Preparing our Hearts to Worship
In an effort to help you prepare for the April 26, 2020, Sunday morning corporate worship gathering and to aid you in your own reflections on Prayer. I wanted to pose a few questions and provide a few resources to prayerfully consider over the coming days. Our sermon is entitled, “The Difficulties of Prayer” The main Scripture for the day is Hebrews 5:7-9.
(Pick and choose from the many resources and options, which I have tried to make available for your devotional life.)
From the Scriptures
The Scripture references are quite significant this week, here are a few to whet your appetite.
Please read through these passages: Hebrews 5, Matthew 26:42, 27:46, Mark 14:34.
From the Creeds and Confessions
Though I do not normally utilize the Catholic Catechism for instructing God’s people, there are wonderful and insightful portions of the document that reformed and evangelical believers would do well to reflect upon and internalize. Such is the portion of the Catholic Catechism that I have included here. They are taken verbatum from the Vatican’s website:
Catechism of the Catholic Church on Prayer 2558-2565
PART FOUR: CHRISTIAN PRAYER
SECTION ONE:PRAYER IN THE CHRISTIAN LIFE
2558 “Great is the mystery of the faith!” The Church professes this mystery in the Apostles’ Creed (Part One) and celebrates it in the sacramental liturgy (Part Two), so that the life of the faithful may be conformed to Christ in the Holy Spirit to the glory of God the Father (Part Three). This mystery, then, requires that the faithful believe in it, that they celebrate it, and that they live from it in a vital and personal relationship with the living and true God. This relationship is prayer.
WHAT IS PRAYER?
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.1
Prayer as God’s gift
2559 “Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God.”2 But when we pray, do we speak from the height of our pride and will, or “out of the depths” of a humble and contrite heart?3 He who humbles himself will be exalted;4 humility is the foundation of prayer, Only when we humbly acknowledge that “we do not know how to pray as we ought,”5 are we ready to receive freely the gift of prayer. “Man is a beggar before God.”6
2560 “If you knew the gift of God!”7 The wonder of prayer is revealed beside the well where we come seeking water: there, Christ comes to meet every human being. It is he who first seeks us and asks us for a drink. Jesus thirsts; his asking arises from the depths of God’s desire for us. Whether we realize it or not, prayer is the encounter of God’s thirst with ours. God thirsts that we may thirst for him.”
2561 “You would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”9 Paradoxically our prayer of petition is a response to the plea of the living God: “They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewn out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water!”10 Prayer is the response of faith to the free promise of salvation and also a response of love to the thirst of the only Son of God.11
Prayer as covenant
2562 Where does prayer come from? Whether prayer is expressed in words or gestures, it is the whole man who prays. But in naming the source of prayer, Scripture speaks sometimes of the soul or the spirit, but most often of the heart (more than a thousand times). According to Scripture, it is the heart that prays. If our heart is far from God, the words of prayer are in vain.
2563 The heart is the dwelling-place where I am, where I live; according to the Semitic or Biblical expression, the heart is the place “to which I withdraw.” The heart is our hidden center, beyond the grasp of our reason and of others; only the Spirit of God can fathom the human heart and know it fully. The heart is the place of decision, deeper than our psychic drives. It is the place of truth, where we choose life or death. It is the place of encounter, because as image of God we live in relation: it is the place of covenant.
2564 Christian prayer is a covenant relationship between God and man in Christ. It is the action of God and of man, springing forth from both the Holy Spirit and ourselves, wholly directed to the Father, in union with the human will of the Son of God made man.
Prayer as communion
2565 In the New Covenant, prayer is the living relationship of the children of God with their Father who is good beyond measure, with his Son Jesus Christ and with the Holy Spirit. The grace of the Kingdom is “the union of the entire holy and royal Trinity . . . with the whole human spirit.”12 Thus, the life of prayer is the habit of being in the presence of the thrice-holy God and in communion with him. This communion of life is always possible because, through Baptism, we have already been united with Christ.13 Prayer is Christian insofar as it is communion with Christ and extends throughout the Church, which is his Body. Its dimensions are those of Christ’s love.14
1 St. ThéRèse of Lisieux, Manuscrits autobiographiques, C 25r.
2 St. John Damascene, Defide orth. 3,24:PG 94,1089C.
3 Ps 130:1.
4 Cf. Lk 18:9-14.
5 Rom 8:26.
6 St. Augustine, Sermo 56,6,9:PL 38,381.
7 Jn 4:10.
8 Cf. St. Augustine, De diversis quaestionibus octoginta tribus 64,4:PL 40,56.
9 Jn 4:10.
10 Jer 2:13.
11 Cf. Jn 7:37-39; 19:28; Isa 12:3; 51:1; Zech 12:10; 13:1.
12 St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Oratio, 16,9:PG 35,945.
13 Cf. Rom 6:5.
14 Cf. Eph 3:18-21.
Catechism of the Catholic Church on Prayer 2725-2745
PART FOUR CHRISTIAN PRAYER
SECTION ONE: PRAYER IN THE CHRISTIAN LIFE
CHAPTER THREE: THE LIFE OF PRAYER
THE BATTLE OF PRAYER
2725 Prayer is both a gift of grace and a determined response on our part. It always presupposes effort. The great figures of prayer of the Old Covenant before Christ, as well as the Mother of God, the saints, and he himself, all teach us this: prayer is a battle. Against whom? Against ourselves and against the wiles of the tempter who does all he can to turn man away from prayer, away from union with God. We pray as we live, because we live as we pray. If we do not want to act habitually according to the Spirit of Christ, neither can we pray habitually in his name. The “spiritual battle” of the Christian’s new life is inseparable from the battle of prayer.
OBJECTIONS TO PRAYER
2726 In the battle of prayer, we must face in ourselves and around us erroneous notions of prayer. Some people view prayer as a simple psychological activity, others as an effort of concentration to reach a mental void. Still others reduce prayer to ritual words and postures. Many Christians unconsciously regard prayer as an occupation that is incompatible with all the other things they have to do: they “don’t have the time.” Those who seek God by prayer are quickly discouraged because they do not know that prayer comes also from the Holy Spirit and not from themselves alone.
2727 We must also face the fact that certain attitudes deriving from the mentality of “this present world” can penetrate our lives if we are not vigilant. For example, some would have it that only that is true which can be verified by reason and science; yet prayer is a mystery that overflows both our conscious and unconscious lives. Others overly prize production and profit; thus prayer, being unproductive, is useless. Still others exalt sensuality and comfort as the criteria of the true, the good, and the beautiful; whereas prayer, the “love of beauty” (philokalia), is caught up in the glory of the living and true God. Finally, some see prayer as a flight from the world in reaction against activism; but in fact, Christian prayer is neither an escape from reality nor a divorce from life.
2728 Finally, our battle has to confront what we experience as failure in prayer: discouragement during periods of dryness; sadness that, because we have “great possessions,”15 we have not given all to the Lord; disappointment over not being heard according to our own will; wounded pride, stiffened by the indignity that is ours as sinners; our resistance to the idea that prayer is a free and unmerited gift; and so forth. The conclusion is always the same: what good does it do to pray? To overcome these obstacles, we must battle to gain humility, trust, and perseverance.
HUMBLE VIGILANCE OF HEART
Facing difficulties in prayer
2729 The habitual difficulty in prayer is distraction. It can affect words and their meaning in vocal prayer; it can concern, more profoundly, him to whom we are praying, in vocal prayer (liturgical or personal), meditation, and contemplative prayer. To set about hunting down distractions would be to fall into their trap, when all that is necessary is to turn back to our heart: for a distraction reveals to us what we are attached to, and this humble awareness before the Lord should awaken our preferential love for him and lead us resolutely to offer him our heart to be purified. Therein lies the battle, the choice of which master to serve.16
2730 In positive terms, the battle against the possessive and dominating self requires vigilance, sobriety of heart. When Jesus insists on vigilance, he always relates it to himself, to his coming on the last day and every day: today. The bridegroom comes in the middle of the night; the light that must not be extinguished is that of faith: “‘Come,’ my heart says, ‘seek his face!'”17
2731 Another difficulty, especially for those who sincerely want to pray, is dryness. Dryness belongs to contemplative prayer when the heart is separated from God, with no taste for thoughts, memories, and feelings, even spiritual ones. This is the moment of sheer faith clinging faithfully to Jesus in his agony and in his tomb. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if dies, it bears much fruit.”18 If dryness is due to the lack of roots, because the word has fallen on rocky soil, the battle requires conversion.19
Facing temptations in prayer
2732 The most common yet most hidden temptation is our lack of faith. It expresses itself less by declared incredulity than by our actual preferences. When we begin to pray, a thousand labors or cares thought to be urgent vie for priority; once again, it is the moment of truth for the heart: what is its real love? Sometimes we turn to the Lord as a last resort, but do we really believe he is? Sometimes we enlist the Lord as an ally, but our heart remains presumptuous. In each case, our lack of faith reveals that we do not yet share in the disposition of a humble heart: “Apart from me, you can do nothing.”20
2733 Another temptation, to which presumption opens the gate, is acedia. The spiritual writers understand by this a form of depression due to lax ascetical practice, decreasing vigilance, carelessness of heart. “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”21 The greater the height, the harder the fall. Painful as discouragement is, it is the reverse of presumption. The humble are not surprised by their distress; it leads them to trust more, to hold fast in constancy.
III. FILIAL TRUST
2734 Filial trust is tested – it proves itself – in tribulation.22 The principal difficulty concerns the prayer of petition, for oneself or for others in intercession. Some even stop praying because they think their petition is not heard. Here two questions should be asked: Why do we think our petition has not been heard? How is our prayer heard, how is it “efficacious”?
Why do we complain of not being heard?
2735 In the first place, we ought to be astonished by this fact: when we praise God or give him thanks for his benefits in general, we are not particularly concerned whether or not our prayer is acceptable to him. On the other hand, we demand to see the results of our petitions. What is the image of God that motivates our prayer: an instrument to be used? or the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ?
2736 Are we convinced that “we do not know how to pray as we ought”?23 Are we asking God for “what is good for us”? Our Father knows what we need before we ask him,24 but he awaits our petition because the dignity of his children lies in their freedom. We must pray, then, with his Spirit of freedom, to be able truly to know what he wants.25
2737 “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.”26 If we ask with a divided heart, we are “adulterers”;27 God cannot answer us, for he desires our well-being, our life. “Or do you suppose that it is in vain that the scripture says, ‘He yearns jealously over the spirit which he has made to dwell in us?'”28 That our God is “jealous” for us is the sign of how true his love is. If we enter into the desire of his Spirit, we shall be heard.
Do not be troubled if you do not immediately receive from God what you ask him; for he desires to do something even greater for you, while you cling to him in prayer.29
God wills that our desire should be exercised in prayer, that we may be able to receive what he is prepared to give.30
How is our prayer efficacious?
2738 The revelation of prayer in the economy of salvation teaches us that faith rests on God’s action in history. Our filial trust is enkindled by his supreme act: the Passion and Resurrection of his Son. Christian prayer is cooperation with his providence, his plan of love for men.
2739 For St. Paul, this trust is bold, founded on the prayer of the Spirit in us and on the faithful love of the Father who has given us his only Son.31 Transformation of the praying heart is the first response to our petition.
2740 The prayer of Jesus makes Christian prayer an efficacious petition. He is its model, he prays in us and with us. Since the heart of the Son seeks only what pleases the Father, how could the prayer of the children of adoption be centered on the gifts rather than the Giver?
2741 Jesus also prays for us – in our place and on our behalf. All our petitions were gathered up, once for all, in his cry on the Cross and, in his Resurrection, heard by the Father. This is why he never ceases to intercede for us with the Father.32 If our prayer is resolutely united with that of Jesus, in trust and boldness as children, we obtain all that we ask in his name, even more than any particular thing: the Holy Spirit himself, who contains all gifts.
PERSERVERING IN LOVE
2742 “Pray constantly . . . always and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father.”33 St. Paul adds, “Pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert with all perseverance making supplication for all the saints.”34 For “we have not been commanded to work, to keep watch and to fast constantly, but it has been laid down that we are to pray without ceasing.”35 This tireless fervor can come only from love. Against our dullness and laziness, the battle of prayer is that of humble, trusting, and persevering love. This love opens our hearts to three enlightening and life-giving facts of faith about prayer.
2743 It is always possible to pray: The time of the Christian is that of the risen Christ who is with us always, no matter what tempests may arise.36 Our time is in the hands of God:
It is possible to offer fervent prayer even while walking in public or strolling alone, or seated in your shop, . . . while buying or selling, . . . or even while cooking.37
2744 Prayer is a vital necessity. Proof from the contrary is no less convincing: if we do not allow the Spirit to lead us, we fall back into the slavery of sin.38 How can the Holy Spirit be our life if our heart is far from him?
Nothing is equal to prayer; for what is impossible it makes possible, what is difficult, easy. . . . For it is impossible, utterly impossible, for the man who prays eagerly and invokes God ceaselessly ever to sin.39
Those who pray are certainly saved; those who do not pray are certainly damned.40
2745 Prayer and Christian life are inseparable, for they concern the same love and the same renunciation, proceeding from love; the same filial and loving conformity with the Father’s plan of love; the same transforming union in the Holy Spirit who conforms us more and more to Christ Jesus; the same love for all men, the love with which Jesus has loved us. “Whatever you ask the Father in my name, he [will] give it to you. This I command you, to love one another.”41
He “prays without ceasing” who unites prayer to works and good works to prayer. Only in this way can we consider as realizable the principle of praying without ceasing.42
15 Cf. Mk 10:22.
16 Cf. Mt 6:21,24.
17 Ps 27:8.
18 Jn 12:24.
19 Cf. Lk 8:6,13.
20 Jn 15:5.
21 Mt 26:41.
22 Cf. Rom 5:3-5.
23 Rom 8:26.
24 Cf. Mt 6:8.
25 Cf. Rom 8:27.
26 Jas 4:3; cf. the whole context: Jas 4:1-10; 1:5-8; 5:16.
27 Jas 4:4.
28 Jas 4:5.
29 Evagrius Ponticus, De oratione 34:PG 79,1173.
30 St. Augustine, Ep. 130,8,17:PL 33,500.
31 Cf. Rom 10:12-13; 8:26-39.
32 Cf. Heb 5:7; 7:25; 9:24
33 1 Thess 5:17; Eph 5:20.
34 Eph 6:18.
35 Evagrius Ponticus, Pract. 49:PG 40,1245C.
36 Cf. Mt 28:20; Lk 8:24.
37 St. John Chrysostom, Ecloga de oratione 2:PG 63,585.
38 Cf. Gal 5:16-25.
39 St. John Chrysostom, De Anna 4,5:PG 54,666.
40 St. Alphonsus Liguori, Del gran Mezzo della preghiera.
41 Jn 15:16-17.
42 Origen, De orat. 12:PG 11,452c.
From the songs, hymns and spiritual songs of the Church
For Thoughtful Reflection, Prayer, or further Study
Watch and reflect upon John Piper’s Lab on Hebrews 5:7-9.
The Sermon will be available online on April 26, 2020 at 12:30 pm.
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