”Pray without ceasing’ (1 Thessalonians 5:17)
The season of Lent brings renewed focus to the significance of prayer for growth, a practice supported by fasting and that leads us to almsgiving.
It is not novel to suggest that prayer belongs to the essence of Christian life and is essential to the integrity of Christian leaders. Curiously, however, we find few opportunities in our parishes, schools and beyond where prayer is taught and can be learned.
Although a life of prayer grows principally through its practice, that is by praying, it is also nourished by an understanding of what prayer involves and awakens us to as we do it. When we understand what we are doing when we are doing it, a new intentionality and fresh desire is brought to our prayer, not only in the setting of the Church’s liturgy but throughout the breadth of our Christian life.
Indeed, in the Gospels we find the disciples eager to learn the way of prayer after being drawn into its circle by Jesus’ example. ‘Lord, teach us to pray’ they ask (Lk 11:1). In the Catechism we find recognition as well of prayer as a practice that is learned, with a call for formation and education in ongoing ‘schools of prayer’ (CCC#2689). While always a gift of the Spirit, prayer presupposes effort by the disciple (CCC#2725) for ‘we do not know how to prayer as we ought’ (Rom. 8:26).
While it can be approached in so many ways, I have come to experience prayer most powerfully as an expression of our radical dependence on God as the source of our life. What is more, it is because of this dependence on God, and not despite of it, that prayer is at the same time the overwhelming (even confronting) experience of our own humanity at its depth, in its fundamental orientation towards God.
We learn this much from ‘the master of prayer’, Jesus of Nazareth who is, as St Paul describes, ‘the revelation of the children of God’ (Rom. 8:19). It is Jesus who unveils in his own filial piety our destiny in God, revealing communion with ‘our Father’ not simply as a ‘religious’ venture, an extrinsic performance detached from ourselves, but a calling in accord with the imperatives of our own nature. In short, prayer is not only entry into the divine life but also the discovery of our authentic humanity by that encounter.
As Christians it is essential to note as well that we do much more than merely ‘follow’ or imitate Jesus in prayer. In the act of prayer we, in fact, enter into Jesus’ own prayer to the Father as the Gospel makes powerfully clear: ‘God has sent into our hearts the Spirit of his Son who cries ‘Abba, Father’ (Gal. 4:6, Rom. 8:15). It is the Spirit of Christ who prays within the heart of each disciple.
Hence, in the person of Jesus we come to see not only the extent to which prayer shapes the heart we bring before God but discover our prayer as an entry into His communion with the Father. Prayer is, as the Eucharistic doxology proclaims, ‘through Him, with Him and in Him’. To pray is to allow ourselves to be ‘caught up’ in the prayer of Jesus who is alive in us through the Spirit to the Father.
In coming to an appreciation of prayer’s meaning and possibility, the reflections below might further shape your own imagination and practice of prayer. They are generously provided by a friend, a monk, who has dedicated his life to this ceaseless communion with God.
1. Prayer rises in our hearts when we listen to the words of the Gospel, meditate upon them, and strive to live as faithful disciples of Christ. In the ‘Life of Antony’, we catch a glimpse of the way the early Christians prayed. Every day, they would go to their local church in order to listen to the Scriptures and pray together. On Sundays, they would celebrate the Eucharist. Then they would go back to their homes, carrying in their minds the words of Scripture they had heard read in the church.
Throughout the day, whether they were walking along the road, working in the fields, preparing a meal, or conducting business, they would recall the texts and meditate on them. This was for them a ‘school of prayer': the continuation of the liturgy in their daily lives.
2. When we attend to God’s Word in the context of our daily lives it has the power to speak to our hearts and lead us in the way of discipleship. It also has the power to keep the fire of prayer and love burning in our hearts. Abba Joseph, one of the early Egyptian Desert Fathers, used to say: ‘If you will you can become all flame’.
It is important that we see prayer as very much part of our daily living. We need to structure into our lives some time when we can be free for listening to God’s Word, prayerful reading of the Scriptures, and quiet contemplative prayer. However, perhaps the most vital element of our prayer life is the way that prayer overflows and becomes a part of the rest of our lives. Prayer will tend to become stilted and artificial if it is confined only to set times and places.
3. Our relations with other people are an intrinsic part of our prayer life. The gentle stirring of love that we feel in our hearts during times of prayer tends to dry up if it is not given scope to reach out concretely to others in our normal, daily contact with the people who share our lives. Love needs to be exercised if it is to grow strong. John in his letter says: ‘How can we love God, who we cannot see, if we do not love our brothers and sisters, who we do see?’ (1 Jn 4:20). We need to trust the love that God places in our hearts and learn to reach out from there to others.
4. Prayer gives us the opportunity to recognise our own limitations: weakness, failure, brokenness, temptation, and even sin. It demands real faith to stand before God and believe in his love. We need the courage to say the prayer of the Eastern monastic tradition which is ‘Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner.’ When we allow God to enter the messiness of our lives, then grace is able to act and, finally, growth can take place.
This is sage advice not simply for a life of ‘prayers’ but a more encompassing life of prayerfulness. In listening to the Word, allowing that Word to enter and shape our daily living and intentions, as suggested here, we begin to understand and experience the depth of communion that prayer enables.
As a final note, over the past few years it has struck me that ordained and lay leaders of communities can desire that their people change while they themselves remain the same. The primacy of prayer in the journey towards God and one another applies to all and admits of no exception.
Without prayerfulness there cannot be growth and without growth there cannot ultimately be fullness of life in Him. Our communities will thrive in the Gospel and its mission to the extent that we pray.