As I began to ponder the articles I would write on the second part of the Catechism of the Catholic Church -- liturgy and sacraments -- I recalled my own adolescence. During those years, the bright, lively faith of my childhood waned and "church" became boring.
Celebrating the Christian Mystery -- as part two of the catechism is called -- seemed like the same old thing week after week. I wished someone would do something to make what seemed dead come alive.
At first, my heart was not dead to God's word, God's reaching out. I retained my spiritual yearnings, but the liturgy did not seem to speak to those yearnings. Eventually, I just stopped going. Long before I stopped attending Mass, however, my own life of personal prayer had evaporated. I stopped saying the prayers which had fed me as a child and had not learned how to incorporate my new spiritual yearnings into adult forms of prayer.
In hindsight, this was a telling point. So, to write about the sacraments without first delving into the life of prayer seemed like putting the cart before the horse. Full participation in the liturgy and sacraments depends on a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, a relationship which must be rooted in private prayer. And without an appreciation of liturgy -- in this society where faith is often seen as optional -- one's commitment to the church is likely to wane also.
To some, this may seem wrong-headed. The Eucharist, as the Second Vatican Council rightly taught, is the source and the summit of Christian living. Our life in Christ is rooted in the Eucharist and the Eucharist is also the high point of the life of faith. Making personal prayer the focal point is to fall into individualism, an isolated Jesus-and-me faith.
All this is correct. But as my own experience taught me, the Eucharist cannot be the summit if there is no mountain underneath. The liturgy cannot sustain one's life if one does not have a faith-filled heart to digest the bread of life.
The heart is really the heart of the matter. As the catechism says, "It is the heart that prays. If our heart is far from God, the words of prayer are in vain. The heart is the dwelling-place where I am, where I live. . . . The heart is our hidden centre. . . . It is the place of truth, where we choose life or death. It is the place of encounter . . .: it is the place of covenant" (no. 2562-63).
Determined not to undermine the central place of the liturgy, I've nevertheless resolved to present these articles about prayer before those on the sacraments. Such an ordering, to my mind, better reflects the movement of the human heart from prayer to community worship and, finally, to moral action.
This is particularly true in the late 20th century. Among other things, this culture is one of noise and distractions. Our technology and wealth tend to militate against a life which is reflective, which is focused on the eternal. It tends to block access to that "hidden centre."
Prayer is not only about saving our souls for the next world, it is about saving our dignity in this world. Truth be told, those processes are one and the same. Too often, personal dignity is lost in some form of herd mentality, a conformity to some standard that is imposed from the outside.
The call to prayer, to go within and hear the voice of God, is a demanding one. It requires effort and discipline. It means finding oneself in a culture where gratification of my own desires is the highest value and the deeper personal authenticity of a relationship with God is barely on the map.
The life of prayer has a prophetic quality. It is a protest against the dehumanizing frenzy of modern life. It suggests that what is important is not the quantity of our activities, but their quality; not what we have accomplished but what we are; not thinking, judging and doing, but being. This is a protest the world badly needs to hear.
Prayer, however, ought not to be an escape into a narcissistic nirvana. It should be a way of living life in its depth, of finding God in the present moment. Prayer can be the doorway into a communion of love. Love for God and love for others. Ultimately, prayer can lead us to sacrament and, through the liturgy, to action which transforms the world.
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