“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 these 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 real struggles, beyond what many of us could imagine. They also suffered greatly for their faith in a hostile culture.
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 meant what he said to the Christians at Thessalonica and that his words are important to those who bear the name Christian today.We need to pray.
Prayer is an ongoing dialogue of intimate communion with God. 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. Love is never coerced. It 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 its root a misuse of freedom. Our capacity to choose has been infected by pride and a mistaken notion of self sufficiency which is, in reality, a path to self idolatry. Our ability to exercise our freedom rightly, to live His Image within us by directing our capacity for free choice always toward the good, was impeded through the fall. Human freedom was fractured.
The “Good News” is that through Jesus Christ, the way has been opened for an even fuller communion with God, one that is restored through His Incarnation, Saving life, Death and Resurrection. In Jesus Christ we are being re-created, re-fashioned and redeemed. Our fractured freedom can be healed through the application of the splint of the cross. The Lord comes to live in all who make a place for Him within the center of their lives. This “making a place” is the essence of Christian prayer. It is not really about doing, but about being – in communion with God.
The Lord wants us to freely choose to respond to His continual invitations to love. We will only find our fulfillment as human persons by entering into that kind of relationship. 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 as well, 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 hid 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. Through His Incarnation, Saving Life, Death, and Resurrection, Jesus opens the way to 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 enter into the dialogue of prayer, we can experience a progressive, dynamic and intimate relationship with God. He 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. It 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. Through prayer darkness is dispelled and the path of progress is illuminated. Through prayer we begin to understand why this communion seems so elusive at times; as we struggle with our own disordered appetites, and live in a manner at odds with the beauty and order of the creation within which we dwell only to 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 the communion of 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. 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. 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.”
Let us learn to “become prayer” in the classroom of communion.