You are not alone. You do not have to be alone.

And of course, it is a message that, all of us, young and old, rich and poor alike, long to hear, a message that so many in our world today are desperate to hear. That is why we pray. Our willingness to pray indicates that we are desperate to be connected, because loneliness is epidemic.

We see it in the empty eyes of the youthful victim of abuse, the victim of self-serving self-sufficiency, the men and women who walk the streets of this city in search of a little dignity, a little relief from the harsh reality of the urban inferno.

Where do we experience the need for prayer?

We see it in the eyes of the aged and abandoned, the victim of the cult of youth, of isolation, desperation, fear, in those besieged by self-doubt, betrayal, loss. For them we must pray.

We hear it in the cries of the poor, the homeless, the marginalized, the outcast, the voices of those who cry for bread, for acceptance, for homeland. We hear it in the philosophy of libertarianism, of self-determination, of manifest destiny, self-reference, in false and pernicious understandings of freedom, of choice.

We know it in our culture’s insistence on rugged individualism, popularism, pioneerism, so-called prophecy. We know what loneliness is because we feel the pinch of its skeletal fingers in the very heart of our being, in the vacancy of the stare that confronts us daily in the mirrors of our self-perception.

We know what loneliness is because we, though wounded, continue to wound by turning our back on the blankness of the other’s, our neighbor’s pleading. In spite of the endless rhetoric from the cult of self-sufficiency and individualism, we still long for love, long to feel it in the presence of others, the warm breath of human contact, human kindness.

We long to know it in our care for our brothers and sisters, in the awkward gestures of friendship and fellow feeling, of fraternal care engendered by friends, by family, even by strangers. We long to be a part of something, to be accepted in spite of our awkwardness, and so we pray to gain access to the throne of grace, the font of Love Himself.

And when we cannot find that place of belonging, we seek it in importune places or we hide our loneliness in mind- and spirit numbing substances, in experiences cyberic, in the comfortability of sin. But try as we might, we cannot escape the truth, the truth that is written in the very marrow of our being: we need to be in relationship, with God, with Christ and with the community.

We yearn for company, for understanding, for love, for human affection, for warmth, for a gentle hand, a consoling smile. Prayer brings that. We long for love, respect; prayer is the source of that. In all of our efforts on behalf of building relationships, we know the outcome of our prayer is a single insight. God is Love. God is here. God is relational; that is his nature, communion, and love. Father, Son and Holy Spirit, infinitely present to one another.

We present to the Trinity in prayer. Through the Trinity, present to one another. Prayer is involved in a gracious economic outreach to a needy humanity. Engaged in an endlessly varying polyphony. Entangled in the mystery of persons and habits. Entrenched in the life of the world and in the beatitude of heaven. In touch with the longing of humanity. In contact with our deepest desires. Prayer makes God present to us. Prayer is Real Presence. Catholicism is authentic humanism.

And we, who are created in his likeness, may also be, can also be, must also be, involved in the lives of others. Engaged in the messiness of the human condition. Entangled in the joys and sorrows, the hopes and despairs, of our fellow pilgrims. Entrenched in life, in the pure essence of living. In touch with the misery of the world. In contact with the throbbing pulse of creation.

This encounter with the Divine Reality, which is also an encounter with our neighbor, is an encounter with our deepest selves, our deepest desires, our most profound hopes, expressed in a life of purposeful prayer. Once we understand the essence of prayer, we must then ask ourselves how to pray.

What is the best way to pray? There is no best way to pray. As seminarians and priests, we are given certain parameters to our prayer, but these are few. The late Holy Father Blessed John Paul II once said: “How to pray? This is a simple matter. I would say: Pray any way you like as long as you do pray.” St. Josemaria Escriva said: “Prayer is the foundation of the edifice. All prayer is powerful.”

As in any relationship, prayer is speaking and listening. How successful can a relationship be with another person when there is no listening? And yet, we often try that trick with God. Saying prayers becomes our default mode. Yet, God has infinitely more to say to us than we have to say to Him, especially in light of his omniscience.

As Pope John Paul II said: “In a conversation there are always an ‘I’ and a ‘thou’ or ‘you.’ In this case … the ‘Thou’ is more important, because our prayer begins with God … We begin to pray, believing that it is our own initiative that compels us to do so. Instead, we learn that it is always God’s initiative within us …”

Listening to God can be risky, however, because in our heart of hearts we know what God is asking us to do. Perhaps we do not want to do it. Like the lazy husband who claims he could not hear his wife asking him 15 times to take out the garbage, we sit back and rely on our powers of self-deception in the essentially facile process of discernment.

Prayer also demands time and energy. In truth, it is the only thing that we can devote ourselves to that will truly profit us. Our Fr. Hilary Ottensmeyer is famous for saying: “Until you are convinced that prayer is the best use of your time, you will not find time for prayer.” Truth indeed.

Prayer is speaking and listening. It is also presence, as I mentioned above. Relationship is relational because the parties are present to one another. In human relationships, we feel the pain of separation from our friends, our family and our loved ones. How can we not feel cosmically that same pain of separation from our Source of Life? The best practices of speaking and listening in prayer do not come naturally; they come through disciplined practice. No one can expect mystical experience in their beginning practice of prayer.

The development of skills for speaking and listening to God in prayer overflows into the life of the community. The way we speak and listen in prayer and the quality of that speaking and listening helps us in our lives with one another. The speech of prayer informs community life and what is experienced in community life; its speech patterns may well be an indicator of the quality of prayer.

In Chapter 4 of the Rule of St. Benedict, the Father of Monks speaks of the necessity of the disciple:

To guard one’s tongue against evil and depraved speech. Not to love much talking. Not to speak useless words or words that move to laughter. Not to love much or boisterous laughter. To listen willingly to holy reading. To devote oneself frequently to prayer.

Good practices in speaking and listening in the community arise from prayer. Prayer informs our way of engaging others in the community. Prayer also helps us discern challenges in this area that every community faces.

In the Letter of James, we read:

So the tongue is a little member and boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is an unrighteous world among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the cycle of nature, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by humankind, but no human being can tame the tongue – a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

In a community, gossip, murmuring and idle speech are poisonous. They are toxic. In a community such as ours, we live in close quarters. We know each other. We know more than we need to know. As the philosopher said: We all know where our goats are tied.

Close living offers us the opportunity to love one another in more profound ways. It can also be the occasion of useless talk, inappropriate humor, ridicule and murmuring against the system. This is something that can be corrected, but only in a spirit of prayer, and that prayer requires perseverance. As Blessed John Paul II once said:

Prayer gives us strength for great ideals, for keeping up our faith, charity, purity, generosity; prayer gives us strength to rise up from indifference and guilt, if we have had the misfortune to give in to temptation and weakness. Prayer gives us light by which to see and to judge from God’s perspective and from eternity. That is why you must not give up on praying.

There are many ways to pray. In a recent talk I gave on the question of theology and Tradition, I mentioned that our engagement with the life and teaching of the Church can be conceived in three ways: 1) directive; 2) disciplinary; and 3) devotional. In that context, my discussion was on what constituted doctrinal versus less-than-doctrinal concerns in the life of the Church.

The distinctions apply equally to the question of prayer and, in particular, our context within this community of faith and by extension in the holy priesthood. Directive prayer may be said to have two aspects. The first is the necessity of prayer as a generic reality. To be disciples, we must pray. I have already discussed this necessity above, but it bears repeating. We must pray.

How that prayer looks and the direction it takes may have the aspects of individual preferences (for the most part), but we must pray. Failure to pray is a failure to engage the very meaning of discipleship. Prayer may at times be dry, but it can never be absent. Prayer may have consolation and desolation as its prominent features, but it can never be disregarded.

Within a life of prayer, worship is the primary form of directive prayer. We must worship God. What does this entail? In the law of Christ, it means first and foremost a sincere desire to offer homage and supplication to our Divine Creator. Concretely, it means praying with the Church in the Holy Eucharist. In a directive way, the Eucharist is the spine of all prayer.

Famously, the Second Vatican Council defines the Eucharist as the “source and summit” of our lives as followers of Jesus. It is also the source and summit of prayer. All prayer, whether the public prayer of the Church or our private prayer, leads us back to the Mass.

The Fathers held that the Eucharist makes the Church. This tells us something essential about prayer. The Eucharist is the central feature of a life devoted to cultivating a relationship with God, because it connects us intimately with God. It connects us with the saving action of Christ on the cross. It connects us to his resurrection. It connects us to the events of the Upper Room, both the Last Supper and the Day of Pentecost.

The Eucharist fills us with the love of God by filling our very bodies with the Bread of Life, which alone gives meaning to this world’s travails. The Eucharist also essentially connects us to one another. It makes us brothers and sisters in the One who is broken, poured out, shared and consumed. Our essential prayer to God goes through the saving acts of Christ and grabs on to others. Prayer is relationship and the Eucharist is relationship par excellence. Certainly, the saints have always known this.

In the words of the Angelic Doctor:

Material food first changes into the one who eats it, and then, as a consequence, restores to him lost strength and increases his vitality. Spiritual food, on the other hand, changes the person who eats it into itself. Thus the effect proper to this Sacrament is the conversion of a man into Christ, so that he may no longer live, but Christ lives in him.

Our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI has also commented that:

The Eucharist is a “mystery of faith” par excellence: “the sum and summary of our faith.” The Church’s faith is essentially a eucharistic faith, and it is especially nourished at the table of the Eucharist. Faith and the sacraments are two complementary aspects of ecclesial life. (Sacramentum Caritatis, 6)

In connection with seminary formation and the priesthood, we often hear of the need to cultivate a “Eucharistic Spirituality.” While there is no gainsaying this insight, what precisely is a Eucharistic Spirituality? First, I would say that it is seeing the Eucharist precisely for what it is: a cosmic engagement with the very core of our being and an essential element of the divine plan for creation. In other words, the celebration of the Eucharist, as I mentioned above, is essential to the life of the world.

Second, a Eucharistic Spirituality is an engaging, active attention to the presence of Christ not only in the Holy Mass but in its effects, that is, in the world. The disciple of a Eucharistic Spirituality sees Christ not only as a necessary metaphysical element to the well-being of creation, but an essential social element as well. The social order is never complete without Christ, and the Eucharist is the authentic harbinger of the real presence of Christ in that same social order.

Third, a Eucharistic Spirituality acknowledges the need for transformation. Just as the elements of bread and wine are transformed, so should we look to be transformed in the economy of conversion; and we should further look for the world to be transformed through the economy of salvation. This dependence upon transformation gives the devotee of the Eucharist a particular insight, not only about the liturgical celebration but about the world, every person in it and, indeed, himself.

The insight is this: Things are not what they seem to be. In the holy Eucharist, we must train our minds, and indeed our spirits, to look beyond the veil of accident to see the veritas, the Truth of what is present. This is a pastoral insight as well. We must look beyond the accidents of our lives to the Truth of Christ present. It applies to our self-perception as well.

Therefore, a Eucharistic Spirituality is also an authentic psychology, an authentic sociology and an authentic moral code. In the throes of a Eucharistic Spirituality, we learn to expect miracles of conversion. We accept a willing suspension of immediate judgment.

Armed with these insights, what are the best practices for our engagement with this essential prayer of the Church? First, we must take the Holy Mass seriously. The Mass is not another part of our day. It is the center of our day. It demands our attention, our careful consideration and our equally careful preparation.

The solemn celebration of the Eucharist engages our imagination and our will. We see in it the culmination of our morning movement and the source of energy for the rest of the day. Preparation for the Eucharist means several things. It means observing the Eucharistic fast carefully. It means being on time and ready to pray, having predisposed ourselves to engage the miraculous.

It means full, conscious and active participation. It means praying the responses. It means singing with the community at the prescribed times, even if the music may not be attuned to my particular tastes. It means suspending a critical attitude about things I really know very little about in order to authentically worship God in the assembly.

Finally, it means a reference to the others. The Eucharist is not our private prayer. It is a prayer that we undertake with the community. Reference to the community in the context of prayer means doing what the community does. It means praying with one another. It means regulating our voices to form a single voice of communal prayer.

Connected to the holy Eucharist is the practice of Eucharistic Adoration and, most particularly, the Holy Hour. While not a directive aspect of the life of prayer, it does hold a pride of place and is a treasured part of our Catholic tradition and a very living devotion for a generation of Catholics today.

The celebration of the Eucharist is an active expression of a Eucharistic Spirituality. Adoration is a ministry of presence and cultivates the sincere love of God in our willingness to be present to Him in the Blessed Sacrament, whether reserved in the tabernacle or exposed in the monstrance. The time spent with Our Lord in adoration is a privileged time. As Archbishop Sheen once remarked, “The Holy Hour is time spent with our Lord. If faith is alive, no further reason is needed.”

Regarding the Holy Hour, the Cure of Ars once remarked, “How pleasing to our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament is the hour that we steal from our occupations, from something of no use, to come and pray to Him, to visit Him, to console Him.” Archbishop Sheen said, “Ultimately the Holy Hour will make us practice what we preach.”

The Holy Hour is a time of presence, of being with and, as such, must not be crowded with other activities. Each day’s Holy Hour should be an opportunity to spend time in the presence of the Beloved and a time to calm the clamor of the day. To me, this is an essential aspect of formation, being still and quiet with God.

In terms of best practices, therefore, the Holy Hour should not be a time for doing reading related to classroom work. It should not be filled with all kinds of vocal and mental prayer. It should be a time “to be” with God. This concept of the Holy Hour instills in the seminarian and priest that essential element of presence that is so necessary, particularly in a world filled with so much unnecessary activity and a priestly life filled with so much busy work.

In addition to worship, a directive activity of Christian spirituality is reading the Scriptures. Developing a relationship with the Bible is key to priestly formation. The Bible is God’s direct speech to us. St. Jerome says that ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ. This is a theme reiterated by Pope Benedict in his apostolic exhortation on the Word of God in the life of the Church.

We know God in and through the scriptures and our active engagement with the Bible is key to our life of faith. Best practices for scripture include daily reading of the Bible, as well as good commentaries. Of course, in the life of the priest, this also takes the form of homily preparation. For seminarians, it is a good practice to review the readings for Mass each day, perhaps writing down some ideas for what the scripture passages suggest to you.

For deacons and those who are actively preparing homilies, using the daily readings to inform not only what I plan to say as a preacher but how I plan to live as a preacher becomes essential. A key element to a scriptural spirituality is the community. As Pope Benedict tells us in Verbum Domini:

The Bible was written by the People of God for the People of God, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Only in this communion with the People of God can we truly enter as a “we” into the heart of the truth that God himself wishes to convey to us.

These two aspects of spirituality, worship in the holy Eucharist and scripture, are essential elements of being a Christian. Now I will turn to the second category I spoke of above, that of discipline. There are certain aspects of the spiritual life that are a part of our world, not by virtue of a universal imperative but by virtue of the discipline of the Church. The Liturgy of the Hours is just such an aspect.

The Liturgy of the Hours is the daily prayer of the Church. It is a prayer that connects us in an essential way to the Jewish roots of our faith. “Seven times a day I praise you,” the psalmist says (Psalm 119:164). St. Paul exhorts Christians to pray without ceasing (I Thessalonians 5:17). This is the will of God. The Liturgy of the Hours is the rich tradition of prayer that allows for all of these goods to be realized. Again, it is the prayer of the Church. As we read in the General Instruction to the Liturgy of the Hours:

Christian prayer is above all the prayer of the whole human community, which Christ joins to himself (cf. SC  83). The Lord Jesus and his body pray together, as if in chorus, to the Father. This communion in prayer will be clearer if those who pray the Hours study and meditate upon Scripture, in reading which our word and God’s word are at one.

Additional aspects of the Liturgy of the Hours are to be noted. It constantly gathers and presents to the Father the petitions of the whole Church. All pastoral activity must be drawn to completion in the Liturgy of the Hours and must flow from its abundant riches. In this chorus of prayer, the Church more perfectly manifests what she is, for her identity as body of Jesus is kept continually in actuation; the injunction to pray without ceasing, which cannot be fulfilled by any one individual, is corporately fulfilled by the Church as a community.

That having been said, the practice of the Liturgy of the Hours is not mandated for all of the faithful. It is required of the deacon and priest. As a necessary discipline in ordained life, the practice of the Liturgy of the Hours should begin in earnest right now. Best practices for praying the Liturgy of the Hours are first to attend carefully to the Office in common that we celebrate in the seminary.

Devote your energy to the Office. Be on time and prepared. Before Morning Prayer, everyone should pray privately the invitatory psalm. The Office of Readings may be done at any time of the day. One of the daytime Offices is required, as is compline. Many of these Offices we will pray privately. Private recitation of the Office is a challenge at times, particularly in the busy lives of the seminarian and the priest.

It is essential, however, that we make the time for this sanctifying work. The Liturgy of the Hours should be prayed from day one in the seminary. We should be getting used to it, making it a habit. Is it always rewarding? Honestly, it is not. Is it rewarding in terms of the fulfillment of an obligation? Absolutely.

The Holy Church asks us to pray the Liturgy of the Hours in union with all others. We do so in solidarity, in the name of those who cannot or will not pray, and in pursuit of a catholicity that only authentic prayer can bring. Finding fruitful ways to pray the Liturgy of the Hours is a conversation each of you should be having with your spiritual director, your dean or any priest or deacon. Learn the Liturgy of the Hours and make it your own.

The final category of theological truths that I mentioned in my talk earlier this year was devotional. Something is devotional when it fulfills a particular spiritual ideal or need. Different persons have different personalities. I may enjoy one activity, such as watching a film, with one friend and another activity, such as running a marathon, with another.

Devotions are about preference, about emphases and, at some level, about personal tastes. A devotional life is necessary for the priest, but every devotion is not necessary. We have the freedom to exercise our preference for various devotions, and that freedom should be observed. No one should be made to feel inferior if they are not connected to my particular devotional practice.

We should invite others to experience our devotional lives, but not compel them to do so. We may like certain devotions and find them meaningful. Everything is not for everyone. One may practice lectio divina, another meditation, a third a particular chaplet. Someone else may be inspired by the Stations of the Cross or novena prayers.

Another important devotion and work of mercy is prayer for the souls in purgatory. Prayer for the souls in purgatory and devotions connect us to the supernatural world, where the Church also lives. It is another important expression of the communal nature of prayer.

Finally, I would mention devotion to the saints and, in particular, to Our Lady. These kinds of devotions take many different forms. In Marian devotion, certainly the rosary holds pride of place. It is a tested and true means of meditating on the mysteries of Christ. At the core of all Marian devotion is the central insight that Our Lady holds a particular place in the history of our salvific relationship with God in Christ.

Just as we cannot fathom our Christian faith without her willingness to engage the Word in a powerful, corporeal way, so our prayer, as a life of cultivated relationship, needs her presence. Without Mary, historically, there would be no Incarnate Word. Without Mary daily in our prayer, how can we see the importance of that Incarnate Word in our momentary activity? As a community of faith, we, too, need Mary as a patron and guide for the work of formation here.

Most days we have the opportunity to pray the Angelus prayer together. This prayer recalls that central role of Our Lady in the history of salvation. It connects us to her powerful intercession near Christ. In terms of best practices for devotional prayer: explore. Find out what suits you. This is the nature of devotions, the legitimate exercise of personal preferences.

However, find some way to connect to these beautiful expressions of that core relationship with God through prayer. Brothers and sisters, prayer forms the center of what we do here. It shows us the open heart of Christ and connects us essentially with one another in the Body of that same Christ.

It shows us also a central Catholic truth that lies at the heart of our theology and practice of prayer: We are not alone. Surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, the Church militant, the Church suffering and the Church triumphant. A life of cultivated prayer and methodical prayer leads to the greatest of virtues, the virtue of zeal. The word “zeal” comes from the Greek word for boiling. How apt an image. The good zeal of discipleship is well attested in Chapter 72 of the Rule of St. Benedict. I paraphrase:

This zeal, therefore, the seminarians should practice with the most fervent love. Thus they should anticipate one another in honor (Rom. 12:10); most patiently endure one another’s infirmities, whether of body or of character; vie in paying obedience one to another – no one following what he considers useful for himself, but rather what benefits another; tender the charity of brothers chastely; fear God in love; love their superiors and formators with a sincere and humble charity; prefer nothing whatever to Christ. And may He bring us all together to life everlasting!

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