Grateful Remembrance: Taking Memorized Prayer to Heart
by Hosffman Ospino, PhD
Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Education
Boston College - School of Theology and Ministry
Catholics are heirs to an incredible treasure of teachings, formulas, practices, and rituals, the ultimate goal of which is to bring us closer to God in prayer. For two millennia, the Church has been discerning the contents of this treasure with the help of the Holy Spirit, who "guides the Church at prayer through her reading of Scripture, her celebration of liturgy, and the practice of faith, hope, and love" (United States Catholic Catechism for Adults [USCCA], 469). We pray as the Church and with the Church. Prayer is a profoundly ecclesial experience.
A wealth of resources and expressions to assist us in our prayer lives is available to Catholics; still, it is not unusual for many among us to struggle when praying. Some of us may have simply not developed the habit of prayer. That is, we may have never developed the discipline of engaging in intentional moments of prayer as part of our daily routines. There are plenty of excuses to postpone our prayer lives: work, school, children, social life, taking care of others, volunteer time, etc. A common mantra in our culture is, "I am too busy." Ironically, those things that make us "too busy" are the very ground of prayer! It is because of what we do in our jobs that we should pray that God's reign will become a reality in our midst. It is because we are raising children that we must pray in thanksgiving for the opportunity to witness the miracle of a person growing into fullness. We should certainly pray for wisdom to be true models of Christian life for our children. It is because we are called to serve others that we should pray that our services may be a way for those we encounter to truly experience God's merciful love.
But perhaps the most common challenge we Catholics voice regarding our prayer lives is that we seem to lack the words to pray, which is ironic because we have plenty of these in our Catholic repertoire! Even when we repeat childhood prayers, they can say little to us. Religious rituals and practices are often perceived as repetitive and uninteresting. Sometimes, we fail to understand the exact meaning of images, symbols, formulas, and stories drawn from the Scripture and Tradition. How can we, therefore, pray with them?
A first step to address this common reality is to humbly make ours the words of the Apostles to Jesus: "Lord, teach us to pray" (Lk 11:1). Jesus responded to his friends, "When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread and forgive us our sins for we ourselves forgive everyone in debt to us, and do not subject us to the final test" (Lk 11:2-4).
There is so much to learn from this extraordinary moment! It is very likely that we have said the Lord's Prayer a myriad of times. Nearly all of us learned it through rote memorization. We tend to repeat it rather mechanically during Mass or when we pray the holy Rosary. Because it is a prayer that we have "memorized," we normally take its words for granted. We rush through it while our minds perhaps wander around somewhere on the corners of our imaginations. But in the middle of the haste and the distractions, we miss a lot. We miss the opportunity to actually pray.
This passage from the Gospel of Luke tells us that prayer always begins with a relationship. The first word Jesus says is "Father." Yes, God is the center of our prayer life. "In the longstanding tradition of the Church, prayer is centered upon God" (USCCA, 477). In the Our Father, we learn something about the depths of the mystery of God and how we relate to that mystery. "In the Our Father, the object of the first three petitions is the glory of the Father . . . The four others present our wants to him" (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC], no. 2857). As the heart delves into the depths of the mystery revealed, a unique sense of gratefulness consumes the believer.
Throughout history, many Christians have turned to the Our Father for inspiration about prayer and the spiritual life. Half of the fourth part of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is dedicated to the Lord's Prayer. In every era of the history of the Church, some of the most powerful spiritual writings have been inspired by this wonderful prayer. St. Augustine observed that the entire teaching of the Scriptures on prayer seems to be contained in the Our Father. "Run through all the words of holy prayers [in Scripture], and I do not think you will find anything in them that is not contained in the Lord's Prayer" (USCCA, 483). He wrote seven commentaries on the Our Father!
Rote memorization is only a first step in the cultivation of our prayer life: a basic step, but a very important one. The use of memory "forms a constitutive aspect of the pedagogy of the faith since the beginning of Christianity" (General Directory for Catechesis, no. 154). Without memorizing the words of a prayer, or certain passages from the Scripture, or the meaning of a doctrinal conviction, Catholics are left without necessary reference points for delving into the depths of the faith. This is one way in which catechetical moments in our communities, including the sharing of the faith that takes place in the family, can be at the service of prayer. It is difficult to imagine a dynamic life of prayer and Christian commitment blossoming in the "desert places of a memoryless catechesis" (Catechesi Tradendae, no. 55). We need to help each other to memorize the "principal formulations of the faith; basic prayers; key biblical themes, personalities, and expressions; and factual information regarding worship and Christian life" (National Directory for Catechesis, no. 19F).
Yet, rote memorization alone is not enough to inspire prayer and commitment. What we learn by memory must also be written upon our hearts. In other words, the prayers, formulas, doctrines, and texts that we confide to memory must touch every fiber of our beings. "In the biblical or Semitic mind, the heart is beyond the grasp of reason and deeper than our psychic drives. It is the very center of our selves, the mysterious place where we make our fundamental decisions. It is the ground of encounter with God" (USCCA, 491). Our most transforming encounters with the God of Revelation through prayer happen at the level of the heart. In fact, "it is the heart that prays. If our heart is far from God, the words of prayer are in vain" (CCC, no. 2562). Such encounters are possible because the Holy Spirit, who inhabits our hearts, allows us to call God "Abba, Father" (Rom 8:15), and Jesus Christ "the Lord" (1 Cor 12:3).
We believe in order to pray and pray in order to believe (cf. USCCA, 491). The conviction that what we pray and what we believe is to be written on the heart is profoundly biblical. The most powerful proclamation of faith in the book of Deuteronomy would not be possible if it did not come from the heart. "Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone! Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with your whole heart, and with your whole being, and with your whole strength. Take to heart these words which I command you today" (Dt 6:4-6). The spirit of such relationship between humanity and the one God is echoed in many ways throughout Scripture. God's covenant with the people of Israel is neither trivial nor optional. It is permanent, because it has been written on the heart. "But this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days—oracle of the LORD. I will place my law within them, and write it upon their hearts; I will be their God, and they shall be my people" (Jer 31:33). Fidelity is only possible when God's commandments are truly imprinted on our hearts. "Keep my commands and live, and my teaching as the apple of your eye. Bind them on your fingers, write them on the tablet of your heart" (Prv 7:2-3).
There is a unique relationship between the truthfulness of what we believe and our prayer lives. Just as with the example of the Our Father, we embrace all that we know about God as true in light of the relationship of loving trust to which we have been invited, particularly through Jesus Christ. Therefore, we pray. Through prayer we enter into the vast depths of the divine mystery, guided by the Spirit. Therefore, we believe.
Praying from the heart does not dismiss the value of memory, even when it is rote: quite the contrary. It takes what we initially entrusted to memorization, from the basics of the faith to sophisticated theological reflections, and turns it into what Pope Francis calls a "grateful remembrance" (Evangelii Gaudium [EG], no.13) The believer is "one who remembers" (EG no. 13); to be more exact, one who remembers gratefully. The heart is moved in thanksgiving for God's Revelation; for being able to partake of the gift of truth amidst our limitations; for the people who shared the faith with us; for God's Word, the Sacraments, and the Church; for the world as a whole, as the context in which we encounter the divine every day. The joy of evangelizing is rooted in and fueled by grateful remembrance (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, no. 13).
If prayer is intimately related to the core convictions of our Catholic faith and how we remember those convictions, we are invited today to pray from the heart as grateful disciples of Jesus Christ.
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Excerpts from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, second edition, copyright © 2000, Libreria Editrice Vaticana–United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, D.C. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture excerpts used in this work are taken from the New American Bible, rev. ed.© 2010, 1991, 1986, 1970 Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. All rights reserved. No part of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the copyright owner.
Excerpts from the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, copyright © 2006, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, D.C. (USCCB); National Directory for Catechesis, copyright © 2005, USCCB. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
Excerpts from General Directory for Catechesis, copyright © 1982, Libreria Editrice Vaticana, Vatican City (LEV); Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, copyright © 2013, LEV; Pope John Paul II, Catechesi Tradendae, copyright © 1993, LEV. Used with permission. All rights reserved.