Book of the Month, Mar 2022, Part 9

+JMJ+ Welcome to part 9 of our current Catholic Book of the Month, Introduction to the Spiritual Life, by Brant Pitre. I’m on a Quest to become a saint and I’m using this book as my guide.  Come along with me and let’s become saints together! We’ve learned that Jesus gave us three spiritual exercises that not only will help us on our journey, but are actually necessary for salvation. That’s right: necessary. I have the impression that a lot of us don’t get to hear things like this being preached from the pulpit/ambo. But that’s no excuse. The truth is out there! (Couldn’t help it. Sorry, not sorry.) We’ve learned about the first two exercises and remedies for the three temptations: fasting and almsgiving. This week, the third exercise and remedy: prayer.

A few years ago a friend told me that she thinks that Jesus just gave us an example of how to pray when He gave us the Lord’s Prayer, but that we weren’t supposed to pray by rote but that we should always “speak from the heart.” I agree that we should speak from the heart. But as someone who has a deep affection for literature, especially poetry, I am keenly aware that sometimes the best words are someone else’s words. Who hasn’t had the words of a much beloved song or poem, or even a character’s lines in a play or film, spring to mind on occasion? Who hasn’t heard a favorite song begin and immediately had memories and feelings come flooding in to heart and mind? We speak those lines, we sing those songs, and it certainly doesn’t occur to us then that we are speaking or singing by rote but that we are doing something deeply meaningful, and those around us understand it, too. They are likely to join in. Tears or laughter, or both at once and more, pour into us, through us and out again, and who would criticize this as mere rote action? 

The prayers I learned as a child still spring to my lips now that I am no longer young. Thanks be to God that my parents insisted that my sister and I learn what we called the Lord’s Prayer then and I know now as also the Our Father. Imagine thinking that words spoken by Jesus Himself, and given deliberately by Him for His disciples to use, and after they asked Him to teach them to pray, are somehow less desirable than words we come up with on our own. The hubris is breathtaking. 

So much of what I knew of prayer was, well, what I knew was not much, really. And I never thought of it as one of three spiritual exercises to remedy the three temptations, either. Not until I read this book. (Sad, I think, that it didn’t occur to me. All these books I’ve read and have I gotten so little out of them? But reading what Dr. Pitre says, now it all seems so obvious. This Catholic stuff still blows my mind even after nearly 26 years in the Church. Thank you, Lord!)

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said to fast and give alms secretly and He told them to pray in secret, too. This does not mean that one can never allow anyone to see one do these things. There is such a thing as public worship, just as there was then, and Jesus took part in it and He expects us to do the same. He’s talking about what we do on our own, in our personal daily lives. I do not say, private, because that idea has gotten completely out of hand in our time. The idea of radical privacy and unlimited liberty, this notion that “I am utterly and completely free to do whatever I want, no matter what,” has gotten us nowhere good ever since the words were first uttered long, long ago. But I do say, “personal.” Everything we do affects everyone else. It isn’t “just between me and God” because we are branches in the One Vine, members of the Church and the One Body of Christ. We are a family and everything we do affects everyone else in the family. And one day we will stand before God and all our brothers and sisters and everyone will know what everyone else has done or has failed to do. Think about that one for a while.

It isn’t “just between me and God” because we are branches in the One Vine, members of the Church and the One Body of Christ.

Jesus asks us to pray in secret (not only in secret but also in secret, there will be times when we will be called upon to pray in public) and our Father who sees in secret will reward us. We are not to pray so that others see us and praise us or think highly of us. It’s not that they cannot be allowed to see us. We’re talking motivation here. Our motivation cannot be that others see us. If that is our motivation, then we already have our reward and it is pathetic compared to what awaits us from the Lord. 

Video, Understanding the ‘Our Father’ – Dr. Scott Hahn – Deep in History

Prayer, and especially the Lord’s Prayer, is the remedy Jesus gave for the third temptation, pride, or the pride of life as St. John calls it (see 1 John 2:16–17).

The Lord’s Prayer is the most perfect of prayers…. In it we ask, not only for all the things we can rightly desire, but also in the sequence that they should be desired.

St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II–II, q. 83, art. 9. Cited in CCC no. 2763, quoted in Intro, 267, ebook. 

In the Our Father the Lord has taught us the whole method of prayer…. In its few words are enshrined all contemplation and perfection, so that if we study it no other book seems necessary.

Teresa of Avila, The Way of Perfection, 37.1. (He reversed the order of the sentences.)

So why do we need to go into our “room” to pray “in secret”? I think we would do well to remember here (or realize, for any non-Catholics reading this) that the whole point of Christianity is relationship with God, and, yes, the Catholic Church has known this and has been teaching it for a couple of thousand years. She may have used different language down through the centuries but the idea is the same. We usually speak of covenant, which is the means by which one becomes a member of a family in an exchange of persons. This idea, seems to me, implies something much deeper than the word “relationship” does. A relationship may or may not go this far, but in a covenant one person belongs to the another, they belong to each other. And in the Eucharist we are receiving the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Lord, we are being changed, not merely in form, but in BEING, into other Christs. We will never have by our nature what He is, but we are adopted by grace into Him, and we become more and more like Him as we allow Him to work in us and as we more and more cooperate with Him and His grace. To me this seems to be a much deeper reality than a mere relationship. I can have a relationship of sorts with just about anybody, but one like this I can only have with God. Only God can make this possible.

It’s important to note that Jesus did not prohibit public prayer when He told His disciples to pray in secret. I can’t count how many times I’ve been told that I shouldn’t pray the Rosary in public because that is against what Jesus taught. Rubbish. Like I said earlier, He was pointing out something about motivation. If you pray in public to be seen in public, then you’re doing it wrong. That is not to say never pray in public but never pray in public just to be seen. Praying in secret is a protection against pride but there will be times to pray in public, too. In worship, at mass, at times of great danger when all gathered spontaneously begin to pray and with words they all already know. That’s a powerful thing, by the way. Don’t let anyone tell you that that is the wrong thing to do. But in your daily life you must spend some time in personal prayer, one on one with the Lord. Jesus went to synagogue and prayed and He went off by Himself to pray, too. Both ways of praying are not only perfectly alright, both are necessary. 

Long-windedness is not necessary. I’ve heard some spontaneous off-the-cuff prayers that were almost longer than anyone could stand and more repetitive than the pray-er probablhy realized. By using the Lord’s Prayer the pray-er could have avoided that.

The book breaks down the Lord’s Prayer into the different petitions, etc. I’ll leave that to the text and to the video I linked. But I do want to mention that Christians have been praying the Lord’s Prayer at least three times a day since the first century (see p. 289) and other times, too. Non-Catholics talk a lot about getting back to the ways of the Early Church. Good news! We still do a lot of those very same things as Catholics that those Catholics were doing then.

Humility is the foundation of prayer. Only when we humbly acknowledge that “we do not know how to pray as we ought,” are we ready to receive freely the gift of prayer. “Man is a beggar before God.”

CCC no. 2559, quoting Romans 8:26 and Augustine, Sermon 56.6, 9 (emphasis added). Quoted in Intro,  294, ebook.

If it’s now not I who live but Christ lives in me, then let His words be the words on my lips. There is none better to guide my prayer than the Word Who came to us by and through the word. We come to faith by hearing, and the Spirit himself asketh for us with unspeakable groanings.*

There’s more in the book than I can cover in these posts. You can get a copy of your own in hardcover or Kindle ebook format using the links at the end of this post. View other parts of the series on the annotated Table of Contents page.

Next time: Vices and Virtues.

Thanks for visiting the blog and reading. I pray that you and I will stay holy and virtuous this Lent, and may these spiritual helps aid us in becoming who the Lord intends us to be: SAINTS. God bless you and may His Peace be always with you. +JMJ+ 

Catholic Book of the Month TOC, Annotated
All Series TOC, Annotated

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Notes and Links

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Image: in the banner, same one the cover of the book uses: The Road to Emmaus (or The Way to Emmaus), by Robert Zund; and in the text, The Sermon on the Mount, by Carl Bloch. Both via Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

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