28 July 2010

Praying: How and Why

The following is taken from a chapter of ‘Crossing the Threshold of Hope’ by Pope John Paul II. His Holiness not only teaches us about prayer but also reminds us who we are, what our vocation is. This reminder of our identity and our responsibility can seem a bit frightening for those who are serious about the spiritual life.

Question: I would like to take the liberty to ask you to share with us, at least in part, the secret of your heart. Given the conviction that within you – as within every Pope – lives the mystery which is believed in faith, the following question automatically arises: How can you bear such a weight, which, in human terms, is almost unbearable? No man on earth, not even the highest religious leaders, has a comparable responsibility. No one is placed in such a close relationship with God.

Your Holiness, how does one address Jesus? How does one have a dialogue, in prayer, with Christ, who gave Peter the ‘keys to the Kingdom of Heaven’ (which have reached you through the apostolic succession), giving him the power to ‘bind and loose’ all?

Response: Your question concerns prayer; you are asking the Pope how he prays. And I thank you. Perhaps it is worth starting with Saint Paul’s Letter to the Romans. The apostle comes to the heart of the matter when he writes: ‘The Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit Himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings’ (cf. Romans 8:26).

What is prayer? It is commonly held to be a conversation. In a conversation there are always an ‘I’ and a ‘thou’ or ‘you’. In this case the ‘Thou’ is with a capital T. If at first the ‘I’ seems to be the most important element in prayer, prayer teaches that the situation is actually different. The ‘Thou’ is more important, because our prayer begins with God. In his Letter to the Romans, Saint Paul teaches precisely this. According to the apostle, prayer reflects all created reality; it is in a certain sense a cosmic function.

Man is the priest of all creation; he speaks in its name, but only insofar as he is guided by the Spirit. In order to understand profoundly the meaning of prayer, one should meditate for a long time on the following passage from the Letter to the Romans: ‘For creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God; for creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that all creation is groaning in labour pains even until now; and not only that, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved’ (Romans 8:19-24). And here again we come across the apostle’s words: ‘The Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit Himself intercedes with inexpressible groanings’ (cf. Romans 8:26).

In prayer, then, the true protagonist is God. The protagonist is Christ, who constantly frees creation from slavery to corruption and leads it toward liberty, for the glory of the children of God. The protagonist is the Holy Spirit, who ‘comes to the aid of our weakness’. We begin to pray, believing that it is our own initiative that compels us to do so. Instead, we learn that it is always God’s initiative within us, just as Saint Paul has written. This initiative restores in us our true humanity; it restores in us our unique dignity. Yes, we are brought into the higher dignity of the children of God, the children of God who are the hope of all creation.

One can and must pray in many different ways, as the Bible teaches through a multitude of examples. The Book of Psalms is irreplaceable. We must pray with ‘inexpressible groanings’ in order to enter into rhythm with the Spirit’s own entreaties. To obtain forgiveness one must implore, becoming part of the loud cries of Christ the Redeemer (cf. Hebrews 5:7). Through all of this one must proclaim glory. Prayer is always an opus gloriæ (a work, a labour, of glory). Man is the priest of all creation. Christ conferred upon him this dignity and vocation. Creation completes its opus gloriæ both by being what it is and by its duty to become what should be.

In a certain sense science and technology also contribute to this goal. But at the same time, since they are human works, they can lead away from this goal. In our civilisation in particular there is a risk, making it difficult for civilisation to be one of life and love. Missing is precisely the opus gloriæ, which is the fundamental destiny of every creature, and above all of man, who was created in order to become, in Christ, the priest, prophet, and king of all earthly creatures.

Much has been written about prayer, and further, prayer has been widely experienced in the history of humankind, especially in the history of Israel and Christianity. Man achieves the fullness of prayer not when he expresses himself, but when he let’s God be most fully present in prayer. The history of mystical prayer in the East and West attests to this: Saint Francis, Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint John of the Cross, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, and, in the East, for example, Saint Serafim of Sarov and many others.