Saturday, September 13, 2008

PRAYER: THE 'ART' OF LIVING IN GOD'S PRESENCE

It is when we forget the Christ is the ‘point’ of all that we do, that we also begin to forget our identity as priests, and even as seminarians. Contrary to what some may think, the forgetfulness of our true identity does not begin many years after we are ordained, when the thousand and one things that demand our attention make us lose sight of our true selves. On the contrary, the process of forgetting begins as early as one’s first years in the seminary. It begins when we lose sight of the fact that the ‘scaffolds’ of seminary life are truly no more than that, scaffolds meant to buttress the substance that lies underneath. It is the substance of our formation that matters, not the marginal stuff.

Take communal prayer for instance, is it an end in itself? Yes and no. Yes, because our relationship with God can in no way be severed from our relationship with those around us, with our fellow human beings, friend and foe alike. A priest must be a builder of community. He must know not only how ‘to deal with people’, but more importantly, how ‘to truly love people’, not as means, but as ends. He must see his ‘neighbor’, not as the ‘fellow student who can help him with his work’, nor the ‘parishioner who can contribute to his funds appeal’, but as one who is loved and appreciated and cared for, ‘for his own sake.’

But communal prayer is also not simply an end in itself. When one is finally ordained, practically the only ‘prayer’ he shall really be doing with the whole community, if that, is the Eucharist. (Although I do know of priests in parishes who have begun a great practice of organizing communal morning or evening prayer either with fellow priests or with parishioners.) Still, when one leaves the seminary for ordination, the scaffold of communal morning prayer, evening prayer, meditation, bible and spiritual reading which has served to reinforce one’s spiritual life in seminary, will be left behind. It is therefore what we take with us that is of ultimate importance, i.e., what the scaffold of communal prayer has enabled us to build and integrate, and this is none other than a deep personal appreciation for what prayer is. That is what one takes with him when he leaves seminary, not communal prayer simply.

This is especially true in a diocesan seminary, which trains young men to become future pastors. The monastic model of spirituality is good; we can’t just discard something that has served its purpose and produced good priests for ages. But neither must we simply accept it without an eye to how it should be understood as a tool of formation. The monastic or communal model of prayer we have in the seminary is a tool. It isn’t an end it itself. Once a seminarian gets ordained and finds himself in a parish setting, he won’t always have the support of a group which will require his presence at communal prayers. He should have, at that point, therefore, already learned the value which his communal prayer in seminary was trying to teach him in the first place, and that is none other than the appreciation of prayer itself, the valuing of one’s relationship and communion with God.

The communal or monastic model of prayer is genuinely productive of good, so long as we are realistic about what it can and should produce. And what it should produce is a man who has learned the value of what the seminary has asked him to do for four, eight, or twelve years; not a man who will lament the fact that he could no longer pray—now that he’s ordained—because there is no longer a community that serves to support his need to find time for prayer. He should have left the scaffold long before he left the seminary. The same thing can be said of one’s studies, as well as one’s fidelity to the so-called ‘rules’ of one’s house of formation. They are never ‘ends in themselves’, and to mistake them as such is to set oneself up for a fall when one is ordained.

As future pastors whose day will mostly be occupied with ministering to the different needs of your parishioners, it’s important that you develop, even while in seminary, two very important personal spiritual practices that could help you remain anchored onto a life of prayerful awareness of the Lord’s presence. The first is to “pray whatever you do”. No, I didn’t say “praying for” what you do, I said “praying what you do”. This involves entering into a prayerful awareness and acknowledgment that whatever activity, ministry, or work we’re undertaking is “much more” than simply the activity itself. Rather, it’s a “pointer” to something and someone else, larger, more important than ourselves, and hence, of ultimate significance.

Do not make the mistake of imagining that our ministry and pastoral work are valuable in themselves, detached from their point of reference. As if our words and gestures were sacred and divine, or worse, that we ourselves, are somehow divine or sacred persons as well on account of the actions we perform. We aren’t God’s oracles. We must not slip into that kind of superstition and that misplaced sense of self-importance. Remember that what we are and what we do derive their value from the fact that we are pointers, we refer to something beyond ourselves, something that transcends and surpasses our limited worth. For too long has the world seen the spectacle of clergymen acting as if they were the hand of God himself.

And so “pray whatever you do”. Be aware and acknowledge that in doing it, you are entering into a “sacred space” and into a “sacred time” in which through your weak and limited self, God chooses to make himself known, felt, and experienced by those who hear your words, see your actions, and know of your compassion and concern.

Second, make it a practice to constantly raise your thoughts to God. What do I mean by this? For too long have we compartmentalized our life and split human experience between natural and supernatural, ordinary and extraordinary, sacred and profane, human and divine, prayer and activity, “of God” and “not of God”. I think it’s high time we start moving away from this Platonic and Cartesian dichotomized view of the world and realize that all reality is one, and all of creation proclaims the glory of its Maker. And because of that, in the words of Scripture, in God “we move, and live, and have our being”. (Acts 17:28)

Prayer is not simply what we do in the chapel. Prayer is not simply what we do when we sit in our room, close the door, and pray the breviary or the rosary. Prayer is not simply what we do when we celebrate the mass or sit in front of the Blessed Sacrament. Prayer is what we do when we (i.e., our being, our actions, our words, etc.) find our reference in God who then becomes our “constant companion” in all the activities that fill our day. God becomes the ever-present “conversation-partner” in our life and ministry, such that everything we do is done with him and in him whose presence encompasses all the dimensions of our life.

It’s the “art of living the presence of God”, and like any other “art”, it requires constant and consistent effort to perform and perfect. It won’t just happen, and none of us is born with it. You have to make it happen. As early as now therefore, put your heart, mind, and soul into your prayer, both communal and personal, and remember that the point of it all is to instill in you, now and when you become a priest, the ability and the desire to focus your life on God, your ever-present companion.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)