Sunday, October 24, 2010

Where the "less trivial elbows the important things"

"The life of men is made of many and varied activities. Deep in the heart of men is the longing, fitfully glimpsed and but half realized, to gather up all these strivings into an intense pursuit of one all-embracing objecive worthy of the toil and tears and devotion of the human heart. Such is the half-shaped dream; but the reality is a picture of heaped-up activities where the trivial jostles the less trivial and less trivial elbows the important things, and there is no unity of design, nor intensity of single, concentrated purpose...what is essentially trivial but immediately urgent, looms large and commands attention; while what is essentially important but not immediately urgent or insistent, is relegated to the hazy recesses of the background."
So begins Karl Rahner's short book, which bears the English title The Need and the Blessing of Prayer. I remember reading a book of compiled interviews that Fr. Rahner gave towards the end of his life, Faith in a Wintry Season. He was asked in one interview which of his works he was most pleased with, or the least displeased with, as the case may be, he cited this "little book on prayer" as his favorite. Prayer is vexing for many people, at times it is vexing even for those of us committed to praying. Our vexation leads us not so much to ask the question, Why pray?, as it does to wonder about the practicality of prayer, or the question, How do I pray? It is true that there are as many ways of praying as there are people who pray. It is equally true that there are effective ways of praying and perfunctory ways of praying, that is, better and worse ways to pray. Nonetheless, the prayer uttered perfunctorily, even just mentally, is far superior to not praying at all. The question What do I pray for? often accompanies the question about how to pray. These questions are as simple as they are direct. One can offer a lot of advice about prayer, even good advice, especially on the importance of praying. However, I think most people who read my blog are already convinced that praying is important. I am equally convinced that many of my readers are well-versed in prayer. One can also discourse on how to pray, citing many holy and learned people. I think the best any of us can offer to each other is to share from our own experience.

For Christians, as I suspect for Jews and Muslims, who also worship of the God of Abraham, prayer is not optional. Praying is a necessary and essential part of our faith, both communal prayer and individual prayer. This is why prayer is a discipline. I always like to point out that discipline finds its origin in the word disciple and disciple means one who follows another, who follows the teachings and practices of a master. Of course, we follow Jesus Christ, which means we adhere not only to what He taught, but seek to do the things He did. Jesus certainly prayed to the Father often and deeply. In very first chapter of St. Mark's Gospel, at end of his first round of healings, we read that Jesus arose "very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed" (1:35- ESV)

In response to His first disciples asking Him to teach them how to pray, our Lord taught them the most perfect prayer, the Our Father, which forms part of our communal prayer, whether we are talking about Mass or praying the Liturgy of the Hours. As Catholics we have many forms of fixed prayer, perhaps the most prevalent of these is the rosary, which, in addition to the Our Father, also consists of praying the Hail Mary, the Glory Be, the Hail Holy Queen, and reciting the Apostles Creed.

Matthias Stom(er), Old Woman Praying, ca. 1640

For what it's worth, I use fixed prayers in three ways. The first way I use fixed prayer, like the rosary, or praying Morning and Evening Prayer, something I promised to do at my ordination, is as a way to meditate. Of course, this takes time, which I don't always have. So, another way I use fixed prayer is a way of praying on the go. Here I also use the Memorare. In fact, I pray the Memorare a lot. I find it a wonderful way to offer up my petitions. When I tell someone I will pray for them for a specific reason there are two ways I do this, during the petition portion of Morning and Evening Prayer, and offering Memorares to the Blessed Virgin, entrusting their need to our Blessed Mother. I also try to pray the Angelus several times day. Also, I often pray the rosary while driving. A third way I used fixed prayer is when I don't really feel like praying, but recognize that I need to. I would like to say that this is an easy way to pray when I don't feel like it, but often it takes effort to get these words through my lips, especially when my heart it is not in it. When I find that I have a hard time praying from my heart, I use fixed prayers as a way of letting the Spirit soften my heart, opening me up to God so that I can really pray.

While I pray to the Father, through the Son, by the power of the Holy Spirit, I very often direct my prayers directly to Christ, finding this to be most useful and efficacious.

I find not only the help of our Blessed Mother indispensable, but the intercession of my heavenly friends, the saints, especially my patrons St. Stephen and St. Martin of Tours, not to mention St. Gianni Molla. I have little litanies I pray, some of which I used to post periodically.

As Owen Cummings points out in his very insightful book, which is as short and useful as Rahner's, Thinking About Prayer, which is something of a nice prologomena for Christian prayer-
"There are very definite and practical benefits to prayer. Prayer promotes a sense of unity or wholeness in life. In the course of a day we do so many different things: getting up, grooming and dressing ourselves, preparing food, going to work, becoming engaged in different tasks, and so on and so forth. You could say we live very dispersed lives. Our energies are scattered over so many different things. In fact, sometimes the busy-ness of the day can seem like one thing after another after another. There can be a lack of unity, a lack of wholeness to the day and perhaps to our lives. Our lives can seem altogether broken up, sometimes completely fragmented, leading to a sense of drift, with no integration and no direction... Prayer can bring a unity and a wholeness into our existence."
Indeed, our lives can easily become nothing but distraction (i.e., one damn thing after another- as Arnold Toynbee once described human history), thus depriving us of the transcendental context of our existence that the Gospel imparts to us as a great gift. If nothing else (it has the potential to be so much more), prayer is a reminder, not just of what really matters, because the things we do every day matter. After all, God saves us in and through our lives, not over and above them. The simple act of lifting our minds to God in prayer has a way of putting things into perspective. As both Cummings and Rahner point out, prayer is the way we let God bring unity and coherence to our otherwise fragmented existence.

Veni Sancte Spiritus, Veni per Mariam

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