As someone that tries to share the faith with others, I often find myself struggling to explain prayer. What difference does it really make? Isn’t it enough that I simply help others, that I be a “good person”?
Albeit convincing for many – sometimes I myself fall into this logic – nothing could be further from the heart of Christianity. Virtue without prayer is Christianity with Alzheimer’s disease. We prefer routine to those moments of deep intimacy, moments that can be both profoundly beautiful and challengingly vulnerable. Put simply, Christianity without prayer is a body without a soul. It’s a love affair turned into a profession.
That said, prayer is an obscurely simple endeavor. On the one hand, it requires a simple decision: embrace silence and lift up your heart. On the other hand, it is a progressive and oftentimes bumpy road.
As a way of illustrating this point, I would like to ask: Have you ever noticed the difference between the art located on the lateral walls of the Church (above all in the more traditionally decorated Churches) and those placed in the apse, surrounding the altar? Let’s take the the Cefalù Cathedral in Sicily, Italy as an example. As you walk into this beautiful Cathedral (it dates from 1131), what do you notice?
On the lateral side of the Church, we discover a series of images that depict scenes from the New and Old Testaments. These occupy the long nave which geographically speaking leads you in a certain direction. In this case, the altar. Here we are walking along the path of Salvation history, recalling the many stories and narratives of God’s interaction with mankind.
We do so, however, as observers. Similar to reading a history book or a novel, we learn about what happened between God and others. But we ourselves are outside the scene.
This is us when we don’t pray: onlookers of Christianity. Onlookers of the scenes of love between God and man. And as touching as it may be, imagine reading love stories all your life without ever entering into a loving relationship! Without ever being on the receiving end of one of those penetratingly warm gazes!
We may listen about our faith in Mass or maybe in a class of catechesis. We may learn about the lives of the saints and even try to imitate their good deeds. We may make it down to the soup kitchen or make time for works of charity. These are all excellent initiatives that indeed lead us closer to God. Still, we can’t stop there! We can’t forget the heart of it all!
Without a deeper, more personal encounter with the heart of Christianity (Christ himself), it is all too easy to get distracted. Instead of Christ, we start putting other things first: the tasks that we need to do, the formation that we need to get, the liturgy that we need to get just right.
One of the best ways to put Christ back into their heart of your Christian life is to continue doing what you often do, but change the angle a bit. The next time you hear a Mass reading, pick up the Bible, read a book about the life of a saint, or take the time to serve the poor, instead of focusing on what you are hearing or doing, ask yourself, “Why?”.
When you read the stories of salvation from both the Old Testament and New Testament, or stories about the saints, don’t focus so much on imitating their exact deeds. Focus instead on allowing their love of Christ to inspire you. More than doing what they did, we should learn to follow the gaze of their heart. If at the end of reading or acting, part of you isn’t tugged to enter to silence and perceive that loving gaze of Christ, your aim might be off a bit.
This is described beautifully in a scene of Dante’s Divine Comedy. Entering into heaven, Dante catches a glimpse of Beatrice for the first time. There we read:
When Beatrice towards the left-hand side
I saw turned round, and gazing at the sun [God];
Never did eagle fasten so upon it!
Thus of her action, through the eyes infused
In my imagination, mine I made,
And sunward fixed mine eyes beyond our wont.
Dante’s gaze alights upon his beloved Beatrice and witnesses a gaze so beautiful, so full of light and love, fastened upon the sun (God) that he is lead to do the same: “And sunward fixed mine eyes…” The incredible thing is that the very structure and art of our Churches invites us to do the same!
Continuing our walk through the Church, as we reach the altar and lift up the eyes, we discover some peculiar changes.
We pass from a more linear structure to a circular one: the linear structure symbolizes linear chronology. One event happens after another. The circular structure, on the other hand, represents a different chronology: an eternal one. The circle was often a sign of infinity (it never ends). Here then we step into the presence of the eternal present. Analogically, when we open ourselves up to Christ in prayer, the logic of eternity begins to prevail over our daily logic of worry and stress. The never-ending to-do lists are finally put in their place. Everything is organized into two simple categories: what is of love and thus eternal, and what is of hate and thus ephemeral, useless.
This is the experience of the businessman who steps into his home after a day of endless worrying over numbers and results. One look from his wife and the embrace of the children around his legs remind him what life is all about.
Christ’s frontal gaze: Most importantly, our eyes are greeted by the presence of Christ, our Savior. Yet Christ was also present in other scenes that we have seen on our walk along the lateral walls. What’s different here? His frontal position, He is looking at us. In this sacred place – above all during the moment of the Eucharistic sacrifice – we are invited to pass from being outsiders to becoming insiders. It is the moment of the face to face encounter with our Beloved.
Be careful though! For to encounter Him (like any personal encounter) means you are no longer watching from behind the curtains. You are on stage. You are exposed and vulnerable. His gaze is one of immense love, and he wants to transform you into love! And this is what prayer is all about.
A Christian that prays is one that nourishes his or her life with the contemplative gaze of Christ. Too many of us fall into a sort of anxious morality or, on the contrary, a sort of indifferent laxity because we have forgotten or never experienced this encounter between our gaze and Christ’s. This gaze can only be found (and you must look for it!) in prayer.
I had heard of You by word of mouth, but now my eye has seen You (Job 42:5).
I would also highly recommend this great video by Bishop Barron: The Disorienting Quality of Real Prayer
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