A Definition of Christian Prayer
In parts 1 & 2 of this essay on a response to the controversy around Centering Prayer I briefly introduced the topic. I also introduced my background in the study of Indian Buddhist philosophy, as well as the History of Western Philosophy, and Catholic theology. In part 3 I introduced a universal sense of prayer and some examples of non-Christian prayer. I defined prayer universally as possessing 3 aspects: 1) It is intentional 2) It is communication 3) Its object is God (or gods). In part 4 I examined the term meditation in non-Christian contexts and in the biblical context. Importantly, as a foundation for this section on Christian prayer, we were introduced to some distinct features of Christian meditation and saw that meditation on the Word of God is intrinsic to the life of a believer. Those who think meditation is foreign to biblical faith may want to read that section.In part 5 I wrote a brief apologia in response to input from a fellow pilgrim. The first 4 parts of the essay are important background for this section (though it could be read alone). The fifth, may be dispensed with unless you want to take a bit of a scenic route.
II. A Definition of Christian Prayer
In part 4 I introduced the notion that meditation tends to be preliminary to prayer as such. I used the example of Divine Reading or Lectio Divina to illustrate this. To recall what was written earlier, the stages of Lectio Divina are lectio, meditatio, oratio, and contemplatio or reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation. Each stage or phase changes in ways that are distinct enough to distinguish one from the other. In lectio, or reading, the action of man is primary. In contemplatio the action of God is primary. Meditatio moves from reading to interiorizing a deeper understanding of what is read. This deeper understanding, because it is of the Word of God, leads into a more direct relationship with God as revealed in Sacred Scripture and Holy Tradition. Through the gift of faith God is seen as one who answers the petition of the poor, who is just and demands repentance for sin, but is merciful and receives repentance with purifying love. Prayer that may begin in repentance and prayer, may end in praise, in adoration, in acts of love. Acts of love may begin to be experienced as a love that is not borne of man but instead the love of the Creator, the gift of love being received in the heart can lead to contemplation or at least a deeper and affectual experience of prayer.
Now it is true, sometimes in the Catholic tradition, mental or interior prayer and meditation are used synonymously. This is not the definition of meditation I am using in this essay, as mental prayer is properly Christian prayer and meditation may have elements of Christian prayer but doesn’t necessarily (especially if not focused on Divine Revelation). One could meditate on anything, or use a meditation method for various reasons and needs, many that are natural, rather than supernatural. And mental prayer, or interior prayer, is something ordinarily seen as higher former prayer, which is by virtue of it being Christian prayer by definition supernatural.
So we have begun to recognize an important distinction between prayer and meditation. Meditation can be focused on things that aren’t divine (i.e. that are natural). But prayer, even in pagan cultures is always focused on figures who at least reflect divine powers (gods). In the Christian tradition prayer is always focused on God the Holy Trinity as revealed in the Paschal Mystery.
Then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI) wrote,
The Bible itself teaches how the man who welcomes biblical revelation should pray… In biblical revelation Israel came to acknowledge and praise God present in all creation and in the destiny of every man. Thus he is involved, for example, as rescuer in time of danger, in sickness, in persecution, in tribulation. Finally and always in the light of his salvific works, He is exalted in his divine power and goodness, in his justice and mercy, in his royal grandeur.
Thanks to the words, deeds, Passion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, in the New Testament the Faith acknowledges in Him the definitive self-revelation of God, the Incarnate Word who reveals the most intimate depth of his love. It is the Holy Spirit, he who was sent into the hearts of the faithful, he who “searches everything, even the depths of God”, who makes it possible to enter in these divine depths.1
As then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger wrote, for Christians, the Bible itself teaches us how to pray. In the Holy Scriptures we encounter a people in a unique relationship with the Creator. This relationship isn’t impersonal, instead it is deeply personal, both on the side of man and of God. It demands of man fidelity to the Creator and it expects from God ultimately what God is – Wisdom, Goodness, Power, Presence, Enduring Love, Justice and Purpose.
In the New Testament we encounter those who experienced Jesus as the Christ, as the Messiah, the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. We encounter a people who acknowledge Him as the definitive self-revelation of God. God communicates Himself completely in the Person of Jesus. The Holy Spirit is given as a gift to the faithful that they may evermore deeply participate in their salvation and sanctification in Christ, and as we have read above, enter into these divine depths.
Christian prayer is thus the prayer of a people who by the gift and act of faith recognize themselves as called from eternity to salvation in Jesus Christ. This call comes through the mystical body of Christ, the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church and thus is born of communion with Christ through His mystical body the Church. Christian prayer is always an ecclesial act and never merely an individual act. It makes no sense for a Christian to view himself or herself as separate in faith from the saving faith of which the Church herself is steward and dispenser. Christian prayer is rooted in Sacred Scripture and looks to the Word of God as the unique and inspired revelation of Divine Truth and it interprets this Truth as one body.
It also, importantly, leads to and deepens participation in the Sacred Liturgy (Divine Worship) and the most sacred Christian Mysteries (the Sacraments). It demands conformity to Christ in spirit and truth – that means it makes no sense to speak of a Christian prayer that is separate from the demands of the moral law, the spirit of the beatitudes and the greatest commandment. Christian prayer shares in a larger unity that is borne of apostolic faith, liturgy and sacrament, and moral life.
To speak as if there is something called Christian prayer apart from this unity is to misunderstand the nature of Christian prayer as such. Protestant Christian prayer, for instance, tends toward towards disunity because of an individualistic sense of prayer. This causes the proliferation of communities and “denominations” because of the notion that Christian prayer can happen apart from the unity of the mystical body of Christ. This mistaken notion of Christian prayer sees it as primarily an individual act rather than an ecclesial one. Indeed seeds of the Protestant rejection of Catholic unity can be found in notions of mysticism and prayer that saw ecclesial unity as tangential to union with God. Today we have a term for this perspective taken to its extreme: spiritual but not religious.
Some may read this as if I am saying that Protestant prayer is not Christian. It is not my intention to leave that impression. I recognize that many Protestant Christians have faith in Christ. Many, indeed, have died with Christ and been born anew in baptism. I also have witnessed how devoted so many Protestants are to prayer rooted in the study of the Word of God. I also realize that many Protestants, like many Catholics, are Protestant for accidental reasons rather than intentional decisions for or against Christian unity. And indeed many Protestant Christians are devoted to work toward unity with the Holy Catholic Church. By the grace of God and the devotion of many there have been major advances in this unity.
The point is that by its very nature an approach to Christian prayer which tends towards individual interpretation over the corporate faith of the Church leads towards the proliferation of individual communities that are not in communion with one another and do not share communion with the Holy Catholic Church.
From the perspective of the Catholic faith, participation in Divine Worship through the Sacred Liturgy and reception of Holy Communion (the Body and Blood of Christ) is an essential sign and agent of Christian unity. To break this communion and go one’s own way, or to partake in this communion without actually possessing it is to define Christian prayer individualistically and apart from the mystical body of Christ. This ultimately creates a personal and individualistic spirituality (gnosticism) that increasingly isolates human persons from the saving mystical body in communion with Christ its Head. Thus Christian prayer cannot be separated from ecclesial communion without ceasing at some point to no longer be Christian. The further the prayer is from communion in faith and morals with the Catholic faith, the less truly Christian it could claim to be.
To recall, earlier in this essay I said that what distinguishes Christian meditation and prayer from other forms isn’t so much that it may use methods, such as breathing, focusing attention, repeating phrases (e.g. Rosary), silence, solitude, fasting, vigils, prostrations, postures, etc., but that what distinguishes it is its object. A closer look at the object of Christian prayer reveals how distinct it is from any other type of prayer. The object of Christian prayer can most properly be said to be the prayer-sacrifice of Jesus Christ the Lord. In fact, Christian prayer at its most fundamental level is the prayer-sacrifice of Christ the High Priest. This is why it can be truly said that the source and summit of Christian prayer is the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Christian faith is faith in the redemptive sacrifice of the High Priest Jesus Christ. Thus the foundation of Christian prayer is not a method or act of the disciple, first, but faith in the loving-sacrifice of the Son of God (a faith that is always both personal and ecclesial).
Thus Christian prayer is dependent upon the gifts and acts of Christian faith, hope, and love. It is most fundamentally dependent not on man but on God, the act of God is prior and more fundamental than what man does in Christian prayer. That is why Eucharistic Worship is so intrinsic to Christian prayer because it is in Eucharistic worship where the one sacrifice of Christ is made sacramentally present and substantially communicated to those who partake of Him. It is through Eucharistic worship that Christian prayer is truly Trinitarian because it is united by the Holy Spirit to the perfect sacrifice of Christ to the Father for the redemption of man. Christ is the mediator in Christian prayer, rather than man.
Christian prayer, as mentioned above, also cannot be separated from what is true, good, and holy. Any notion of Christian prayer that seeks to accommodate and/or promote practices that deviate from the ascetical and moral demand of Christian discipleship must be rejected. In the early Church the process of purification and moral reform required to become Christian was quite lengthy. It demanded conformity to a new way of life, life in Christ, as a disciple. While this process of initiation may not be as explicit as it used to be, it is still implied by the content of the faith and preserved in the Holy Scriptures and Magisterial teaching of the Church.
For instance, it is not possible to pray as a Christian while practicing and promoting adultery (Sixth Commandment). This would be the prayer of a Christian who at least temporarily had rejected Christ. Truly a disciple of Jesus is on a path to live completely free of even the smallest movement of lust in the heart! Now it is true a Christian because of moral weakness and attachment to vice may lapse into the sin of fornication or adultery. Yet he knows it is a sin, that it is contrary to the Divine Will and repents of it rather than promote it as a good.
Similarly, a person could not claim to pray as a Christian while believing that it is okay to commit homicide of the most vulnerable among us, whether in abortion, for scientific experimentation, or euthanasia (Fifth Commandment). Further, one does not pray as a Christian who simultaneously promotes false gods or a relativism in respect to worship of the one true God (First Commandment).
A man who believes it is okay to steal and promote criminal and immoral business practices would not pray as a Christian if he did not repent of his crimes and see his sin as an offense to the Divine Law and worthy of punishment by the Creator. We live in an age where people who self-identify as Catholics, often politicians, publicly support positions that support intrinsic evils such as same-sex acts and calling a union based in a homosexual relationship marriage. Some of these same politicians support laws that allow the proliferation of pornography and contribute to sex trafficking. This makes a mockery of Christian prayer and worship, as if it were completely separate from the demands of justice and charity.
Again, Christian prayer makes demands upon a person to be obedient to the Divine Law as communicated by the mystical body of Christ, the Holy Catholic Church. It is meant to lead to ever deeper conversion, to a true turning away from sin as understood and defined by the Sacred Scripture and Holy Tradition. It casts off the old self and seeks to live anew in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. So, Christian prayer is intrinsically linked to the moral demands of life in Christ.
The prayer of the Publican exemplifies Christian prayer (Lk 18:9-14). The prayer of the Publican is not the prayer of a righteous man, no, but it is the prayer of a man who is willing to admit his sin before God and petition Him for mercy. Thus Christian prayer is linked to humility. This isn’t a false humility that excuses or explains away one’s own sins but instead a humility that reveals the most shameful aspects of one’s life and repents of them.
Returning to the words of then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger,
The seeking of God through prayer has to be preceded and accompanied by an ascetical struggle and a purification from one’s own sins and errors, since Jesus has said that only “the pure of heart shall see God” (Mt 5:8). The Gospel aims above all at a moral purification from the lack of truth and love and, on a deeper level, from all the selfish instincts which impede man from recognizing and accepting the Will of God in its purity.2
In Christian prayer the disciple is always still a creature, totally dependent upon the mercy and wisdom of God. While a true closeness and intimacy with God can develop in Christian prayer there is always an immeasurable difference between man and God, because man is a creature. And in this life he is a creature that will always to a greater or lesser degree be inclined to the three-fold concupiscence – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life (1 Jn 2:16). That doesn’t mean that prayer always has to be prayer of repentance or penitential, there are many forms of prayer (petition, praise and adoration, thanksgiving, Ignatian contemplation, etc.). However, the disciple of Christ never graduates in this life to a place where repentance is no longer necessary.
To summarize what was introduced in this section defining Christian prayer we can say that Christian prayer is prayer that is inseparable from Catholic faith, Divine Worship and Sacrament, and Life in Christ. To speak of a Christian prayer that can be separated from ecclesial faith or from magisterial teachings on the Divine Law, or the need for every disciple for deeper conversion, is to adopt an understanding of prayer that works against Catholic unity and leads to isolation from the mystical body of Christ.
In the next section we will glean from this section to develop a way to judge a proposal for prayer to make a judgment about whether it is Christian or not. And then we will apply that criteria to the definition of Centering Prayer we are using.
1. Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal (Benedict XVI). Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Vatican: Holy See. Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1989.↩