By: Deacon Keith Fournier
“He was praying in a certain place, and when he had finished , one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” And he said to them, “When you pray, say: “Father, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread; and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us; and lead us not into temptation.” (Luke 11: 1-4)
Jesus sets forth the framework for a lifestyle of prayer in this prayer we call the “Our Father”. After this response, he tells the disciples a parable concerning one type of prayer, persevering prayer for needs. (Luke 11:1-13) However, His entire time with the disciples is an instruction in Prayer. He shows them by example the pattern of living in continual communion with the Father. He invites them – and he invites us – into the communion of love which He has with the Father, in the Spirit. That is the heart of prayer.
Through His Incarnation, which includes – His Life, Death, Resurrection and Ascension – he removes the impediment to our entering into that communion. He capacitates us to begin living in that communion right now. We are called to a lifestyle where prayer becomes naturally supernatural; like breathing. After the Resurrection, the Apostle Paul wrote these compelling and challenging words: “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus. Do not quench the Spirit.” (1 Thess. 5:16-19)
St. Paul wrote those words to the early Christians in Greece. They did not live lives of ease, in any sense of the word. They had families, occupations, and struggles beyond what many of us could imagine. They suffered greatly for their faith. He instructed them to “Pray without ceasing”. Did he really mean it? I believe that he did. The older I get, the simpler life gets. That does not mean it is “easy”. I speak of spiritual simplicity, the kind of attitude which gets right to the root of what really matters. I believe that Paul’s words are vital for those who bear the name Christian today.
Prayer is an ongoing dialogue of intimate communion with God that makes life different. God fashioned men and women as the crown of His creation, creating us in “His Image”, for this loving, relational conversation of life with Him. At the heart of understanding what it means to be “in His Image” is to understand the immense gift of human freedom and what has happened to our capacity to choose properly. Love is never coerced. Love is freely given and freely received.
Our relationship with God was broken, separated and wounded through the first sin, the sin of origins or “original sin”. That sin, like all sin since, is at root a misuse of freedom infected by pride and self sufficiency. Our ability to exercise our freedom rightly, to live in His Image by directing our capacity for free choice always toward the good, was impeded through that fall. You can say that our freedom was fractured. The only way it can be healed and restored is through the applying the splint of the Cross and the healing oil of the Holy Spirit.
The “Good News” is that through Jesus Christ, our fractured freedom can be healed. The way has been opened for us to have an even fuller communion with God than our first parents did before the Fall; a communion restored through the Incarnation – the Saving life, Death, Resurrection and Ascension – of Jesus Christ the Savior. In Jesus Christ we are being re-created, re-fashioned and redeemed. The Christian life is an invitation to conversion, to being made new. He comes to live in all who make a place for Him within the center of their lives and their lifestyles. This “making a place” is the essence of Christian prayer.
Prayer is not about doing, but about being, in a continual and growing communion with God. Jesus said, “If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” (John 14: 21 – 23) The Lord wants us to freely choose to respond His continual invitations to love. By the power of the Holy Spirit at work in every believer, he gives us new eyes to see Him at work, new ears to hear His voice and new hearts within which He can make His home.
We will find our fulfillment as human persons only in communion with the Lord. This is the meaning and purpose of life itself. As we grow in faith through our participation in the life of grace, lived out in the Church, our capacity to respond to His loving invitation grows , through prayer. Prayer is about falling in love with God. Isaac of Ninevah was an early eighth century monk, Bishop and theologian. For centuries he was mostly revered in the Eastern Christian Church for his writings on prayer. In the last century the beauty of his insights on prayer are being embraced once again by both lungs, East and West, of the Church. He wrote these words in one of his many treatises on Prayer:
“When the Spirit dwells in a person, from the moment in which that person has become prayer, he never leaves him. For the Spirit himself never ceases to pray in him. Whether the person is asleep or awake, prayer never from then on departs from his soul. Whether he is eating or drinking or sleeping or whatever else he is doing, even in deepest sleep, the fragrance of prayer rises without effort in his heart. Prayer never again deserts him. At every moment of his life, even when it appears to stop, it is secretly at work in him continuously, one of the Fathers, the bearers of Christ, says that prayer is the silence of the pure. For their thoughts are divine motions. The movements of the heart and the intellect that have been purified are the voices full of sweetness with which such people never cease to sing in secret to the hidden God.”
The Christian revelation answers the existential questions that plague every human heart and trouble every generation. Jesus opens full communion with God for all men and women. He leads us out of the emptiness and despair that is the rotted fruit of narcissism, nihilism and materialism. When we pray, we can experience a progressive, dynamic and intimate relationship with God and He can transforms us from within. We, as Isaac said, can “become prayer” as we empty ourselves in order to be filled with Him.
Through prayer, daily life takes on new meaning and becomes a classroom of communion. In that classroom we learn the truth about who we are – and who we are becoming – in Jesus. Through prayer we receive new glasses through which we see the true landscape of life, darkness is dispelled and the path to progress is illuminated. We begin to understand why this communion seems elusive as we struggle with our own disordered appetites. Without grace we live in a manner at odds with the beauty and order of the creation within which we dwell. Through Grace we find a new beginning, whenever we confess our sin and return to our first love. Prayer opens us up to Revelation, expands our capacity to comprehend truth and equips us to change.
Through prayer we are drawn by Love into a deepening relationship with Jesus whose loving embrace on the hill of Golgotha bridged heaven with earth; His relationship with His Father is opened now to us; the same Spirit that raised Him from the dead begins to give us new life as we are converted, transfigured and made new. Through prayer, heavenly wisdom is planted in the field of our hearts and we experience a deepening communion with the Trinitarian God. We become, in the words of the Apostle Peter “partakers of the divine nature.” (2 Peter 1:4) That participation will only be fully complete when we are with Him in the fullness of His embrace, in Resurrected Bodies in a New Heaven and a New earth, but it begins now, in the grace of this present moment.
The beloved disciple John became prayer. He writes in the letter he penned in his later years: “See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know Him. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope based on him makes himself pure, as he is pure. Everyone who commits sin commits lawlessness, for sin is lawlessness” 1John 3:1-4
As we “become prayer” our daily life becomes the field of choice and we are capacitated to choose the “more excellent way” of love of which the great Apostle paul wrote. (1 Cor. 13) Pondering the implications of the exercise of our human freedom becomes a regular part of our life, as we learn to “examine our conscience”, repent of our sin and become joyful penitents. Prayer provides the environment for such recollection as it exposes the darkness and helps us surrender it to the light of Love, the Living God dwelling within us.
“Becoming prayer” is possible for all Christians, no matter their state in life or vocation, because God holds nothing back from those whom He loves. This relationship of communion is initiated by Him. Our part is to respond. That response should flow from a heart that beats in surrendered love, in the process of being freed from the entanglements that weigh us down. The God who is Love hungers for this communion with His sons and daughters – and we hunger for communion with Him – because He made us this way. Nothing else will satisfy. The early Church Father Origen once wrote: “Every spiritual being is, by nature, a temple of God, created to receive into itself the glory of God.”
We were made in the “image” of God and are now being recreated into His likeness in Jesus Christ. As we “become prayer’, that likeness begins to emerge. We give ourselves fully to the One who gave Himself to us and cry out with Jesus Christ “Abba Father.” No longer alienated, we participate in the inner life of God who now dwells within us. We also dwell in Him through His Spirit. This dwelling is prayer. It is not about doing or getting but about being, becoming, receiving, giving, and loving. We will live the way we love and we will love the way we pray.
Mother Teresa once wrote:
“God is the friend of silence, in that silence he will listen to us; there he will speak to our soul, and there we will hear his voice. The fruit of silence is faith. The fruit of faith is prayer, the fruit of prayer is love, the fruit of love is service and the fruit of service is silence. In the silence of the heart God speaks. If you face God in prayer and silence, God will speak to you. Then you will know that you are nothing. It is only when you realize your nothingness, your emptiness, that God can fill you with Himself. Silence gives us a new way of looking at everything. We need this silence in order to touch souls. God is the friend of silence. His language is silence. ‘Be still and know that I am God’.”
A wonderful spiritual writer of our own time, Henri Nouwen, understood the intimacy of prayer and the call to live in God. He wrote these words in his work entitled Lifesigns: “Jesus, in whom the fullness of God dwells, has become our home by making his home in us he allows us to make our home in him. By entering into the intimacy of our innermost self he offers us the opportunity to enter into his own intimacy with God.”
We will live the way we love and we will love the way we pray.
Fr Nouwen continued: “By choosing us as his preferred dwelling place, he invites us to choose him as our preferred dwelling place. This is the mystery of the incarnation. Here we come to see what discipline in the spiritual life means. It means a gradual process of coming home to where we belong and listening there to the voice which desires our attention. Home is the place where that first love dwells and speaks gently to us. Prayer is the most concrete way to make our home in God.”
We are His contemporary disciples. We need to ask Him the same question this day, “Lord, Teach us to Pray”. Then, filled with His very Divine Life within us, we need to “become prayer” by learning to “make our home in God” and let Him make His home in us.
I have not written a column for Beliefnet in a long time. I have been writing a lot – just in other venues. As is the case with all of us, my life just seems to get busier and busier. However, I have not been able to get Beliefnet – and its potential for good – out of my mind or my heart. So, I begin again, I start anew with this column.At every new beginning I am reminded of one of my favorite passages from the Bible.
“The one who sat on the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” (Jesus to St John, recorded in the Bible, in the Book of Revelation 21:5).
Those five words from the Book of Revelation or the “Apocalypse” hold out the promise of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to all men and women in every Nation under the sun. They were spoken to the beloved disciple John on the Island of Patmos when he received a vision of the new heaven and new earth where the completion of the Redemption of Jesus Christ will be fully manifested.
Those words “Behold I make all things new” took on new meaning for me several years ago when I watched a powerful scene in the Mel Gibson masterpiece, “The Passion of the Christ.” In it Mary, the Mother of the Lord, runs to her wounded Son. He has fallen for the third time from the weight of the Cross. There is a flash back to an earlier day when that same son, as a child, is seen playing in the dusty streets of Nazareth and is about to fall.
With the tender love of a mother, Mary reaches out to her Son. Then the viewer sees her hand touch the wounded face of the Adult Son and Savior who looks at her, and through words addressed to her – He speaks to every human person – from the beginning of time until the end – saying: “Behold, I make all things new.” That is the hunger in the heart of every person.
Every New Year’s eve, many of us resolve to “be better” in the coming year. Very quickly thereafter we are confronted with the reality of our human condition and our fractured freedom. We know that our resolutions to change often end in failure. We are prone to making wrong choices in daily life. We sin. Classical theology speaks of this inclination as “concupiscence”.
The Apostle Paul wrote about this experience to the early Christians in Rome in the seventh chapter of his letter: “For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want. Now if (I) do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me… Miserable one that I am! Who will deliver me from this mortal body Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Our freedom is a reflection of the Image of God within us. However, it was fractured by the effects of the first sin. Our ability to exercise it properly by choosing the good has been undermined as a result. In the words of Blessed John Paul II taken from his marvelous letter entitled “The Splendor of Truth”, our “freedom itself needs to be set free.” Through the Incarnation, Saving Life, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ it can be. By grace we are capacitated to live our lives differently now. Jesus can make all things new! Life is about beginning again, and again, and again.
Every New Year we read numerous articles about the efficacy of New Year’s Resolutions. However, the fact remains, we all make them. The experience is nearly universal. The question is why? I suggest that they reveal something of our universal longing.
So too do our calendars. Some Nations use different calendars, but the passing of one year to another is marked by a deliberate period of reflection over the past year and a pledge to begin anew, to change, in the year to come. This is because we all hunger to be made new!
GK Chesterton wrote: “The object of a New Year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul and a new nose; new feet, a new backbone, new ears, and new eyes. Unless a particular man made New Year resolutions, he would make no resolutions.”
“Unless a man starts afresh about things, he will certainly do nothing effective. Unless a man starts on the strange assumption that he has never existed before, it is quite certain that he will never exist afterwards. Unless a man be born again, he shall by no means enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.”
We all want to change, to be better, to live our lives more fully and learn to love one another more selflessly. As we end one year and look to a new one, we pause and take inventory. In a rare moment of near universal reflection and honest self assessment, we admit our failures.
We pledge to learn from them and move toward a better future. In Little Gidding written by T.S. Eliott we find these often quoted words: “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice. What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning.”
Over the years I have realized that every end really can become a beginning, for the man or woman who has faith in the God who invites us to begin again, again and again. He alone makes it possible by sharing His very Life with us. This gift is called grace and through receiving it we become what the Apostle Peter called “Partakers of the Divine Nature”.(2 Peter 1:4)
The older I get the more grateful I am that the promise to begin again is always available. The choice to receive the grace to begin again is also waiting, at the foot of the cross, for those who ask. In fact, we are always beginning again in life.One of my heroes of the faith is St. Jose Maria Escriva once wrote these words:
‘For a son of God each day should be an opportunity for renewal, knowing for sure that with the help of grace he will reach the end of the road, which is Love. That is why if you begin and begin again, you are doing well. If you have a will to win, if you struggle, then with God’s help you will conquer. There will be no difficulty you cannot overcome.’ (St. Jose Maria Escriva, The Forge, 344)
In and through Jesus Christ, there is a way to be made new. We can always begin again. That is at the heart of the Gospel, the Good News! St. Paul reminded the Christians in the City of Corinth – and reminds every one of us “whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.” (2 Cor. 5:17)
So, I am back at Beliefnet, beginning again. I look forward to sharing with my readers, once again, all the reasons I am, a Catholic by Choice.
On Sunday, October 9, 2011, Pope Benedict XVI presided over Second Vespers with the Carthusian monks at Serra San Bruno. From the Chapel of that Carthusian monastery he shared beautiful insights on silence and prayer which should be considered by all who bear the name Christian. His words brought me back to the days surrounding his election to the Chair of Peter.
Those who study the early days of Popes often watch for two things at the beginning of their service, the name they choose and the content of their first homily for clues to their pontificate. When Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger chose the name Benedict he sent a signal concerning the centrality of prayer. He has spent his pontificate teaching about that centrality.
One of the young priests offering commentary during those historic days noted that then Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger visited Subiaco before all the events in Rome began. He prayed and rededicated himself to the work of the Church for the future. Interestingly, a short while later he was called to occupy the chair of Peter. He took the name Benedict.
Saint Benedict is the father of Western Monasticism. As a young man he fled a decadent and declining Rome to give his life entirely to God and went to Subiaco. The cave that became his dwelling is now a shrine called “Sacro Speco” (The Holy Cave). It is still a sanctuary for pilgrims. The Pope who took his name went to that same cave for prayer just before he was elected. He has not stopped showing us the way of prayer ever since.
The Pope did not enter the monastery for the rest of his life. He entered the monastery to make a point. He told the monks: “Dear brothers you have found the hidden treasure, the pearl of great value (cf. Mt 13:44-46); you have responded radically to Jesus’ invitation: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me” (Mt 19:21). Every monastery — male or female — is an oasis in which the deep well, from which to draw “living water” to quench our deepest thirst, is constantly being dug with prayer and meditation. …
“Technical progress, markedly in the area of transport and communications, has made human life more comfortable but also more keyed up, at times even frantic. Cities are almost always noisy, silence is rarely to be found in them because there is always a lingering background noise, in some areas even at night… Some people are no longer capable of remaining for long periods in silence and solitude…”
We are all called to prayer, no matter what our state in life or vocation. We are invited to build a virtual monastery in the midst of a world which has lost its soul. However, we need to grow in our understanding of what prayer is and grow in our understanding of who we are called to become in Christ. Prayer is an ongoing dialogue of intimate communion with God, through Christ and in the Holy Spirit. In an age of fast food, fast cars and fast internet, we seem to be running all the time. Yet, even with our digital calendars, we risk missing the most important meeting of all, our appointment with the Lord. We place our very selves at risk.
That is not to say that these technological advances have to be an impediment to the encounter with the Lord called prayer. Rather, when we allow them to become our measuring stick for satisfaction in every area of our lives, we will look for quick prayer and quick “results”, from what we believe are “our” efforts. Prayer is not about results or even our efforts, but about love.
In fact, prayer is really not about us at all, but about the “One” who hungers to be known and loved, the “Other”, who calls us into the intimacy of communion with Himself, in and through His Son and lives His life within us – and through us – by His Spirit. The Lord whom we seek is outside of time, having given time as a gift to those whom he now prepares for eternity. He dwells in the eternal now and invites us through prayer along a path to the fullness of life.
Preparing ourselves for prayer means learning to silence the clamor of the age, stop the ever accelerating pace of the futile quests that so often occupy our hearts, and live in the eternal now by surrendering ourselves – and even our best aspirations- to the One who created us –and now re-creates us- in His Son Jesus Christ. It is there, in the emptied place, in the stillness of the eternal now, where we prepare a room for the King of all hearts. And, in that encounter, we soon find the longing of our heart fulfilled.
The Holy Spirit is calling for a generation of contemplatives in every state in life and vocation in Christ. We tend to believe that the contemplative life is reserved for those who, by special vocation, can “leave” the world, such as contemplative monks and nuns. They are a true treasure and a prophetic sign of the life to come. However, all who are baptized into Christ are called to the same encounter with a different response.
Isaac of Ninevah was an early eighth century monk, Bishop and theologian. For centuries he was mostly revered in the Eastern Christian Church for his writings on prayer. In the last century the beauty of his insights on prayer are being embraced once again by both lungs, East and West, of the Church. He wrote these words in one of his many treatises on Prayer:
“When the Spirit dwells in a person, from the moment in which that person has become prayer, he never leaves him. For the Spirit himself never ceases to pray in him. Whether the person is asleep or awake, prayer never from then on departs from his soul. Whether he is eating or drinking or sleeping or whatever else he is doing, even in deepest sleep, the fragrance of prayer rises without effort in his heart. Prayer never again deserts him.
“At every moment of his life, even when it appears to stop, it is secretly at work in him continuously, one of the Fathers, the bearers of Christ, says that prayer is the silence of the pure. For their thoughts are divine motions. The movements of the heart and the intellect that have been purified are the voices full of sweetness with which such people never cease to sing in secret to the hidden God.”
There is a growing fascination with books about prayer and the monastic life across the entire Christian community. There is also a resurgence of interest in the Rule of Benedict and the writings of the early fathers of the Church about prayer. It all reflects the deep hunger in our hearts for God. We were made for communion with Him. Pope Benedict XVI entered the monastery to show us athe way we can all find the intimacy of that communion in the midst of our daily lives and be changed in the encounter. That way is prayer.