29 November 2018

On Esteeming Prayer as the Heart of the Universal Call to Holiness

[[Dear Sister Laurel, I pray you are well and I would like to wish you in advance a good Advent and a merry Christmas. I read your recent blog post which responded to a reader who assumed hermits “do nothing”. I thought your response was excellent. I just wanted to share with you the response I heard a Trappist monk gave when he was asked that question by someone visiting the monastery. Essentially, he said: “The value you place on prayer will determine the value you place on contemplative life.” I loved his response because of its simplicity. He left it at that, and it left us thinking. It really challenged me to evaluate how important I think prayer and worship is.

If prayer and worship is really important then it makes sense that certain people devote their lives exclusively to that for the good of the Church and world. That prayer and that witness to its importance is “ministry”. I think why many people have a problem with contemplative life is that deep down they really don’t think prayer, worship and penance are that essential. What do you think? ]]

Thanks for your comments, sharing, and question; it is always good to hear from you. I think your observation, building as it does on the Trappist monk's analysis is right on. However, I also think that it is important to analyze why it is prayer, worship, and penance are no longer considered essential. (For now, however, I am going to set the idea of practicing penance aside and focus on the devaluation of prayer we see so often.) Since you have read my blog for some time I don't think my own observations will surprise you, but to be frank, I believe the way prayer has been presented not only by the Church generally, but especially within the context of a dated cosmology and naïve theology (portrait of God) which sees God as A being rather than as the ground and source of being, meaning, and true personhood has been a central reason folks no longer see prayer and worship as essential. There are related cultural and anthropological (human!) reasons, not least a post Enlightenment esteem for human capacities and progress, our very real scientific naturalism (the idea that only empirical reality is real), a correlative atheism or at least agnosticism, and a correlative, and thus, inflated notion of the independence and power of the human person (which results in, among other things, an exaggerated activism.

All of these have contributed to notions of prayer which are (or tend to remain) superficial, often superstitious, extraordinarily selfish, and focused almost entirely on what human beings want and do, rather than on allowing God to work within us according to God's own will and our deepest needs. In a culture which mainly sees faith in God as irrational and entirely unjustified except among the supposedly naïve and scientifically ignorant, it is not hard to understand another part of why prayer and worship are no longer sufficiently esteemed. However, in this post I want to look in a summary fashion at ways the Church herself complicated the matter. This occurred by encouraging a kind of infantilism of the laity, discouraging lay Catholics from even entertaining the idea that they might be called to contemplative prayer, by discouraging and otherwise limiting the reading of Scripture by Catholics of all states of life, and of course, by embracing clericalism and a theology of vocations that opened the riches of the Tradition we hold in trust and expectation by God to a relative few and prevented the laity from assuming positions of ministerial, pastoral, and administrative leadership.

The Church Contributes to the Problem:

Prayer, especially contemplative prayer and lives of prayer (as opposed to "merely" saying occasional prayers), have neither generally nor effectively been seen as truly fundamental to every vocation and every state of life --- at least not in the modern church. Prayer-as-foundational was seen as the purview of priests and religious, the truth of "their" vocations. The Church in the last several centuries legally enforced minimal participation in liturgy and sacraments until the Vatican Council II; similarly she expected relatively little of adult lay Catholics beyond an embrace of prayer mainly using devotions, perhaps a morning offering and grace before meals. While the purpose of her legislation may have been concern for the eternal lives of People of God, the result, in combination with other elements, was the infantilization I spoke of earlier. When Vatican II occurred the Church officially embraced a very different theology of and perspective on the laity. She expected and encouraged the laity to embrace mature spiritual lives in which almost nothing familiar and common to the prayer lives of priests and religious would remain foreign to the laity. She expanded the Lectionary, reformed and taught the Divine Office as the official prayer of the WHOLE Church and encouraged the laity to adopt at least some of the major hours (Lauds, Vespers, and perhaps Compline, for instance).

The Church opened the Scriptures via Lectio Divina and Bible study to the laity as well, encouraged genuine participation in the Liturgy as she unofficially eased her emphasis on devotionals; she recommended retreats and workshops, opened ministries and theological education on several different levels including undergraduate and graduate through post-doctoral levels for the first time to the laity (including women!). In other words, the Church did a 120 degree turn in all of these things and codified the changes in the major decrees and more minor documents of Vatican II. (I am leaving 60 degrees shy of 180 degrees for the role of women in leadership in the Church.  I believe this remaining significant deficiency also has an affect on the prayer lives of lay women and perhaps women religious as well.)

Change is hard:

But the implementation of such wide-ranging change (even only 120 degrees!) takes time. Most fundamentally, below all of these changes, the most difficult transition has been developing a theology of the laity which embraces and makes theological sense of these changes. Clericalism has prevented this as has the flawed notion of religious or consecrated life as a "higher" vocation than the lay vocation. (Again, in the hierarchical sense of the term "lay", religious who are not clerics are laity; in the vocational sense of the term "lay" they are not.) Religious men and women who chose to adopt regular garb did so, in large part, as a piece of helping the whole Church embrace this new esteem for the laity. (I disagree that this produced the results desired, but I understand this reason for relinquishing habits and respect those who chose to do so for this reason more than I can adequately say.) Implementation also takes effort and resources --- and interest! While clerical and religious theologians can contribute to this project, properly speaking it takes laity to develop and implement an adequate theology of lay life!

What I mean is that parishes have done a lot in offering programs for adults, in opening ministries to the laity, in improving preaching so it really speaks to the circumstances of the ordinary person, and otherwise encouraged lay members of the faith community to mature theologically, spiritually, and as human persons. At the same time it is not always easy to get folks to let go of some things or rearrange priorities to truly embrace a new vision of the lay vocation and what I call a prayer life. And yet, that is what God calls each of us to, viz, a life suffused with and empowered by prayer, a life marked by conscious and focused openness to the Presence and Spirit of God that seeks to breathe within us in ways that enlarge and transfigure our hearts, a life in which the incarnate and cosmic Christ is truly sovereign.

Recovering an Appreciation of Prayer as the Heart of Every Vocation

In my own vocation I have come to understand prayer differently than I once did and differently than I think many tend to do. My allergy to the notion of people as "prayer warriors" has hardened (though at the same time I recognize lives of prayer are truly engaged in a struggle for the Kingdom of God). God is at work in us and in our world offering us all we need to be our truest selves. Prayer is first of all and always a matter of God working within us.  Moreover then, our own part in prayer is always our response to the activity/presence of God within and around us. Because I believe what I have written about contemplative prayer  --- namely, that it is in this way that we witness to the fact that God alone completes us whether or not we have and/or use other gifts in active ministry, I also believe this is the deepest truth of prayer, the thing which makes it the heart of what Vatican II identified as the universal call to holiness, and provides the one perspective which makes truly esteeming prayer possible.

So much here I had to leave unsaid and will need to return to! Thanks again for your email and questions. Have a fruitful Advent and a Good Christmas if I don't hear from you again before then.