Contemplata aliis Tradere

A meagre contribution to the mission and work of the Order of Preachers: my reflections, thoughts, ideas and the occasional rant on matters mainly theological, philosophical and ecclesiastical, drawn primarily from my reading and experience of life and the world. Striving to be always Catholic, firmly Christian and essentially Dominican, flavoured with dashes of Von Balthasar.

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Location: Oxford, United Kingdom

A son of the English Province of the Order of Friars Preachers (Dominicans); born in Malaysia but have lived in the USA, Singapore, the UK & the Philippines for varying durations. A pilgrim and way-farer, a searcher for Truth on the journey of Life... "Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, There’s always laughter and good red wine. At least I’ve always found it so. Benedicamus Domino!" - Hilaire Belloc

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Prayer is a God-centred Dialogue

Station at St George's in Velabro

St George's, one of Rome's twenty-five parishes and established as a diaconia in the 5th century has been today's Stational church since the 7th-century and the papacy of Pope Gregory II. It is believed that the head of St George, patron of the realm of England, is kept under the high altar. Among the former titular deacons of this church was the Cardinal-Deacon, Ven. John Henry Newman. St George was a Greek martyr and a Christian soldier who died under the persecution of Diocletian. The church is located in Velabro, which name is derived from 'vela aureum', on account of a relic which is kept in a golden veil, or from 'velabrum' which means a marsh. Ancient Roman history claims that Romulus killed his brother, Remus, in this area before founding the city of Rome.

Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the three classical forms of Lenten observance, although interestingly the illustration shown here from a 1962 Belgian hand Missal includes 'flagellatio', which meaning is obvious. I suspect the use of the discipline as a form of physical mortification is less popular these days as a Lenten penance but it is understood that mortification and self-denial are key elements in our observance of Lent, as the Prefaces of Lent teach us. Noteworthy too is the fact that although fasting and abstinence are represented, along with almsgiving, prayer is seemingly absent from this illustration and replaced by flagellation. However, it may be that the use of the discipline is itself a form of prayer; it is figured as one of St Dominic's 'Nine Ways of Prayer'. What this suggests to me is that there are various forms of prayer, many of which are highly personal, and we do well in our prayer life not to limit ourselves to just one way or even the most familiar ways...

As we have already considered the element of fasting, I shall devote the next few days to reflections on prayer and almsgiving, beginning with the former which is called "the only necessary thing". Indeed, we all know that prayer is important but there is a tendency to neglect it; there always seem to be more important or pressing tasks to hand. The holy season of Lent is a grace, giving us an opportunity to renew our prayer life and flame the zeal for prayer that was once there; now is the appointed time, today is the "day of salvation" in which we are called to turn again to the Lord in prayer.

One of my favourite contemporary spiritual writers is Henri Nouwen and I have found his reflections on prayer to be beautiful and insightful. As we begin our Lenten journey, I invite you to reflect with him on why prayer is truly "the only necessary thing" and how we may grow in our prayer life:

"Without discipline, unceasing prayer remains a vague ideal, something that has a certain romantic appeal but that is not very realistic in our contemporary world. Discipline means that something very specific and concrete needs to be done to create the context in which a life of uninterrupted prayer can develop. Unceasing prayer requires the discipline of prayer exercises. Those who do not set aside a certain place and time each day to do nothing else but pray can never expect their unceasing thought to become unceasing prayer. Why is this planned prayer-practice so important? It is important because through this practice God can become fully present to us as a real partner in our conversation...

It is of primary importance that we strive for prayer with the understanding that it is an explicit way of being with God. We often say, 'All of life should be lived in gratitude,' but this is possible only if at certain times we give thanks in a very concrete and visible way. We often say, 'All our days should be lived for the glory of God,' but this is possible only if a day is regularly set apart to give glory to God. We often say, 'We should love one another always,' but this is possible only if we regularly perform concrete and unambiguous acts of love. Similarly, it is also true that we can say, 'All our thoughts should be prayer,' only if there are times in which we make God our only thought...

Many people still have the impression that contemplative prayer is something very special, very 'high', or very difficult, and not really for ordinary people with ordinary jobs and ordinary problems.This is unfortunate because the discipline of contemplative prayer is particularly valuable for those who have so much on their minds that they suffer from fragmentation. If it is true that all Christians are called to bring their thoughts into an on-going conversation with the Lord, then contemplative prayer can be a discipline that is especially important for those who are deeply involved in the many affairs of this world...

One very simple discipline for contemplative prayer is to read, every evening before going to sleep, the readings of the next day's Eucharist with special attention to the Gospel. It is often helpful to take one sentence or word that offers special comfort and repeat it a few times so that, with that one sentence or word, the whole content can be brought to mind and allowed slowly to descend from the mind into the heart. During the following day, a certain time must be set apart for explicit contemplation. This is a time in which to look at Christ as he appears in the reading... We can look at him, listen to him and enter into conversation with him... In contemplative prayer, Christ cannot remain a stranger who lived long ago in a foreign world. Rather, he becomes a living presence with whom we can enter into dialogue here and now...

Although it is important and even indispensable for the spiritual life to set apart time for God and God alone, prayer can only become unceasing prayer when all our thoughts - beautiful or ugly, high or low, proud or shameful, sorrowful or joyful - can be thought in the presence of God. Thus, converting our unceasing thinking into unceasing prayer moves us from self-centred monologue to a God-centred dialogue... To pray unceasingly is to lead all our thoughts out of their fearful isolation into a fearless conversation with God.

We are always tempted to select carefully the thoughts that we bring into our conversations with God. What makes us so stingy? Maybe we wonder if God can take all that goes on in our minds and hearts. Can God accept our hateful thoughts, our cruel fantasies, and our shameful dreams? Can God handle our primitive images, our inflated illusions, and our exotic mental castles? Or do we want to hold on to our own pleasurable imaginings and stimulating reveries, afraid that in showing them to our Lord we may have to give them up? Thus we are constantly tempted to fall back into introspection out of fear or out of greed, and to keep from our God what often is most in need of God's healing touch."

The Lord offers us this season of grace, this holy time of Lent, the "acceptable time", in which we can come before Him, bringing all our thoughts and prayers, our feelings, hopes and fears and ask him to redeem them. In this holy Springtime of Lent, He desires to revive that which is dead within us and give us newness of life. Let us go to Him, assiduous and honest in our prayer, following the example of Our Lady.

May the Blessed Virgin, the great martyr St George and the Venerable Cardinal Newman pray for us.


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