A reflection by Abbot James Albers, OSB
It has been said that in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which was promulgated by St. John Paul II in 1992, Part Four on Christian Prayer is the best-written section of the entire work. That statement hopefully doesn’t surprise us, for prayer is the primary action of our faith in God and our search for him. From the very creation of man, we have been searching for God, and this search is the impetus for our prayer, our encounter with him.
The Catechism shares with us that, “…the living and true God tirelessly calls each person to that mysterious encounter known as prayer” (CCC 2567). Our search for God, our being called into relationship with God, is a prayer!
If God is the instigator of this encounter, and he has called out to man constantly since the beginning of creation, then it is we, the responders, who take on responsibility for the ebb and flow of this relationship. I have explained to others many times that our primary work as monks is lifting up the Church and world to God in the Liturgy of the Hours and at Mass, yet I can at times go through the entire day without giving much thought to that intention. When prayer suffers, we don’t have to dig very deep to realize it is probably our lack of response that is causing the dryness.
When there is struggle in prayer, why do I begin questioning the potency of my prayer? Am I unable to hear God tugging at my heart, calling me to enter into an encounter of mystery? Do I forget that I must respond to his call? Would I rather not encounter God in that given moment? Whatever the reason, my struggles in prayer have to do with me, not with God. God’s faithful call is omnipresent and omnipotent, and is always the place from which springs the encounter.
We must desire to enter into that “mysterious encounter,” and it must be a desire to love. God loves first, and we respond in whatever capacity we are able. Prayer is a relationship that needs time and space to grow. We are trying to move from our imperfect love to God’s perfect love. Just as we grow in any human relationship, so do we grow in our relationship with God. As the Catechism puts it, this reciprocity becomes the “…covenant drama. Through words and actions this drama engages the heart” (CCC 2567).
In the drama of the Incarnation, the drama of the Passion, Death, and Resurrection, in the human and divine drama of this mystery, our prayer begins to take flesh. As the Catechism shares with us, the drama of prayer provides us an avenue “To seek to understand [Jesus’] prayer through what his witnesses proclaim to us in the Gospel, [and this] is to approach the holy Lord as Moses approached the burning bush: first to contemplate him in prayer, then to hear how he teaches us to pray, in order to know how he hears our prayer” (CCC 2598).
We see this very drama lived out in the life of Jesus. Jesus enters into prayer in the synagogue at a young age, learning about the drama himself in the rhythms of praying the Psalms. He prays for discernment before decisive moments in his mission. He teaches us how to pray as he shares his relationship to the Father. He draws into solitude to contemplate God, and in that solitude asks for assistance in accepting the Father’s will. He offers intercession for the needs of others in healing the sick and raising the dead. He shows deep gratitude at the raising of his friend, Lazarus. And finally, the prayer of his “loud cry” he offers as he dies on the cross, giving up his spirit.
Most especially, it is in this last prayer of the “loud cry” that we understand the depth to which God condescends and the depth of his love in this drama through which, “All the troubles, for all time, of humanity enslaved by sin and death, all the petitions and intercessions of salvation history are summed up… Thus is fulfilled and brought to completion the drama of prayer in the economy of creation and salvation” (CCC 2606).
This drama was not lived out for one time, but even today we are drawn into it, and as I reminded the monks recently, as monks, we are uniquely called into this drama. We are drawn in first by having the privilege each day of offering the Prayer of the Church and the Eucharistic Sacrifice of Christ. This opus dei puts us at the heart of the drama of mankind as revealed through the Psalms spoken through the ages, and through the economy of the Cross.
Secondly, we are drawn into the drama of prayer in the lives of others. People turn to us in their need and in their thanksgiving, asking us to intercede for them to God. Since the moment God made his covenant with Abraham, man has turned to God in his need; asking on behalf of another has been the characteristic of the humble heart attuned to God’s mercy.
Lastly, we participate in this drama of prayer in our own lives, our own relationship with God. Therefore, none of us, monk and layperson alike, should ever shy away from praying for our own needs.
If living the drama of prayer draws us into this “mysterious encounter” with God, shouldn’t we reckon that it will reveal to us the One for whom we search? Shouldn’t we reckon that it will also help us understand better those for whom we pray?