August 13, 2010

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Humility is the foundation of prayer

I talk and write a lot about prayer, and I have done so for the 23 years that I have been a bishop and for 23 years before that as a priest.

One of my reasons for gratitude when I was ordained a bishop in Memphis was that my monastic formation at Saint Meinrad had schooled me in the habit of praying. It is a preoccupation in my pastoral ministry as it should be.

Folks often ask me to do some more talking and writing about prayer. In fact, the topic came up during our recent Priests’ Convocation at Saint Meinrad in late June.

I had given a talk concluding the convocation. Not surprisingly, I said a few things about my conviction of the importance of prayer in priestly pastoral ministry.

In a question-and-answer session after the talk, one of our priests asked if it might be a good idea to make prayer a topic for a major teaching project in the archdiocese. That got me thinking that at least I could use my weekly column once in a while to revisit various aspects of our Catholic tradition of prayer.

Christian prayer has a multitude of dimensions one can consider. I will try not to be too repetitive in my reflections here, though it doesn’t hurt if this is a review.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has a lot to say about our tradition of Christian prayer, and it is well presented. I don’t intend to simply repeat what the catechism teaches and recommends, but I will structure some of my thoughts and experience according to its format.

Recall that the catechism is comprised of four parts, often referred to as the four pillars of this landmark work promulgated by Pope John Paul II on Oct. 11, 1992, the 30th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council.

Part I deals with the mystery of faith as professed in the Apostles’ Creed. Part II treats the sacramental life and liturgy of the Church. Part III addresses our life in Christ under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and then Part IV concerns our personal relationship with God. As the catechism states, “this relationship is prayer” (cf. #2558).

Under the heading “What is Prayer?” the catechism cites a quotation from the ­autobiography of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. She said: “For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven; it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy” (cf. #2558).

A more familiar definition of prayer, a quotation from St. John Damascene, reads: “Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God” (cf. #2559).

The two definitions quoted in the catechism are a good signal to us that prayer is something simple, and does not have to be complicated. Later in my reflections on my own prayer life, I hope to witness my experience of the simplicity of Christian prayer.

From the outset, it is helpful and, in fact, necessary to make the case which the catechism makes for the foundation of all prayer, namely, “humility is the foundation of prayer. Only when we humbly acknowledge that ‘we do not know how to pray as we ought’ [Rom 8:26], are we ready to receive freely the gift of prayer” (#2559).

The catechism makes another important point in its introductory teaching on prayer. “According to Scripture, it is the heart that prays. If our heart is far from God, the words of prayer are in vain” (#2562). The impact of this teaching will be fruit for our further reflection later.

Last week, I reflected on the fundamental role of the sacrament of baptism in our Christian existence. This sacrament makes possible the communion of our lives with Christ.

By baptism, we are already united with Christ. As the catechism teaches, “Prayer is Christian insofar as it is communion with Christ and extends throughout the Church, which is his Body. Its dimensions are those of Christ’s love” (#2565).

I think one more foundational consideration is helpful as we begin a more extensive reflection about Christian prayer: We recognize that our model for a life of prayer is Jesus. One finds in the Gospel according to St. Luke a special emphasis on the action of the Holy Spirit and the meaning of prayer in Christ’s ministry. †

Local site Links: