When I begin the work of spiritual direction with someone, an initial question I ask is “Do you pray?” Perhaps because the type of people who would seek out a priest is more religious anyway, most of them say “Yes.” But good follow-up queries are to ask, simply, “When?” and “How much?” Immediately a snapshot of a person’s prayer life comes into view. We also begin the first efforts at breaking down the walls of deception, to one’s self and to others. I have witnessed the uncomfortable silence where people who claimed to pray were unable to give a solitary instance of personal prayer, other than perhaps the bedside prayers they said as children. Others will say that they pray at Mass. Certainly liturgical and corporate prayer is efficacious, but what is it if personal prayer has disappeared? It can happen that a person who goes through the mechanical motions of prayer may not really be praying at all—just satisfying the demands of duty.
Nothing can replace personal prayer. We cannot have a corporate faith and trust in Christ as a Church unless there is an essential personal relationship with Jesus. Every Catholic should be able to answer the evangelical question, “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?” with a resounding, “Yes!” Directives from Rome to replace the current translation of the Creed at Mass with one more faithful to the Latin is illustrative of this. We make the profession of faith together, but for each member, it is “I believe . . . .”
We bend the knee and cry out, “Lord, forgive me, I am a sinner.” This is where our personal prayer begins and this is the posture to which we repeatedly return. While our Lord was sinless, Christ our Savior could make such a prayer with us in mind. He came into the world specifically to do his saving work—to forgive sins and to heal the rift inflicted by the primordial rebellion. Long before he said those fateful words from the Cross, he no doubt prayed alone, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”
It is only in prayer with God that we find ourselves. The tragedy of our times is that so many people, particularly the young, search for meaning in the seemingly exotic non-Christian religions of the East while there is a vibrant and enormous spiritual heritage left undiscovered in the Christian West. Others push aside religion altogether and worship the false God they see in the mirror. Still others attempt to inebriate themselves with alcohol, drugs and the sins of the flesh as a distraction from the real purpose of existence. No matter whether we want to accept it or not, every one of us was made for God. As the catechism taught so many of us, we were made to know, to love, and to serve God and to give glory and to be happy with him forever in the life to come. All Christian prayer must be reflective of this truth.
How can we really say we love God if we do not communicate with him? Prayer is love-talk between ourselves and God, and not just one way either. This is important because a not so subtle atheism can infect contemporary men and women. They can pray as if it is a soliloquy and they are utterly alone. They can tell themselves what they want to hear and fail to appreciate the true voice of God that challenges every believer to embrace the Cross and to be a sign of contradiction in the world. Sometimes we should speak less in our prayer and listen more. Placing ourselves in the divine presence, we need to spend time allowing God to speak to our hearts. Those who do this are often amazed at the insights they are given. There are few secrets to existence and discipleship that are not revealed by prayer.
Father Joe Jenkins