Catechism : Prayer

41. What is Prayer? (n. 2558-2565)

In Part Four we come to the final and culminating section of the Catechism. Section One deals with ‘Prayer in the Christian Life’ and begins by asking ‘What is Prayer?’ This is the topic of this chapter. The opening paragraph (n. 2558) reads:

‘"Great is the mystery of the faith!"

The Church professes this mystery in the Apostles’ Creed (Part One)

and celebrates it in the sacramental liturgy (Part Two),

so that the life of the faithful may be conformed to Christ in the Holy Spirit to the glory of God the Father (Part Three).

This mystery, then, requires that the faithful believe in it, that they celebrate it, and that they live from it in a vital and personal relationship with the living and true God. This relationship is prayer.’

The Catechism goes on to quote from Saint Therese of Lisieux:

‘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.’(Story of a Soul. Manuscript C, 25).

We might add the following from Saint Teresa of Avila:

‘Prayer is a close sharing between friends; it is taking time to be alone with the One we know loves us (Life 8,5. see n. 2709).

‘Look at Him. He never takes his eyes off you’(Way of Perfection 26.3).

John of the Cross reminds us:

‘The language which God hears best is silent love’(Maxims on Love 53).

Christian Prayer

The prayer we are offered is the prayer that Jesus experienced with his Father. I quote here from my ‘Yielding to Love: learning to follow our yearning for deeper communion with God’(St Pauls Publications 2005, 29-30):

‘Different religious cultures look to different people for their inspiration. In speaking of prayer here, I am reflecting on the communion with God which I and others have experienced, inspired by what Jesus revealed about God as being a God of love. His revelation brought healing and meaning to many in the first century world and, when lived by holy men and women, it has continued to bring healing and meaning to people of all cultures ever since.

We must not allow ourselves to be put off by those who claim to know God but whose lives betray a distorted pursuing of power or a rejection of others whose search seems to take them along a different route. If we are going to be turned off by charlatans or by the discovery of our own failures we will never pursue anything. Let us rather be inspired by people whose lives are judged beautiful by any human standards and let us join them in undertaking this most important of quests.

We would be foolish to overlook the sheer beauty with which the human race has been enriched by those who have allowed themselves to be caught up in the quest for the divine, and who have expressed their communion with God in art of all kinds, especially in the art of loving. Every experience of love is a limited communion with God. Every experience of love, therefore, is a sacred encounter. The experience of being awake and attentive to this communion is the experience we call prayer. Since God is love, we can expect prayer to engage us in a love-communion.

In 1934, in an article entitled The Evolution of Chastity, Teilhard de Chardin expressed the following hope: ‘Some day, after harnessing space, the winds, the tides and gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And then, for the second time in the history of the world, we shall have discovered fire’. We cannot hope to harness these energies if we are not in communion with God. Prayer is not an optional extra. It is the breathing of our soul, more essential to human living than the action of our lungs. It is in prayer that we will experience the most satisfying of loves, in which the Heart of all reality speaks to our heart. It is in prayer that we yield to love. It is in prayer that we learn to follow our yearning for deeper communion with God.’

 The Catechism speaks of ‘Christian Prayer’. In Jesus the outer ‘Word’ and the inner ‘Spirit’ are in perfect harmony. In him we see God’s love revealed in a human heart and a human life. In offering us his Spirit, Jesus is offering us himself, and so a share in his own communion with God, his own prayer.

Prayer: a gift from God

Since the initiative in prayer always comes from God, prayer is always a gift to be welcomed with humble attentiveness (see n. 2559). See the following chapters in Yielding to Love

   • Chapter 3 ‘An Obedient Heart’, which reflects on the necessity of truly listening.

   • Chapter 5 ‘A Free Heart’, which reflects on the freedom we need to be truly open to welcome God’s offer of communion.

   • Chapter 6 ‘A Humble Heart’, which reflects on making space for God in our heart.

The Catechism continues:

"If you knew the gift of God!"(John 4:10). The wonder of prayer is revealed beside the well where we come seeking water: there, Christ comes to meet every human being. It is he who first seeks us and asks us for a drink. Jesus thirsts; his asking arises from the depths of God’s desire for us. Whether we realize it or not, prayer is the encounter of God’s thirst with ours. God thirsts that we may thirst for God’(Catechism n. 2560).

‘"You would have asked him, and he would have given you living water"(John 4:10). Paradoxically our prayer of petition is a response to the plea of the living God: "They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewn out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water!"(Jeremiah 2:13). Prayer is the response of faith to the free promise of salvation and also a response of love to the thirst of the only Son of God’(Catechism n. 2561).

Yielding to Love Chapter 11 reflects on ‘A Believing Heart’. Basic to prayer is the belief that God wants to be in communion of love with us, and that Jesus thirsts for this, even more than we do.

Prayer of the Heart

‘It is the heart that prays. If our heart is far from God, the words of prayer are in vain’(Catechism n. 2561).

 The Catechism goes on to give a good definition of what we mean by ‘heart’ in this context:

‘The heart is the dwelling-place where I am, where I live; according to the Semitic or Biblical expression, the heart is the place "to which I withdraw." The heart is our hidden centre, beyond the grasp of our reason and of others; only the Spirit of God can fathom the human heart and know it fully. The heart is the place of decision, deeper than our psychic drives. It is the place of truth, where we choose life or death. It is the place of encounter, because as image of God we live in relation: it is the place of covenant’(Catechism n. 2563).

 

Sharing in Jesus’ Prayer

The icon of the Trinity by the early fifteenth century Russian mystic Rublev is a beautiful statement of prayer.

Rublev

The scene is a Christian reflection on the scene in the Abraham story when Abraham and Sarah are visited by three divine guests. In Rublev’s icon, Jesus is in the centre. He is looking to his Father who is on his right, ever ready to carry out his Father’s will, and always in communion with his Father. The Father is looking towards the Spirit who is on Jesus left. The Spirit, ever ready to carry out the Father’s will is looking at the Eucharistic gifts on the table. The one looking at the icon is invited to join them at the table.

The Catechism concludes its Introduction to Christian Prayer:

‘Prayer is Christian insofar as it is communion with Christ and extends throughout the Church, which is his Body. Its dimensions are those of Christ's love’(n. 2565).

Yielding to Love Chapter 4 reflects on A Loving Heart’, and Chapter 7 ‘The Heart of Jesus’(pages 84-87), reflects on letting Jesus pray in us:

‘Prayer is our response to God’s invitation. God speaks to us a Word of love and engages our longing for communion. God’s Word was spoken long before the Incarnation. There never has been a time when God has not continued to speak to every person and in every culture, and there have always been those who have heard the Word and responded in saintly ways. Because of our human propensity to sin, however, the Word is often not heard or distorted, and so God chose to speak God’s Word in a faultless human way in Jesus. He is God’s focal Word, making sense of, giving perspective to, and perfecting all the many ways in which people of every culture have heard and responded to God’s self-revelation.

Jesus’ disciples looked on Jesus and opened their hearts to his love. They experienced the Spirit of love being poured into their hearts, the Spirit that unites Jesus to the God he calls ‘Abba’. It is this Spirit that brought healing and meaning to them in a way that transcended any of their previous religious experiences, and they found that the same was true for those of the non-Jewish world who opened their hearts to Jesus. In the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, the Second Vatican Council reminds us: ‘All are called to union with Christ, who is the light of the world, from whom we go forth, through whom we live, towards whom our whole life is directed’(Lumen Gentium n.3).

Through Jesus we know God as communion in love: Father-Word-Spirit. Those who experienced Jesus came to a wonderful insight that God is One, not in the isolation of individuality, but in the unity of perfect communion in love. Of course we cannot see God or comprehend God, but this communion, this love which is God, is such that it is revealed to us in Word and Spirit. In Jesus the Word is made flesh. In Jesus the Spirit is experienced without reserve. To believe in Jesus is to share in Jesus’ communion. To believe in Jesus is to be drawn into a communion of love with Jesus and with his Father and with the Spirit, their bond of love. It is this communion that brings salvation from all that holds us bound. It is our Christian belief that the risen Jesus, in eternal communion with his Father, has given us the gift of his Spirit, and, in this way, has made his home in our soul:  ‘If you love me, my Father will love you and we will come to you and make our home in you’(John 15:21).

When we enter into prayer, therefore, we are responding to God’s Word of love, and we are not alone. We are with Jesus. He draws us to himself and takes us to the Father: ‘When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself’(John 12:32). Jesus not only shows us the way to God. He is the way (John 14:6), for it is our communion in love with him that opens us to the Father’s love and draws us into God’s embrace. In Paul’s words, Jesus is the Yes to all God’s promises (2Corinthians 1:20). Jesus reveals God’s faithful love to us by being himself the expression of it. Jesus is the way because he is the perfect human expression of God’s Word and it is only by responding to God’s Word that we can be in communion with God: ‘No one can come to the Father except through me’(John 14:6).

In prayer we are drawn into divine communion by being drawn into Jesus’ own prayer. Jesus responded to God in intimate communion ‘as the only son of a father’(John 1:14). Through communion with Jesus we share his communion with God in the Spirit. We watch Jesus as he leaves the house where he is staying and finds a secluded place where he can be alone in prayer (see Mark 1:35). We watch him weeping over the city (see Luke 19:41). We watch him on the mountain of transfiguration (see Mark 9:2) and on the mountain of agony (see Mark 14:32). We listen to his prayer in the upper room of the last supper (see John 17), and on the cross of Calvary (see Mark 15:34; Luke 23:34-46; John  19:26-30).

It is Jesus’ Spirit who has been poured into our hearts, and it is this Spirit who invites us to be a holy place in which Jesus can continue his prayer. Just as the Christian life is not a matter of living like Jesus so much as allowing Jesus to live again in us, so Christian prayer is not a matter of modelling our prayer on that of Jesus so much as joining our heart to the heart of Jesus and allowing his Spirit to pray to the Father in us. Jesus did not ask us to become another vine, modelled on him. He asked us to be his branches and to remain attached to him.

Through the gift of the Spirit we are invited to pray with Saint Paul: ‘I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me’(Galatians 2:20). This transformation is a gradual process, as Paul tells us: ‘All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit’(2Corinthians 3:18). Jesus reminds his disciples that if they remain attached to him, they will, like branches attached to a vine, bear abundant fruit (John 15:5). We said in the opening chapter that to pray is to make a choice. If we choose to pray in communion with Jesus, one of the most precious fruits of this will be that we will find ourselves sharing in Jesus’ prayer. With Jesus praying in us we are sharing in Jesus’ own intimacy with God. We could adapt Paul’s words: ‘I pray, no longer I, but Christ is praying in me.’ Jesus’ prayer is being answered: ‘Father, may the love with which you have loved me be in them, and I in them’(John 17:26).

Some Basic Principles

In Yielding to Love Chapter 11, I outline some basic principles to be kept in mind when we reflect on prayer:

‘First, it is important not to forget that, since prayer is loving communion with God, and since God is always the one to begin the communion, the best prayer is the prayer which God is offering. Let us gratefully accept and treasure whatever communion God is offering us now, for God knows our present capacity to respond. We need to remember that to turn towards God is already to be in prayer.

Secondly, we must constantly remind ourselves that God is offering us the intimacy of this communion. 

Thirdly, the value or quality of our prayer is measured by the fruit which it produces in our lives: our obedience, our humility and especially our love. Teresa writes: ‘It is in the effects and deeds following afterwards that one discerns the true value of prayer’(Interior Castle IV.2.8).

Fourthly, whatever happens, Teresa tells us: ‘we must not abandon prayer’(Life 8.5). If we do, she offers the only remedy: we must ‘begin again’(Interior Castle II.1.10).

Fifthly, we should not expect the journey to be one of simple progression: ‘There is no stage of prayer so sublime that it is not necessary often to return to the beginning’(Teresa, Life 13.15).

Sixthly, it is important to follow the advice of Teresa and ‘set our eyes on Christ’ (Interior Castle I.2.11). Jesus will journey with us leading us to a deeper knowledge of the true God – a knowledge that comes through love. He will also lead us to a deeper knowledge of our real selves, for in Jesus we see what it means to be made in God’s image and likeness. We see also who we are called to be. Furthermore, we see by comparison how sinful we are. This acts as a warning. It nurtures humility and safeguards us from thinking that any value we have comes from ourselves. It reinforces our longing to gaze on God, the sole source of all good.

Seventhly, if we are serious about prayer we must be resolute in turning away from sin, for it blocks out the light of God and opens our souls to darkness. We will need a resolute will to detach ourselves from whatever is cluttering up our lives and holding us back. This will vary from person to person, and according to each one’s state of life. If we are serious about prayer we must try to live virtuous lives in obedience to God’s will as revealed to us through the ordinary means of God’s providence. We must not be looking for consolations, but learn to embrace the cross. We need to be very careful not to be too self-reliant. This does not mean that we should be overly reliant on others and fail to appreciate the gift of God that we are as well as the gifts that God has given us, but it does require that we keep alert to the truth that all we are and all we have is gift. We are to listen to Jesus reminding us to become like a child in recognising our dependence on God and relying on God’s grace.

Finally, while there is some value in studying prayer ‘from the outside’, we will only truly be helped to the extent that we are praying. Without praying we can learn what God is doing in people’s lives and we can get some idea of the intimate communion to which God is inviting us. However, we can understand what other people tell us about prayer only to the extent that their words shed light on our own personal experience of prayer. Teresa herself tells us this: ‘As much as I desire to speak clearly about these matters of prayer they will be really obscure for one who has not had experience’(Life 10.9).