April 23, 2021

Sight Unseen / Brandon A. Evans

Prayer that never ceases

Brandon A. EvansThere’s nothing wrong with Catholic prayer in and of itself.

In style and substance, the prayers of the Church are incarnate: there is a thread wound through them that connects the otherworldly to our human senses. We sing and kneel and breathe incense; we cross ourselves with holy water, wear blessed medals and adorn our houses with the icons of saints.

The sacraments are our anchors amidst a tapestry of other prayers; within their formulas are certainties of grace meant to free us from preoccupation and doubt so that our spirits can go deeper.

But, as is often the case in our fallen world, such strength can turn back on itself.

We can coast through Mass on autopilot, mumbling the same words we’ve heard a thousand times; our rosaries can become vain repetitions on our way to some set number; we can warp the promises attached to Catholic prayer until we almost believe them to be a vending machine for life’s problems.

Worse, we can become lost in the machinery and precision of it all, mistaking the form for the purpose and detaching its meaning from anything in our lives.

For if the person of Jesus Christ is the lifeblood of all things, then without a constant encounter with him even the grandest liturgy lies dormant for us: it becomes—subjectively, at least—not simply a prayer without substance, but no real prayer at all.

It turns to stone from the inside out—and our spiritual lives along with it.

We begin living in a place where we perceive our only way out is to simply pray more and pray harder, to say the right words in the right way—to control our lives by forcing grace to serve us.

We grow tired, and sometimes fall away from prayer entirely, believing it to be all in vain.

But every now and again, blessedly, the depths which evaded us with beads and books and ministers can still bubble up from our humanity. In tears or laughter or deep concern, we suddenly look across the room as if Jesus was really standing there (and he is). We sit with him, we whisper, we open our feelings…or sometimes just let our eyes silently spill out everything to him that we wish we could say.

Soul, spirit and body communicate as one without having to try.

By God’s grace, these moments show us twinkles of the fulfillment of the Pauline command to pray without ceasing. For it is truly a nonsensical command—one impossible for those who live in the world unless it refers not to time on our knees but rather to the prayer of living.

Each act of kindness can be an act of worship, each bite of warm food a thanksgiving, each smile shared with another also one shared with God. A prayer of this kind breathes into our souls the divine as our bodies breathe air, and is present in our lives more often than we may guess.

It often goes unnoticed and unnamed, slipping through the details of everyday life. For be it our empathy and compassion, our sadness and delight, our curiosity and wonder and worry, such as these are not wasted for the baptized.

A Christian who has the life of God in them does not have any emotion that is ordinary or sterile: each gaze of concern for a friend is itself a prayer for them; our common joys a shared praise for God’s creation; our sleepless tears a joining to Christ in Gethsemane.

Think, if you will, of the amazing possibility that our very longing to see our loved ones again in heaven may be the prayer—winding back through time—that God uses to help them choose salvation while still alive.

Or that the pain that strikes us when we hear of the agony of a friend—the breath stolen from our lungs and the sinking in our stomach—is by God’s glory a powerful prayer for their deliverance that has real results.

Or, with only the slightest bit of imagination, that each time the breeze rushes and twists through your hair on a windy day you may feel in it the hand of your Father lovingly reaching down to you through one of the elements he willed into being.

Such prayers as this are, admittedly, hard to sustain as conscious efforts. To catch even brief glimpses of how much grace and prayer are infused into our everyday lives is more an assurance of a real thing than a marvel to be relished.

For even when we don’t know it, such prayer surrounds us. The heartbeat of Christ pulses down through our fingers and to everything our lives touch; he is present in each page and for every word of our stories.

And sometimes—just sometimes—in an act of love beyond hope, he pulls back the curtain a bit for us to see how close he truly is, and how close we can be to him no matter our circumstances.

In silence and longing, we press our human hearts against his divine, bidding them to beat as one—a chorus where sorrows and joys are breathlessly shared, and where our deepest hopes leap forth from created to Creator without ever being in between.

(Sight Unseen is an occasional column that explores God and the world. Brandon A. Evans is the online editor and graphic designer of The Criterion and a member of St. Susanna Parish in Plainfield.)

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