St. Augustine of Hippo, the great doctor of the Latin Church, once wrote that when we sing in praise of God, we pray twice. Be that as it may, I remember once asking members of one of the most famous Church choirs in the world, whether they believed in God or not. Out of twenty five young choristers that I quizzed, three said they believed in God, and of these three, one was certainly equivocating, and the other two (not related to one another) were also struggling with their Faith; influenced in no small way by the prevailing culture of unbelief within the choir. The parents of the two latter choristers, for their part, did occasionally encourage prayer in the home and took their sons to Church. What I found most astonishing was that these choristers spent nearly nine months of every year singing some of the most exquisite sacred music ever written, in some of the most beautiful Cathedrals ever built, yet they were mostly agnostics, if not confirmed atheists. For me this begged the question: so what would convince young boys to give so much of their times and lives to sing to the glory of God, without believing in His very existence? The answer is cynical, if not mercenary. The majority of the choir sang in order to receive a scholarship to further their education. Years of service in the choir meant significantly increased chances of entry to some of the most competitive and prestigious schools in their nation, as well as the lure of considerable scholarship assistance. The symbiotic ‘pay-off’ was that the Church was assured of a cross generational supply of excellent music, and that the choristers received a stepping stone to better career paths. Perhaps the Church could be excused by also believing that the choristers, if nothing else, would ‘pick up’ God by osmosis. Victor Frankl could have summed up this scenario by saying that if you can give a man a reason for living – he can put up with almost anything you throw at him; including nine months a year of praising a God that doesn’t exist. Moreover St. Augustine’s notion of praying twice, assuredly pre-supposes that there must be something to pray to; but I will get to more of that line of thought in a moment.
- Christ Our Pascha – Catechism UGCC: The “Our Father”
- Understanding Prayer
- Prayer in the Life of the Church. Synodal letter of His Beatitude Sviatoslav
I was asked recently to make a few comments about prayer and its importance in the Catholic context; to write something that the layman and laywoman would find accessible, but which may also help stimulate their interest to learn more about prayer. Such a commission is very precarious to say the least, as the American philosopher William James soon discovered and commented upon in his work, The Varieties of Religious Experience. James, after enthusiastically diving into a study of the great Catholic mystics and spiritual masters, re-surfaced from this immersion, a little worse for wear. He wrote: “Our time would not suffice, for one thing; and moreover, I confess that the subdivisions and names which we find in the Catholic books seem to me to represent nothing objectively distinct. So many men, so many minds…”. (James, W., 1902: 408).
The sheer breadth of the history of Catholic prayer life as daunting as it is to study, has a number of central characteristics that can be selected, and expanded upon, in order to illustrate to the reader interesting avenues by which to enrich their understanding of the individual’s journey into God, through prayer.
The purpose of the Creation of the world is to express the love of the Creator for everything that He has created.
Returning back now to the opening vignette, perhaps the most fundamental facet of Catholic prayer life is the unequivocal belief that God exists, and more than this, that God wants to be a part of the life of each person that He has created. Other world religions of course do profess a belief in God, but God in the Catholic/Christian sense, has a heightened degree of intimacy, by virtue of the Incarnation. St. Augustine is able to write that there is now no depth of suffering that God has not been to in the human condition, far deeper, and in a more ‘perfect’ sense than any other individual has ever experienced, by way of the mystery of the Incarnation.
In addition in the Catholic context the role of the Creator is not one of having begun a chain of events, and then sitting back to watch how this Creation arbitrarily finds itself struggling to come to terms with the multitudinous factors that play out one against the other. The purpose of the Creation of the world is to express the love of the Creator for everything that He has created. This love calls the person into a relationship with the Creator; yet still more so, with all of Creation, that which breathes and that which is inanimate, all of which redounds by its very nature to the glory of God. (cf. Psalm CXLVIII, LXX)
We should pray with same tender love as the child who reaches to touch his mother’s face while nursing at her breast. We should pray with the same faith as the child who trusts as his father holds the back of the bicycle teaching the child to ride. We should pray with the same hope that the young adult holds in their heart, that they will return safely, as they look at their parents prior to embarking on a long journey.
Now with regard the individual, whether or not they perceive a relationship, or want to be in a relationship with the Creator, is a different story, from whether God exists and longs to love the individual. A child can disown their parent, but this action does not in anyway preclude the necessity for their parent having existed. In what should be the best case scenario, the relationship with God, should be not only an extension, but more so a macrocosm of the human parent child relationship. Few parents wish to bring into this world a child (that after having been lovingly begotten) they then abandon to have nothing to do with. To the contrary, most parents enjoy seeing how their child grows, learns and develops; they also enjoy being loved by their child, and enjoy imparting their love to their child. God is seen in such a light by many of the spiritual masters of the Catholic Church. Scripture is replete with the analogy of God acting not only as a human parent, but in a way far more committed than even the most loving human parent. (cf. John 14: 18 & cf. Isaiah 49: 15) In fact this perspective of a parent to child bond between God and the individual was explicitly taught by Christ. We recollect how when the disciples requested of Christ that they be taught how to pray to God effectively, that Christ taught them not to spout forth meaningless words devoid of emotion or thought, but that they speak to God as ‘Father’. Even the most sacred words of prayer, can be perverted by a heart filled with hate. (cf. Matthew 6: 9 – 13). Christ provides a radical insight into prayer life by spelling out to his Disciples and those who follow, that God is as interested and attached to the individual, not only as a human parent, but even more so as an omniscient, omnipresent and omnipotent parent. God knows, cares, and so loves the individual, that He has chosen to be one like us. (cf. John 3: 16). God provides us with our ‘daily bread’, as well as our spiritual food, and promise of a world to come, within the profound words of The Lord’s Prayer. The radical nature of Christ’s teaching should not be lost, no matter how many times one has heard it taught. God walks with us (cf. Matthew 1: 23) – and yet more, He is in us, and knows us more than we know our very selves. The nature of God and the human person is thus in the Catholic context, one of sublime intimacy. We should pray with same tender love as the child who reaches to touch his mother’s face while nursing at her breast. We should pray with the same faith as the child who trusts as his father holds the back of the bicycle teaching the child to ride. We should pray with the same hope that the young adult holds in their heart, that they will return safely, as they look at their parents prior to embarking on a long journey. We should pray thus with: faith, hope and love, acknowledging an inextricable bond between us and God – inextricable that is, only until we choose to break this bond, by sin. But yet still our prayer life is always open to our Divine parent, even in our sinfulness, if we seek to open the channel of love calling on the Divine Mercy.
Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania
This article was published in The Church and Life Newspaper, August 2018