Personal Prayer: “The elevation of the mind and heart to God in praise of his glory; a petition made to God for some desired good, or in thanksgiving for a good received, or in intercession for others before God. Through personal prayer the Christian experiences a communion with God through Christ in the Church.”
The Glossary refers the reader to the paragraphs within the Catholic Catechism which treat the subject of personal prayer (CCC, nn. 2559-2565). I highly recommend that my readers spend time reading those paragraphs and make sure to look up the multitude of Scriptures cited therein. The overriding direction those paragraphs on prayer tell us that we learn personal prayer by examining the way that Jesus prayed and imitating it.
As Catholic Christians we have a wonderful treasure chest of resources offering different kinds of form prayer and devotions to aid us in every season of life. And, as we have discussed in past columns, we have the beauty of liturgical prayer. The highest form of worship, the Source and Summit of the Christian Life, the Eucharistic Sacrifice, is the greatest gift of all.
“Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.’
“Which one of you would hand his son a stone when he asked for a loaf of bread — or a snake when he asked for a fish? If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him. Do to others whatever you would have them do to you. This is the law and the prophets” (Matt. 7:7-12).
St. Luke’s account of this same teaching occurs after the disciples find Jesus in personal prayer: in communion with His Father. He demonstrates for them the very kind of personal prayer which He is teaching them about. In His Sacred Humanity, Jesus also showed them that the way of life into which they would be initiated required an ongoing conversation with the Father.
And He does the same for us. We are his contemporary disciples. In His earthly ministry, Jesus showed us that walking the way of life He invites us into will not be easy — and that it requires real personal prayer. Luke adds an additional parable to communicate to us that personal prayer also involves persistence:
“And he said to them, ‘Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him”; and he will answer from within, “Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything”? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his importunity he will rise and give him whatever he needs.
“‘And I tell you, Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’” (Luke 11:5-13).
The intimate communion with the Father the disciples witnessed when they came upon Jesus in personal prayer is to become our experience. We are adopted sons and daughters of “His Father and Our Father” (John 20:17). The instruction which the disciples received as they walked with Him daily can becomes ours. He instructs us, He speaks to us, He leads us, He encourages us through personal prayer.
The Jesus who instructed the disciples is still alive with us today. He has been raised from the dead. We celebrate that truth in this Holy Easter Season. But we need the eyes of living faith to see Him and the spiritual courage to accompany Him on the Way. Both require personal prayer. Personal prayer is an ongoing dialogue, a conversation with the Lord, which deepens our relationship with Him.
Through Jesus Christ, we are made capable of living an entirely new way of life. We become “new creations” (2 Cor. 5:17). In the words of the Apostle Peter, we become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1). It is in the communion cultivated through personal prayer that we receive this divine life. It is called grace.
Grace is mediated to us through the sacraments, which are the continuing ministry of the Risen Jesus through His Mystical Body, the Church. Grace also comes to us through the written Word of God. But it needs to be read, received, and broken open. The ongoing teaching office of the Church continues the apostolic instruction which assists us in following Jesus But to fully receive each of these gifts, we need personal prayer.
Grace will recreate us into the Image and likeness of God, as fully revealed in Jesus Christ. However, grace invites our ongoing response and cooperation. The Catechism reminds us: “In man, true freedom is an outstanding manifestation of the divine image” (CCC, n. 1712). But, our capacity to always choose what is true and good was fractured as a result of the original sin. We were separated from God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains the consequence of this fracture:
“Man, having been wounded in his nature by original sin, is subject to error and inclined to evil in exercising his freedom.” It also explains the remedy and path we are to follow to find fulfillment and freedom. “He who believes in Christ has new life in the Holy Spirit. The moral life, increased and brought to maturity in grace, is to reach its fulfillment in the glory of heaven” (CCC, nn. 1714, 1715).
Our relationship with God was broken by original sin. It was a misuse of the freedom given to our first parents. Their exercise of freedom was corrupted by pride and self-sufficiency, as they chose to turn away from His loving plan, and succumbed to the lie of the serpent, the enemy. Our ability to exercise our own freedom by directing our capacity for free choice always toward the good, is now impeded because of the fall of our first parents.
Even though we were freed from original sin through the waters of Baptism, there is an inclination toward sin which Catholic theology calls concupiscence. The Catechism summarizes the teaching of the Bible and the Christian tradition well in the following paragraph:
“Man, enticed by the Evil One, abused his freedom at the very beginning of history. He succumbed to temptation and did what was evil. He still desires the good, but his nature bears the wound of original sin. He is now inclined to evil and subject to error: Man is divided in himself. As a result, the whole life of men, both individual and social, shows itself to be a struggle, and a dramatic one, between good and evil, between light and darkness. By his Passion, Christ delivered us from Satan and from sin. He merited for us the new life in the Holy Spirit. His grace restores what sin had damaged in us” (CCC, nn. 1707, 1708).
The way to victory and freedom in this struggle has been opened for us by Jesus Christ. By grace we can live in an even fuller communion with God than our first parents had. In Jesus we are being re-created, re-fashioned, and redeemed. He stands at the door of our hearts and knocks. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come into him and eat with him, and he with me” (Rev. 3:20).
When we open the door, He comes to live in us, and we learn to live in Him. We need to regularly open the door to Him. That all happens more deeply when we regularly and personally dialogue with the Lord in personal prayer. Through personal prayer, daily life can become a classroom of communion where we can learn the truth about who we are — and who we are becoming — in Jesus.
Through personal prayer, we can receive new glasses through which we learn to see the true landscape of our life. Through personal prayer, darkness can be dispelled, and the path of progress illuminated, by the Holy Spirit. Personal prayer really is the lifeline of a Christian.
Personal prayer can open us up to Revelation, expand our capacity to comprehend its mysteries, and equip us to be changed, converted, and made new, by grace. Through personal prayer, we are drawn into a deepening relationship with Jesus Christ, whose loving embrace of the world on the hill of Golgotha bridged Heaven with Earth.
His relationship with His Father is now opened to include us. The same Spirit that raised Him from the dead now gives us new life as we are transformed into His Image and likeness.
Heavenly wisdom is planted in the field of our hearts and minds. We can a deepening communion with the Trinitarian God. The work of the Holy Spirit in our lives begins to bear the fruit of our transformation.
The Early Christians reflected upon the cross with the kinds of insights which only come from an intimate communion with God, through personal prayer. They saw it as the second tree at which the new creation began again in Jesus Christ. It was the antidote for the disease and the undoing of the sin which occurred as a result of the wrong choice made at the first tree in the Garden of Eden.
On that cross, the Second Person of the Trinity, through whom the whole universe was created, re-created it anew. He became the Incarnate Word. From His wounded side, His spouse, the Church, was born. The blood and water which flowed from His side is now the fountain of grace offered through the sacraments which continue His ministry among us.
How did the early Christians discern such deep insights? They really prayed — personally. Because of that, the Holy Spirit was able to open their spiritual eyes. They learned to probe the depths of the mysteries of the Christian faith in personal prayer. So can we. They wrote with such beauty because they lived in an ongoing communion with the Risen Lord who is the source of all Beauty. They really prayed, personally.
I conclude by reflecting on some of the fruits of personal prayer in the inspired reflections of several early Christians. These two examples focus on how they came to speak of the wood of the cross of Jesus Christ. First, Theodore the Studite, an eighth-century abbot of the First Christian Millennium:
“How precious the gift of the cross, how splendid to contemplate! In the cross there is no mingling of good and evil, as in the tree of paradise: It is wholly beautiful to behold and good to taste. The fruit of this tree is not death but life, not darkness but light. This tree does not cast us out of paradise but opens the way for our return.
“This was the tree on which Christ, like a King on a chariot, destroyed the devil, the Lord of death, and freed the human race from his tyranny. This was the tree upon which the Lord, like a brave warrior wounded in hands, feet and side, healed the wounds of sin that the evil serpent had inflicted on our nature. A tree once caused our death but now a tree brings life.
“Once deceived by a tree, we have now repelled the cunning serpent by a tree. What an astonishing transformation! That death should become life, that decay should become immortality — that shame should become glory!”
Such inspired words came from a deep personal prayer life.
A fourth-century deacon named Ephrem wrote hymns which gained him a title still mentioned in the Syriac Liturgy to this day — “The Harp of the Holy Spirit.” In a sermon he once proclaimed:
“He who was also the carpenter’s glorious Son set up His cross above death’s all-consuming jaws and led the human race into the dwelling place of life. Since a tree had brought about the downfall of mankind, it was upon a tree that mankind crossed over to the realm of life.
“Bitter was the branch that had once been grafted upon that ancient tree, but sweet the young shoot that has now been grafted in, the shoot in which we are meant to recognize the Lord whom no creature can resist. We give glory to you, Lord, who raised up your cross to span the jaws of death, like a bridge by which souls might pass from the region of the dead to the land of the living.
“We give glory to you who put on the body of a single mortal man and made it the source of life for every other mortal man. You are incontestably alive. Your murderers sowed your living body in the earth as farmers sow grain, but it sprang up and yielded an abundant harvest of men raised from the dead. Come then, my brothers and sisters, let us offer our Lord the great and all-embracing sacrifice of our love and our lives.”
The beauty of these words, the profundity of these insights on the cross, were directly connected to the depth of the personal prayer lives of these saints. The same Lord to which they clung — and in whom they found such inspiration and wisdom — still walks with us. He invites us to learn personal prayer.