The Catholic Faith in Slow Motion (no. 34)
Pillars of Catholic Penitential Practice: Prayer
Fasting, almsgiving, and prayer: I do not know who first called them the “pillars of Lent”, but it is an apt image. These disciplines stand together in supporting the spiritual life—contracting the boundaries of our consumption, expanding the boundaries of our generosity, and enlarging our capacity for intimacy with God. It is Jesus himself who binds them together: “when you fast.... when you pray.... when you give alms...” (see Matt 6:1ff). In Lent, we consider these disciplines in their penitential nature. Last week we reflected on fasting; here we consider prayer.
Saying 'Yes' to Prayer . . .
Every “yes” implicitly requires a “no”. What must we refuse in order to enter more deeply into the discipline of prayer? More prayer means less what? — t.v., computer games, the gym, work, socializing, drinking or eating or sleeping too much? Each of us must decide. A great spiritual guide once said that many Christians do not progress in prayer simply because they are too comfortable, but of course we can do something about that. “What will I give up for Lent so that I may pray more faithfully?” The “no” is for the sake of the “yes”.
Saying our Prayers . . .
Prayer is an act. As the Nike commercial used to say, “Just do it!” For most of us prayer begins with a plan for “saying our prayers”. For this we need a simple printed or memorized order of prayers. It will, of course, include the Our Father, the Hail Mary, along with morning and evening prayers. For many, the rosary is the most fruitful routine. Surely the routine should include a passage of Holy Scripture. And God always welcomes our own words, and our needy silences when there are no words. We should not expect great emotional benefit from what is essentially a simple act of obedience. We do not have to feel holy. The act itself is an offering to God that will bear fruit in our lives. The urgent thing is to keep the discipline. For this simple act of faithfulness can open the way to a great grace.
Holy Intimacy . . .
“When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt. 6:6). Saying our prayers routinely, faithfully, over time—and perhaps just when we are most bored with the routine and discouraged with the dryness of our hearts—we are quietly rewarded. The words of the Our Father grow heavy with intimacy. In and through and with the words of the set prayer, we now recognize the Other in the room. The recitation has become a conversation. The secret is now revealed. Our Father in heaven who is “in secret” is with us.
“And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” This is the promise of Christ himself. But what is this reward the Father gives? Perhaps it is the exact reward you have been praying for, exactly what you desired, the temporal help you needed. Our Father does not despise giving simply gifts. He too seeks our earthly well-being. He can, of course, dispense his blessings from on high (for is he not the source of every good?). But what he most wants for us—as our prayers will teach us—is the gift of his nearness. The gift God desires most to give us is God. And it is in this secret intimacy of prayer that he reveals to us his Son, who is the Gift of our salvation. So now, that secret “room” of prayer is the anticipation of heaven itself.
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