I met a man, quite similar in appearance and temperament to me, who keeps trying to pray as much as possible in the hopes of becoming more like Christ and less like himself. The more he prays, he thought, the holier he would become and thus the closer he would become to his center (Philippians 2:5). In trying to use the World as a measuring stick for holiness (quantity equals quality), he overlooked the dimension of the heart. The mind is good at measuring quantity, while the heart looks for quality. It is not how much you pray but how much your heart can make room (capacitas dei) for Christ. He was seduced into thinking that prayer was all verbal and must be done in a Church building, while actually that is an important part of the contemplative life for a Lay Cistercian, but there is always more. Formal prayers are not the end in themselves but only ways to be present to Christ, only the beginning of the process. This happens from the beginning of each day, which is why the Morning Offering prayer is so important. Prayer is not what you do as much as lifting the heart and mind to God wherever and however you seek God daily.
There is such a thing as horizontal prayer, meaning from beginning to end, the more you pray, the closer you are to having God in you. This is the prayer of the mind which likes the fact that attending verbal prayer and completing a prayer practice (e.g., Lectio Divina, Eucharist, Liturgy of the Hours, etc…). Because humans access everything through their five senses, they process what they experience in their mind which translates sounds and sights into ideas that mean something. Particularly in Western Spirituality, with the emphasis on logic and completion of a task, prayer becomes horizontal, that is, there is a beginning and an end to it and we enjoy what comes between that as meaningful. In the Old Testament, orthodoxy comes when you do what the Law says, and there are 617 prescriptions of Jewish Law (fewer are practiced because there is no longer the Temple of Jerusalem). This is horizontal prayer and there is nothing wrong with this prayer. The question is, is that all there is?
I submit that there is such a thing as vertical prayer or lifting of the heart and mind to God. As a Lay Cistercian trying to practice the Cistercian Way by praying Lectio Divina, Liturgy of the Hours, Eucharist, Adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, and reading Scriptures, to name a few prayers. Vertical prayer is accessing the mind which is the key to opening the heart. In vertical prayer, Christ is the prayer, the Christ Principle through, with, and in whom everything flows. Prayer is trying to be in the presence of Christ so that these prayers go deep, not just from beginning to end.
In this latest Lay Cistercian Day of Reflection on December 5, the topic was a commentary on prayer using the text of The Way of the Pilgrim, an 18th-century story about a pilgrim searching for the meaning of the phrase, “pray unceasingly” and what it means. Read it and make your own conclusions.
Does praying unceasingly mean that you are only praying when you recite verbal prayers. All formal prayers have a beginning and an end, so it would be impossible, just physically, to pray all day. Liturgy of the Hours is prayer, preferably community prayer, but also private devotion. When you finish with reciting the prayers as found in the Liturgy of the Hours books, is prayer finished, or is there a deeper connotation to prayer, one which suggests that everything you seek and reminds you of how much God loves you is prayer. This is not so far from what we do in human love, i.e., husband and wife, love of mother and father, love of friends, love that monks and nuns have for Christ and their colleagues, loving one another as Christ loved us.
Trying to follow the dictates of St. Benedict’s Rule in Chapters 4 and 7, I use the attributes of human love to help me focus on my whole life each day as a prayer to the Father in reparation for my sins and failings, for the grace to allow Christ to grow in me as I move away from my false self, joining with the sacrifice of the Eucharist to offer the Father all honor and glory, through, with, and in Christ, with the Holy Spirit as One.
Prayer becomes wanting to be next to the one you love in contemplation. Prayer is listening to the heart of Christ in silence and solitude. Prayer is confronting the urges and tendencies of trying to fill up hole which we make by unproductive silence and time spent before the Blessed Sacrament in Adoration.
As an individual person who tries to have the mind of Christ Jesus in me each day (Philippians 2:5-12), I can go to that room inside me of which Jesus speaks in that wonderful passage on how we should approach almsgiving and prayer in Matthew 6. Read this quote three times, once for the words, once to become what you read, and once in silence and solitude to let the Holy Spirit overshadow you with love.
Teaching About Almsgiving.*1 “[But] take care not to perform righteous deeds so that people may see them; an otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father.2 When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites* do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.b 3 But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing,4 so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret, will repay you.
Teaching About Prayer.5“When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward.6But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret, will repay you.7* In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think they will be heard because of their many words.*8Do not be like them. Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
The results of your prayer (vertical and horizontal) transforms the world around you, through you. Not that you transformed the world, but that you have been overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and lifted up beyond what the world teaches is meaningful. Christ tells us in Chapter 5 of Matthew:
The Similes of Salt and Light.*13i “You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.*14 You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden.j15 Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house.k16 Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.l
Teaching About the Law.17* “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.18 Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place.m19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven.*20 I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
POINTS FOR REFLECTION