August 27, 2010

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Prayer is a gift of grace and a determined response on our part

I am a bit hesitant to present all of the distinctions of Christian prayer because they can seem to be off-putting for some folks. Yet I appreciate the realism with which the Catechism of the Catholic Church addresses the classical distinction of three kinds of prayer, namely vocal prayer, meditation and contemplation.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church addresses the meaning of vocal prayer with these words: “Through his Word, God speaks to man. By words, mental or vocal, our prayer takes flesh. Yet it is most important that the heart should be present to him to whom we are speaking in prayer: ‘Whether or not our prayer is heard depends not on the number of words, but on the fervor of our souls’ ” (St. John Chrysostom in #2700). Whether in worship or personal prayer, our human nature finds its expression in spoken or mental words.

The second kind of prayer is meditation. The catechism describes meditation with these words: “Meditation is above all a quest. The mind seeks to understand the why and how of Christian life, in order to adhere and respond to what the Lord is asking. The required attentiveness is difficult to maintain. We are usually helped by books, and Christians do not want for them: the Sacred Scriptures, particularly the Gospels, holy icons, liturgical texts of the day or season, writings of the spiritual fathers, works of spirituality, the great book of creation, and that of history—the page on which the ‘today’ of God is written. To meditate on what we read helps us to make it our own by confronting it with ourselves” (#2705-2706).

The third kind of prayer is contemplation. The catechism states: “Contemplative prayer is hearing the Word of God. Far from being passive, such attentiveness is the obedience of faith, the unconditional acceptance of a servant and the loving commitment of a child. It participates in the ‘Yes’ of the Son become servant and the fiat of God’s lowly handmaid. ­Contemplative prayer is silence, the ‘symbol of the world to come’ or ‘silent love’ ” (#2716-2717). There are various ways of describing this prayer, sometimes called the highest form of prayer. It may simply be described as a gaze of faith fixed on Jesus.

I am always a bit surprised and pleased to find that after the description of the three classic types of prayer, the Catechism of the Catholic Church has an article titled “The Battle of Prayer”! The catechism reminds us that “prayer is both a gift of grace and a determined response on our part. It always presupposes effort. The great figures of prayer of the Old Covenant before Christ, as well as the Mother of God, the saints and he himself, all teach us this: prayer is a battle. Against whom? Against ourselves and against the wiles of the tempter who does all he can to turn man away from prayer, away from union with God. We pray as we live, because we live as we pray. If we do not want to act habitually according to the Spirit of Christ, neither can we pray habitually in his name. The ‘spiritual battle’ of the Christian’s new life is inseparable from the battle of prayer” (#2725).

With another touch of realism, the catechism has a section on the “Objections to Prayer.” As we must face ourselves in the battle of prayer, we must also face wrong notions of prayer.

In our culture, some people consider prayer to be a simple psychological activity; others might see it as simply a form of mental concentration. Still others get caught up at the superficial level of the mere ritual of words and postures (cf. #2726).

Perhaps a more common given excuse for many is “I don’t have time to pray. There are too many other things I have to do.” Prayer is just “one more thing.”

The implication of this attitude is that prayer is a job among others. It is not a valuable priority. At first, this can unwittingly slip into our workaday experience, but before long, prayer is, in effect, not part of life. And with the absence of prayer, there is a seeming absence of God.

Another stumbling block to prayer is a sense of unworthiness, a feeling that my prayer is not good enough. We may forget that it is the Holy Spirit who makes something good of our prayer. The grace to pray in the first place comes from the Spirit, not from us alone.

Finally, we can never underestimate the power of our secular culture. Some are strongly influenced by the notion that only what can be scientifically proven is true. This can erode our faith in God and all that Jesus taught. †

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