Learning to pray

Published May 12, 2004

The Catholic Difference

The readings from Acts that we hear between Easter and Pentecost remind us that the early Church was a school of prayer. Jesus is taken up into heaven; the disciples, Mary, and the other holy women go back to the Cenacle to pray. A successor to Judas must be chosen; the first Christians pray. Peter and John are constantly in the Temple, praying.

Looking through the well-stocked “spirituality” section in your local bookstore, you may think that Americans are doing the same; in today’s jargon, there seem to be a lot of “searchers” out there. Catholic faith, exemplified in this season’s readings from Acts, teaches us something different about searching, however. Catholic faith teaches us that the spiritual life is not our search for God, but God’s search for us – and our learning to take the same path through history that God does. Our prayer must somehow reflect that truth.

The Catechism teaches that prayer is God’s gift to us. As Paul wrote to the Romans, “We do not know how to pray as we ought;” rather, the Holy Spirit prays within us (Romans 8.26). The Catechism then illustrates this truth through the story of Jesus’s encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well in John 4. The woman is surprised that Jesus, a Jew, would ask a Samaritan (whom Jews considered heretics) for a drink. Jesus’s request shows us the surprising nature of prayer. As the Catechism puts it, “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 for a drink. He thirsts; his thirst 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 him.”

The 17th century Carmelite mystic and author, Brother Lawrence, proposed another useful way to think about prayer: prayer, he taught, is “practicing the presence of God.” In our prayer, we respond to God’s thirst for us by opening our minds and hearts to God, thereby entering God’s sanctifying presence. In the Catholic tradition, active prayer – “saying our prayers,” as we often call it – is just the beginning of prayer. The highest form of personal prayer is contemplative prayer, prayer in silence, prayer as a way of “practicing the presence.” This form of prayer is not for gifted mystics only; it’s a way of praying that’s open to all Christians, if we take the time to clear out space for God in our daily lives.

Most Catholics don’t imagine themselves as contemplatives, I suspect. But those Catholics who have discovered or rediscovered Eucharistic adoration in recent years are in fact practicing a venerable form of contemplative prayer. Its beauty and simplicity are captured in a story about St. John Vianney. The famous Curé of Ars noticed that an elderly peasant in his parish spent hours before the Blessed Sacrament. One day, unable to restrain his curiosity, John Vianney came up to the old man as he was leaving church after a lengthy spell in front of the tabernacle. “What are you doing?” he asked his parishioner. “I look at Him, and He looks at me,” came the reply. And that, I think, is the essence of contemplative prayer. It’s available to us all.

“Practicing the presence” isn’t limited to perpetual adoration chapels, of course. As a young priest visiting Paris for the first time, Father Karol Wojtyla surprised his traveling companion, a seminarian, by saying that the Metro, the Paris subway, was “a superb place for contemplation.” Fifteen centuries earlier, the great theologian-bishop, Ambrose of Milan, reflected on Jesus’s command to “go to your room and pray” [Matthew 6.6] in these words: “…by ‘room,’ you must understand, not a room enclosed by walls that imprison your body, but the room that is within you, the room where you hide your thoughts, where you keep your affections. This room of prayer is always with you, wherever you are, and it is always a secret room, where only God can see you.”

God thirsts for us always. We can meet God in prayer anywhere.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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