Entering into Prayer

This is an English translation of a Spanish homily that I gave at a Lenten Vespers service on Feb. 15, 2013.

As we begin this Season of Lent, we turn again to the three traditional practices, the three forms of penance most emphasized by Scripture and by the Church Fathers: fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. (CCC 1434) Tonight I will be speaking about prayer; and you will hear about the other two practices at Vespers in the coming weeks.

And how wonderful it is to speak about prayer. It is a form of penance not because it is a punishment—and I hope it does not feel like a punishment to you!—but because it is a form of true conversion, of turning, not only away from sin but toward God: drawing closer to him, communicating closely with him, becoming more like our Lord Jesus in his relationship with God the Father. It is a living out of the transformation that our Lord desires within us: it is a living out of St. Paul’s words, when he wrote to the Galatians, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Gal 2:20)

At its most basic, prayer is speaking with God. And we need to recognize that it is not a one-sided conversation, as if we were watching someone speaking on a telephone without any consciousness that there is someone on the other end of the line carrying out the other half of the conversation.

Indeed, God’s part in prayer is much more than simply half of the conversation. Prayer is his gift. As in all other things, it is our Lord who has acted first; it is he who has taken the initiative and reached out to us; and when we enter into prayer, we are accepting and responding to his invitation. The Catechism tells us that, like Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well, it is he who first seeks us and asks us for a drink… prayer is the encounter of God’s thirst with ours. God thirsts that we may thirst for him. Even the prayer of petition, in which we make requests to God, is our response to the request he has already, first, made to us. (2560-61)

Will you answer God’s prayer? He is waiting, at all times, ready to enter into this communication, this communion, with you. Will you satisfy his thirst?

We enter into prayer not as strangers pounding on the door, nor even as slaves or servants speaking to their master; but as beloved children speaking to our loving heavenly Father. For this is who we are, through our baptism into Christ: not merely created in the image and likeness of God, amazing as that is; but adopted into Christ’s own Sonship, as adopted sons and daughters of God the Father. And so, just as our Lord Jesus, at 12 years old, said that he needed to be in his Father’s house; just as we see in the Gospels that, often during his years of public ministry, he went away by himself at night to spend time in prayer with his Father; so too in prayer we enter vividly into that relationship that we have been drawn into.

St. Therese of 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.” (2558) Our prayer must, first of all, be a sincere outpouring of ourselves—our true selves, all of us—to our heavenly Father. We should have confidence that he wants to know all about us; that, even though in his omniscience he already knows all things about us, he wants to hear it all from us; our feelings, our experiences, our thoughts, our hopes and desires, our sorrows and fears. The Catechism tells us that prayer needs to come from the heart:

“the dwelling-place where I am, where I live… the place ‘to which I withdraw’… our hidden center… which only the Spirit of God can fathom… and know… fully… the place of decision… the place of truth… the place of encounter… the place of covenant.” (2562-63)

Prayer needs to come from the heart, and to be received there, to take root and flourish and transform us there.

How do we pray? What kinds of prayer are there? The Catechism groups the many forms of prayer into three broad categories: vocal prayer, meditation, and contemplation.

Vocal prayer includes most of what is most commonly called prayer. Vocal prayer consists of our speaking words to God: whether spoken in our minds or aloud; whether these words are spontaneous or prepared in advance; whether we are praying alone or with others. Thus the liturgy—the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours, including this Vespers service—is a form of vocal prayer. So too are the Our Father, which our Lord Jesus taught us; and the Hail Mary, drawn from the text of the Gospels; the rosary; the many chaplets and novenas and other devotions; the quick, spontaneous prayer, whispered or simply thought in a moment.

Vocal prayer is suitable to how we are made as human beings, consisting of body and soul: it takes the feelings that are within us and expresses them externally, so that we enter into prayer and give glory to God with all that we are. (2702-03) And it is certainly the form of prayer most easily used by groups of people. But of course we need to take care that vocal prayer—especially when it is the speaking aloud of already prepared prayers—does not become a mindless, mechanical repetition. As St. Teresa of Avila reminds us, we need to be aware of the one we are speaking to! (2704)

And what will we speak to him about? Aside from communicating the state of our hearts to him, there are many other things we should say:

  • We should adore him as our Creator (2628) and praise him: giving him glory, quite beyond what he does, but simply because he is. (2639)
  • We should ask forgiveness for our sins, as a preparation for righteous and pure prayer—and as a preparation for bringing those sins to sacramental confession. (2631)
  • We should present our petitions to him, acknowledging our needs as limited creatures, praying first for the Kingdom and then for all of our needs. (2629, 2632-33)
  • We should intercede for others, presenting their needs to God as well. (2634-36)
  • And we should thank him—for all things in all circumstances, as St. Paul writes. (2638)

There is so very much that we have to say to our loving God! No wonder vocal prayer is the first category of prayer.

And meditation is the second. And the first thing we should note is that, when we speak of meditation in the Christian spiritual tradition, we mean something very different from what many in our society mean by “meditation,” at least in American English. That is, we do not mean the slowing or emptying of the mind, or the repetitive speaking of a mantra, a sound without meaning.

Instead, meditation means precisely thinking and reflecting, so that we may “understand the why and how of the Christian life, in order to adhere and respond to what the Lord is asking” of us. (2705) We meditate so that the Word may truly take root in us and bear fruit: so that we may not be the hardened soil that the seed never penetrates, as in our Lord’s parable, nor the rocky soil where the roots cannot go deep, nor the soil filled with weeds where its life is choked; but rather so that we may become the good, rich soil, that bears an abundant harvest. (2707)

And so it is that we attend to what we have received, we meditate upon it: upon Scripture, especially the Gospels; especially upon the mysteries of the life of Christ; upon the texts of the liturgy; upon Church teaching, especially works written by the Church Fathers; upon spiritual writings and icons; even upon creation and history. (2705, 2708) All of these things we meditate upon, seeking to understand what our Lord has revealed to us, about himself and his purpose and plan for us. And so we ask: “Lord, what do you want me to do?” And we actively allow his response to stir our hearts, to engage our thought, imagination, emotion, and desire, to convert our heart, deepen our faith, and strengthen our resolve to follow Christ. (2706, 2708)

Our third category is contemplative prayer. If vocal prayer is about speaking words; if meditation is about thinking and understanding; then contemplative prayer is about “being with.” It is about love; it is about person-to-person communion.

St. Teresa of Avila wrote: “Contemplative prayer in my opinion is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us.” (2709) St. John Vianney wrote about a certain peasant in his town who often spent time praying before the tabernacle, and who described what he was doing by saying: “I look at him and he looks at me.”

Contemplative prayer is a gaze of faith, fixed on Jesus. (2715) Like vocal prayer, it can include words—but these words are not speeches but rather, in the words of the Catechism, these words are “like kindling that feeds the fire of love.” (2717) Like meditation, contemplative prayer can include thinking—but our meditative focus is not upon truths or texts or experiences but rather “our attention is fixed on the Lord himself.” (2709) And contemplative prayer can be that prayer that we can “pray without ceasing,” as St. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians (1 Thess 5:17). The Catechism tells us: “One cannot always meditate, but one can always enter into inner prayer, independently of the conditions of health, work, or emotional state.” (2710)

And so here it is that we satisfy perhaps most of all the thirst of God for us and our thirst for God. Here we let our masks fall and turn our hearts back to the Lord who loves us, so as to hand ourselves over to him as an offering to be purified and transformed. (2711) Here we approach him like the beloved child of God that we are, like the forgiven sinner that we are, who have been forgiven much and so love much. (2712)

And in all this we seek the help of our Blessed Mother, the Virgin Mary. She who is the daughter of the Father and the mother of the Son, and who was uniquely overshadowed by the power of the Holy Spirit—she can gently guide us into relationship with the Triune God, and even tell us the words we should say to him. May our prayer be one with hers—completely trusting, completely open, completely united with our Lord. With her help, may a richer, deeper prayer be among the fruits of this Lent.

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