Learning to pray

George Weigel

The readings from Acts that we hear between Easter and Pentecost remind us that the early Church was a school of prayer. Jesus is taken up into heaven; the disciples, Mary, and the other holy women go back to the Cenacle to pray. A successor to Judas must be chosen; the first Christians pray. Peter and John are constantly in the Temple, praying.

Looking through the well-stocked  “spirituality” section in your local bookstore, you may think that Americans are doing the same; in today’s jargon, there seem to be a lot of “searchers” out there. Catholic faith, exemplified in this season’s readings from Acts, teaches us something different about searching, however. Catholic faith teaches us that the spiritual life is not our search for God, but God’s search for us – and our learning to take the same path through history that God does. Our prayer must somehow reflect that truth.

The Catechism teaches that prayer is God’s gift to us. As Paul wrote to the Romans, “We do not know how to pray as we ought;” rather, the Holy Spirit prays within us (Romans 8.26). The Catechism then illustrates this truth through the story of Jesus’s encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well in John 4. The woman is surprised that Jesus, a Jew, would ask a Samaritan (whom Jews considered heretics) for a drink. Jesus’s request shows us the surprising nature of prayer. As the Catechism puts it, “The wonder of prayer is revealed beside the well where we come seeking water; there, Christ comes to meet every human being. It is he who first seeks us and asks for a drink. He thirsts; his thirst arises from the depths of God’s desire for us. Whether we realize it or not, prayer is the encounter of God’s thirst with ours. God thirsts that we may thirst for him.”

The 17th century Carmelite mystic and author, Brother Lawrence, proposed another useful way to think about prayer: prayer, he taught, is “practicing the presence of God.” In our prayer, we respond to God’s thirst for us by opening our minds and hearts to God, thereby entering God’s sanctifying presence. In the Catholic tradition, active prayer – “saying our prayers,” as we often call it – is just the beginning of prayer. The highest form of personal prayer is contemplative prayer, prayer in silence, prayer as a way of “practicing the presence.” This form of prayer is not for gifted mystics only; it’s a way of praying that’s open to all Christians, if we take the time to clear out space for God in our daily lives.

Most Catholics don’t imagine themselves as contemplatives, I suspect. But those Catholics who have discovered or rediscovered Eucharistic adoration in recent years are in fact practicing a venerable form of contemplative prayer. Its beauty and simplicity are captured in a story about St. John Vianney. The famous Curé of Ars noticed that an elderly peasant in his parish spent hours before the Blessed Sacrament. One day, unable to restrain his curiosity, John Vianney came up to the old man as he was leaving church after a lengthy spell in front of the tabernacle. “What are you doing?” he asked his parishioner. “I look at Him, and He looks at me,” came the reply. And that, I think, is the essence of contemplative prayer. It’s available to us all.

“Practicing the presence” isn’t limited to perpetual adoration chapels, of course. As a young priest visiting Paris for the first time, Father Karol Wojtyla surprised his traveling companion, a seminarian, by saying that the Metro, the Paris subway, was “a superb place for contemplation.” Fifteen centuries earlier, the great theologian-bishop, Ambrose of Milan, reflected on Jesus’s command to “go to your room and pray” [Matthew 6.6] in these words: “…by ‘room,’ you must understand, not a room enclosed by walls that imprison your body, but the room that is within you, the room where you hide your thoughts, where you keep your affections. This room of prayer is always with you, wherever you are, and it is always a secret room, where only God can see you.”

God thirsts for us always. We can meet God in prayer anywhere.

COMING UP: Lebanese priest: ‘We need your prayers’ after Beirut explosions

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A Lebanese Catholic priest has asked believers around the world to pray for the people of his country, after two explosions in Beirut injured hundreds of people and are reported to have left at least 10 people dead.

“We ask your nation to carry Lebanon in its hearts at this difficult stage and we place great trust in you and in your prayers, and that the Lord will protect Lebanon from evil through your prayers,” Fr. Miled el-Skayyem of the Chapel of St. John Paul II in Keserwan, Lebanon, said in a statement to EWTN News Aug. 4.

“We are currently going through a difficult phase in Lebanon, as you can see on TV and on the news,” the priest added.

Raymond Nader, a Maronite Catholic living in Lebanon, echoed the priest’s call.

“I just ask for prayers now from everyone around the world. We badly need prayers,” Nader told CNA Tuesday.

Explosions in the port area of Lebanon’s capital overturned cars, shattered windows, set fires, and damaged buildings across Beirut, a city of more than 350,000, with a metro area of more than 2 million people.

“It was a huge disaster over here and the whole city was almost ruined because of this explosion and they’re saying it’s kind of a combination of elements that made this explosion,” Antoine Tannous, a Lebanese journalist, told CNA Tuesday.

Officials have not yet determined the cause of the explosions, but investigators believe they may have started with a fire in a warehouse that stored explosive materials. Lebanon’s security service warned against speculations of terrorism before investigators could assess the situation.

According to Lebanon’s state-run media, hundreds of injured people have flooded hospital emergency rooms in the city.

Lebanon’s Prime Minister Hassan Diab has declared that Wednesday will be a national day of mourning. The country is almost evenly divided between Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, and Chrsitians, most of whom are Maronite Catholics. Lebanon also has a small Jewish population, as well as Druze and other religious communities.

Featured image: A picture shows the scene of an explosion near the port in the Lebanese capital Beirut on August 4, 2020. – Two huge explosion rocked the Lebanese capital Beirut, wounding dozens of people, shaking buildings and sending huge plumes of smoke billowing into the sky. Lebanese media carried images of people trapped under rubble, some bloodied, after the massive explosions, the cause of which was not immediately known. (Photo by STR / AFP) (Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images)