Sunday, August 2, 2009

Teach us to Pray

Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciple said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray...”
Prayer has been a recurring theme over the summer; I don’t know when I started realizing it, but at some point it became clear that the topic of prayer has characterized my entire time in Ireland.

Maybe it was because I spent the first week here traveling around the country in my own make-shift pilgrimage to St. Patrick sites, traveling alone and camping along the way.

Maybe it was because of a conversation in a Bible study that consisted of people from various corners of the Church in which we ended up coming around to the same conclusion that the writers of the liturgy came to when they wrote, “Jesus taught us to call God our Father, so with confidence we now pray, Our Father, who art in Heaven...”

Maybe it was because my Dominican friend likes to say, “Prayer is like spending time with my family: I always look forward to it, often do not enjoy it, and constantly miss it when I am away.”

Maybe it was because someone I hardly knew contacted me one morning from the US with an intense personal crisis, and I had to go through the day with nothing to do for him but pray regarding a situation I knew almost nothing about.

Maybe it was because an Augustinian friar had been wearing an Eastern Orthodox Rosary to class, and in answer to my questions about it he loaned me a book about the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”).

Maybe it was because the cathedral downtown is always open for prayer, and in the bustle of the city I often take advantage of the refuge.

Maybe it was because one of the regular blogs I check posted an entry about praying through the psalms during a time in a religious commune which sounded familiar to me.

One way or another, when my Dominican friend asked me last week if I’d be interested in learning to pray the Divine Office, the Liturgy of the Hours, I knew I certainly was. He and a seminarian came over after class on Friday to teach me the ropes to navigate a prayer book that to a beginner seemed almost as complicated as Greek grammar (the three of us made many a joke about how the Divine Office was “easy” and “relatively straight-forward” as our grammar teacher keeps trying to say of Greek).

“So is this like the Catholic equivalent of a Protestant quiet-time?” I asked early on.

“Not quite,” the seminarian pondered. “It would be better to think of it as an entirely different way of praying.”

“It certainly is different,” I agreed, flipping through the giant prayer book, wondering if the complex system would ever feel meditative.

“Part of the difference is that, even if you are praying it alone, you are praying it together with the Church,” the Dominican explained. “Christ himself would have prayed with these very psalms, and the practice of praying the Liturgy of the Hours has been around for centuries. Part of the idea of praying the same words is that the entire Bride of Christ is united and speaking to her Groom with one voice.”

“And it is a different experience of prayer,” the seminarian continued. “It is not as conversational as what you may be used to, not the kind of prayer where you discuss with God what has happened throughout the day, though there is certainly a need for that kind of prayer as well. But in the Divine Office, you are praying by listening, adjusting your soul to a prayer that does not come out of your experience.”

“So is it like,” I struggled to understand, “instead of God coming down to your level, the psalms set the bar for your prayers to reach?”

“Well, I don’t think I’d describe it as a bar,” he answered. “The main difference I think is finding the prayer outside yourself instead of within yourself, adjusting your soul to a rhythm you didn’t set.”

“So it’s like,” I tried again, “learning the posture of prayer by sitting with the Psalmists?” English majors need analogies, I suppose.

“Yeah,” he agreed.

“And what you may find,” the Dominican continued, “is that as you sit with the Psalmists, their prayers do indeed become your own, and you identify your own experience in their words and respond as they do, and that you acquire a repertoire of familiar prayers that come to mind outside your regular times of prayer. The Divine Office is ideally the first step in learning to pray without ceasing, and in doing so uniting your soul with Christ.”

“I hope it can be a refreshing time for you to pray without needing to come up with your own words,” the seminarian concluded as they left to study for the looming exam the next day, reminding me of some conversations with his peers last summer. “Enjoy it.”

We’ll see. One way or another, after the last blog entry, I could not help but be struck when I read this morning in my prayers, “let us rise with you to walk in the light of Easter.”
Let us thank our Saviour, who came into this world that God might be with us. We praise you, O Lord, and we thank you.
We welcome you with praise, you are the Daystar, the first fruits from the dead: let us rise with you to walk in the light of Easter.
Help us on this day of rest to see the goodness in all your creatures: open our eyes and our hearts to your love in the world.
Lord, we meet around your table as your family: help us to see that our bitterness is forgotten, our discord is resolved, and our sins are forgiven.
We pray for all Christian families: may your Spirit deepen their unity in faith and love.
Our Father...

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