Intentions of the Holy Father for April

Ecology and Justice. That governments may foster the protection of creation and the just distribution of natural resources.
Hope for the Sick. That the Risen Lord may fill with hope the hearts of those who are being tested by pain and sickness.

Encountering the Risen Christ in Prayer

Prayer is a touchy topic because it is always a personal one. As with all personal topics we expose our hearts and risk getting them mangled. The only way to avoid being personal in a discussion of prayer is to be sterile, and that is no improvement, for it certainly mangles the topic. As with the other installments of this series, I will start more objective, and work my way to the more personal.

First we have to ask what is prayer. Two definitions have been given traditionally by the Church, each given to her by one of her doctors:

St. Therese Lisieux wrote, “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.”

A bit more precisely, St. John Damascene wrote, “Prayer is the raising of one's mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God.”

Starting with these definitions, and incorporating some other saints’ experience, we can say something like, “To pray is to direct one’s heart or mind toward God.” Now, the first thing to note is that prayer is not thinking or feeling about God, but to God. Key difference. It is the difference between spending time with someone and doing a criminal background check on them. In the latter way, you get to know lots of facts, but not the person; in the first way, you get to know the person. The distinction is so important that the romance languages have two entirely different words for the different kinds of knowing.

Lest anyone think I am dismissing the importance of the catechism or the Deposit of Faith and the doctrines of the Church about God that the catechism summarizes, it is important to bear in mind St. Augustine’s paradox. We cannot get to know God without knowing about Him, and we cannot truly learn about Him without getting to know Him. So how can it happen – prayer? If we cannot pray and get to know God without knowing something of His nature, and we cannot learn more about His nature with getting to know Him, how can we get started? The answer that St. Augustine looks to is grace – the free gift of God’s life shared with us on His own initiative. God has to break the ice in this conversation, and even when it seems that we are making the first move, approaching Him, it is He working in us that has brought us to Him. The scriptures bear out this viewpoint, too: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words,” (Romans 8:26).

As we go about our life, God is constantly dropping prompts into our life to get us to spend time with Him. He is an almost insatiable lover; not like some needy “friend,” but like a parent who wants what’s best for his or her little kids. The kids think they are all grown up when they are just a few years old, but Mommy and Daddy and God know how much work we still need before we’re really there. So God is always hovering close to us, closer than we are to ourselves. He just wants us to respond, so He can give us what we need to spiritually grow big and strong. And what we need, know it or not, is Him.

Of course, society throws up all sorts of obstacles to quiet time with a lover – look how busy and noisy our lives are. And God, though very much in love with us, will not force or manipulate us into spending time with us, although He is not above letting us learn the hard way that we need Him, and starting from there. To spend time with Him, we have quietly to set ourselves aside from the hubbub of the world, enough time to calm our thoughts, and then we have to ask Him to help us lift our heart and mind toward Him. Calm, leisurely reading of the Scriptures, praying the Rosary, or meditating upon some icon are time-honored ways to still our heart and mind so that we can hear His quiet whisper. Here again the spiritual life is like running: a prayerful relationship with God is just not going to happen with less than 20 minutes or so of practice at a time and frequent, regular goes at it. Running for 10 minutes twice a month is a complete waste. So is praying, if you are looking deliberately to build a relationship with God. Sure, you can toss up a request in just a few seconds, but what would you think of someone who only spoke to you when they needed something, and the conversation consisted entirely of requests, without so much as a please, thank you, or a by-your-leave? We wouldn’t hang out with such selfish losers for very long. It’s a good thing that God is more merciful and patient than we are.

Before too long we will begin to “hear” thoughts and feelings in our prayer. It becomes VERY important to examine these inspirations, especially ones that surprise us, seem to come from outside us or beyond us, ones that point toward a change in course or strengthening a resolve. St. Paul calls this examination a “testing of spirits,” to see whether this new inspiration is likely just our empty stomachs, propaganda from our culture, or even diabolical in origin; or whether it is perhaps truly of God. This testing of spirits requires a solid moral formation, because God will never tell us to do something immoral, that is, something against His will. (Let’s leave certain stories from the Old Testament aside – they complicate things for now.) Even with solid moral formation, it is very beneficial to have a Christian more advanced than oneself to whom one can refer in times of doubt. If one’s pastor is for some reason an unlikely candidate, another priest or religious is ideal, but not strictly speaking necessary.

A word about how prayers are answered, or more to point, when prayers are answered. God does not always answer a prayer when we want. He’s in charge after all, and He calls the shots. Usually, for me, the prayer is answered well after it is prayed. For that matter, He responds to my queries for guidance, consolation, etc., sometimes quite a while (I feel) after I’ve asked. And He does so sometimes by stirring things up in the heart, sometimes but providentially arranging experiences, sometimes by making something that otherwise would have been lost in the clutter of life leap out at us, as it were, vividly, in full color, demanding a response and presenting its own solution, making the signposts of life shout aloud, you might say.
My own experience of the process of prayer, as I have described it objectively above, is what led me to the seminary.

Toward the end of my time in college, I heard about a “holy hour.” I had no clue. Turns out, it is an hour spent in prayer, preferably in chapel or some other secluded, quiet place, and preferably before the Blessed Sacrament, where we can sit face to Face with the Lord Himself… or more aptly put, heart to Heart. At first I undertook the practice so that I could feel pious. I told all my friends how holy I was, lol. Gradually, though, I came to sense that my prayer “wasn’t working.” I spoke with a priest. He told me that prayer doesn’t work. Not the answer I expected to hear from a priest, and I told him so. He clarified that prayer no more “works” than a chat with a friend “works.” It shouldn’t be something we do in order to get something, but something we do just because, well… almost just because. Ultimately, we prayer because we care about God. That basic lesson of prayer, that it is not an opportunity to manipulate God or to impress our church friends, is one that I have had to learn over and over again.

But an amazing thing happened. God broke the ice. We started to get to know each other better. Well, He always knew me, but now, I started to get to know Him, too. I was feeling new feelings and thinking new thoughts, thoughts and feelings unlike the way I had previously thought and felt. I felt like God wanted me to go to the seminary. So I did.

The funny thing happened on the way to ordination, though. I was a good student, well thought of by peers and superiors, and actively involved in, contributing to, and benefiting from the life of the seminary. I had gone from getting to Mass late because I was playing video games, to spending a couple hours daily in the chapel in meditative prayer, prayer that I felt had been fruitful. I took to it like a fish to water, which is generally considered a good sign. One day, after a few years in, the vice-rector was giving a conference. I was only half paying attention, and the other half of me was doodling or thinking about warmer weather and the beach, or something. Amid the clutter of my thoughts, I heard the vice-rector speaking distinctly for the first time in twenty minutes: “All of you men have been called by God, in various ways, to come to seminary. Many of you will be called by God in various ways to leave the seminary, without being ordained.” I was hit in the heart as with an arrow. The seminary’s vice rector is an avid hunter, and he could not have bulls-eyed that shot deeper into my consciousness if his life had depended on it.

Over the course of a year of prayer and guidance from my spiritual director, it became clearer that this course was the one to take: I must leave seminary because God Almighty, who I had thought had called me there for reasons I had thought had been obvious, was now commanding that I leave.

So in prayer, I made the most difficult decision of my life, and in prayer I was buoyed sufficiently, to carry it out with great determination. I left the seminary without a job or savings, and my sister’s guestroom/nursery to sleep in. She and her husband conceived their first child a couple weeks after I moved in, setting me on a timetable as well.

God continued, and has continued, to give me challenges practical and spiritual, moral and personal; and He has always given me the means to surmount them. When I have failed to, an honest self-examination has revealed the source of my failure: me. Each failure has been greeted by Him with renewed grace for a new go at it. Looking back in retrospect, I can start to see what He was thinking when He led me to the seminary. The healing and friendships I received from that place have already been so crucially beneficial that I do not like to image where I’d be without them. As with all of life’s stepping stones, they each lead naturally to the next. Nowadays I am starting to see, and feel, and experience, how the seminary prepared me for what has followed so far. I am starting to see God’s hand at work in the whole thing. I am getting better, in fits and spurts, slowly and with setbacks, at seeing God’s hand at work and responding proactively, rather than being and feeling bounced around like a pinball. My life is starting to have an order and a purpose like never before, even though I feel that I have less a clue where it is going than ever before. Before, I thought I knew but didn’t; now I know I don’t, and kinda do. My faithful confidence and commitment to God are slowly growing, my hope in Him and His good will for me is also slowly growing, and my dedication to serving Him and my neighbors in the details of daily life is also slowly growing. Jesus and I are getting to know each other, and almost despite myself, I find myself falling in love.

Maybe that priest was wrong after all. Maybe prayer does work.

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