Prayer: The Best New Year’s Resolution

In our lifetime, there has never been so much expectation for a new year, hoping that we can all turn a corner and leave a difficult year in the past. So much is out of our control, yet there is one thing that we can do to allow our lives to be shaped by the one who is truly in control. Our lives will be better this year if we give more time to God in prayer.  

But what is prayer really about? I found it startling, when reading the sociologist Christian Smith, that we focus more on ourselves during prayer than on God. Citing a survey of U.S. Catholics, Smith relates that “the most frequently reported subjects of prayer are personal well-being and family relationships … Again, worldly issues dominate the prayers of American Catholics, and more ‘spiritual’ concerns — with the exception of giving thanks to God  —recede far into the background” (Religion: What It Is, How It Works, and Why It Matters, Princeton University Press, 2017, 193). There is nothing wrong with praying for oneself and one’s family, although, if our prayers stop there, we’ll be missing the very heart of prayer: communion with the living God.  

The Carmelite Anders Cardinal Arborelius, the first cardinal from Scandinavia, can teach us how to pray in a more God-focused way through his guide, Carmelite Spirituality: The Way of Carmelite Prayer and Contemplation (EWTN, 2020). The focus of prayer is God — sitting before him in silence to receive the gift of himself that he wants to give us. Cardinal Arborelius teaches that “adoration,” in particular, “is so important in Christian life … Adoration is completely God-centered. It is the core of our prayer to praise God just because He is God, just because He is what He is — not because He has given us so many things or insights, but just because He is God. It is our main obligation as creatures to adore Him Who made us. Until we have learned to adore God in spirit and truth, life is bound to be very troublesome because we will be bound up in ourselves. Maybe the best way to learn the art of adoration is to see our own poverty, that we are nothing and God is everything but that He still loves us and gives us all His riches” (113). When we focus on ourselves and not God, we turn our attention away from the real gifts he wants to give us. We ask for crumbs when he wants us to feast on his divine life.   

The Cardinal points to the need for this adoration to become a way of life, guiding us not only every day but throughout each day. By refusing to be consumed by the daily grind of life, and focusing on God in prayer, we actually can approach the daily details more easily: “When we start to look upon our entire life as a pilgrimage, our attitude will change gradually. The small things of everyday life tend to become more important. Every little step we take becomes immensely valuable. We become aware that we are walking with Jesus to the Father with the wind of the Spirt drives onward, step by step. Every step brings us closer to God already, here and now” (7).  

The Trinitarian emphasis in this quote shapes a large part of the book, with chapters on the contemplation of the Holy Spirit, remaining in the Holy Trinity, believing in and becoming a child of the Father, belong and surrendering to Jesus, and following the Spirit. Prayer is Trinitarian because Jesus shares his own love for the Father with us, who is the Holy Spirit, the one who draws us into the life of God. The Holy Spirit conforms us to Christ, who leads us to the Father, in whom we can rest secure as his sons and daughters. “We never want to be without Jesus and His Word,” Cardinal Arborelius says, because “we don’t want to be on our own. We don’t want to be independent individuals but His brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of His Father. We love to depend on Him alone” (8).  

This brings us back to our initial problem — we miss what God wants to give us in prayer, or we don’t even pray at all. The Cardinal reminds us that what we need most is to spend time with God in prayer. “We are the temples of the Most Holy Trinity; our dignity couldn’t be greater. But, and this is a tragedy, most Christians couldn’t care less. God lives in them, and they are busy with all kinds of other things” (11). He calls us, following the great Carmelite tradition to prioritize prayer, even in simple ways, such as reminding ourselves with the rhyme, “now-Thou” to turn to the encounter with God each moment (58).  

It is not an exaggeration to say that if we renew our efforts of prayer, opening ourselves to the life of the Trinity within us, 2021 will be a better year! 

Featured image by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.

Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.