We continue with the virtues and vices associated with the First Commandment, and para. 2098 introduces the necessity of prayer in the moral fulfillment of the First Commandment. The literature on prayer in the Catholic Church is immense and it has been so for centuries. If you were to visit any Catholic book publisher on the web, you would find an overwhelming number of books devoted to prayer—some excellent, some classic, and some idiosyncratic. [The Merriam Webster dictionary lists “eccentric” as a synonym for “idiosyncratic.”] As the Catechism will go on to teach, there are multiple forms of prayer: adoration [as we discussed last week], sacrifice, liturgical prayer including the Liturgy of the Hours, penitential, thanksgiving, and devotional, just to name a few.
The old Baltimore Catechism defined prayer as the “lifting of the mind and the heart to God.” This remains a good starting point, for it involves the two traditional components of devotion: thinking about God and feeling about God. The older catechetics did not discuss involvement in mystical experiences, though the Church certainly has a long history with mystics, those who take religious experience to an out-of-conscious intensity. Today the search for a higher consciousness is a domesticated part of our culture; who has not come across recommendations for deep breathing and yoga exercises to reduce stress in the work place?
Back in 1976 or thereabouts Paulist Press began a book subscription called The Classics of Western Spirituality. I subscribed out of curiosity and the library began to grow like a long-yield CD until it now takes up two full bookcases in my house, and a new addition arrives every four or six months or so. Each volume is devoted to the spiritual writings of one holy figure, or of a religious movement, or of a region, such as the Late Medieval Mysticism of the Low Countries [I am using this volume in the next Reformation post.]
As a young novice I was taught to pray and meditate each day in the style of the monks—to read a portion of Scripture and/or a sacred writing from a Church Father in an attitude of humility and obedience. Later in life I found a helpful text in this art of reading and meditation, Sacred Reading: The Ancient Art of Lectio Divina (1995) by Michael Casey. (My review is here.) Casey taught me that I am wrong to bring a critical or analytical attitude to my prayer texts. The official reading texts of the Liturgy of the Hours and the Eucharist enjoy universal authority and usage across the globe for any given day. This is not to say that one cannot take up the words of St. Therese of Lisieux, Ignatius of Loyola, or Pope Francis, for that matter, to begin a period of prayer and meditation. The Paulist series was compiled in part to bring such trustworthy texts to adult Christians for prayerful reflection.
Whatever one’s source text for prayer, a critical component of the experience is a trust in God who has brought you to this encounter at this time. It is not necessary to reinvent the wheel every time one begins to pray: the sources of Revelation and Tradition are at hand. Some periodic planning is necessary; the Easter Season draws heavily from the Gospel of John and the Acts of the Apostles. The Office of Readings from the Hours and the Scripture of the Mass keep one grounded in the liturgical season and the “prayer mood” of the universal Church. As one becomes more familiar with the practice of spiritual reading/prayer, it becomes clearer from exposure to sources that saints like Augustine, Gregory the Great, and others devoted themselves to the composition of texts around feasts and seasons.
I will confess that I sit in a recliner in a quiet part of the house, “to rest with God,” as it were. I light a scented candle reflecting the current liturgical season and take into my hands the Office of Readings from my iPad or a Scripture Commentary with the Biblical text included [right now The Acts of the Apostles] and occasionally a piece from the Paulist library. My best time for this is late afternoon. The advantage of a routine is religious: prayer is a feature of daily life, not a response to crises de jour. Moreover, beginning the experience with a sacred text establishes an appropriate and accurate relationship between the authority of God and the humility and openness of the pray-er to be changed.
As I said earlier, the challenge for me was to drop the critic’s role. Gradually prayer became a more restful experience as I stopped wrestling the text. My reading and praying of the Scripture became more enriching when I started the blog four years ago and became more involved with reflection upon the following Sunday readings. I had a late-in-life awakening of the power of the Biblical call to discipleship, which brought more energy to my life but also more disquiet. The ethos of the New Testament in particular is open-ended and quite foreign to my check-list approach toward life. It is impossible to say “I’ve done my share” when even a cursory reading of the Acts of the Apostles and the courage and energy of the early Church undercuts my attitude.
There is another reason (among many) to adopt a daily life of prayer. I intend no disrespect here of church worship; as a Catholic I believe that the Liturgy is the “source and summit” of the Church’s life. But I have to be a realist, too. The hour of worship cannot carry a meaningful Christian life. I have cited a number of studies here on the Café site over time that indicate a drift from church attendance, particularly from Roman Catholic parishes but not exclusively so. Some leave Catholic worship to get more bang from the buck in evangelical settings. Others do not attend worship at all, responding to pollsters that there is a difference between religion and spirituality. PEW research has interesting observations about religious life in the Pittsburgh area.
I would agree that religion and spirituality are not precisely the same thing. All the same, when I read that someone is engaged on a personal spirituality pilgrimage to Jesus Christ independent of a Christian tradition and its texts that make him accessible, I can’t help but think of 40 years wandering in the desert.