On the Importance of Personal Prayer in Christian Life

Author: Cardinal Francis Arinze

On the Importance of Personal Prayer in Christian Life

Cardinal Francis Arinze

'Pray always without becoming weary'

The following is the Keynote Address given by Cardinal Francis Arinze, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, at the 13th Annual Lenten Symposium, presented by the Holy Trinity Apostolate in Detroit, Michigan, U.S.A. on 6 March [2010].

Pray always

By means of a parable Jesus teaches us that it is necessary to pray always without becoming weary (cf. Lk 18:18). St Paul returns to the same teaching. He writes the Thessalonians: "Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus" (1 Thes 5:17-18) .

In practice, how can this be carried out? If one understands praying always to mean reciting fixed prayers, then this would not be physically possible for a human being. And it would be psychologically dangerous and inadvisable to try. After all, in the space of one day in which we think of God and put into words our sentiments, we also wash, eat, drive a car, do office or kitchen work, play with our friends, watch the television and sleep. How then can we pray always?

But the injunction becomes possible if we understand it to mean to have a spirit of prayer throughout the day, to strive to remain united with God without trying at every moment to have an express conscious awareness of his presence. It is possible to offer the major actions of the day to God by some brief ejaculatory prayer. This does not rule out the need for more protracted personal prayer at one or more moments in the day. The main idea is that the person who "prays always without becoming weary" is one whose whole day is like a loving offertory procession in God's presence. Such prayer of the heart implies that the person is constantly ready to do the will of God.

How all this matters very much in our spiritual lives is what we are now going to explore in these reflections. We begin by asking ourselves what prayer is, which are the three major types of prayer and then why personal prayer has its importance. Holy Scripture teaches us how to pray. As Christians, it is important that we keep in mind that prayer is a gift, a grace, from the Holy Spirit. We shall close by examining the wellsprings of Christian personal prayer, some help to prayer and some tips on how to respond to problems and challenges on the road to personal prayer.

What is prayer?

Every one of us has an idea of what prayer is. Let us listen to two Saints on how they see it. St Therese of Lisieux describes prayer with her characteristic simplicity, limpidity and depth: "For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven; it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy" (Manuscripts autobiographiques,C 25r).

St John Damascene is even more brief: "Prayer is the raising of one's mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God" (De Fide orth. 3, 24: PG 94, 1089C, quoted in Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2559).

The person who prays strives to be in communication with God, principally to adore him, to praise him, to thank him for his gifts, to make reparation for our offences, and to ask for our various needs, both spiritual and temporal. So the Catechism of the Catholic Church sees prayer as "a vital and personal relationship with the living and true God" (CCC, n. 2558).

Three kinds of prayer

From the point of view of who offers a prayer, we can speak of three kinds of prayer: liturgical, community and personal prayer.

Liturgical prayer is the official prayer of the Church in which Jesus Christ is the chief person praying and in which he associates his Church with him. The Eucharistic celebration is its fount and apex. Liturgical prayer embraces the seven Sacraments, the Liturgy of the Hours and the Sacramentals or the Prayers and Blessings instituted by the Church for various occasions. The exalted and supreme character of liturgical prayer follows from the fact that Christ himself leads his Church in every liturgical act. Because of its public and official nature, the texts of liturgical prayers, and even the gestures and postures, are prescribed and fixed by the Authority of the Church (cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium,nn. 7, 10, 13, 22).

Community prayers are such prayers as the Way of the Cross, the Holy Rosary, various devotions to the Blessed Virgin Mary or the Saints, particular prayers of Religious Orders or Congregations, or of Catholic Sodalities, Associations or Movements. Such prayers are generally prayed by a group of persons, although individuals also use them. They differ from liturgical prayers because they are not public, official prayers of the whole Church.

Personal prayer is the prayer of an individual. It wells up from the depths of the heart of the person. It can indeed be inspired by liturgical or community prayer. But it is personal and peculiar to that person. Personal prayer can be in words. But it can also take the form of "inexpressible groanings" (cf. Rom 8:26), as the Holy Spirit may guide each soul.

The rest of this paper is concerned with personal prayer, as different from liturgical and community prayer.

The importance of personal prayer

Personal prayer is important in the promotion of our living relationship as children of God with our Father who is goodness itself, with Jesus Christ his Son and our Redeemer, and with the Holy Spirit our Sanctifier. A life of prayer is the habit of being in the presence of the thrice-holy God and in communion with him (cf. CCC, n. 2565).

Personal prayer promotes and improves our participation in liturgical and community prayers. If heart and mind are to be properly engaged in these two forms of prayer, then personal prayer is very useful to help us internalize and make our own the liturgical and communal texts and rites. If this attention is not paid, these prayers for that one individual will be in danger of approaching words ritually recited, but not coming from the heart. The liturgical books themselves advise that there be moments of silence before and even within liturgical acts, to help the participants to engage in silent meditation and personal prayer. Examples are before the Collect, after the Readings and the Homily and especially after Holy Communion (cf. General Instr. on the Roman Missal: 56, 66, 88, 127, 136; cf. Sacrosanctum Concilium, n.30; Redemptionis Sacramentum,n. 39).

In the Old Testament the Lord, through the prophet Isaiah, warned the chosen people about the danger of ritualism, the danger of reciting official prayers when their hearts are not in union with the words: "This people draws near with words only and honours me with their lips alone, though their hearts are far from me, and their reverence for me has become routine observance of the precepts of men" (Is 29:13) .

Personal prayer helps to make our religion more genuine, more personal, more deeply rooted. It favours our union with God. It comes to our aid in the little pinpricks of daily life as well as in temptations and trials which can never be totally excluded during our earthly pilgrimage.

Many Catholics need to be better introduced to the offering of personal prayer. For far too many Catholics, to pray means to read or recite prayers already composed. No doubt, liturgical prayers, all set by holy Mother Church, are the most exalted form of prayer. And many community prayer formulae have been composed by such high-calibre Saints as Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, Alphonsus de Liguori and Teresa of Avila. But every Catholic needs also to pray to God from the heart. After receiving Jesus in Holy Communion, have we really nothing to say to him from our hearts? We may indeed pray to him in the words of St Thomas Aquinas. But such a prayer will have as much value for us as we have succeeded to make it our own. When a child returns home on holidays, does the child really need an address written by the professor of English literature, in order to read it to father and mother? What would we think of a child who cannot find his or her own words to communicate with the parents?

There are also occasions when a prayer composed on the spot to suit the people present is to be advised. At the beginning of a meeting attended by Catholics, Episcopalians, Methodists and Muslims, is it not best for the person who leads in prayer to compose a prayer which would be acceptable to all the people present? If a Catholic is to lead in such a prayer, can he/she not see that it is not the place to recite "Our Father and Hail Mary"?

Parents have also to learn to pray over their children and invoke God's blessing on them. When the children are going on a journey or to the college boarding house, why are the parents not able to impose hands on them and pray for God's blessing, guidance and protection on them going and coming? And when the children return home, why do the parents not acclaim God's goodness in a few ejaculatory prayers coming straight from their happy and grateful hearts? Why be so shy?

You can see, brothers and sisters, that personal prayer is very important in our lives, both to manifest and intensify our life of union with God, and to help us internalize better our participation in liturgical and community prayers and worship.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
24 March 2010, page 12

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