Monday, October 6, 2008

A Life of Prayer

Prayer, the lifting of the mind and heart to God, plays an essential role in the life of a devout Catholic. Through prayer we enter into the presence of the Godhead dwelling in us. It is prayer that allows us to adore God by acknowledging his almighty power and presence; it is prayer that allows us to bring our thanks, petitions, and sorrow for sin before our Lord and our God.

Although prayer is not a practice unique to Catholics, those prayers that are called “Catholic” are generally formulaic in nature. This is not to say that the Catholic Church discourages extemporaneous prayer. No. It is encouraged. It is to say though that the Church does set before us how we ought to pray and we are wise to listen to the instruction given us.

"Drawing from the words of Christ, the writings of Scripture and the saints, and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, it (the Church) supplies us with prayers that are grounded in Christian tradition. Further, our informal, spontaneous prayers, both vocal and meditative, are informed and shaped by those prayers taught by the Church, prayers that are the wellspring for the prayer life of all Catholics. Without the Holy Spirit speaking through the Church and the saints, we would not know how to pray as we ought.”[1]

“Prayer cannot be reduced to the spontaneous outpouring of interior impulse; in order to pray, one must have the will to pray. Nor is it enough to know what the Scriptures reveal about prayer: one must also learn how to pray. Through a living transmission (Sacred Tradition) within ‘the believing and praying Church,’ the Holy Spirit teaches the children of God how to pray.[2]

One of the key elements of the Sunday worship service in the little Calvinistic Bible church that I grew up in was the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. We did it every Sunday as congregational participation at the conclusion of the pastoral prayer offered by the pastor. Other than the little bedtime prayer my mother taught me, it was the only formal prayer that I was taught as a child and I must admit that eight years ago, after decades of years removed from that childhood church setting, I’m ashamed to say that I had to re-commit it to memory. None of my adult non-liturgical Christian experience incorporated formulaic prayers, not even the Lord’s Prayer.

Finally, after all these years, discovering directed, formulaic prayer is like finally discovering the way it feels to have my lungs filled with fresh, country air after a lifetime of breathing stagnant, city smog. I no longer have to feel some sort of inspiration to pray. I no longer have to gasp around trying to find the right words to pray. Prayer, with the tools given by the Church, is now as natural and easy as breathing fresh air, air that is filled with the fragrance and blessing of God.

I say this after a lifetime of relying solely upon extemporaneous prayer, prayer that was more often than not emotionally generated, prayer that was all to often selfishly motivated, prayer that was at times intended to change God’s mind or move him to alter circumstances that he had no role in creating. Much of my former prayer life was the “spare tire” kind of praying. Too often God only heard my voice when life became a blow out and I was sitting on the side of the road of life in the proverbial ditch. I also say this as a man that spent a significant part of my life as a Protestant pastor and was engaged in various types of ministry.

A life of prayer is a calling that every believer in Christ shares in common. It is a universal vocation whether we personally say yes to it or not. How else can we describe the Apostle Paul’s counsel to “pray without ceasing?”[3] These words are not written particularly to men and women called to a separated religious life in monasteries, convents, or as parish priests. They are written to the Church, to every believer.

[1] The Essential Catholic Survival Guide, p. 518
[2] CCC, #2650
[3] 1 Thessalonians 5:17