Life Illumined

To Priests – on Prayer

At the invitation of the Patriarch of Lisbon, I gave the following talk by video link to the clergy of the patriarchate on 23 January. You can find the video here. You can find the text in Portuguese here

Senhor Patriarca, 
Your Eminences and Excellencies, 
Dear Fathers,

You have asked me three questions: What distinguishes Christian spirituality from other spiritualities? What is the specifically Catholic component of spirituality? What is the role of prayer in the life of priests and lay people? I have half an hour at disposal. I have to make choices! I will address the first two questions briefly, referring you to sources that are in any case well known to you. That will allow me to focus on the question of prayer, specifically on the prayer of priests. It is a topic of immense, decisive importance, though often, such is my impression, a neglected one. 

On Friday of the first week of Ordinary Time, just after Christmas, the Church gives us in the Office of Readings a passage from Athanasius’s Oratio contra gentes. This text is normally dated to his first exile, spent in Northern Germany, in Trier. Athanasius was ousted from his see of Alexandria after seven years as bishop. His defence of Catholic doctrine about the nature of Jesus Christ as defined at Nicaea, as true God and true man, ‘God from God, Light from Light’, had become unpalatable to many of his brother bishops, seduced by Arian doctrine. They had Athanasius packed off as far away as possible, probably hoping he would never return home. We need to remember this context to seize the full impact of his words. 

Athanasius’s concern is to expound the beginning of the prologue to the Fourth Gospel in which, he writes, ‘John the theologian teaches that nothing exists or remains in being except in and through the Word’. Athanasius goes on:

Think of a musician tuning his lyre. By his skill he adjusts high notes to low and intermediate notes to the rest, and produces a series of harmonies. So too the wisdom of God holds the world like a lyre and joins things in the air to those on earth, and things in heaven to those in the air, and brings each part into harmony with the whole. By his decree and will he regulates them all to produce the beauty and harmony of a single, well-ordered universe. While remaining unchanged with his Father, he moves all creation by his unchanging nature, according to the Father’s will. To everything he gives existence and life in accordance with its nature, and so creates a wonderful and truly divine harmony. 

We know how Augustine loved music, how the chants of the duomo of Milan pierced his soul. This passage shows that Athanasius, too, was sensitive to music. He likens Christ, the Father’s Word, to the concert pitch by which an orchestra’s instruments are tuned. Christ, through whom and for whom all things were made, is the one principle by which creation reveals its coherence. This applies to the macrocosm of the still expanding universe; it applies no less to the microcosm of our lives. Only by conducting our lives in Christ, abiding in him, obeying his commandments, sure of the redemptive power of his cross and resurrection, do we find wholeness and freedom. Athanasius’s Contra gentes is Part One of a two-volume work. The work’s Part Two is the treatise De incarnatione. In this latter text, Athanasius stresses the existential impact of the Word’s incarnation. Nicene orthodoxy is not a matter of theological abstraction; it regards our self-understanding and sense of purpose. The fact that God became man bestows on human nature a sublime potential. The Word, says Athanasius, ‘became human that we might become divine’. By his divine power we are enabled to become, even in this present life, ‘participants in divine nature’, as St Peter says in his Second Letter (1.4).

Christian spirituality is spirituality that takes this perspective for granted. Spirituality that does not is not integrally Christian. 

You may object: But is not ‘spirituality’ basically a matter of life in the Spirit? It is of course. But the Spirit is the Spirit of Christ. It is absurd and irresponsible to drive a wedge between the two. In this respect there is a paragraph worth pondering  in the helpful declaration Dominus Iesus. ‘There are those’, we are told, 

who propose the hypothesis of an economy of the Holy Spirit with a more universal breadth than that of the Incarnate Word, crucified and risen. This position […] is contrary to the Catholic faith, which, on the contrary, considers the salvific incarnation of the Word as a trinitarian event. In the New Testament, the mystery of Jesus, the Incarnate Word, constitutes the place of the Holy Spirit’s presence as well as the principle of the Spirit’s effusion on humanity, not only in messianic times, but also prior to his coming in history (DI, 12).  

This remains axiomatic, and usefully enables us to pinpoint the Catholic specificity of spirituality. The adjective ‘catholic’ reaches us through Latin from Greek, where we find it as an adverb, kath’holon, meaning ‘according to the whole’. Aristotle contrasted what is kath’holon with what is kath’hekaston, ‘pertaining to specifics’. It is ‘catholic’ to contain a sum of particulars and to form them into an elegant whole. Catholic spirituality is spirituality that unfolds within the integrity of the Church’s faith, in which each part is attuned to the pitch that harmonises the whole. To be nurtured by Catholic spirituality is to believe with the Church’s faith, to resist the seduction of subjective charms that reduce or water down faith’s ‘mystery’ (cf. 1 Cor 15.51ff.). It is to remain always, squarely and determinedly, in medio Ecclesiae. 

Do these theological truths have a bearing on day-to-day Christian life and prayer? Of course they do. Spirituality is the application of doctrine. It is about the Spirit’s fashioning Christ in us. To pray well we must believe rightly. We must know in whom we have put our trust (2 Tim 1.12). Else, how could we abandon ourselves into God’s hands? Prayer is enlightened self-surrender. When the disciples asked the Lord, ‘Teach us how to pray’, he taught them how to live (Mt 6.9-13).

As priests, we are consecrated men. We have made of our lives a gift, vowing to keep giving it until death. To be a priest is not just to be trained for certain functions. To be a priest is to live an out-poured life. The essence of that life is prayer. Prayer is not an activity alongside other activities. Prayer is the atmosphere in which we subsist. Prayer is that tending towards God, that determined receptivity to grace, which should qualify our every moment, even when we sleep.

To live in this way, we must learn to trust God. Do we? Doubt insinuates itself. Even if we do not doubt God’s existence, we may at times doubt his goodness. We yield to the serpent’s temptation, and think that God is like us: scheming and unreliable. As a result we stockpile comforts and securities. We make provisions, just in case, transferring the focus of our trust from God to us. And prayer dries up. 

Jesus told his disciples, ‘Not everyone who says to me “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven’ (Matthew 7.21). He also said, ‘the kingdom of heaven is within you’ (Luke 17.21). Can I fail to enter a reality I carry within me? Yes. This particular reality is greater than I. To gain entrance, I must recognise my littleness. I must acknowledge who is King. That is tantamount to learning to pray. 

It is well to ask: Do I live my consecration in such a way that I can say, with regard to each aspect of my life, ‘Jesus is Lord’? Do I affirm Christ’s lordship over my instincts and appetites? Or do I keep pockets sewn up for private use, indulging desires, dreams and imaginings I have formally renounced? Is Jesus Lord over my passions? Or do I sub-let certain areas to myself, breathing on embers of resentment, enjoying the bitter draught of anger? Is Christ Lord of my past and my future? Or do I hug achievements, experiences, pleasures and hurts of distant years, while making plans for a tomorrow not my own? By examining ourselves in such terms we shall find whether our prayer is real or just the clanging of a gong (cf. 1 Cor 13.1).

It is important to pursue this questioning honestly yet serenely. It is not a matter of beating ourselves up. Each ungiven thing I find within (or without, if it is a material object or possession) gives me the chance to reenact my priestly gift of self. That is a graced, joyful opportunity. In a recent book, the philosopher Zena Hitz writes about distractions in prayer: ‘Our distractions’, she submits, ‘are incursions of our real desires.’ I may recite devout phrases endlessly, but if my thoughts are on the position I craved but did not obtain, on a humiliation I have suffered, or on a sensual fantasy, my heart is not in my prayer. As the saying goes, Si cor non orat, lingua in vanum laborat: ‘If the heart does not pray, the tongue works in vain’. It is worth attending to our distractions, not to feed them, but to follow their trail to where our heart and so our treasure is, to make of it cheerfully a gift to the Lord (cf. 2 Cor 9.7).

I have so far spoken of prayer in terms of priestly consecration. Simplex fac cor meum, we pray with the words of Psalm 86: ‘Grant me, Lord, an undivided heart’. Only such a heart finds freedom and, ultimately, joy. The biblical idea of consecration is associated with that of the whole burnt offering. One does not give mere leftovers to the Lord of Hosts. Remember the sinister example of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5). I now wish to consider four more particular aspects of prayer.

1. Vocal prayer. As priests we are obliged to pray the Divine Office. We are conscious of this as a duty. Do we see what a privilege it is? To my mind, the most deeply probing part of Sacrosanctum Concilium is the introduction to the chapter on the Divine Office: ‘Christ Jesus, high priest of the new and eternal covenant, taking human nature, introduced into this earthly exile that hymn which is sung throughout all ages in the halls of heaven. He joins the entire community of mankind to Himself, associating it with His own singing of this canticle of divine praise. For he continues His priestly work through the agency of His Church, which is ceaselessly engaged in praising the Lord and interceding for the salvation of the whole world.’ The breviary structures our spiritual lives. It provides lectio divina. But that is not all. It introduces us into an objective act of praise, reminding us that God is adorable, infinitely glorious. Part of priestly ministry is gratuitous worship of God in anticipation of eternity, when our being will become praise. Seen in this light, our vocal prayer acquires an eschatological dimension. It incorporates us as far as our earthly existence allows into the dynamics of the Blessed Trinity. The Son of God would let his timeless song of praise resound on earth through us. May it never be silenced. 

2. Eucharistic Prayer. ‘The Eucharist is the source and summit of the Christian life’ (CCC 1324). A priest is ordained to be the agent of this mystery, though not as a professional trained to perform an extrinsic function, like a baker making bread. The priest does not simply execute the sacred mysteries; he is caught up in them, mysteriously drawn into the sacrifice. The rite of ordination concludes with the bishop’s exhortation: ‘Understand what you do, imitate what you celebrate, and conform your life to the mystery of the Lord’s cross’. These are not vain words. Ordained to be and act in persona Christi, simultaneously Priest and Victim, we are called not just to stand at the altar; in union with Christ, we are summoned to offer ourselves on it — not through an inflated sense of our importance or worth; on the contrary, we are drawn into Christ’s kenosis. The English travel writer Patrick Leigh-Fermor wrote a little book, A Time to Keep Silence, in 1957. It describes visits to three monasteries. One was La Grande Trappe. Staying in a guesthouse intended for priests, he found a piece of paper pinned to the wall in his room. It enumerated a list of priestly attributes. The last sentence read: Le prêtre est un homme mangé, ‘The priest is a devoured man’. I read Leigh-Fermor’s book first in my early twenties. The phrase stuck with me, at once terrifying and attractive. With the passage of time I have come to understand, perhaps, what it means. It speaks to me of the imperative of becoming Eucharist, food for others, a mindset which presupposes that radical living ‘in Christ’ we looked at above. For it is Christ who nurtures, not I. I am just like the host, tasteless in itself, void of nutrients, a humble element in the hands of the one great High Priest. Only he can make something out of nothing. A traditional priestly prayer goes, O bone Iesu, fac ut sim sacerdos secundum Cor tuum, ‘Good Jesus, make me a priest after your own Heart’. His Sacred Heart, let us not forget, remains pierced until the end of history.

3. Pastoral prayer. Much is said these days about pastoral ministry. At times one has the impression that the pastoral has eclipsed the sacrificial dimension of priesthood. It is a distinction, though, that makes no sense. ‘The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’ (John 10.11). That mandate is ageless. It is delicate to talk about this dimension of our prayer. We have seen the disastrous effect of priests’ excessive involvement in the lives of those who come to them for direction and help. Boundaries must be maintained. At the same time a powerful bond comes about. It cannot be otherwise: Christ’s grace, dispensed through his priests, is personal. It is all the more crucial for the pastor to be soaked in prayer. Archimandrite Sophrony Sakharov, the biographer of St Silouan, has written: ‘A spiritual father’s work will be fruitless unless it is fired by ardent prayer from the heart, unless he ceaselessly implores God to grant his word and blessing. Without constant illumination from above, the Church would become one of those half-blind agencies at work in the world, poisoning earthly life with their conflicts.’ Only illumined by prayer can we bear others’ burdens (cf. Gal 6.2) without being crushed by them and without entertaining illusions about our own virtue and strength. To be a pastor is to carry, sometimes in disconcertingly palpable ways. This presupposes that we ourselves our borne, consciously resting in the ‘everlasting arms’ (Dt 33.27). 

4. Intercessory Prayer. We have already touched on intercession in various ways. I would like to approach it now from a particular angle. Shortly before I made my profession as a monk, I received a card from an acquaintance. Enclosed was a photo of a fresco from the crypt of the abbey of Chevetogne. It showed a monk on a cross, bearing the legend, ὁ μοναχὸς ἐσταυρωμένος, ‘the crucified monk’. The image disconcerted me, to put it mildly. Only later did I see the explanation written in biro on the back: ‘This is an image of one so completely configured to Christ that he no longer contemplates the Lord on the Cross, but sees the world through the eyes of Christ crucified.’ I was dumbstruck. It was a perspective I had never considered, but I could see it was evidently true. It dawned on me what it means when St John says, ‘Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end’ (13.1). Only one who prays profoundly can see and love the world like that with eyes wide open, given the ghastliness and cruelty abroad amid broad patches of loveliness. Prayer of this kind has intrinsic efficacy. It enables an engagement with the world that is at once free of illusions and fuelled by hope. Such engagement is greatly needed. 

On account of the composition of your assembly, I have spoken of priestly prayer. It goes without saying, though, that a universal application could be drawn from each point I have made. What matters is to believe in the efficacious reality of God’s love for us, then to resolve to let it act freely, come what may. This is the essence of prayer. 

To really pray we must drop our defences and lay ourselves open. That may generate anxiety at first, but ultimately leads to assurance as we realise that God does save. Let me cite a teacher of prayer whose authority exceeds mine, Dom André Poisson, Minister General of the Carthusian Order for 22 years from 1967. In an exquisite brief treatise called The Prayer of the Heart published in 2001, he wrote: 

When, with our hearts, we begin really to believe in the Father’s infinite love, we are somehow impelled to descend ever further into a positive and joyful acceptance of dispossession, unknowing, and powerlessness. In this, there is no unhealthy self-abasement. We are simply crossing the threshold into the world of love and trust. Almost without noticing, we enter into communion with divine life. The relations of Father, Son, and Spirit are, at a level far beyond our understanding, a perfect form of weakness fully assumed in communion.

Permit me to end with a prayer from the 1519 Missale Nidrosiense, appointed by the then archbishop of Nidaros, medieval Trondheim, for recitation by all priests of his vast territory before every celebration of Mass. It is a text that moves me deeply. It speaks of the breaking open of hearts of stone, of drawing water from the rock, of entering into the reality of Christ’s compassion, which gently enables those who sow in tears to reap with joy (Psalm 126.5). This is the prayer:

Grant me, Lord, inward tears with strength to cleanse the stains of my sins and fill my soul with heavenly gladness always. I pray you, Jesus, by your own most kind tears: grant me the grace of tears which, apart from your gift, is beyond me. Grant me a fountain of tears that will not dry up, that my tears may be my bread by day and by night. Prepare this table for your servant in your sight that it may strengthen me. I desire to eat my fill of it daily.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.  

Thank you. 

The photograph comes from the site of the Communauté Saint Martin, illustrating an article on this same topic