The Encounter with God in Prayer Today and Throughout the Centuries
by Dianne Traflet
For a few moments on March 13, 2013, the whole world seemed to draw silent. It was unexpected and unforgettable. As we fixed our gaze on our new Holy Father, he, in turn, requested that we redirect our attention to God: "I ask that you would pray to the Lord that he bless me…Let us say in silence this prayer of you over me." Pope Francis humbly bowed to receive the gift of our prayers, and, as if buoyed by our quiet petitions, he stood upright and blessed us. Before wishing us a good night, he asked again, "Pray for me."
Although the Holy Father's request and prayers lasted only briefly, they presented us with enduring images and lessons about the meaning and importance of prayer. These have been articulated in similar ways through the centuries by saints such as Augustine, Benedict of Nursia, Teresa of Avila, Thérèse of Lisieux, Edith Stein, Pope John Paul II, and countless holy men and women who present prayer's panorama--glimpses of the heavenly light they beheld and the expressions of Divine love they encountered. As they put into words the ineffable mystery of Divine intimacy, they, along with Pope Francis, paint a portrait of our loving God who seeks us out and desires our ever-deepening friendship.
The first lesson about prayer that Pope Francis witnessed to that March evening: simplicity. Prayer need not be complicated. Our Lord reminds us: "When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases…." (Mt. 6:7). The anonymous fourteenth century author of The Cloud of Unknowing illustrated this point by giving us an image of a man whose house was burning. From his window, he yelled, "Help!" The circumstances did not call for an eloquent or lengthy speech, but rather, just a single word. And so, it is with prayer. At times, just a word will suffice; at others, a sentence, such as the prayer of the publican: "Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner" (Lk. 18:9-14), or the prayer to the "interior Master of Christian prayer," (CCC, no. 2672) the Holy Spirit: "Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and enkindle in them the fire of your love" (CCC, no. 2671).
Prayer can be so simple that it requires only a look directed to heaven as St. Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897) describes in her autobiography, Story of a Soul, "I say very simply to God what I wish to say, without composing beautiful sentences, and He always understands me. For me, prayer is an aspiration of the heart, it is a simple glance directed to heaven…." St. Thérèse likely would have understood our modern expression, "Out of sight, out of mind," perhaps changing the phrase to "in sight, in mind,"—or even more appropriately, "In sight, in heart." Her simple gaze nourished her heart-to-heart friendship with God. Looking to God, we offer our first step, an indication of our desire to draw closer to Him; and, like Thérèse, we may be assured that God already looks at us with love and "always understands" us, whatever our silent or vocal prayer may be.
The second spiritual lesson from Pope Francis: silence. Prayer requires and creates silence; it stills our restless hearts. In St. Augustine's (354-430) autobiography Confessions of St. Augustine, he praised God for precisely this rest: "Great are You, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is Your power, and of Your wisdom there is no end... for You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You." Keeping our gaze focused on God clears space for Him to reign in the quiet of our hearts, where we can hear and master the language of love spoken to our hearts in the Divine whisper. "Be still," the psalmist tells us, "and know that I am God." (Ps. 46:10) This prayerful focus is what the Peasant of Ars experienced, as he explained to St. John Vianney (1786-1859): "I look at him and he looks at me" (CCC, no. 2715).
Stillness and silence: these are the tools that instill our spiritual lives with authenticity and depth; they are the keys to Divine intimacy. In the first book of Kings, God said:
"Go out and stand on the mountain before the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by." Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence." (1 Kgs. 19)
Such "sheer silence" powerfully breaks through barriers that distract or even block our encounter with God. It transports us to a place where we find ourselves alone with our Creator. It stops us in our tracks where we can sit recollected, as Martha did, at the Lord's feet, listening to him silently (Lk. 10:9-14).
For Pope Francis, silence was a necessary part of the evening of March 13, 2013, but also for the days to come. After he blessed us, he shared his next day's itinerary: "Tomorrow, I want to go to pray to the Madonna, that she may protect all of Rome." He would focus his attention immediately on the Mother of God, an implicit encouragement to all of us to remember and rely on Mary.
The Blessed Mother teaches us quiet, as she "kept all these things in her heart, meditating on them in silence" (cf. Lk. 2:19). She learned to gaze upon the face of her Son long before her physical eyes beheld him and before she cradled him in her arms. According to Pope Saint John Paul II, "The eyes of her heart already turned to him at the Annunciation, when she conceived him by the power of the Holy Spirit. In the months that followed, she began to sense his presence and picture his features" (Rosarium Virginis Mariae (RVM), 10). After nine months, Mary was graced with beholding the face of the Son of God; she shared that miraculous experience with Joseph, and wants to share it with us. As we pray the Rosary and focus on different episodes in Christ's life, we are invited to contemplate the face of the Son of God with His mother. We sit "at the school of Mary and [are] led to contemplate the beauty on the face of Christ and to experience the depths of His love" (RVM, 1). The Rosary, and all true prayer, teaches us that quiet contemplation leads us to the experience of love.
The third lesson the Holy Father presents to us is: humility. Prayer is built on the solid foundation of humility (CCC, no. 2559). This lesson complements the teaching of Christ, the Master of Prayer, who encouraged us: "Learn of me, for I am meek and humble of heart." (Mt. 11:29) The disciples learned this lesson as they followed Christ; and the more they learned, the more they thirsted for the kind of prayer life He had. They who had been journeying and conversing with Love Incarnate pleaded for prayer instructions (Lk. 11:1); it was a request that likely stemmed from their gaze upon the Lord, witnessing His frequent retreats away from the crowds and His fervent conversations with the Father. They wanted what they saw in Christ--an authentic, loving prayer relationship. Christ knew their hearts: they were not only seeking the "how" of prayer, but the "Who." They wanted to be introduced to the One Jesus clearly loves. Answering the request of their hearts, Jesus began with two words of humble introduction: "Our Father." He would not give the disciples merely instructions; he would pray with them, as their brother. He would help them to understand the love of the Father who knows us, loves us, forgives us, tends to our daily needs, and protects us.
Humility reminds us what is important in life; it is not all about us. Humility tells us that our lives are not about "selfies," but about the self in relationship to God. Our spiritual portrait reflects the truth and the beauty of the simple reality: we are not God, but we are made in His image and likeness. We need God. Learning this, we realize, too, that we need one another; we need to pray with one another, and for one another.
The fourth lesson from our Holy Father: the journey of prayer. Before Pope Francis blessed us, he referred to the "journey of the Church that we begin today." It was clear: prayer was to launch, accompany and sustain that journey. "And now," he said, "let us begin the journey…. A journey of brotherhood, of love, of trust between us." The next day would be his mini-retreat, a pilgrimage to Santa Maria Maggiore, a reminder to us all that while we may "pray and work," as St. Benedict (480-547) teaches, we also need to schedule times of prayer apart the whirlwind of our hectic lives.
Even time set aside to read Scripture can begin a prayerful journey, a true interior pilgrim-age, with mind and heart open to transformation. We can be aided in our meditation by the ancient practice of Lectio Divina, as Pope Francis describes in Evangelii Gaudium, The Joy of the Gospel: "There is one particular way of listening to what the Lord wishes to tell us in his word and of letting ourselves be transformed by the Spirit. It is what we call lectio divina. It consists of reading God's word in a moment of prayer and allowing it to enlighten and renew us."
Attentive to the presence of God, our daily work, too, can be prayerful, part of a grand spiritual adventure. Br. Lawrence of the Resurrection, a 17th century monk, taught that mundane tasks can be lifted into the spiritual heights when we practice the presence of God. He explained, "I turn over my little omelet in the frying pan for the love of God. When it is finished, if I have nothing to do, I prostrate myself on the ground and adore my God from whom the grace came to make it. After that, I get back up, more content than a king. When I cannot do anything else, it is enough for me to have picked up a straw from the ground for the love of God."
Accompanied by prayer, the tiniest task and the greatest responsibility unite to adore God who is fully present in all we do, and in the deepest recesses of our hearts. "All we must do," said Br. Lawrence, "is to recognize God's intimate presence within us and speak to Him at every moment, asking Him for His help. In this way we will know His will in doubtful things and we will do well those things that He is clearly asking of us, offering them to Him before doing them and giving Him thanks for having done them once we have finished." Similarly, St. Thérèse explained that our prayer is "a cry of recognition and love, embracing both trial and joy" (CCC, no. 2558).
The fifth spiritual lesson from Pope Francis: prayer as gift. As such, prayer enkindles wonder, gratitude, and lives punctuated by exclamation marks. On that March evening, the Church received the gift of a new Pope. While he asked for the gift of our prayer, he also was giving us a gift, the affirmation that we all are prayers, capable of praying for ourselves and for others, and part of this great moment, indeed, all moments, in the life of the Church.
Our conversations with God often appear as a surprise gift, as they did with the Samaritan woman in the Gospel story. The Catechism reminds us of this conversation: "'If you knew the gift of God!' 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 us for a drink. Jesus thirsts; his asking 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" (CCC, no. 2560). This gift of prayer is one of love given by Love; it precedes our response (CCC, no. 2567). Even the impulse to pray—that surge or "aspiration of the heart," as Thérèse expresses—is God-given, and our response to it, one of grace. Receptive to God's graces, we reach out to the One who loves us, who "thirsts that we may thirst for Him" (CCC, no. 2560).
Before the tomb of his friend, Lazarus, Christ gives us the example of the prayer of gratitude for the Divine gifts and, most notably, the Divine Giver: "Father, I thank you for having heard me." (Jn. 11:42) As the Catechism explains, this prayer:
…implies that the Father always hears his petitions. Jesus immediately adds: "I know that you always hear me," which implies that Jesus, on his part, constantly made such petitions. Jesus' prayer, characterized by thanksgiving, reveals to us how to ask: before the gift is given, Jesus commits himself to the One who in giving gives himself. The Giver is more precious than the gift; he is the "treasure"; in him abides his Son's heart…. (CCC, no. 2604)
The sixth lesson that Pope Francis teaches us: solitude and community. Pray occurs in the solitude of our hearts and in the community of family, friends, and even strangers. In St. Peter's Square that memorable day, the overflowing crowds were gathered together as if the colonnades were embracing them, just as Bernini designed, in "the maternal arms of Mother Church." Bernini desired that the greatest number of people could see the Pope from wherever they might be standing in the Square so that they could receive his blessing. Pope Francis not only wanted to give his blessing, but to receive ours. He not only wanted to pray for the people, but to pray with them, first for "our Bishop Emeritus Benedict XVI." Our new Holy Father and the crowds, whether in St. Peter's Square or watching TV or listening to the radio, prayed aloud…together. The vocal prayers were ones most of us knew: The Lord's Prayer, the Hail Mary, and the Glory Be. The volume was tremendous, the enthusiasm, palpable—hearts united in prayer.
This prayer experience punctuates the great truth that prayer never isolates, but draws us closer to God and to one another. Indeed, even solitary prayer brings us deeper and more lovingly into community, as St. Edith Stein (1891-1942) came to understand:
Immediately before and for a good while after my conversion, I was of the opinion that to lead a religious life meant one had to give up all that was secular and to live totally immersed in thoughts of the Divine. But gradually I realized that something else is asked of us.., that, even in the contemplative life, one may not sever the connection with this world. I even believe that the deeper one is drawn into God, the more one must "go out of oneself"; that is, one must go into the world in order to carry the divine life into it.
Similarly, Saint Augustine taught: "No one ought to be so entirely contemplative as not to consider his neighbor's benefit, nor so active as to neglect the contemplation of God."
The seventh lesson from Pope Francis: the heart. Prayer comes from the heart. The Holy Father immediately seemed to personify the definition of prayer by St. John Damascene (c. 675-749): "the raising of one's mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God" (CCC, no. 2559). The Catechism reminds us that the word "heart" is used more than one thousand times in Scripture (CCC, no. 2562). Surely, to pray "without ceasing" (1 Thes. 5:17), we must do so with our hearts-- hearts attuned to the love of God, open to receiving His life and being transformed like onto His heart. Without our heart's involvement, we may be uttering words, but we are neither truly listening nor conversing. We are not engaged in authentic prayer, for as long as "our heart is far from God, the words of prayer are in vain" (CCC, no. 2562).
Throughout the centuries, the heart has been stressed by the great masters of prayer in the varied spiritual traditions of the Church. Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890), for example, chose as his coat of arms: "Cor ad cor loquitur" or "Heart speaks unto heart." The Catechism teaches that the heart is a place both to withdraw and encounter. It is "our hidden center, beyond the grasp of our reason and of others; only the Spirit of God can fathom the human heart and know it fully. The heart is the place of decision, deeper than our psychic drives. It is the place of truth, where we choose life or death. It is the place of encounter, because as image of God we live in relation: it is the place of covenant" (CCC, no. 2563).
In our hearts, we find God finding us. This is not a stranger, stumbling upon us, but a friend who has been seeking us out and delights in our presence. Our conversation with God, then, can become, as Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) taught, a "close sharing between friends." It is a conversation of love, where we take "time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us" (CCC, no. 2709). The more we pray, the more we are able to focus our thoughts on the Divine, learning to walk as His friend, living out the beatitude: "Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God." (Mt. 5:8) True prayer allows our eyes and hearts to be healed so that they are open and receptive to seeing and experiencing God. According to St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622) in his Introduction to the Devout Life, since "prayer opens the understanding to the brightness of Divine Light, and the will to the warmth of Heavenly Love – nothing can so effectively purify the mind...or the will...It is as a healing water which causes the roots of our good desires to send forth fresh shoots..."
Our prayer changes us, or more accurately, transforms us. The Catechism compares the prayer experience as "entering into the Eucharistic liturgy: we 'gather up' the heart, recollect our whole being under the prompting of the Holy Spirit, abide in the dwelling place of the Lord which we are, awaken our faith in order to enter into the presence of him who awaits us. We let our masks fall and turn our hearts back to the Lord who loves us, so as to hand ourselves over to him as an offering to be purified and transformed" (CCC, no. 2711).
Saint Edith Stein understood this. Prior to becoming a Carmelite nun, she described how she would pray daily before the tabernacle, and then receive the Lord in Holy Communion. Her heart would be transformed, "filled with holy joy, courage and energy. Because my soul has left itself and entered into the divine life, it has become great and expansive. Love burns in it like a composed flame which the Lord has enkindled, and which urges my soul to render love and to inflame love in others."
Our prayer, therefore, sets our sight on God, resets our spiritual compass, and sends us on our way ever towards Him. It expands our horizons, as it expands our hearts. This is why St. Thérèse gives us one final thought about prayer: "finally, it is something great, supernatural, which expands my soul and unites me to Jesus." We are not the same. Our prayer will not allow stagnation, but only growth, the type of growth that humbles us as it raises us to the heights of love.
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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 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.
Excerpts from "Story of a Soul" translated by John Clarke OCD copyright © 1975, 1976, 1996 Washington Province of Discalced Carmelites ICS Publications, Washington, DC. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
Excerpts from Pope John Paul II, Rosarium Virginis Mariae,copyright © 2002, Libreria Editrice Vaticana (LEV); Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, copyright © 2013, LEV. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
Excerpts from "The Practice of the Presence of God" by Br. Lawrence, translated by Robert J. Edmonson, copyright © 2010, The Community of Jesus, reprinted by permission of Paraclete Press, Brewester, MA. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
Excerpts from "Self-Portrait in Letters" by Edith Stein, translated by Josephine Koeppel, copyright © 1993, ICS Publications, Washington, DC. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
Excerpts from "Selected Writings" by Augustine of Hippo, translated and introduced by Mary T. Clark, copyright © 1984, Paulist Press, New York. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
Excerpts from "The Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman" by Charles Stephen Dessain and Thomas Gornall, S.J., copyright © 1976 Clarendon Press, Oxford. Used with permission. All rights reserved.