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Preparing for Lent: Learning to Pray, Love, and Live Our Lives in Communion with God

By Deacon Keith Fournier
February 11th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

"The so-called "practical people" are not really the most useful in the service of Christ's Church, nor are those who merely expound theories. Rather it is the true contemplatives who best serve her; those with the steady, generous and passionate desire of transfiguring and divinizing all creation with Christ and in Christ. It may sound paradoxical, but in the Church of Jesus Christ, the mystic is the only practical person" (Bishop Alvaro del Portillo) We will live the way we love and we will love the way we pray. Lent calls us to learn the way of prayer.

CHESAPEAKE, VA (Catholic Online) - I am frequently asked what I think is the greatest need in the Church today. Because of my work - and much of my writing - people presume how I will answer. They expect me to be what they call "action oriented" and "practical."  My answer is simple. "The greatest need in the Church today is more people who pray", I respond.

One of my favorite Bishops once wrote, "The so-called "practical people" are not really the most useful in the service of Christ's Church, nor are those who merely expound theories. Rather it is the true contemplatives who best serve her; those with the steady, generous and passionate desire of transfiguring and divinizing all creation with Christ and in Christ. It may sound paradoxical, but in the Church of Jesus Christ, the mystic is the only practical person" (Bishop Alvaro del Portillo)

In the biblical accounts of the earthly life of Jesus we discover the way in which He lived in a continual communion with the Father. They are meant to teach us the way of prayer. Here are but a few snippets of many passages in the Gospels;

After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, heaven was opened (Luke 3:21);

He was praying in a certain place, and when he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray just as John taught his disciples." He said to them, "When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. (Luke 11: 1-3);

In those days he departed to the mountain to pray, and he spent the night in prayer to God. When day came, he called his disciples to himself, and from them he chose Twelve, whom he also named apostles: (Luke 6:12-13);

About eight days after he said this, he took Peter, John, and James and went up the mountain to pray. While he was praying his face changed in appearance and his clothing became dazzling white." (Luke 9:28-29)

Jesus was a man of prayer. We often think that He prayed the way He did only "because He was Divine." However, in his sacred humanity he reveals the fullness of our own humanity, as redeemed and recreated in Him. The Fathers of the 2nd Vatican Council reminded us of this: 

"The truth is that only in the mystery of the Incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light. For Adam, the first man, was a figure of Him Who was to come, namely Christ the Lord. Christ, the final Adam, by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear." (GS #22)

In Jesus, we find a new way of being human, beginning right now. He Himself is the Way, the Truth and the Life. (Jn. 14:16) By His Incarnation - His Saving Life, Death, Resurrection and Ascension- we are capacitated by grace to live differently. We can become what spiritual writers have long called "sons (and daughters) in the Son."

The prayer of Jesus opened the heavens, brought provision to the hungry, gave Him clarity for making decisions and brought the glory of heaven to earth and earth to heaven. Prayer still does all of this, and more, for all who will learn how to live their lives immersed in God as He did.

Through prayer we recover the capacity for a communion of love with the living God and learn how to plunge ourselves into its embrace. Through prayer we cry out with Jesus, "Abba Father." No longer alienated from God, we participate in the inner life of God. God dwells in us and we dwell in Him through His Spirit. This is prayer. It is not so much about doing or getting but rather about being, receiving, giving, and loving.

Through prayer, daily life takes on a new meaning. It becomes a classroom of communion. In that classroom we learn the truth about who we are - and who we are becoming - in Jesus. Through prayer we receive new glasses through which we see the true landscape of life and find the way to walk.

Through prayer darkness is dispelled and the path of true progress is illuminated. Through prayer we begin to understand why this kind of communion seems so elusive at times. Because of sin, we struggle with our own disordered appetites, and live in a manner at odds with the beauty and order of the creation within which we dwell. Then, through prayer, we find the way to freedom from the effects of sin and a new beginning. We learn to live as penitents, eagerly confessing our sin and regularly returning to our first love.

Prayer opens us to Revelation, expands our capacity to comprehend truth and equips us to change, through conversion. Through prayer we are drawn into a deepening relationship with Jesus, whose loving embrace on the hill of Golgotha bridged heaven and earth.  His relationship with His Father is opened now to us. The same Spirit that raised Him from the dead begins to give us new life as we are converted, transfigured and made new.

Through prayer, heavenly wisdom is planted in the field of our hearts. We experience communion with the Trinitarian God. We become, in the words of the Apostle Peter "partakers of the divine nature." (2 Peter 1:4) That participation will only be fully complete when we are with Him in the fullness of His embrace, in Resurrected Bodies in a New Heaven and a New Earth, but it begins now, in the grace of this present moment.

Christian prayer does not always bring consolation, at least at the affective or emotional level. However, it does always bring an increase in this communion. It is there where we find every answer, by living in God. In prayer we learn to crawl into the wounded side of the Savior and find our home next to His Sacred Heart.

At the Wednesday General Audience of February 8, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI shared some thoughts on these words Jesus uttered from the Cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

"Today I want to reflect with you on the cry of Jesus from the Cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" This cry comes after a three-hour period when there was darkness over the whole land."

"Darkness is an ambivalent symbol in the Bible - while it is frequently a sign of the power of evil, it can also serve to express a mysterious divine presence. Just as Moses was covered in the dark cloud when God appeared to him on the mountain, so Jesus on Calvary is wrapped in darkness."

"Even though the Father appears to be absent, in a mysterious way his loving gaze is focused upon the Son's loving sacrifice on the Cross. It is important to realize that Jesus' cry of anguish is not an expression of despair."

"On the contrary, this opening verse of Psalm twenty-two conveys the entire content of the psalm, it expresses the confidence of the people of Israel that despite all the adversity they are experiencing, God remains present among them, he hears and answers his people's cry."

In the light of prayer, even pain can become the material for our personal transformation and enable us to open ourselves more to the fullness of life. Even when darkness seems to cover our own land, when the Father seems to be absent, prayer reveals His loving gaze. He always hears.

The God who is Love hungers for the communion of sons and daughters - and we hunger for communion with Him - because He made us this way. Nothing else will satisfy. The early Church Father Origen once wrote: "Every spiritual being is, by nature, a temple of God, created to receive into itself the glory of God."

We will live the way we love and we will love the way we pray. A spiritual writer of the 20th century, Henri Nouwen, understood the intimacy of prayer and the call to live in God. He wrote these words in his work entitled "Lifesigns":

"Jesus, in whom the fullness of God dwells, has become our home by making his home in us he allows us to make our home in him. By entering into the intimacy of our innermost self he offers us the opportunity to enter into his own intimacy with God. By choosing us as his preferred dwelling place, he invites us to choose him as our preferred dwelling place.

"This is the mystery of the incarnation. Here we come to see what discipline in the spiritual life means. It means a gradual process of coming home to where we belong and listening there to the voice which desires our attention. Home is the place where that first love dwells and speaks gently to us. Prayer is the most concrete way to make our home in God."

Another teacher of prayer of the last century was the Trappist Monk, Fr. Louis. He is known to most as Thomas Merton. He once commented on his many writings in these words, "Whatever I may have written, I think it all can be reduced in the end to this one root truth: that God calls human persons to union with Himself and with one another in Christ, in the Church which is His Mystical Body.

"It is also a witness to the fact that there is and must be, in the church, a contemplative life which has no other function than to realize these mysterious things, and return to God all the thanks and praise that human hearts can give Him."

As I grow older, things are becoming simpler. Left behind with the years was some of my propensity to complicate things. I seem to hunger for more and more prayer. Through prayerful surrender to the loving plans of God in our own lives we go deeper into this communion.

We see His loving gaze. In this communion with God, fear dissipates and everything is bathed in love.  After all, when all is stripped away, there is only God, and God is Love. The beloved disciple John put it so clearly, "God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him." (1 John 4:16)

In His Sacred Humanity the Lord Jesus prayed for each of us.  "May they be one, as you Father are in me and I am in you." (John 17) The words of this prayer reveal the purpose and final goal of human existence; we are all called to love as God loves - to love with God's Love. This occurs through prayer.

Prayer leads us into an ever deepening, intimate, loving relationship with God, and, in Him, into a new relationship with all men and women and creation itself. Contemplatives comprehend, or rather, are comprehended by, this experience of communion. They literally fall in love with God.

As we prepare for the Great Lent, the forty days of concentrated prayer, penance, fasting and almsgiving, we have an opportunity to learn to pray again. To be drawn into a deeper place in the communion of God's love. We will provide materials which will help in the Lenten Journey.

All Christians are called to prayer. Only prayer can satisfy the hunger of our souls. It also changes us. It strips away only what impedes love. Those who pray can then become lanterns of love for others seeking the way through the darkness of their own lives.  Lent is a time to learn to pray, to love, and to live our Lives more fully in Communion with God.

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