V. ROOTS OF CHRISTIAN PRAYER
Jesus warned his disciples through a parable to put their spiritual foundation on rock and not on sand. The house built on rock can resist any storm and flood. Referring to prayer Jesus says: “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord’ and yet don’t do what I tell you? Any one who comes to me and listens to my words and obeys them – I will show you what he is like. He is like a man who, in building his house, dug deep and laid the foundation on rock. The river overflowed and hit that house but could not shake it, because it was well built. But anyone who hears my words and does not obey them is like a man who built his house without laying a foundation; when the flood hit that house it fell at once – and what a terrible crash that was!” (Lk 6.46-49).
A healthy tree requires deep roots. If not it will uproot itself even while bearing large quantities of fruits. Jesus says: “ I am the vine and you are the branches,. Whoever remains in me, and I in him, will bear much fruit; for you can do nothing without me” (Jn 15.5). We can apply this comparison to the way we pray. When we speak of Christian prayer, we cannot but pinpoint its fundamental roots in the life and teaching of Christ our Saviour, on which it stands. Christian prayer ought to be Trinitarian, Christological, Ecclesial and Soteriological in nature. Any other form of prayer, i.e., Hindu or Buddhist, cannot be identified with Christian prayer because of the lack of these four most important ingredients. Christian prayer is rooted in the life and teaching of Christ, who revealed to us the Trinitarian dimension of God and through his own life and example and taught us how to pray; and redeemed us through his passion, death and resurrection (the Paschal Mysteries) to make us one body – the Church (Ecclesial) and through it to preach the kingdom to other nations (Soteriological). That is why St. Paul says “For we do not know how we ought to pray; the Spirit himself pleads with God for us in groans that words cannot express” (Rom 8.26).
This dimension is fundamental to Christian prayer, as it spells out the most important ingredient of prayer. After His resurrection, He revealed the doctrine in explicit terms, bidding his disciples to "go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost" (Mat. 28:18).
St. John in his Gospel establishes the Divinity of Jesus Christ (John 20:31). In the prologue he identifies Him with the Word, the only begotten of the Father, Who from all eternity exists with God, Who is God (John 1:1-18). The immanence of the Son in the Father and of the Father in the Son is declared in Christ’s words to St. Philip: "Do you not believe, that I am in the Father, and the Father in Me?" (14:10), and in other passages he makes it explicit saying “All that my Father has is mine; that is why I said that the Spirit will take what I give him and tell it to you” (Jn 16.15); “I pray that they may all be one. Father! May they be in us, just as you are in me and I am in you” (Jn 17.21). The oneness of their power and their action is affirmed: "Whatever he [the Father] does, the Son also does in like manner" (5:19, cf. 10:38); and to the Son no less than to the Father belongs the Divine attribute of conferring life on whom He will (5:21). “If you love me keep my commandments. I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, who will stay with you forever. He is the Spirit who reveals the truth about God” (John 14.15-16). In John 10:29 we are privileged to call God our Father. None other religions have this privilege. This is the uniqueness of Christian prayer. Various texts of the Gospels also will certify this dimension:
Prayer unites us to the Spirit of Christ in our attempts at communication with God. This is mainly because, Jesus has taught us the right method of prayer. When you pray, pray as follows: “Our Father, Who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…” (Lk 11.2ff). The Our Father is not only a prayer, but a way of life indicative of Jesus’ life. He continues, “when you pray, do not use a lot of meaningless words, as the pagans do, who think that God will hear them because of their prayers are long… do not be like them. Your Father already knows what you need before you ask him” (Mt 6.7-8). He emphasises the importance of having faith in our prayers, and he says, “Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will fine and knock and the door will be opened to you…” (Lk 11.9ff).
He Prayed Regularly
He prayed in the evening after the multiplication of bread (Mk 14.23). He prayed in the morning at a lonely place (Mt. 1:35). He prayed at night before choosing the disciples (Lk 6.12). He prayed in lonely places without ceasing (Lk 5.16).
He Prayed to the Father
When the disciples asked Jesus “Lord teach us to pray”, he was at prayer (Lk 11.1). He prayed at his baptism (Lk 3.21); he prayed before his transfiguration (Lk 9.28). He prayed for Peter’s faith (Lk 22.31-32); He prayed for the Holy Spirit (Jn 14.15-17); He prayed before raising Lazarus (Jn 11.41); He prayed at the triumphant entry to Jerusalem (Jn 12.27); He prayed at the last supper (Jn 17.1-7); He prayed for his disciples (Jn 17.6-19); He prayed for all believers (Jn 17.20-21); He prayed before his passion (Lk 22.39); He prayed for his executioners (Lk 23.34); He prayed when he died on the cross (Lk 23.46). In all these circumstances Jesus was in constant contact with the Father. The fullest and most important characteristic of the prayer of Jesus is contained in Mt 6.5-16: “When you pray” says Jesus “do not be like hypocrites”; “do not use a lot of meaningless words”…“go to your room, close the door, and pray to your Father who is unseen, because your Father already knows what you need”.
He Prayed with People
The life of Jesus was for others. He lived and moved with people. Perhaps, but for prayer Jesus could not think of a life without people. His contact with children, disciples, women, poor, lame, blind, deaf, lepers, Samaritans, Jews, scribes, Pharisees, young, old, Centurion, tax collectors, sick, Greeks, tradesmen made his prayer more efficacious and effective. Jesus wanted to establish a kingdom of universal brotherhood. In view of this, he ignored all restrictions. He went to meet sinners and downtrodden; he looked for the very least and the abandoned; he let himself be monopolized by the sick and by the afflicted; he accepted pagans in his company. Acceptance, compassion, understanding, and forgiveness were habitual attitudes of Jesus toward that throng of needy people who approached him every day: publicans, sinners, prostitutes, criminals, foreigners, lepers, widows, children, the sick, the suffering, the possessed, renegades, enemies, the poor, and even those who crucified him later. Jesus had a particular regard for the poor and the despised (Mt 5.3). Even in relation to the rich, Jesus adopts an understanding attitude (cf. Mt 10.21). He puts forward poverty of spirit as the ideal of the true Christian: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come follow me” (Mt 19.21).
He walked among the outcasts and marginalized people and accepted doubtful characters in his company. He stated that the last will be first, the humble shall be masters (cf. Mk 10.31; Mt 5.5) and the tax collectors and prostitutes will find it easier to enter the kingdom of God than the Pharisees (cf. Mt 21.23). He did not discriminate against anyone: he went to everyone, rich and poor, Jew and Samaritan, pious and sinner, etc. He is the master and teacher who knows how to act and in what circumstances to act. All of this was stemming out from his contact with the Father through his daily prayer.
He Prayed With Nature
Jesus always with drew to deserted places to pray (Lk 5.16); “rising very early before dawn, left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed” (Mk 1.35). Jesus was in constant contact with nature. The richness of all his parables show that he knew the secrets of nature through his own personal contact. He freely used the objects in nature and taught his disciples with vivid comparisons. That is why his teaching was effective and impressive. In his simple and down-to-earth teaching we find the use of salt and light (Mt 5.13-16); wild flowers (Mt 6.28); wild grass (Mt 6.30); door (Mt 7.7); grapes and briars (Mt 7.16); coat and cloth (Mt 9.16); sand (Mt 7.26); moth and rust (Mt 6.19); fish and snake (Mt 7.10); dove and snake (Mt 10.16); swine (Lk 15.16); wine and wineskins (Mt 9.17); tree and fruits (Mt 12.33); sowing, field, seed, birds, rocky ground, soil, thorn bushes (Mt 13.1-7); mustard seed (Mt 13.31); yeast (Mt 13.33); pearl (Mt 13.45); wind, rock, rain, river, flood (Mt 7.25); foxes and nest (Mt 8.20); drink of cold water (Mt 10.42); fire (Mt 7.19); house building (Mt 7.24); road (Mt 7.13); eyes and lamp (Mt 6.22); robbers (Mt 6.20); heaven, God’s throne, earth (Mt 5.33ff); boats and sea storm (Mt 8.23-24); sons, daughters, mother-in-law, son-in-law (Mt 10.34-35); fishermen, net, fish (Mt 13.47); weeds (Mt 13.36); dogs (Mt 15.26); mountain (Mt 17.1); millstone (Mt 18.6); sheep (Mt 18.12); vineyard (Mt 20.1-7); coin, salary, fig tree (Mt 21.19); wedding (Mt 22.1ff); egg and scorpion (Lk 11.12); yeast (Lk 13.21); king, war (Lk 14.31-32); ring (Lk 15.22) white washed tombs, bones, decaying corpses (Mt 23.27ff); tides on the sea, earth quakes, strange objects from the sky, sun, moon, stars. (Luke 21.7-38). Jesus’ prayer was a constant contact with nature as the O.T people prayed, “all you works of the Lord, bless the Lord; sun and moon, stars of heaven bless the Lord” (Dn 3.57-88). Contact with nature helped him to come in contact with reality and find therein traces of the glory of God.
The Trinitarian dimension of God boldly supports the communitarian nature of our life. God is not alone; rather, he is a community of three persons. The Ecclesial dimension springs from the Trinitarian Dimension because of its communitarian spirit and communion among the three persons of the Trinity. This dimension underlines the importance of our prayer in the Church, for the Church and through the Church. It was at prayer in the upper room that the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles (Acts 2.1-4). These disciples then went far and wide to proclaim God’s kingdom. Christian prayer cannot be individualistic, it should be ecclesial and communitarian; even though we pray individually, it is always in the Church, through the church and for the Church, the body of Christ. Jesus established the Church and we are all members. St. Paul in his letter to the Corinthians summarises the ecclesial spirit as follows: “Christ is like a single body, which has many parts; it is still one body, even though it is made up of different parts. In the same way, all of us, whether Jews or Gentiles, whether slaves or free, have been baptized into the one body by the same Spirit, and we have all been given the one Spirit to drink” (I Cor 12.12-13). He further urges Ephesians “Do all this in prayer, asking for God’s help. Pray on every occasion, as the Spirit leads. For this reason keep alert and never give up; pray always for all God’s people” (Eph 6.18). The ecclesial spirit of prayer is also strongly present in one of the texts of St. Paul to Colossians “Teach and instruct each other with all wisdom. Sing psalms, hymns, and sacred songs; sing to God with thanksgiving in your heart. Everything you do or say, then, should be done in the name of the Lord Jesus, as you give thanks through him to God the Father” (Col 3.16-17).
Hence, the prayer life of the Church should be Trinitarian and Ecclesial in nature. The Ecclesial dimension of prayer must exist in each parish community and spread its fragrance everywhere in the society. At the end of the day all the members must feel united in the bond of the Trinity. Whenever we begin a day with “In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” there is a desire or there should be a desire to begin the day with the spirit of unity and end the day with the same prayer, means that we let ourselves enter into the unity of the Trinity so that our life is always united with God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
The prayer, which originates in the mystery of the redemptive incarnation, is the prayer of sharing in God's very life. St. Paul speaks of this in the passage: "God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!"' (Gal 4:6). Man cries out like Christ himself, who turned to God "with loud cries and tears" (Heb. 5:7), especially in Gethsemane and on the cross: Man cries out to God just as Christ cried out to him, and thus he bears witness that he shares in Christ's Sonship through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, whom the Father has sent in the name of the Son, enables man to share in the inmost life of God. He also enables man to be a son, in the likeness of Christ, and an heir of all that belongs to the Son (cf. Gal. 4:7). In this consists the prayer of "dwelling in the inmost life of God," which begins with the incarnation of the Son of God. The Holy Spirit, who searches the depths of God (cf. 1 Cor. 2:10), leads us, all mankind, into these depths by virtue of the sacrifice of Christ. The soteriological dimension of prayer consists in making the redemptive fruits of Christ available to others with our union with Christ. As Christ shared his life with the Father and with people around him, so a Christian is called to live in union with the Father and Christ in prayer; and through the Spirit share that life with others who are ignorant of Christ’s redemptive mission. It can be done only through communion with God in the Church, through the Church and for the Church.
When we speak of prayer in other religions, we need to take whatever is helpful, without diluting the uniqueness of Christian prayer, which is very specifically clear in the above dimensions. Methods are good, but they are not foolproof. They help us relax, regain health, peace, but if they do not contribute to these four dimensions, they cannot be called Christian. We need to by all means incorporate in our attempts at contemplation these Christian dimensions to make prayer complete in the Christian sense. Otherwise it will be syncretism in our approach to prayer.
Hence, in conclusion we can boldly say that Christian Prayer is and should be Trinitarian, Christological, Ecclesial and Soteriological in nature.
(To be continued…)
Fr. Rudolf V. D’Souza OCD
Vancouver - Canada