Prayer: anchor in storm of distractions

Archbishop Aquila

Did you know that we see hundreds if not thousands of advertisements a day? In fact, the consensus among marketing researchers is that you might see or hear as many as 4,000 per day. We are bombarded by messages and at the same time we are confronted with St. Paul’s message to the Thessalonians – “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 5:16-18).

This column is the third and final installment in the series I have written about Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate (Rejoice and Be Glad), which aims to inspire all people to holiness. As I explained in the previous column, this week I am reflecting on the sections “In Constant Prayer” and “Combat and Vigilance.” I have chosen to focus on these specific sections because they address how Christians should interact with and view the world we live in. And questions about our worldview are especially important as the truth becomes harder to discover with the flood of information we experience.

Pope Francis dedicates the last section of his chapter on holiness to the theme, “In Constant Prayer.” Like St. Paul’s exhortation to pray continually, this sounds impossible, and it would be if we had to rely on our own weak powers of concentration and strength. But we know that “with God all things are possible” (Mt. 19:26). This challenge is so important that Pope Francis says: “I do not believe in holiness without prayer” (GE, 147).

The battle that each of us faces every day and every minute is between the immediate surroundings of this world and the supernatural realities that are simultaneously at work. We tend to focus on what we can see and forget about what we cannot see. Pope Francis writes, “The saints are distinguished by a spirit of prayer and a need for communion with God. They find an exclusive concern with this world to be narrow and stifling, and, amid their own concerns and commitments, they long for God, losing themselves in praise and contemplation of the Lord” (GE, 147).

Being in continuous prayer does not mean reciting prayers at every moment or always experiencing intense emotions, rather it means remaining in the presence of God in whatever we do. We make God the end of every action, thought or word. The Holy Father cites St. John of the Cross to describe this way of living: “Try to be continuous in prayer, and in the midst of bodily exercises do not leave it. Whether you eat, drink, talk with others, or do anything, always go to God and attach your heart to him” (GE, 148).

The secret to remaining connected to God in every moment is one’s relationship with the Holy Trinity. When you know in your heart that your most fundamental identity is as a son or daughter of God the Father, you are able to spend time in silence, resting in the presence of the Holy Spirit and attentively listening to his Word. “In that silence, we can discern, in the light of the Spirit, the paths of holiness to which the Lord is calling us,” (GE, 150) Pope Francis says.

The time spent encountering each person of the Holy Trinity is what sets our hearts on fire and heals us. It deepens reality and enlivens our experience of it. The Pope draws upon a beautiful experience of St. Therese of Lisieux to describe how a community can be transformed in this way. “One winter night,” St. Therese recalls, “I was carrying out my little duty as usual… Suddenly, I heard off in the distance the harmonious sound of a musical instrument. I then pictured a well-lighted drawing room, brilliantly gilded, filled with elegantly dressed young ladies conversing together and conferring upon each other all sorts of compliments and other worldly remarks. Then my glance fell upon the poor invalid whom I was supporting. Instead of the beautiful strains of music I heard only her occasional complaints… I cannot express in words what happened in my soul; what I know is that the Lord illumined it with rays of truth which so surpassed the dark brilliance of earthly feasts that I could not believe my happiness” (GE, 145).

The Holy Father also recognizes there is a constant battle waged by the devil to draw us away from this God-centered way of living. At the beginning of Chapter Five on spiritual combat, Pope Francis makes a point of saying that when we speak of the battle with evil, the Church is not just talking about confronting a worldly mentality or striving to overcome human weaknesses (cf. GE, 158-159). Satan is real; he is “a personal being who assails us” (GE, 160). This is demonstrated, the Pope explains, by the sheer destructive power of the evil one in the world around us.

At the same time, we should not be intimidated by the battle, since we know that Jesus conquered sin, death and Satan through the cross. “Those who choose to remain neutral, who are satisfied with little, who renounce the ideal of giving themselves generously to the Lord, will never hold out” (GE, 163). The key is to engage in the fight by depending on Jesus, cultivating all that is good, true and beautiful, deepening our prayer life and growing in love.

As we begin the less structured time of summer, I pray that you will fortify yourself with the armor of continual prayer, so that you and the people you influence will be drawn closer to Jesus Christ. I invite you to grow in your devotion and attention to the Eucharist and to pray the Rosary with your family. May Pope Francis’ words in Evangelii Gaudium inspire you to take up this challenge. “Christian triumph is always a cross, yet a cross which is at the same time a victorious banner, borne with aggressive tenderness against the assaults of evil” (EG, 85).

COMING UP: Why 42 had to be impeached twenty years ago

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

Twenty years ago this month, I found myself seriously double-booked, so to speak.

The editing of the first volume of my John Paul II biography, Witness to Hope, was entering the ninth inning, and I was furiously engaged in exchanging edited and re-edited copy with my editors in New York. At the same time, the Clinton impeachment drama was cresting. And as I had long done speechwriting for Congressman Henry Hyde, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, I spent week after week of split time, working on John Paul II from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., then switching to impeachment for a couple of hours before returning to Witness to Hope in the evening.

It was not the optimal way to work but it had to be done, even if it seemed likely that the president would be acquitted in a Senate trial. On December 19, 1998, the House of Representatives voted two articles of impeachment and senior House members, including Mr. Hyde, solemnly walked the two articles across the Capitol and presented them to the Senate’s leaders. On toward midnight, Henry Hyde called me and, referring to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, said, “We’re not going to make it. Trent won’t fight; I saw it in his eyes.” After a long moment I replied that, if we were going to lose, we had a duty to lay down a record with which history would have to reckon.

Which is what the great Henry Hyde did during the January 1999 Senate trial, where he bent every effort to prevent the proceedings from descending into farce.

For Hyde, the impeachment of President Bill Clinton was an unavoidable piece of nasty business. It was not a matter of partisan score-settling, nor was it a matter of punishing a president for gross behavior with an intern in the White House. It was a matter of defending the rule of law. As Henry put it to me when it seemed clear that the president had perjured himself and obstructed justice, “There are over a hundred people in federal prisons for these crimes. How can the chief law enforcement officer of the United States be guilty of them and stay in office?”

Impeachment is a political process and it was clear by mid-fall of 1998 that the politics were not breaking toward removing the president from office. They had been pointed that way over the summer, though. And as the pressures built, it seemed as if the Clinton presidency might end as Richard Nixon’s had: Party elders, in this case Democrats, would go to the White House, explain that it was over, and ask the president to resign for the sake of the country. Then around Labor Day that year, Maureen Dowd of the New York Times and other columnists began suggesting that, if Clinton were impeached and convicted, the sexual revolution would be over, the yahoos of reaction would have won, and we’d be back to something resembling Salem, Massachusetts, during the witchcraft insanity.

That was preposterous. It was also effective. And within days, at least in Washington, you could fill the templates shifting: This wasn’t about the rule of law, it was about sex and the yahoos couldn’t be allowed to win. (That Henry Hyde was the leader of the pro-life forces in Congress neatly fit this storyline, of course, abortion being a major plank in the platform of the sexual revolution.)

So once the game was redefined — Are you for or against the puritanical yahoos? — there was little chance to wrench the political process back to what it was really about: the rule of law. In his opening speech during the president’s trial, Henry Hyde tried valiantly to refocus the argument, insisting that high office did not absolve a man from obeying his constitutional oath to faithfully execute the laws of the United States and his oath swearing to tell the truth to a federal grand jury. To suggest that it did was to “break the covenant of trust” between president and people, dissolving “the mortar that binds the foundation stones of our freedom into a secure and solid edifice.”

It wasn’t a winning argument. But it was the right argument. And on this 20th anniversary, the nation should remember with gratitude those like Henry Hyde who, under fierce assault, stood for the rule of law.

Featured image by Gage Skidmore | Flickr