“Holiness consists in a habitual openness to the transcendent.”
When I was younger, I often thought of prayer as more or less a mental exercise. I don’t even think I called it prayer, but it was about the closest thing I came to it. My “prayers” constituted nothing more than self-reflection, with perhaps the Golden Rule and other general godly aphorisms sprinkled in like spice. In the worst times in my life, these “prayers” mimicked the nonsensical, essentially atheistic prayers of buddhist self-emptying, a descent into nothingness or oblivion.
Surely by God’s grace and through the work of others, particularly my college professors and Pope Benedict, I began to realize that prayer was much more than this. As Pope Benedict taught, prayer is the foundation for a relationship with God. But, I erroneously thought at this stage that the closer I felt to Jesus, the better my prayer would be. Not surprisingly, however, as I struggled to find closeness with God in the midst of my sin and confusion, my prayer life correspondingly suffered.
It was not until Pope Francis that my understanding of prayer was further deepened. What I learned, primarily, is that prayer is not predicated on a feeling of closeness. In fact, this completely upends the Church’s teachings on grace, among other things. One cannot create feelings of closeness with God in one’s soul, at least not feelings that reflect reality.
I learned that prayer, in contrast, is the way in which God orients our minds and hearts to him in all things. Through prayer, we become more like Christ and consequently grow close to him, who may (but not always) in turn provide a feeling of closeness as well, a wonderful consolation in our difficult lives. It’s for this reason, Francis says in Gaudete et Exsultate (G&E) “I do not believe in holiness without prayer”. In Francis’ mind, one cannot be holy without prayer.
In the opening quotation, I shared Francis’ insight that prayer, being foundational to holiness, is a “habitual openness” to God. That is to say, Saints are not holy only on some days or some of the time, but in all that they do remain open to God’s presence in their lives. Echoing St. Paul’s exhortation to “pray without ceasing,” it’s clear that prayer at its essence is communing with God in all our daily activities.
But, as Francis teaches us, this does not belittle the importance of moments of silent, undistracted prayer. In G&E, he writes, “Some moments spent alone with God are also necessary”. Separately, he tweeted, “Only in the silence of prayer can you learn to listen to the voice of God.” This has been the most transformative teaching for me personally. After reading G&E, I read the beginning chapters of Cardinal Sarah’s recent book, The Power of Silence, which echoes these insights from Francis on prayer. In that book, Cardinal Sarah points to the necessity of silence, which is not synonymous with “quiet” but often requires quiet. Silence is the deep stillness out of which we hear the voice of God.
This passage from 1 Kings particularly relevant:
“And behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. And when Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. And behold, there came a voice to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Francis insists that this silent voice of God isn’t just an ethereal thing with little relevance for our daily living. Rather, he states quite clearly that through prayer we discern, “in the light of the Spirit, the paths of holiness to which the Lord is calling us.” Like in the passage from 1 Kings, the Lord’s words to Elijah became a prompting, a call to action. Prayer is not just an activity we ascribe to all the Saints because holy people pray. Rather, through prayer, Christians learn exactly how they are to become holy in the first place.
What a miracle this is, that God speaks to us daily, constantly, in the depths of our heart and reveals to us his plan for our lives!
At the same time that prayer is absolutely necessary, prayer can also be very difficult. I love this tweet from Pope Francis: “Praying is not like using a magic wand. Prayer requires commitment, constancy, and determination.” Prayer, of course, should not come in spurts, just as holiness is not an occasional thing. As indicated by the opening quotation, what we are referring to here are habits, a constant “openness to the transcendent” that leads to patterns of love in all aspects of our daily life.
What makes prayer even more difficult, of course, is that silence is not easily obtained. In both our external world, full of noise and excitement, and our internal world, full of vices and anxieties, we find it very difficult to create even the conditions for silence to exist, and therefore to pray well. Now embedded forever in the Church’s English language catechetics is Francis’ word, “zapping,” which also refers to the way we intentionally remain distracted about our lives, never caring to think deeply or seriously about any one issue.
Moreover, what we find in that silence may in fact not be God at all but yet just another distraction or even the devil working against us. This is most disturbing. By creating the conditions for silence, we should not think we are summoning God’s presence through our willpower. Rather, silence is the way to hear and discern the voice of God already present in our lives. As Francis tweeted, “Seek the Lord in prayer: He is the one who has called you.” In other words, prayer is really about responding in a dialogue which God himself has already initiated. We hear God’s calling within the history of our faith, in the Sacraments, in Scripture, through adoration, and in our charity, among other things. This is the voice we discern when God speaks to us in the silence.
This concept of “hearing” is also important to Pope Benedict, whose voice is carried by these words found in Lumen Fidei: “Faith’s hearing emerges as a form of knowing proper to love: it is a personal hearing, one which recognizes the voice of the Good Shepherd (cf. Jn 10:3-5); it is a hearing which calls for discipleship, as was the case with the first disciples: “Hearing him say these things, they followed Jesus” (Jn 1:37).” To summarize, we hear the voice of God in prayer, calling us to deeper love, only within the context of God’s gift of faith to us.
In my experience, it is vastly understated in modern catechetics how vital prayer is to a holy life. It’s perhaps even more understated what a miracle the very idea of prayer is, that God created us a capacity to dialogue with him in the depths of our hearts, to not only speak to him but also to hear him. Making our invisible God manifest in our daily living through prayer might be a phenomenon unfamiliar and uncomfortable to our surrounding culture, increasingly empirical in nature. But as Francis suggests, having a “supernatural understanding” is critical if we are to remain close to Christ. As we approach Christmas, let us pray that the Word be made incarnate in each of us, in our lives, and let our prayer with him guide us in the paths of holiness.