Pope Benedict XVI: Prayer is The Breath of The Soul and of Life
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It is prayer that fosters love of God; it is love of God that accomplishes all things. Our Lord Jesus Christ said, "I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing" (Jn 15:5). "If the lungs of prayer and of the Word of God do not nourish the breath of spiritual life," said Pope Benedict, "we risk suffocating in the midst of a thousand daily cares. Prayer is the breath of the soul and of life."
VATICAN CITY (Catholic Online) - The Holy Father spoke of the crucial importance of prayer during his catechesis given on Wednesday in St. Peter's Square before more than 20,000 of the faithful. The full translated text of the catechesis is available here for those of our readers who like to read it in its entirety. For now, I would like to build from a few of the pearls of wisdom our Holy Father laid out in his catechesis in order to show how the life of prayer leads us, aided by the grace of the Spirit, into living a happier life in the present and toward our ultimate goal of eternal happiness in God.
Recalling how the apostles addressed a problem which arose in the first Christian community in Jerusalem, Pope Benedict XVI drew a parallel between the manner in which the Church has always responded to difficulties throughout her history by prayerfully opening herself to the divine prompts of the Holy Spirit, and the way in which prayer, too, opens our own hearts and minds to God and thus enables us to respond properly to the many demands of daily life.
Given the numerous duties and responsibilities often shouldered as a part of life in contemporary society, it is easy to fall prey to the temptation to first concentrate our focus on the various tasks at hand, and then, only after their satisfactory completion, pray at the end of the day or when some other apparently suitable time presents itself. If such an attitude is allowed to continue, communication with God becomes less and less frequent, even subsiding altogether.
The Holy Father, however, reminded us that our strength originates and flows forth from the fount of prayer. Therefore we must give priority to "God and to our relationship with him in prayer, both as individuals and in the community. If we do not have the capacity to pause and listen to the Lord, to enter into dialogue with him, we risk becoming ineffectually agitated by problems, difficulties and needs, . . ." We might say, then, that prayer is an indispensable element in the reduction of stress in our lives.
It is helpful to note that our culture itself can reinforce the tendency to devalue prayer through an often exaggerated emphasis placed on productivity and efficiency. Therefore we should guard against the false notion that prayer somehow hampers our ability to accomplish those tasks set before us. Prayer is not an intrusion upon our duties, but rather it contributes toward our success in immeasurable ways: prayer opens us up to the sustaining and regenerative grace of the Holy Spirit, whose indwelling and transformative presence provides us with the life-giving nourishment so critical to our ability to function properly, fruitfully, and in a fully human way. It is clear that living in a healthy and balanced way hinges on the life of prayer.
Drawing on the lives of the saints, Pope Benedict noted that they "experienced profound unity between prayer and action, between total love of God and love for their fellows." It is prayer that fosters love of God; it is love of God that accomplishes all things. Our Lord Jesus Christ said, "I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing" (Jn 15:5).
The manner in which the saints lived illumine the fact that prayer not only disposes us to live a life in intimate communion with the Holy Trinity, but brings about, by cooperation with the grace of the Holy Spirit, the fruits of such a life as well. In participating and sharing in God's own divine life, we attain the fullness of our human potential -- there is no "better" or more "productive" way to live. If we desire to be truly and fully alive, prayer is the path to that life: one of ineffable beauty and well-being in Christ.
Prayer provides the impetus by which we move toward our end in God; it draws us toward our completion and, by the gift of the Spirit who intercedes for us (Acts 2:38; Rom 8:26), it raises all that we do beyond the strictly natural level. Through ardent prayer, the meaning of our life is gradually unveiled, we enjoy a new purpose and find a new hope, and those daily activities that previously seemed mundane take on new meaning. "If we do not pray trustingly every day," said Pope Benedict, "our activities become empty, they lose all profundity and are reduced to mere activism which, in the final analysis, leaves us unsatisfied. . . . Every step, every action in our lives, even in the Church, must be done before God, in prayer and in the light of his Word."
Prayer: The Path to Happiness
All men experience a natural desire for happiness; this desire "is of a divine origin: God has placed it in the human heart in order to draw man to the One who alone can fulfill it" (CCC 1718). St. Augustine understood such a concept well: "How is it, then, that I seek you, Lord? Since in seeking you, my God, I seek a happy life, let me seek you so that my soul may live, for my body draws life from my soul and my soul draws life from you" (Confessions 10, 20: PL 32, 791).
That many today fail to grasp such a concept is an immense tragedy. Fleeting pleasures and the many distractions of life are given priority, for they are rather easily attainable and provide a measure of temporary happiness, while God is viewed as a distant, impersonal "power" that is largely unreachable and who therefore is incapable of satisfying our thirst for happiness. The visible seems the more real, while the invisible Other who is Creator of reality as it is, is pushed into the background. Rather than seek happiness correctly, looking for it where it truly is, it is sought incorrectly in evanescent, created objects.
Although God is still thought of as "something" important, "something" that we need and rely upon, it is thought that he no longer intervenes in the natural course of events. Further, there is often little certainty that God is personally and actively present in one's life, or that he will reveal himself in a perceptible and unforgettable way to those who seek him.
Setting the disastrous effects of sin aside for the moment, perhaps this situation is -- among other things -- due to a lack of diligent and zealous persistence. That is, in today's consumeristic environment of quick gratification, it is somewhat difficult to find even Christians who are willing to put forth a consistent and prolonged effort in walking the path of faith in free and loving obedience. For instance, the Gospel life of humility, simplicity and prayer is deemed to be burdensome and unrewarding; the ascetic life of personal sacrifice that the saints embraced is thought to be far too radical; and an interior life of grace lived in unceasing prayer is labeled as "entirely unrealistic." Consequently, the heights of sanctity and perfection in which the joyous bliss of union with God is experienced is dismissed as nothing but "talk borne from an overactive, pious imagination." Again, many remain unconvinced of God's immanent presence and astonishing love: an incomparable love that, once tasted, cannot be forgotten -- not ever.
But union with God is a truly new and wondrous existence. And persistence is indeed necessary. The great mystics of the Church frequently wrote of the spiritual life of endurance. Beginners in prayer must often endure a prolonged period of dryness and darkness in which God seems distant, and in which even a small amount of suffering is found to be very difficult. How far along such a road each beginner must travel is unknowable: its distance and duration is a matter of God's good favor. It hardly seems possible, however, that those who persist in prayer and passionately live out the sacramental life in the womb of the Church would remain static: "I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry" (Psalm 40:2).
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Sin: The Self-Imposed Obstacle To Happiness
If we desire holiness and to become a person of prayer as a true disciple of Christ, if we thirst to set out on the road of life in the Spirit and taste the sweetness of the Lord (Psalm 31:19), it is crucial that we take a hard, serious and honest look at our life: are we living in grave sin? Are we attached to sin? Do we refuse to participate in the Liturgy of the Mass on days of obligation? Are we living in open dissent from the Magisterium of the Church? While there are many other serious questions we should ask ourselves, it is important to note that it is possible to pray or communicate with God while yet remaining unrepentant. In such a case, our relationship with Christ is superficial and insincere. The remedy is to return to God completely through heartfelt repentance, as did the Prodigal Son (see Lk 15:11 ff.).
Blessed John Paul II taught that repentance is an essential first step in returning to God and therefore must not be disregarded: "To acknowledge one's sin, indeed -- penetrating still more deeply into the consideration of one's own personhood -- to recognize oneself as being a sinner, capable of sin and inclined to commit sin, is the essential first step in returning to God. . . . In effect, to become reconciled with God presupposes and includes detaching oneself consciously and with determination from the sin into which one has fallen. It presupposes and includes, therefore, doing penance in the fullest sense of the term: repenting, showing this repentance, adopting a real attitude of repentance -- which is the attitude of the person who starts out on the road of return to the Father " (Reconciliation and Penance 13).
"Come now, let us set things right, says the LORD: Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow; . . . If you are willing, and obey, you shall eat the good things of the land; . . ." (Isaiah 1:18-19).
God Is My Helper; The Lord Is The Protector of My Soul (Psalm 54:4)
From eternity the Father has called us by the sacrifice of his Son into the womb of holy mother Catholic Church, that we become a people of prayer, true worshipers who will worship him in "spirit and truth" (Jn 4:23). God himself, therefore, draws us into his blissful embrace, where we are to become fully who he has made us to be. "See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are" (1 Jn 3:1). That astonishing Love, so stupendously manifested in Christ crucified, cannot be accessed apart from the life of prayer as a child of God.
If we experience a yearning to set out on the path of prayer and holiness, it is important to note that it is God himself who begets in us any measure of desire for such a sublime journey (Phil. 2:12-15). Therefore we should not for a moment fear that we are incapable or unequipped to engage the adventure of life with God. For it is the Spirit who seeks to embrace us and lead us to Christ; the choice to respond to such an immense gift of grace is ours. Through prayer we are led along the correct path, strengthened that we may focus our being on the wondrous "things of heaven" rather than on the mundane "things of earth" (Col. 3:2), which, with the help of the Spirit, gives us "new eyes" and a "new light for the journey":
Through prayer nourished by the Word of God we "see reality with new eyes," said Pope Benedict, "with the eyes of the faith and the Lord, who speaks to the mind and to the heart, gives new light for the journey in all times and situations. . . . If the lungs of prayer and of the Word of God do not nourish the breath of spiritual life, we risk suffocating in the midst of a thousand daily cares. Prayer is the breath of the soul and of life" (Pope Benedict qtd. from Vatican Information Service).
F. K. Bartels is a Catholic writer who knows his Catholic Faith is one of the greatest gifts a man could ever receive. He is a contributing writer for Catholic Online. Visit him also at catholicpathways.com
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