On Education in Prayer

The high standard for ordinary Christian life demands a corresponding challenge in the art of prayer. Just as Vatican II insisted upon a universal call to holiness, so too, prayer should not be something only assigned to those who live a consecrated life: “it would be wrong to think that ordinary Christians can be content with a shallow prayer that is unable to fill their whole life. Especially in the face of the many trials to which today’s world subjects faith, they would be not only mediocre Christians but ‘Christians at risk.'” §34 John Paul II anticipates the “insiduous risk” of the undermining of faith and the embracing of substitutes, alternatives, and even superstitions in lieu of the truth faith. This is why I said earlier “bourgeois Catholicism” will not suffice. John Paul points out that Christendom is virtually gone — “the reality of a ‘Christian society’ which, amid all the frailties which have always marked human life, measured itself explicitly on Gospel values, is now gone.” §40 One must step forward with a personal faith, sustained by prayer.

He does not despair because of the power of prayer and the power of the Holy Spirit to bring about the rebirth of faith: “Learning this Trinitarian shape of Christian prayer and living it fully . .  . is the secret of a truly vital Christianity, which has no reason to fear the future, because it returns continually to the sources and finds in them new life.” §32

The key point to all pastoral planning, therefore, is an education in prayer.

What is his account prayer? (I consult my notes from a talk by Ralph Martin at Orchard Lake, Mi. in August 2002 for this reading of Novo Millennio Ineunte. He has published a book with a detailed elaboration on the nature of prayer from the resources of the saints; the book is entitled The Fulfillment of All desire: A Guidebook for the Journey to God Based on the Wisdom of the Saints, Emmaus, ISBN: 1931018383)

Prayer is a conversation with Christ, the classical formulation by the follower of St Theresa of Avila (See also the classic book by Father Peter Rohrbach, O.C.D., Conversation with Christ, reprinted by TAN). Conversation follows from a “face to face encounter” as John Paul showed in the previous part of Letter entitled “A Face to Contemplate”. Conversation is a reciprocal activity; thus John Paul II emphasizes the reciprocity between Christ and the soul. He says quite emphatically that this reciprocity, this friendship, is the “substance and soul of the Christian life.” —  “Abide in me and I in you” (Jn 15:4) And this reciprocity “opens us, through Christ and in Christ, to contemplation of the Father’s face.” The theme of A Face to Contemplate returns here, with the reference to the face of the Father. We must learn “Trinitarian shape of Christian prayer” and live it in the liturgy and in personal experience. The dimension of personal experience should be highlighted here. The various movements within the Church have brought home to many the experience of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. That is a gift of the Holy Spirit and must be nurtured in prayer.

Ralph Martin drew my attention to the crucial sentences in section §33 that provide us with a summary of the essential conditions of prayer:

It is a journey totally sustained by grace, which nonetheless demands an intense spiritual commitment and is no stranger to painful purifications (the “dark night”). But it leads, in various possible ways, to the ineffable joy experienced by the mystics as “nuptial union”. 

  • sustained by grace
  • intense spiritual commitment
  • painful purifications  
  • ineffable joy
  • mystical  “nuptial union”
Each one of these deserves our understanding, and I again refer you to Mr Martin’s The Fulfillment of All desire: A Guidebook for the Journey to God Based on the Wisdom of the Saints. John Paul II refers us to the great mystical tradition, especially John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila. 

But the three points to note in closing — Pope John Paul II urges all Catholic groups to become “schools of prayer” and that we must seek “education in prayer.” Prayer is more than an event in the day, a regular duty on a to-do list and so forth, but a journey in itself, a journey towards the “nuptial union” to be lived in joy and anticipation. The heart truly “falls in love,” John paul II says. And third, from this we launch out to act and “shape history according to God’s plan.” §33

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