Why pray, today?
Something strange is happening in the Church today. We are told people are praying less. Time and again many young people, even in religious life and in our seminaries are asking the question: Why pray?
Why spend so much time in prayer when the world needs personal acts of charity and justice? Isn’t it useless to give so many hours each day to private and liturgical prayer when we could be helping our fellowman in society? Isn’t our work our prayer? Is it not more important to feed the hungry, teach the ignorant, or even to join in protest marches against unjust wars, racism, unjust political parties and governments? Didn’t the Second Vatican Council call on all Christians « to work with all men in the building of a more human world? » (Gaudium et Spes, 37).
There is no doubt that the world is pleading for more charity and more social justice, just as the Church is. It is important that we take positive action against unjust wars, racial injustice, poverty, and ignorance, for such action, supernaturally motivated, can be worship of God as well as helpful to our neighbor. But, we ask, must we do these things at the expense of prayer understood in its ordinary sense? Are acts of direct benevolence to our fellowman more important than acts of prayer that look directly to God? Must we consider prayer superfluous? Is it possible to build a more human world without direct adoration and praise of God? These questions demand an answer and we hope to give them to you.
But first, let us say that there is a false humanism spreading among us today, that would reduce all religion to ethics — all good works to acts of external charity and justice to our neighbor, and would neglect man’s relationship with God, precisely because it fails to see the necessity of worship and its social value for making man more human. In fact, for such humanists God is dead. Man alone and the development of his personality is the only thing that counts. Man must be concerned only with man. With such a mentality, of course, prayer is meaningless.
It is not our intention to show here that man needs God, or that atheism is an absurdity. We leave that to others, since we suppose that you are a Christian. What we would want to do is to bring out clearly the place prayer must play in your life, if you are genuinely interested in being a Christian, and especially if you want to follow Christ more perfectly, and share to some degree the life he lived on earth.
Christ and prayer
So we ask: what was the life of Christ on earth? You answer that he « went about doing good. » And this is true, but it is not the whole truth. His life was more than a going about doing good. Doing good is what people could see, but there was more to the life of Christ than meets the eye. There was his hidden life, the life of his mind, his heart, his emotions. And in this sense the life of Christ was eminently a prayer, because his mind, his will, his whole being was centered in his Father.
Consequently, he carried on a continual, uninterrupted conversation, or better, communion with his Father, of whom he was always conscious even when he was addressing the crowds, answering a question, or performing some act of charity (cfr. Jo. 11:41; 8:12; Mt. 11:27; Lk. 10:22). If we sincerely wish then to follow Christ, we will try to live always with him in the presence of the Father. To answer your question then: « Why pray? » we say: Christ prayed, he prayed continually. He was the perfect contemplative always aware of the presence of his Father. Should we not try to imitate Christ? Is it not true that while he went about doing good, he was also in constant communion with his Father?
But let us go into this matter a little more deeply to find out the reasons why Christ prayed and why we should pray.
Prayer is often called conversation with God. Conversation here should not be limited to speaking with God, but rather means communion with God, being with God. Hence, we can converse with God in this sense without any words, by just being conscious and lovingly aware of his presence. In this sense prayer has three functions: first, it gives glory and thanksgiving to God, and this is man’s first duty as a human being. Secondly, prayer sanctifies man, that is, it brings him into close union with God, and for this there is no substitute for prayer. Thirdly, prayer is humanitarian, in so far as it benefits our fellowman. For it has great apostolic value, and under this aspect it is second to no other apostolic work. Let us carefully examine these functions of prayer.
Prayer glorifies God
Prayer gives glory and thanks to God. It is a loving response of a son to his Father. As creatures we are totally dependent on the mercy of God, our Father, from whom we have life and all good things including our salvation. Our very nature, therefore, demands that we honor, adore and give thanks to God. We do this by good deeds, but also by raising our minds and hearts to God in praise. In praising God we join Jesus who adored his Father continually, often reciting the psalms both in private and in public. He also taught his disciples how to praise and honor God. When they came to him and said: « Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples, » he answered: « When you pray, say, Our Father who art in heaven hallowed be thy name » (Mt. 6:9-13; Lie. 11:2-2). Let us note well, that he implicitly said that prayer is directed to his Father, and is not action in the service of man.
We should adore God in private and in public prayer. For Christ told us to pray in secret. « But when you pray, go to your private room and, when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in that secret place, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you » (Mt. 6:6). He also gave us the Mass as our greatest public prayer. In every Mass Christ offers himself to the Father as he did at the Last Supper and on Calvary. But the Mass is not only Christ's act of adoration, it is ours, it is the Church’s for we offer ourseleves; the Church, that is, offers itself to the Father in union with Christ. How wrong it is then to see the Mass as only a ceremony of Christian fellowship and fraternity that fulfills our need of companionship and human friendship, when it is first and foremost an act of adoration, of thanksgiving and of petition to God, the Father, in the company of Jesus.
We give glory to God with Christ not only in the liturgical celebration of the Eucharist, but also in the recitation of the Divine Office, which is better entitled the Prayer of the Church, because it is intended to be the public and common prayer of the People of God. The new Breviary contains such riches that it is meant to be the daily prayer book of all the faithful, especially for their morning and evening prayers, and not a book reserved to priests and religious.
When we pray in common Christ promised he would always preside (Mt. 18:20). He prayed the psalms. They were written in his mother tongue and were natural expressions of the feelings of his soul. How often had he said the Hallel (psalms 113-118), which were intoned at the paschal meal? At the Last Supper how full of meaning the words: « What return can I make Yahweh for all his goodness to me? I will offer libations to my saviour, invoking the name of Yahweh » (Ps. 116:13-14). When we recite the psalms we should do this in union with Christ applying the meaning to our concrete circumstances and needs, giving them a personal meaning in our lives. Then, with Christ we bless the Father, cry for help, burst forth in thanks and praise. This we should do in community prayer, but we should continue it also privately throughout the day, following the admonition of St. Paul, who said: « Sing the words and tunes of the psalms and hymns when you are together, and go on singing and chanting to the Lord in your hearts, so that always and everywhere you are giving thanks to God who is our Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ» (Eph. 5:19-20; cf. 1 Thess. 5:18).
Prayer makes man holy
The second function of prayer is that it sanctifies us, makes us holy, brings us in mind and heart close to Christ and to the Father. The prayer of Christ, of course, did not fulfill this function. He was most holy in his human nature from the first moment of his incarnation. His constant prayer of adoration of the Father was really the expression of his perfect union with Him, but since we are very imperfect and often sinful, our prayer is a help to foster personal union with Christ and his Father, and this we must do for St. Paul says: « What God wants is for you all to be holy » (1 Thess. 4:3). As we grow in holiness, we grow in friendship with Christ and our prayer becomes an expression of our faith and love, but since we always are more or less imperfect, prayer will always be a means to overcome sin and to grow in greater intimacy with God. Hence, prayer for us will always have the function to sanctify us.
But how does prayer accomplish this? Isn’t it true that our works of charity will also do this? Yes, works of charity and fidelity to daily duties, do help to sanctify us. They are indeed necessary as Christ tells us in the Scriptures, and as Pope Paul has eloquently reminded us in his encyclical, The Progress of the People. But to remain steadfast and constant in our work and charity to others, we need to be close to God from whom we receive the strength to be steadfast in charity. But it is prayer that obtains grace from God, that helps us to grow in closeness to God, and to enter into that union that puts us on fire with love for our neighbor.
Take for example, mental prayer, and see how it affects our life. When we read and reflect on the Scriptures and especially on the life of Christ, our thoughts and affections undergo a change. Drawn to Christ we shun whatever would stand between us. We put on the mind of Christ which then influences our actions. With Christ in our heart we begin to speak to him warmly and affectionately, we ask for the strength and confidence that he said would come from prayer (Lk. 21:36). He hears our prayer and we receive strength and courage to face every crisis, and light to discern what should be done. At times consolation comes that inspires us to go forth and bravely face the problems of life. In a word, mental prayer helps to create within us that hidden life with Christ in God, that St. Paul speaks about in his letter to the Colossians (3:3). Once we have this hidden life, it will overflow naturally into works of charity, justice, mercy. Prayer, therefore, will not hinder our commitment to others, but rather will propel us to give ourselves more completely and unselfishly to the development and progress of the human family.
Besides mental prayer, the Mass, the Sacraments, the divine office, vocal prayers besides performing the function of praising God, help us to grow in intimacy with Him. Consider the sacrifice of the Mass in relation to ourselves. Just as the sun is the source of the light and warmth of the day, so the Mass is the source of daily grace that enlightens our minds and inflames our wills with love of Christ and our fellowmen. It is the Mass that is the greatest source of our holiness, providing our heart is in it. In each Mass we offer ourselves as victims to the Father with Christ, the principal offerer, and in the Mass we receive Christ, the victim, in holy communion. We die to ourselves at the consecration in union with Christ, in order to rise gloriously with him in the newness of life. This is the true celebration of the paschal mystery. And the holiness of life that we receive in holy communion is limited only by the disposition of our soul when we receive Christ. In other words, the more we open our hearts to receive Christ in the Eucharist, and the less attached we are to sin the more deeply will Christ reside within us, producing in our lives the fruits of the Spirit, joy, peace, chastity — and towards others — patience, kindness and generosity. This is true holiness and it is the fruit of our prayer. If we really love our neighbor and want the world to become more human, we will first sanctify ourselves, and for this prayer is indispensable.
Prayer is apostolic
We come now to the third function of prayer, its apostolic or humanitarian value. You say you want to help people who suffer from injustice, isolation, loneliness, hunger. You say you want to create a more human world. Very good. This is a most noble aspiration; indeed, it is your Christian vocation. But do not underestimate the value of prayer in humanizing the world. For it holds first rank among the good works you can do for others. And this, not only because it helps create within us a strong desire to sacrifice ourselves for others, but because, when it is prayer of petition, it asks of God, and obtains from him graces and blessings that God alone sends directly to those in need. That is why Christ said so often: « Ask, and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you » (Lk. 11:9-10).
Prayer brings God’s blessings to the human family. That is why the Church insists so much today on the bidding prayers of the faithful in Mass. That is why in seeking world peace the Holy Father and leaders of nations will ask for days of prayer. The request of the Holy Father to all nations of the world to make the first day of the year a day of peace is also an invitation to make it a day of special prayer, the instrument of peace. Some may scoff and think this is an idealistic way, perhaps an easy way, to seek a more human world, but after all peace must first be born in the hearts of men, and only God can enter there. Prayer is a powerful means to obtain God’s mercy to move and change the hearts of men.
Hence, we are not surprised when theologians tell us that even in the apostolic labor of ministering to souls, the apostolate of prayer should be placed above all external activities.
Moreover, Pius XII in his encyclical on the Mystical Body of Christ has this to say: « This is truly a tremendous mystery upon which we can never meditate enough: that the salvation of many souls depends upon the prayers and voluntary mortifications offered for that intention by the members of the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ, and upon the cooperation which priests and faithful, especially parents, must give to our Divine Saviour. »
There can be no doubt, then, that prayer has a great apostolic value. On the other hand it would be wrong to extol its value at the expense of other apostolic actions both internal and external, because penance, suffering, good example and all apostolic activity are also means of obtaining God’s grace for others. For example, we have seen from the words of Pope Pius XII quoted above that penance is important, and this is brought out for us in the words of Christ in response to his disciples who asked why they were not able to cast out devils. Christ answered: « This kind can be cast out in no way except by prayer and fasting » (Mt. 9:28).
Hence, all our good actions can give glory to God and cooperate in man's salvation. Our good actions, our whole life should praise God, but prayer has a primary and indispensable place in this. For this reason we must pray often, pray always. There is no substitute for prayer
Lord, how easy it is to live with you,
How easy it is to believe in you:
When my bewildered mind Falls back and faints away,
When the most intelligent men Cannot see any further than this evening,
And do not know what to do tomorrow.
You grant me the clear certainty That you exist, and you are concerned to see That not all roads which lead to the good Shall be closed.
On the crest of eternal glorj',
I turn around and am amazed
To see the distance I have covered
From when I was in desperation until now,
During that journey it was given to me
To convey a reflection of your light
Grant me what is necessary For me to go on reflecting it.
And I know that you have destined others To do what I do not succeed in doing.
A. Solzhenitsyn (Russian)
Winner of Nobel Prize for Literature, 1970