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 stay in the Church?

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There are many people who have either left the Church or are currently considering leaving because of the scandals of recent decades. We have felt pain and righteous anger at our leaders and have suffered scandal from their betrayal. For some, the grand jury reports and lack of accountability for bishops have been the last straw. It’s hard to blame people for feeling this way, but we have to ask with Peter, “to whom, Lord, shall we go?” (John 6:68).

Significantly, this question comes after many disciples walked out on Jesus for his teaching on the Eucharist, and it is the Eucharist that should be at the center of any response to the crisis. Peter answers his own question: “you have the words of everlasting life” (John 6:68). The Church is Jesus’ own body in the world, and we are members of his mystical body, given eternal life by consuming his own flesh at Mass. Without the Eucharist, Jesus’ presence in the flesh, the very heart of the Church, where would we be?

Bishop Robert Barron echoes Peter’s question in a recent pamphlet-style book, with over a million copies in print, Letter to a Suffering Church: A Bishop Speaks on the Sexual Abuse Crisis (Word on Fire, 2019). He turns to the Bible and Church history to look for perspective on the crisis. Because of the centrality of the Eucharist in the Church, the betrayal of some of our priests and bishops takes on greater significance. They act in persona Christi at Mass, offering the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross to the Father, and we depend on them for our sacramental life.

Fortunately, the validity of the sacraments does not depend upon the sinlessness of priests, but rather the holiness of God. Barron points out, however, that priests will not get off easy, given the extremely harsh words that Jesus offers to those who lead children astray: “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me;  but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,  it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the man by whom the temptation comes!” (Mt 18:7-9). Barron also references the punishment of Eli, in 1 Samuel 2-4, who as priest and judge of Israel watched his own sons, who were also priests, abuse the people. Barron argues that this scene gives us the best example of God’s retribution for allowing abuse to happen and not correcting it.

Barron also looks at the tumultuous story of Church history for context on the current crisis. Although the Church is the mystical body of Christ, he references St. Paul assertion that we bear our treasure in earthen vessels, as evidenced by the human weakness of Christians throughout history. In fact, this weakness manifests the Lord’s grace guiding and preserving the Church in spite of us. Barron quotes Belloc that a proof of the Church’s divine foundation “might be found in the fact that no merely human institution conducted with such knavish imbecility would have lasted a fortnight” (43). Heresies, sinful popes, and sexual perversity have not fundamentally destroyed the Lord’s work, even if they have turned many people away. God has promised to remain with his Church and his providence will guide us especially through dark moments.

The crisis challenges us and raises the question of why we are Catholic. Most of us have been born Catholic and may take our faith for granted as something we’ve inherited from our parents. We may view belonging to the Church like membership in a voluntary organization. Rather, our life as members of Christ’s Body is a gift from God that changes our identity and unites us to God and our fellow Christians. As we experience challenges to faith, it is an opportunity to embrace this identity even more strongly — not as something that depends upon myself or anyone else in the Church, but on God. We go to Church to honor and thank him and to receive his grace, not to be a part of a human organization.

The Church is a family, called together by God, but, like any family, we experience pain from our own and each other’s sinfulness. As family, we can’t give up on each other, but have to “stay and fight” as Barron exhorts us, helping each other to be faithful to the mission that Jesus gave us: to love one another as he has loved us and to share the Good News of his salvation.

Featured Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash