Monday, January 30, 2023

A Follow-up on Vocal Prayer and Mental Prayer: Wisdom from Benedict XVI

As we approach the one month anniversary of the death of Joseph Ratzinger, I wish to share with NLM readers one of my favorite parts of the ever-quotable Jesus of Nazareth series — namely, the place in volume 1, From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, where Ratzinger is commenting on the Our Father.

He has what strikes me as a perfectly balanced understanding of the relationship of vocal prayer to higher forms of prayer: he sees how they are intrinsically and necessarily connected, so that the lower is not reduced to a ladder to be kicked away. Since my own article “The Denigration of Vocal Prayer in the Name of ‘Mental Prayer’: A Recipe for Disaster” was misunderstood by some as a denigration of mental prayer (!), I thought it would be worthwhile to share the wisdom of Benedict XVI on the matter. After the selection from this book, I have included a pertinent passage from Spe Salvi.

* * *
This is what prayer really is — being in silent inward communion with God. It requires nourishment, and that is why we need articulated prayer in words, images, or thoughts.

The more God is present in us, the more we will really be able to be present to him when we utter the words of our prayers. But the converse is also true: Praying actualizes and deepens our communion of being with God. Our praying can and should arise above all from our heart, from our needs, our hopes, our joys, our sufferings, from our shame over sin, from our gratitude for the good. It can and should be a wholly personal prayer.

But we also constantly need to make use of those prayers that express in words the encounter with God experienced both by the Church as a whole and by individual members of the Church. For without these aids to prayer, our own praying and our image of God become subjective and end up reflecting ourselves more than the living God. In the formulaic prayers that arose first from the faith of Israel and then from the faith of praying members of the Church, we get to know God and ourselves as well. They are a “school of prayer” that transforms and opens up our life.

In his rule, St Benedict coined the formula Mens nostra concordet voci nostrae — our mind must be in accord with our voice (Rule 19,7). Normally, thought precedes word; it seeks and formulates the word. But praying the Psalms and liturgical prayer in general is exactly the other way round: The word, the voice, goes ahead of us, and our mind must adapt to it. For on our own we human beings do not “know how to pray as we ought” (Rom 8:26)–we are too far removed from God, he is too mysterious and too great for us. And so God has come to our aid: He himself provides the words of our prayer and teaches us to pray. Through the prayers that come from him, he enables us to set out toward him; by praying together with the brothers and sisters he has given us, we gradually come to know him and draw closer to him.

In St Benedict’s writings, the phrase cited just now refers directly to the Psalms, the great prayer book of the People of God of the Old and New Covenant. The Psalms are words that the Holy Spirit has given to men; they are God’s Spirit become word. We thus pray “in the Spirit” with the Holy Spirit.

This applies even more, of course, to the Our Father. When we pray the Our Father, we are praying to God with words given by God, as St Cyprian says. And he adds that when we pray the Our Father, Jesus’ promise regarding the true worshipers, those who adore the Father “in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:23) is fulfilled in us. Christ, who is the truth, has given us these words, and in them he gives us the Holy Spirit.

This also reveals something of the specificity of Christian mysticism. It is not in the first instance immersion in the depths of oneself, but encounter with the Spirit of God in the word that goes ahead of us. It is encounter with the Son and the Holy Spirit and thus a becoming-one with the living God who is always both in us and above us. […]

The fact that Luke places the Our Father in the context of Jesus’ own praying is therefore significant. Jesus thereby involves us in his own prayer; he leads us into the interior dialogue of triune love; he draws our human hardships deep into God’s heart, as it were.

This also means, however, that the words of the Our Father are signposts to interior prayer, they provide a basic direction for our being, and they aim to configure us to the image of the Son. The meaning of the Our Father goes much futher than the mere provision of a prayer text. It aims to form our being, to train us in the inner attitude of Jesus (cf. Phil 2:5).

This has two different implications for our interpretation of the Our Father. First of all, it is important to listen as accurately as possible to Jesus’ words as transmitted to us in Scripture. We must strive to recognize the thoughts Jesus wished to pass on to us in these words. But we must also keep in mind that the Our Father originates from his own praying, from the Son’s dialogue with the Father. This means that it reaches down into depths far beyond the words. It embraces the whole compass of man’s being in all ages and can therefore never be fully fathomed by a purely historical exegesis, however important this may be.

The great men and women of prayer throughout the centuries were privileged to receive an interior union with the Lord that enabled them to descend into the depths beyond the word. They are therefore able to unlock for us the hidden treasures of prayer. And we may be sure that each of us, along with our totally personal relationship with God, is received into, and sheltered within, this prayer. Again and again, each one of us with his mens, his own spirit, must go out to meet, open himself to, and submit to the guidance of the vox, the word that comes to us from the Son. In this way his own heart will be opened, and each individual will learn the particular way in which the Lord wants to pray with him. [1]

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For prayer to develop this power of purification, it must on the one hand be something very personal, an encounter between my intimate self and God, the living God. On the other hand it must be constantly guided and enlightened by the great prayers of the Church and of the saints, by liturgical prayer, in which the Lord teaches us again and again how to pray properly.

Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan, in his book of spiritual exercises, tells us that during his life there were long periods when he was unable to pray and that he would hold fast to the texts of the Church's prayer: the Our Father, the Hail Mary and the prayers of the liturgy.

Praying must always involve this intermingling of public and personal prayer. This is how we can speak to God and how God speaks to us. [2]


[1] pp 130-33 in Jesus of Nazareth, vol. 1
[2] Encyclical Letter Spe Salvi, n. 34

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