The Art of Trinitarian Prayer

Author: Jesus Castellano Cervera


Jesus Castellano Cervera

Reflections on the Holy Father’s Apostolic letter Novo Millennio ineunte - 2

The Church of the third millennium, invited by the Lord through the Magisterium of John Paul II to "put out into the deep", entrusts herself to the gentle and safe wind of the Holy Spirit who always steers her to the heights of contemplation, to the deep understanding ofmystery, to the broad horizons ofwisdom and on the voyage ofholiness across the sea of history.

Perhaps we can say that the wind of the Spirit "who blows where he wills" (cf. Jn 3,8), often compared to the "still small voice" of the contemplative experience of Elijah on Horeb (cf. I Kgs 19,12), has its own particular manifestation in the mystery and "art of prayer".

In the third part of Novo Millennio ineunte, in the wake of a pressing invitation to holiness, the Pope presents a Christianity that stands out for the gift and art of prayer: "This training in holiness calls for a Christian life distinguished above all in the art ofprayer" (NovoMillennio ineunte, n. 32). These simple words are the prelude to a kind of miniature symphony on Christian prayer within the great symphony of spirituality for a new millennium, to be found in the Papal Letter, a gift and a fruit of the Great Jubilee. In fact, John Paul II dedicates some incisive theological, spiritual, liturgical and pastoral paragraphs to the urgent need for prayer. These proposals mark a turning point, at the beginning of a new millennium, in the renewal of the fabric of the Christian life, at the personal and community level.

Starting afresh from Christ, the title of the third part of the Apostolic Letter, means precisely starting afresh from prayerful contemplation of his face, from the filial sentiments of his prayer, from the sharing with which Christ continues the mystery of his uninterrupted dialogue with the Father in the prayer of his Church and of each one of the faithful.

To the extent that prayer was the very core of the most intimate life of the Lord, who was always turned toward the Father in accord with the interior anointing of the Spirit, it constituted the wisdom of his speech, the strength of his actions, the overflowing fount of his loving. Today prayer can and must be the Trinitarian source of personal and community life and of the Church's apostolic and missionary vitality. To sum up, this is an outline of the fundamental directions of the Papal Letter that has extremely relevant theological implications and valuable pedagogical and pastoral applications.

Authentic Christian prayer (NovoMillennio ineunte, n. 32)

However we can ask ourselves: is it correct to speak of "the art of prayer"? Even though the response seems obvious and a recent book by an Orthodox spiritual writer, Caritone of Valamo bears this title, someone might dispute its being called an art, as if the delicacy of human learning could restore value to the quality of gift that is proper to Christian prayer. (The Catechism of the CatholicChurch definesprayer first of all as gift, covenant and communion [nn. 2559-2565]). But the expression "the art of prayer", not only presumes that it is a gift, fruit of the action of the Holy Spirit who, as supreme craftsman, moulds words, thoughts and affections, but also expresses the beauty of his inspiration and the joy and effort that go with an apprenticeship in which one learns something that is an art. This is why it is correct to speak of the art of prayer; "prayer cannot be taken for granted"; it therefore needs the refinement of a pedagogical process that begins with contemplation of Jesus in prayer—and this is the beauty of the art of prayer—and it should be cultivated by that finest master of prayer who is the Holy Spirit, who inspires and fashions it in us. Perhaps for this reason, some spiritual masters have also spoken of prayer as the harmonious notes of a harp played by the Holy Spirit himself in the heart of the believer. Gift and effort, predisposition and apprenticeship, the beauty and joy of praying, docility to the Holy Spirit's action: this is the art of prayer.

Imitating Jesus, theprayerful person parexcellence, weappreciate an experience of the Trinity into which the Son leads us. To learn from him how to pray and, to follow his counsels, these are the guarantees of an adult Christianity, of a faith daily renewed at its sources. Training in holiness is therefore offered as a renewed pedagogy and mystagogy of prayer in order to learn to pray anew, in the most authentic and original Christian sense.

It is a lesson that is never completely learned, an art that can produce continual masterpieces and ever more daring experiences of communion with God and with our brothers and sisters, as can be seen in the lives of the great men and women of prayer.

However, it is necessary to deepen and enrich the meaning of prayer in a genuinely Christian sense. Thus prayer as communion, dialogue, mutual "indwelling" and reciprocal "symbiosis" with Christ; "prayer develops that conversation with Christ which makes us his intimate friends"; Christ's life becomes our life, and our life, his life. There is a reciprocity and an exchange of gifts between Christ and us, in the common breathing and heartbeat of our prayer which must be his prayer too, if the same vital principal is the Spirit of Christ who enables us to say Abbà, Father (cf. Rom 8,15; Gal 4,4).

The Holy Father offers us certain theological directives for this art of prayer, to deepen the meaning of authentic Christian prayer as reciprocity between Christ and us. This reciprocity is the theological condition that constitutes "the very substance and soul of the Christian life", the breath and inspiration of all true pastoral life.

First of all, it is necessary to highlight its Trinitarian dimension. With one of the many Trinitarian formulas that are typical of the Letter—the mature fruit of the theological-Trinitarian preparation for the great Jubilee—he states: "Wrought in us by the Holy Spirit this reciprocity opens us, through Christ and in Christ, to contemplation of the Father's face". The Holy Spirit, "the diamond point of the Trinity", searches man's depths, inviting and stirring his prayerful response; the Son is the mediator who prays for us and in us; the Father is the source and end of our contemplation and of our prayer as in that of Christ; Abbà, Father!

Next, with a clear instruction we are shown the concrete realization of this Trinitarian dimension in its ecclesial form proper to the liturgy, source and summit of the Church's life. The liturgy is a dialogue of words and actions between God and his people. At the very heart of the liturgy, which is the Eucharistic celebration and prayer, we find an outstanding Trinitarian prayer that is reflected also in other expressions ofthe liturgy. It is an experience of prayer that should guide, as a school and a hallmark of Christian prayer, the expression of personal prayer.

From these Trinitarian and ecclesial premises comes a serious and fruitful prayer that forges a personalism of faith and life, which is central even though we can also pray for others and with others, without betraying our personal relationship with the Triune God. It is a matter of acquiring a vital Christianity that rediscovers its roots, plunging into the sources of faith as a vital response to God, regenerating being in the grace of its baptism. But it is also realized in the secrecy of the Christian personality: the living presence of the Trinity, the communion with Christ, the living waters of the Spirit poured into our hearts.

With this robust theology of prayer, at once Trinitarian, ecclesial and personal, the Christian of the third millennium can face all challenges and give new answers.

The depths of Christian mysticism (Novo Millennio ineunte, n. 33)

From this teaching on prayer the Pope directs us to a discernment much needed in our time in order to evaluate a widespread demand for spirituality and thus a renewed need for prayer.

There is something emerging in our day, which is expressed in the restlessness of the men and women of today. At times it is manifested as the admiration and attraction exercised on many Christians by the profound religious experiences of ascesis and meditation found in other world religions. There is a considerable spiritual challenge that has invaded our Western world and comes from other ascetic and mystic traditions, especially of the non-Christian East. It has become widespread in our world and crosses ethnic, religious and cultural lines. From these premises emerges a new, if only cultural, interest for Christian and non-Christian mysticism.

The attraction of the religious sense, which reaches great heights in the testimony of the mystics of some religions and offers captivating answers, is a challenge for Christians. Therefore it is now the time to study, to disseminate and to get to know mysticism and the Christian mystics who above all, in uniting heaven and earth, the divine and the human, without confusion and with out separation, offer the real meaning of the Christian mystery, lived and taught by the great Christian mystic traditions of East and West.

It is again a Trinitarian mysticism that starts from faith and becomes experience: "We who have received the grace of believing in Christ, the revealer of the Father and the Saviour of the world, have a duty to show to what depths the relationship with Christ can lead". We are offered this beautiful Trinitarian description of this mysticism as the culmination of the journey of prayer: "It shows how prayer can progress, as a genuine dialogue of love, to the point of rendering the person wholly possessed by the divine Beloved, vibrating at the Spirit's touch, resting filially within the Father's heart…" These are deep and beautiful words, based on the language of John the Evangelist, theologian and mystic parexcellence, towhom the Pope refers in recalling Jesus' promise: "He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him" (Jn 14,21).

Mysticism is therefore an epiphany of the love of God in Christ, grace and availability, the utterly gratuitous gift of God, an expression of his freedom in giving himself, but also a call to respond; it is the gift of two freedoms that give themselves to each other, to the summit of spousal union that is not the absorption of one in the other but personal communion, which maintains the difference between the Creator and the creature.

The Pope does not hesitate to reaffirm some of the fundamental concepts of classical mysticism. The mysticism of two limits: the human limit of kenosis, which experiences the "dark night"; the maximum limit of the divine gift given to the creature that is spousal union, as certain great masters teach, very close to the experience and teaching of the Pope: Christian mystics named explicitly, such as Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross.

This is mysticism as the flowering of the work of the Holy Spirit in prayer, varied in the symphony of human feelings, transfigured by grace. Prayer that is thanksgiving, praise, adoration, contemplation, listening, ardour of affection, to the point of failing in love, indeed to that "infatuation" of the heart for a God who is Love and is the Beloved.

It is a balanced and realistic mysticism, able to accomplish an ascent towards God and a descent of love and service towards the brethren, looked at henceforth with the eyes of God; a mysticism that becomes the building of history, according to God's design, as St Teresa of Avila teaches, for example, at the end of the Interior Castle (Mansion VII, ch. 4,4 and ff.).

This is an exalted perspective, which in principle is a way open to all, always crowned by the grace of a God who opens his treasures to whoever he pleases, as he pleases and when he pleases, is all to be travelled, all to be discovered and to be followed step-by-step on the classical and modern spiritual paths through a renewed education to prayer.

To reach this goal the Pope launches a challenge that holds out to us an urgent pastoral plan to make the Church grow in depth and breadth: "our Christian communities must become true ‘schools of prayer"'!

Thanks be to God in the Church at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the millennium, for such a fine teaching on prayer, which has allowed practical experiences of Christian prayer to flourish; some inspired by the classical methods and almost co-natural to "lectio divina"; others follow the Eastern Christian mystical tradition, others are from the great tradition renewed and simplified by various methods of mental prayer; and finally, others with a necessary and attentive discernment and directive, borrow all that can be put into practice from the traditions of the great Eastern religions.

In recent times, the Church's Magisterium has offered Christians useful pointers on content and method, directives and discernment. First of all in the Letter Orationis formas of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on some aspects of Christian meditation (15 October 1989), which the Pope cites as a note; but also in the splendid fourth part of the Catechism of the CatholicChurch.

These two texts can be excellent guides for all Christian individuals and communities who wish to learn and share a renewed pedagogy of Christian prayer in all its forms, through the steps of meditation, contemplation and mysticism.

An effective education in prayer for all (Novo Millennio ineunte, n. 34)

The call to prayer, like the call to holiness, is universal. It is rooted in man's religious sense, made by the Creator himself "capax Dei", invited to dialogue with Him (cf. Dei Verbum, n. 2; Gaudium et spes, n. 19) and in the grace of holy baptism. So all are called to prayer, especially consecrated persons, the Pope says.

But all Christians, in order not to be mediocre, "Christians at risk", because they are not rooted in a strong and personal communion with God, are called in these times to be persons of prayer, friends of Christ, Christians who are adults in faith and in love. Christian prayer is not only a salutary antidote to the excesses and deviations of the return to the sacred, to the surrogates of alternative religious proposals, but is food for the soul and a source of life.

For a real growth of faith and life, the Christian must cultivate personal dialogue with God, which causes faith to mature in daily life. There is an inseparable link between faith, prayer and life. The structure of Christian faith guides prayer; prayer actualizes and personalizes faith. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger has said that faith without prayer vanishes, and prayer without faith is blind.

From these premises, the Pope draws some immediate and urgent pastoral conclusions. The teaching of prayer becomes the decisive moment for future pastoral care, in all its forms, with a broad vision of its varied possibilities.

The Holy Father alludes to the renewed experience of biblical catechesis on the Psalms, offering an example, already in action with his Wednesday catechesis on the Psalms of the Liturgy of the Hours from Lauds and Vespers. Further on in his Letter he refers to the ancient and always relevant tradition of "Iectio divina" (cf. NovoMillennio ineunte, n. 39). He already suggests the need for a reawakening of the prayer of the Church in Christian communities, following the example of many lay communities, the need for education in the popular forms of prayer and, in particular, the normal celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours of Lauds and Vespers, cornerstones of the prayer of the Christian community, from the most ancient times, in all the Christian communities.

Here is the urgency and the gift of prayer for our new millennium that is beginning. Here is a new century that opens to the promises and surprises of the Holy Spirit; a century in need of prophecy and a message, new ways and a deep religious sense. The Holy Father dreams of a Church deeply rooted at every level, in every vocation, which can follow the inspirations of the Holy Spirit, to continue to plough through the waves of history, her sails swelling with the wind of the Paraclete. He dreams of a laboratory of beauty for every believer and every Christian community, where Christ is the model and the Holy Spirit becomes the secret teacher of the art of prayer.

(Translated from L'Osservatore Romano Italian edition, published as reflection n. 12).  

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
22 August 2001, page 6

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