I never got to post yesterday as we had an internet outage but want to build a bit on the previous day’s post and the importance of contemplative prayer in a genuinely evangelical Catholicism. Contemplative prayer is deeply rooted in the Word of God: it takes the Word of God and “digests” it our lives in such a way that the Word transforms us, we become living extensions of that Word. Perhaps better said, we are transformed—very gradually and over the period of our lives—into an embodiment of the Word. This is why, I believe, Karl Rahner said that the Christian of the future—of evangelical Catholicism—must be a mystic if he is to be at all faithful to the Gospel of Christ in a post-Christian world. It is only by this transformation, by allowing the Word of God to transform us into its incarnation, that we can stay on the track of the life of discipleship.
When I say that contemplative prayer takes the Word of God and “digests” it into our lives, I am referring back again to John Cassian, the late fourth-early fifth century monastic writer to whom we owe so much for the foundations of Christian spirituality. Cassian compares the role of the Word of God to the cud a cow chews. The cow chews the cud and swallows it into the first of her four stomachs. She then regurgitates it and chews it again before swallowing it into the second of her stomachs—and so on until the cud is completely digested. Cassian says that we should take the Word of God—and, obviously in a “bite-sized” piece which we can digest, not an entire chapter or so—“chew” on it by meditation. We then swallow it only to bring it up and chew on it for further enlightenment. We repeat this process with the same morsel of Scripture until we have sucked out all the nourishment it has at that time to give us. As we move from one “stomach” to the next in the digestive process—we move from hearing the Word to understanding the Word to embracing the Word in our particular situation to letting the Word shape our will to bring it into conformity with God’s Word.
Do you pray like this—chewing the Word over and over, sucking out its nourishing juices until you not only understand what God expects of you but you develop a passion for it? It is a long way from a string of “Hail Mary, full of grace,….” Not that there is anything wrong with the Hail Mary or other fixed prayers—but for so many people they never grow beyond the initial stages of prayer and mature into an adult spirituality.
Most of us begin to pray as small children by learning rote prayers. “In the Name of the Father….” Rote prayers are fine, especially for small children. Even as adults there are times when the best we can do is to go back to them. We might be upset or worried; we might be exhausted; we might be dispirited. The rote prayers of our childhood are a good comfort to us and are always still pleasing to God. But God does want more for us.
Perhaps the next level of learning to pray for most of us is the liturgy. It is a good step up from the rote prayers. Our parents bring us to Mass. We learn the (rote) prayers of the Mass. We also learn, over time, to listen to the Word in Scripture and to the Prayers which the Priest says on our behalf. This expands our horizons of prayer. Learning to pray the liturgy is a life-long process. If we are attentive in the Liturgy we never tire of it and find in it unlimited and rich sources for our private prayer. There are those, however, for whom the Liturgy remains always and only text: words to be said and things to be done. That is not a problem limited to Christianity. The Dalai Lama speaks of Buddhist monks for whom the depths of prayer are lost in the tasks of polishing of the bowls on the altar and trimming the butter-lamps that burn before the Buddha. The words of the sacred texts they chant as they go about their liturgies are simply syllables that never pierce their understanding. Last Sunday’s Gospel spoke to that as well—those who hear but do not listen or understand lest they be converted and be healed. There are plenty of people who sit in Church Sunday after Sunday, or even day after day, and neither listen nor understand.
This brings up the whole issue of “checklist prayer.” I see this level of piety all the time. I have my packet of novenas and I arrive at Church forty-five minutes before Mass. I work my way through the novenas, make the Stations of the Cross, join in the rosary before Mass, Mass and Communion, say my thanksgiving and go about my day, work accomplished. Prayer is something we “do.” There are a lot of people stuck at this level.
Somewhere along the line, sometimes even as children, we learn, in the words of Teresa of Avila, that prayer is a “conversation between friends.” And so we learn to talk with God in our own words. We add this conversational prayer to the rote prayers and to the liturgy and that is appropriate. We learn to just speak to God as we would speak to the person next to us. Some people use more formal language, perhaps—“thee” and “thou” and even a “shouldest” or two. We don’t need to of course, but for some people God is King and for others he is “Father,” or in the case of Jesus, “friend” or “brother.” Now, my experience is that this is about as far as most people go. And that is too bad because it brings us to the brink of a spiritual breakthrough if we will only keep going.
Prayer up to this point is all about what we are doing. It is “piety.” The word “piety” comes from the Latin pietas which is a word used to describe the duties one owes ones parents, one’s mentors, elders, and one’s gods. Piety is a religious experience in which the individual is pro-active, performing deeds directed towards initiating and maintaining a relationship with God and which conform to the individual’s understanding of (Christian) doctrine. Piety is good, but it is not enough to sustain us in a life of discipleship. Spirituality, on the other hand, is a relationship with God, at the invitation of God and maintained by grace and the individual’s response to grace, made possible by doctrine but not determined by it, and which sometimes transcends the existing limitations of doctrine. Piety is something the burden of which falls on us—we “do” it. It is essentially active prayer. But when we learn to move into an attentive listening to God with the heart, we move into contemplative prayer. By attentive listening to God with the heart, I mean this process of Lectio Divina described by Cassian as nourishing ourselves deeply with God’s Word.
In piety we perform our duties toward God. We make our visits to Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. We say our rosaries. We do our bible studies. We go and feed the poor for Jesus’ sake. And we don’t give up piety as we mature into a deeper spirituality. The forms our piety might take will change perhaps. We might find ourselves going to prayer meetings when we used to go to Legion of Mary meetings. We might find that we prefer icons over statutes for our personal devotions or even that we “get more” from the Divine Liturgy in the Byzantine Rite than the Roman Rite Mass. We might find that a good devotion for First Friday is working the Food Pantry or that helping at a shelter for unwed mothers is a way that helps us honor Our Lady. The forms it takes might change, but the need for piety always remains. Avoid extremes. The person who likes to prostrate on the floor before the Blessed Sacrament, unless the church is empty, needs to remember not to perform deeds for other people to see. It is more important to bend our hearts than our knees when we come to receive the Eucharist. Things that call attention to ourselves—eccentricities in dress, in speech, or in action are not indications of genuine piety but almost always a spiritual exhibitionism. Jesus didn’t have a lot of use for that with the tassels and the front row in the synagogues.
More important is learning to take that Word of God and make it our spiritual nourishment, listening attentively in silence and solitude to the Word and entering deeply into the Mysteries of God’s Kingdom that it holds. I don’t find this in Weigel’s book. I don’t think he is familiar with the spiritual life. Piety—for sure. But the Christian of the future must be a mystic if he is to be faithful in the post-Christian world.