View all Posts | September 1, 2014
The Complete Christian: First Meditation
Prayer — Orare
- The Gospel Passage: Mark 3:13-15
- The Contemplative Dimension
- The Importance of Prayer
- Prayer as Relationship
- Prayer as a Response
- The Decision to Pray Daily
- Conclusion: The First Dimension
The Gospel Passage: Mark 3:13-15
In three verses from the third chapter of his Gospel, St. Mark sketches one of the most important moments in Christ’s earthly ministry, the calling of his Twelve Apostles.
These twelve men were already followers of Jesus, along with a crowd of others. But Jesus picked them out of that crowd, and spent the rest of his earthly ministry preparing them for their mission of leading and spreading the Church.
Here’s how St. Mark describes the encounter:
He [Jesus] now went up onto the mountain and summoned those he wanted. So they came to him, and he appointed twelve; they were to be his companions and to be sent out to proclaim the message, with power to drive out devils.
– Mark 3:13-15, NJB
The Contemplative Dimension
Jesus summons his Twelve Apostles, and sets them apart. What for? What does he want from them?
The first thing he wants from them is so simple, and so beautiful, and so amazing. St. Mark tells us that Jesus appointed them “to be his companions.” And this is the first dimension of the Christian life, the contemplative dimension.
We are all called to be Christ’s companions, to spend time with him, to get to know him. And how do we do that? Primarily through prayer. Prayer is spending time with the Lord, “being his companion.”
When Jesus pulled us out of the crowd and set us aside to be his followers, he was calling us first and foremost to a life of prayer, of an ongoing friendship with him that would take place through an intimate exchange
of thoughts and words and affections, always in an atmosphere of faith.
Imagine trying to build and deepen a friendship without communicating or spending time with your friend.
In the same way, how can we let God fill our life with joy, light, strength, and purpose if we don’t spend time with him, get to know him, enter into a dynamic, personal relationship with him in prayer?
St. Paul urges us to “pray without ceasing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
Christ himself admonishes us:
Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.
But we live in a secularized culture, a culture based not on faith in God, but on faith in our own abilities to create heaven on earth. God is seen as something irrelevant. And as a result, prayer — personal conversation with God, contact with the Savior, developing a relationship with Christ — is seen as optional and tangential.
Here is how Pope Benedict XVI explained the secular challenge when addressing the bishops of the United States in Washington, DC (16 April 2008):
People today need to be reminded of the ultimate purpose of their lives. They need to recognize that implanted within them is a deep thirst for God. They need to be given opportunities to drink from the wells of his infinite love. It is easy to be entranced by the almost unlimited possibilities that science and technology place before us; it is easy to make the mistake of thinking
we can obtain by our own efforts the fulfillment of our deepest needs. This is an illusion. Without God, who alone bestows upon us what we by ourselves cannot attain (cf. Spe Salvi, 31), our lives are ultimately empty. People need to be constantly reminded to cultivate a relationship with him who came that we might have life in abundance (cf. John 10:10).
If we are going to grow in our prayer life, the first thing we need to do is be convinced of its importance.
Pope Francis made this point powerfully early on in his pontificate. He spoke to tens of thousands of pilgrims who had come to his Wednesday audience about this primary, essential dimension of every Christian’s life:
To listen to the Lord, we must learn to contemplate,
to perceive His constant presence in our lives; we have to stop and talk to Him, give Him space with prayer. Every one of us… should ask ourselves: how much space do I give the Lord? Do I stop to dialogue with Him? Ever since we were little, our parents have accustomed us to begin and end the day with a prayer, to teach
us to feel that the friendship and the love of God accompany us. Let us remember the Lord more often in our days!
The Importance of Prayer
Would you say that you are a better pray-er today than you were a year ago, five years ago, ten years ago?
If we want to grow in our Christian life, we have to grow in our prayer life.
In past ages, this was kind of taken for granted. Everyone knew that prayer was necessary, as necessary as breathing or eating.
– Mark 14:38, NABR
Prayer as Relationship
But what is prayer? Is it enough for us just to say some prayers? Is prayer just asking God for what we want or need? The essence of prayer goes even deeper.
Prayer, for Christians, is fundamentally not something we do, not just something we put on our to-do list. Rather, it’s a relationship. In fact, the Catechism actually defines prayer as a relationship.
In discussing the mystery of our Catholic faith, it tells us:
This mystery, then, requires that the faithful believe in it, that they celebrate it, and that they live from it in a vital and personal relationship with the living and true God. This relationship is prayer
– CCC 2558
Pope Benedict XVI said the same thing to a gathering of 20,000 young people in New York (April 2008). He told them:
What matters most is that you develop your personal relationship with God. That relationship is expressed in prayer…
This is actually a unique vision of prayer, when compared to other world religions. It goes back to when Jesus called his first Apostles — he appointed them to “be his companions,” to be with him, to spend time with him, to enter into a real, interpersonal relationship with him.
This is prayer. And this is why prayer is often so difficult. Our relationship with God takes place only through faith. We can’t touch him and hear him the way we hear each other — but only through the mediation of faith.
And our faith is often very weak, so we get distracted easily, and we find it hard to encounter God in prayer. But that’s okay! All God needs is our sincere and constant effort, and he will teach us everything else.
It can be comforting for us to look at the experiences of Christians who have gone before us, to see how even though God worked wonders in their lives, prayer was not always easy for them. The example of Fr. Walter Ciszek is one that has spoken deeply to my heart over the years.
Fr. Ciszek was a Jesuit priest sent as a secret missionary into the Soviet Union between World War I and World War II. Soviet Communism was intent on destroying Christianity, and especially Catholic Christianity, and so it was a dangerous mission.
Fr. Ciszek was eventually arrested and sent to the infamous prison of Lubyanka, where he spent five
years in solitary confinement, being interrogated — sometimes violently — on a regular basis. Eventually, he was transferred to a forced labor camp in Siberia, where he spent another fifteen years. After nearly 23 years behind the Iron Curtain, he was sent back home on a prisoner exchange.
Back in the States, he wrote two books about his experience in the Soviet Union before dying in 1981. In his writings, he explained that his harrowing experience of solitary confinement in Lubyanka “in many ways became a school of prayer for me.”
We might think that his isolation would make prayer easier for him — but it didn’t. He found it difficult to stay recollected even inside the limits of the prison.
He described struggling to find God’s presence amidst the daily anxieties, the physical hardships, and above all the loneliness.
One of the lessons he learned in that hard school of prayer was precisely that real prayer is always more than simply reciting words; it’s a relationship.
“Words do not make a prayer,” he wrote later in
his second book, He Leadeth Me, “… true prayer is a communication — and it occurs only when two people, two minds are truly present to each other in some way.”
Prayer as a Response
Another lesson he learned points to a second characteristic of Christian prayer that comes out clearly in the Gospel passage we are considering.
Prayer is not only a relationship, but it is a response to God’s initiative. Here’s how Fr. Ciszek put it:
… God himself has initiated this conversation by inspiring us to set aside time for prayer, and… he appreciates our efforts to respond, and he blesses them.
The entire Christian life, in essence, is a response to the action of God. God created us — we didn’t create ourselves. And God redeemed us — we didn’t redeem ourselves. And God entered into our lives with his grace, and continues to enter into our lives, calling us to know him, to love him, and to follow him.
Prayer itself is a gift he has given to us; he makes himself available to us through this gift; he waits for us, eagerly, to come and spend time with him. As St. Mark tells us, “Jesus summoned those he wanted…” Prayer is our response to God’s summons.
The Catechism puts this beautifully when it calls prayer a “covenant drama.” In that context, it teaches us:
God calls man first. Man may forget his Creator or hide far from his face; he may run after idols or accuse the deity of having abandoned him; yet the living and true God tirelessly calls each person to that mysterious encounter known as prayer. In prayer, the faithful God’s initiative of love always comes first; our own first step is always a response.
– CCC 2567
God is always summoning us, calling us out of the hustle and bustle of our lives to “be his companions.”
Developing the contemplative dimension of our Christian lives involves developing our capacity to hear this summons, in whatever way it comes.
The Decision to Pray Daily
So what does a healthy prayer life look like for today’s Christian?
Plenty of websites and prayer books can help you get a picture of that, and we will recommend some of them at the end of this Retreat Guide. But none of those resources can pray for you.
Each one of us has to decide, every day, how much God matters to us, and pray accordingly. And it has to be every single day. We wouldn’t eat only on Sundays. We wouldn’t breathe only on Sundays.
Well, prayer, this intimate exchange between our heart and Christ’s heart, is as essential for our souls as eating and breathing are for our bodies. As we grow in our spiritual life, prayer comes to accompany us more and more throughout every moment of the day.
But to get to that point, and to keep growing even when we have arrived there, we also need to set aside specific times to pray, to “be alone and converse with the one we know loves us,” as St. Teresa of Avila put it.
The Catechism makes this point forcefully in its section on prayer:
Prayer is the life of the new heart. It ought to animate us at every moment. But we tend to forget him who
is our life and our all. This is why the Fathers of
the spiritual life in the Deuteronomic and prophetic traditions insist that prayer is a remembrance of God often awakened by the memory of the heart. We must remember God more often than we draw breath. But we cannot pray at all times if we do not pray at specific times, consciously willing it. These are the special times of Christian prayer, both in intensity and duration.
– CCC 2697
If you feel that your prayer life could improve, don’t wait to do something about it. Right now, at the end of this meditation, renew your commitment to this first pillar of our Christian living, to “being Christ’s companions.”
And if you don’t know where to start, ask God to show you; how could he refuse such a request? In the end, we really learn to pray by praying.
And the single most important factor in our life of prayer is our decision to make prayer an integral part of our life.
The Decision to Pray Daily
Jesus summons us to be his companions, to develop a life of prayer, where we can get to know him intimately, heart-to-heart.
This is the first dimension of a complete Christian life.
The importance of this dimension was perhaps the most insistent theme of the pontificate of Pope Benedict
XVI, and so I will let him have the last word in this meditation.
Only if we are able to turn to God, to pray to him, do we discover the deepest meaning of our life, and the daily routine is illumined by the light of the Risen One.
– Pope Benedict XVI, 25 April 2011
Questions for Personal Reflection or Group Discussion
1 How would I describe my life of prayer as it is now? How would I like to be able to describe it?
2 What one thing could I change in my daily/weekly schedule that would have the most positive impact on my growth in prayer?
3 Recall some personal experiences of prayer that made a deep impression. Savor them, thank God for them, and try to learn from them.
Biblical Passages to Help Your Meditation
When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who
love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you. In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them. Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
– Matthew 6:5-8, NABR
Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for your selves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.
– Matthew 11:28-30, NABR
Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.
– 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, NABR
And do not get drunk on wine, in which lies debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another
[in] psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and playing to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks always and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father.
– Ephesians 5:18-20, NA