The more I read about Pope Benedict — or, more precisely, the more I read the words of Pope Benedict — the more endeared to him I become. Indeed, for many of the faithful, he has an ability to verbally express our inmost thoughts in a most riveting way.
Far from offering a crusty version of a days-gone-by world, our current Pope is attuned to his audience, reaching out to all ages and getting at the heart of the matter.
Like prayer. During his Wednesday address, he spoke of prayer as an expression of man’s profound need for meaning and understanding and encouraged the faithful to spend more time before God.
Humans, he said, have an innate need to “find a light to give an answer to the questions that have to do with the profound meaning of reality;” an answer that cannot be found in ourselves, progress or empirical science.
He said we are religious by nature and that this religious nature is not confined to one age, but to all, from those who lived in the caveman days to those of us here and now in the technological age. It is in religious experience, he said, that we seek the ways to overcome our finitude and to ensure our “precarious earthly adventure.”
One of the main ways we quench our thirst for the infinite, according to the Pope, is through prayer. He called our attraction toward God “the soul of prayer,” (…the soul of prayer…I had to read that twice…) and said that prayer is a mindset and not a series of practices and formulas [emphasis mine]. It’s “a way of being before God, rather than carrying out acts of worship or pronouncing words.”
He also noted that prayer has its center in the most profound being of the person, which is why it can be subject to misunderstanding.
Oh, how I know! Over at my new blog, An Atheist and a Catholic, which I co-founded with an atheist friend, I’ve been struggling mightily with conveying things like prayer and worship to our atheist readers. How does one transmit the reality of such a thing to correct what it must seem like from the outside? Since non-believers don’t believe in God, I imagine that to many of them, the thought of worshiping an invisible God who isn’t really there (or so they believe) would be just as off-putting as it would be for us believers to imagine worshiping a chair or a door. Hearing their contentions has challenged me to try to better articulate the beauty and necessity of prayer from the perspective of a Christian who is in a relationship with the living God.
Bless his heart, the Pope has helped me articulate my own thoughts through this week’s address, especially when he said the experience of prayer “is a challenge for everyone, a ‘grace’ to be invoked, a gift of the One whom we address.” A gift of the One whom we address. Honestly, I’d never thought of it quite like that before. Profound, beautiful and true; everything good is a gift from God.
On said blog, the word worship and an attempt to define it kept repeating this past week. It became clear that the picture the atheist often has in his or her mind at the sound and/or sight of the word is much different than the reality of it for the Christian. But again, the Pope comes through with a clarification when speaking about the posture of kneeling in prayer: “It is a gesture that bears in itself a radical ambivalence: in fact, I can be obliged to kneel — condition of indigence and slavery — or I can kneel spontaneously, confessing my limit and, hence, my need for the Other.”
Okay, now, we’re getting closer to the stumbling point as I see it. The indigence and slavery part is how it seems non-believers interpret prayer to be, so they find it rather repulsive. And I would too if that were the reality of the prayer experience. I mean, who would stand for it, really? Instead, as one of our Catholic readers pointed out, prayer is something we do willingly, out of love and desire, and that seems to me more akin to the latter definition; i.e., “confessing my limit and, hence, my need for the Other.” (We Catholics seem to be focusing on the relational aspects of prayer on the A/C blog, which is really what it is all about to me.)
Finally, and beautifully I’d say, the Pope concluded that prayer is “the opening and raising of the heart to God,” and, as such, becomes a personal relationship with God. (Bingo!) “And even if man forgets his Creator,” he added, “the living and true God does not fail to call man to the mysterious encounter of prayer.”
Oh, that just puts icing on the cake. Even when we forget about God, God does not forget about us. Or, in Peace Garden Mama speak, even when we, like rebellious teens, turn our backs on the unconditional love of our parent, our parent will still be there when our teen tantrum has subsided. (I often think of the relationship between us and God much like that of child and parent; i.e., we don’t always know what’s right for us, but God does.)
I really want to remember this reflection on prayer by the Pope. I need to not forget that even though prayer might feel meaningless some days, our words are not floating into the void but, rather, being received by Love himself. And there will be, without a doubt, a response back if we but take the time to listen and see with the eyes of faith.
Q4U: What of the Pope’s words jumped out at you as helpful in understanding or explaining prayer?