26 February 2009

Lent: The Example of Saint Paul

Now that we have entered into the Season of Lent, it’s no secret that the Church calls us to pray. In fact, Pope John Paul II called Lent a time for “intense prayer” and an opportunity for all Christians “to prepare for Easter by serious discernment about their lives” (Message of His Holiness John Paul II for Lent 2003).

In this, The Year of Saint Paul, there is much to be learned from this great saint on the life of prayer.

God is all that matters! The domain of faith is not the domain of human wisdom, but the power and wisdom of God; and this is foolishness, weakness and scandal for human beings (1 Corinthians 1). And certainly we are witnessing in our culture today that loyalists to God are perceived as weak and foolish as evidenced by the rampant secularism that pervades our government and media. But our enemy is not the President, Vice-President, Congress, the Supreme Court, MSNBC, CNN or anyone else. The real battle lies elsewhere. For our struggle is not against enemies of flesh, but against the spirits of evil. Only spiritual weapons are effective: the strength of God, the shield of faith, the sword of the spirit, prayer, truth (Ephesians 6:10-20). So, at the heart of Paul’s apostolic activities is that which links him directly to God: prayer.

Paul is ardent that he wants prayer to be continual.

Pray without ceasing; give thanks in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God (Philippians 4:6).

Paul learned how to pray with the psalms. Supported by the remembrance of favors already received, his faith anticipates the answer to his prayer with thanksgiving.

The Church, like Saint Paul, prays the Psalms every day in the Liturgy of the Hours. If this is not part of your prayer life, the Season of Lent would be a great time to give it a try; and along with daily Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours is also a wonderful way to enter into the daily life of the Church.

Paul’s supplication is the fruit of his contemplation, in which he discovers its deepest object: in the midst of innumerable difficulties, the progress of the Word of God in the heart of Christians, and through them, and by them also, its progress in the world.

Prayer is a combat. It is a battle, because it is an activity of giving birth. “My little children,” Paul says to the Galatians, “you for whom I am again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in you” (4:19). Thus, there is suffering in prayer because in authentic Christianity, loving God also means loving neighbor; and the hearts of all Christians committed to a life of prayer cry out for those they know have distanced themselves from God. Certainly, there are parents, for example, who feel this suffering very intensely because their child, who was raised in the faith, now in adulthood, has decided to leave the Church. Saint Paul teaches us that prayer is always the strongest weapon to remedy such suffering in the midst of, what is perhaps the closest thing to unconditional love on earth, that of mother or father for their child.

It is love that gives life, and prayer is the language of love. Prayer is at the heart of the combat for Christ. The apostolic Church repeats Paul’s cry to us every day: “Join me in earnest prayer to God” (Romans 15:30).

This combat of prayer is not easy. It demands… a determination to take upon ourselves the whole weight of the burdens of our brothers: sharing, for example, through an interior experience in the depths of our heart, in their sin, their lack of faith, their inability to love. By our acceptance, may it be transformed into supplication. “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s affliction for the sake of His Body, that is, the Church” (Colossians 1:24).

Continual prayer does consist of a continuous formulation of explicit prayers. Before all, it is a question of being: the reality of our hidden life with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3). It is the Spirit Who has been poured forth into our hearts, and is dwelling there. The Spirit makes us children of God. Through Him we cry “Abba, Father”: explicitly sometimes, but more often, and better, implicitly, to the extent that we are living in the presence of God and according to the Spirit, that is, in accordance with our being as children of God in Christ.

The Spirit is the bond of love, is the ever-flowing, ever fresh, wellspring of prayer. Prayer is more than human words; it is the movement towards God of the knowledge and love that God alone, finally, awakens in our hearts.

Let us remember the beautiful image of what our Christian life lived together in the Spirit of Christ could be: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him” (Colossians 3:16-17).

This is certainly a paradisal image. To see its fulfillment, it requires action on the part of every Christian. In our human weakness, however, we are susceptible to becoming discouraged by our lack of understanding of the ways of God. Saint Paul was not living in a fantasy land when he wrote that image from Colossians. He, better than most, understands the difficulties of the spiritual life. He has experienced the thorns of trying to establish intimacy with the Trinity: “A thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to our Lord about this, that it would leave me, but He said to me: ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness’” (2 Corinthians 12:7-9).

Then there is the other thorn, in Paul’s heart this time. Chapters 9, 10 and 11 in the letter to the Romans gives us a moving example of a prayer-contemplation-supplication, grappling with the destination of the Jewish people, a mystery that caused Paul so much sorrow: “I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh… (Romans 9:3). He goes over and over the enigma, trying to understand.

We all have situations that have occurred or are occurring that just doesn’t make sense. Why does God allow this? Has He abandoned me? Do I have sins that are unforgivable? Am I being punished for my sins? These and other questions ramble through our minds. Saint Paul doesn’t answer the “Why’s” but he does teach us something about abandonment and committing our trust to God: “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable are His ways!... For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be glory forever! Amen (Romans 11:33, 36).

The last word of supplication is abandon, in adoration.

(Nota bene: All words in bold font are taken from the book, "Interior Prayer")