The Apostle to the Gentiles expresses the relational intimacy between God and the individual so well when he writes to the Romans, on the subject of prayer, that what we say in prayer has been put into our hearts by the fingerprint of God, the integral presence of God within our very beings: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the first-born among many brethren. And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies; who is to condemn? Is it Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us? Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8: 26 – 39, RSV)
Some may say that this article on prayer has now lost its way, because as yet we have not been instructed how to pray; but what I have been writing, is critical to the point at hand – the very vital, life-giving point – that is, before we can know how to pray, we must first understand why we pray; otherwise we are rightly condemned for lip-service, like our choristers in the introductory vignette. The majority of those choristers were singing for their careers. If they sang well, they would maintain their position, if they did not, they would lose all prospect of a scholarship. St. Augustine’s notion of praying twice when we sing, rests on worshipping God, rather than a concert performance. As Catholics we pray because we need to ‘communicate’ with the God that we ‘seek to understand’ and that we have a ‘desire’ to be in ‘relationship’ with. St. Paul in the previous passage, and in his writings reveals a rich, mystical, prayer life – but in expressing to the members of the early Church, his love for God, and God’s love for us, he is at the same time highlighting why he prays. He prays, for God to him, is both alive, and immediate. He has had an experience of God. St. Augustine of Hippo would express the importance of love, emotion and passion so eloquently in his Confessions, with words replete with burning desire: “Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you. In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would have not been at all … You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness. You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness. You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace”. In a world that has increasingly perverted sexuality separating the beauty of the sexual drive from the Creator’s intent, the words of St. Augustine may make some shudder. But St. Augustine’s words cut to the core of prayer. Prayer must be about emotion, integrity, depth, and desire. Prayer requires authenticity. Therefore we hear the Psalmist crying out across the millennia: “Out of the depths I cried to thee, O Lord. O Lord, hearken to my voice; let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplication. If thou, O Lord shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand? For with thee is forgiveness: for thy name’s sake have I waited for thee. O Lord, my soul has waited for thy word. My soul has hoped in the Lord; from the morning watch till night.” (Psalm CXXIX, i – vi, LXX).
And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing
Some of you may be wishing to stop reading in the mistaken belief, that if prayer is about writing or thinking like a St. Augustine or a King David, then it can’t be for the common man or woman. The examples I have just chosen to provide, are merely that; pieces of sacred text that serve to highlight how a few well-known people of prayer – have prayed. Poignantly though, Christ lauds the simple prayer, spoken in earnest by the publican, rather than the self-righteous soliloquy offered by the Pharisee in the Temple. Let St. Luke the Evangelist re-affirm this point: “And he [Christ] told them a parable, to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor regarded man; and there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Vindicate me against my adversary.’ For a while he refused; but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor regard man, yet because this widow bothers me, I will vindicate her, or she will wear me out by her continual coming.'” And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God vindicate his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will vindicate them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?” He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18: 1 – 14, RSV).
We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose
This lesson on prayer, and the need to be speaking from the heart, aware of the presence of God, and aware of your relationship with Him, was hammered home to me when I travelled to Warsaw in 2000 in order to be best man at the wedding of a Polish food scientist who was studying in Sweden at the same time I was writing my Doctoral thesis on Mystical Theology. The night before the wedding Grzegorz and myself shared a room in cramped isolation from the rest of the gathering clan who were filling up the family home for the big event. It had been a long day, and my eyes were steadily closing. Grzegorz called me from the couch he was sleeping on, and asked if I could pray with him for God to bless his marriage. We sat down together, and I led a short prayer from the bank of prayers I knew from memory. Contented that I had done my duty, I made to return to my couch, when Grzegorz asked if he could now lead the prayer as well. We resumed praying with Grzegorz leading this time. What Grzegorz prayed, unintentionally put me to shame. He had no recourse to the writings of any Saint, nor to any prayer he knew from his junior school Catechism classes, but rather for twenty minutes, he prayed, ardently, passionately, emotionally, imploring God to bless his wife to be and any future children the pair might have. I had been tired previously, but the light of Grzegorz’s prayer woke me. His prayer was filled with a simple beauty; it came from the heart and was truthful. Grzegorz’s prayer taught me a number of lessons, not the least of which was that every person who has a personal relationship with God, can pray like the Saints. I recall today Grzegorz’s prayer each time I hear a priest deliver a tired homily, or when I hear those choristers on CD singing like the angels. With prayer, it is the heart that dictates the quality. That is why each one of us is attracted to prayers that we know have been written in states of distress, for we can feel the pain, the suffering, the remorse; what we feel as well, is the certain conviction that the person praying is actually speaking to a Being that is alive and capable of hearing their plea. Singing without love, amounts to praying without love; and as St. Paul writes: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, * but have not love, I gain nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13: 1 – 3, RSV). Each one of us is capable of having a Road to Damascus experience – if we are open to hearing the voice of God in our daily lives, and are prepared to see God amidst the events of the mundane.
Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania
This article was published in The Church and Life Newspaper, September 2018