Benedict XVI's Catecheses on Prayer
From May 2011 up until the Year of Faith, Pope Benedict XVI gave weekly catecheses on Prayer.
"Dear Brothers and Sisters, After the series on the Fathers of the Church, on the great theologians of the Middle Ages and on great women, I would now like to choose a topic that is dear to all our hearts: it is the theme of prayer, and especially Christian prayer, the prayer, that is, which Jesus taught and which the Church continues to teach us. It is in fact in Jesus that man becomes able to approach God in the depth and intimacy of the relationship of fatherhood and sonship. Together with the first disciples, let us now turn with humble trust to the Teacher and ask him: “Lord, teach us to pray” (Lk 11:1).
In the upcoming catecheses, in comparing Sacred Scripture, the great tradition of the Fathers of the Church, of the Teachers of spirituality and of the Liturgy, let us learn to live our relationship with the Lord, even more intensely as it were at a “school of prayer”. We know well, in fact, that prayer should not be taken for granted. It is necessary to learn how to pray, as it were acquiring this art ever anew; even those who are very advanced in spiritual life always feel the need to learn from Jesus, to learn how to pray authentically. We receive the first lesson from the Lord by his example. The Gospels describe Jesus to us in intimate and constant conversation with the Father: it is a profound communion of the One who came into the world not to do his will but that of the Father who sent him for the salvation of man.
At this first catechesis, as an introduction I would like to propose several examples of prayer in the ancient cultures, to show that practically always and everywhere they were addressed to God.
I shall start with ancient Egypt, as an example. Here a blind man, asking the divinity to restore his sight, testifies to something universally human. This is a pure and simple prayer of petition by someone who is suffering. This man prays: “My heart longs to see you.... You who made me see the darkness, create light for me, so that I may see you! Bend your beloved face over me”. That I may see you; this is the essence of the prayer!
In the religions of Mesopotamia an arcane, paralyzing sense of guilt predominated, but which was not devoid of the hope of redemption and liberation on God’s part. We may thus appreciate this entreaty by a believer of those ancient cultures, formulated in these words: “O God who are indulgent even in the greatest sin, absolve me from my sin... Look, O Lord at your tired servant and blow your breeze upon him: forgive him without delay. Alleviate your severe punishment. Freed from bonds, grant that I may breathe anew, break my chains, loosen the fetters that bind me”. These are words that demonstrate how the human being, in his search for God, had intuited, if vaguely, on the one hand his own guilt and on the other, aspects of divine mercy and goodness.
In the pagan religion of ancient Greece, a very significant development may be seen: prayers, while still invoking divine help to obtain heavenly favours in every circumstance of daily life and to receive material benefits, gradually became orientated to more disinterested requests, which enabled the believer to deepen his or her relationship with God and to become a better person. For example, the great philosopher Plato records a prayer of his teacher, Socrates, held to be one of the founders of Western thought. This was Socrates’ prayer: “Grant to me that I be made beautiful in my soul within, and that all external possessions be in harmony with my inner man. May I consider the wise man rich; and may I have such wealth as only the self-restrained man can bear or endure”. Rather than to possess plenty of money, he wanted above all to be beautiful within and wise.
In the Greek tragedies, sublime masterpieces of the literature of all time which still, after 25 centuries, are read, thought about and performed today, there is a content of prayer which expresses the desire to know God and to worship his majesty. One of these tragedies says: “O Earth’s Upbearer, thou whose throne is Earth, Who’er thou be, O past our finding out, Zeus, be thou Nature’s Law, or Mind of man, Thee I invoke; for, treading soundless paths, To Justice’ goal thou bringest all mortal things” (Euripedes, Trojan Women). God remains somewhat nebulous, nevertheless man knows this unknown god and prays to the one who guides the ways of the world.
Also among the Romans who made up that great Empire in which Christianity first came into being and spread, prayer, even if it is associated with a utilitarian conception and fundamentally associated with the request for divine protection of the life of the civil community, sometimes begins with invocations that are wonderful for the fervour of personal devotion that is transformed into praise and thanksgiving. In the 2nd century AD, Apuleius, an author of Roman Africa, attested to this. In his writings he expresses his contemporaries’ dissatisfaction with the traditional religion and the desire for a more authentic relationship with God. In his masterpiece, entitled Metamorphoses, a believer addresses these words to a goddess: “You are holy, you are in every epoch a saviour of the human species, you, in your generosity, always help mortals, offer to the wretch in travail the tender affection of a mother. Neither a day nor a night nor even a second pass without you filling it with your benefits”.
In the same period the Emperor Marcus Aurelius — who was also a philosopher who reflected on the human condition — affirmed the need to pray in order to establish a fruitful cooperation between divine action and human action. He wrote in his Meditations: “Who told you that the gods do not help us also in what depends on us? So begin to pray to them and you will see”. This advice of the Emperor philosopher was effectively put into practice by innumerable generations prior to Christ, thereby demonstrating that human life without prayer, which opens our existence to the mystery God, lacks sense and direction. Always expressed in every prayer, in fact, is the truth of the human creature who on the one hand experiences weakness and impoverishment, who therefore addresses his supplication to Heaven, and on the other is endowed with an extraordinary dignity, so that, in preparing to receive the divine Revelation, finds himself able to enter into communion with God.
Dear friends, in these examples of prayer of different epochs and civilizations emerge the human being’s awareness of his creatural condition and of his dependence on Another superior to him and the source of every good. The human being of all times prays because he cannot fail to wonder about the meaning of his life, which remains obscure and discomforting of it is not put in relations to the mystery of God and if his plan for the world. Human life is a fabric woven of good and of evil, of undeserved suffering and of joy and beauty that spontaneously and irresistibly impel us to ask God for that light and that inner strength which support us on earth and reveal a hope beyond the boundaries of death. The pagan religions remain an invocation which from the earth awaits a word from Heaven. One of the last great pagan philosophers, who lived fully in the Christian era, Proclus of Constantinople, gives a voice to this expectation, saying: “unknowable, no one contains you. All that we think belongs to you. Our evils and our good come from you, on you our every yearning depends, O Ineffable One, whom our souls feel present, raising to you a hymn of silence” (Hymni).
In the examples of prayer of the various cultures which we have considered, we can see a testimony of the religious dimension and of the desire for God engraved on the heart of every human being, which receives fulfilment and full expression in the Old and in the New Testament. The Revelation is in fact purifying and brings to its fullness man’s original yearning for God, offering to him, in prayer, the possibility of a deeper relationship with the heavenly Father.
At the beginning of our journey in the “school of prayer” let us now ask the Lord to illumine our minds and hearts so that the relationship with him in prayer may be ever more intense, affectionate and constant. Once again, let us say to him: “Lord, teach us to pray” (Lk 11:1)."
"Dear Brothers and Sisters, Today I wish to continue my reflection on how prayer and the sense of religion have been part of man throughout his history.
We live in an age in which the signs of secularism are glaringly obvious. God seems to have disappeared from the horizon of some people or to have become a reality that meets with indifference. Yet at the same time we see many signs of a reawakening of the religious sense, a rediscovery of the importance of God to the human being’s life, a need for spirituality, for going beyond a purely horizontal and materialistic vision of human life. A look at recent history reveals the failure of the predictions of those who, in the age of the Enlightenment, foretold the disappearance of religions and who exalted absolute reason, detached from faith, a reason that was to dispel the shadows of religious dogmatism and was to dissolve the “world of the sacred”, restoring to the human being freedom, dignity and autonomy from God. The experience of the past century, with the tragedy of the 2 World Wars, disrupted the progress that autonomous reason, man without God, seemed to have been able to guarantee.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “In the act of creation, God calls every being from nothingness into existence... Even after losing through his sin his likeness to God, man remains an image of his Creator, and retains the desire for the one who calls him into existence. All religions bear witness to man’s essential search for God” (n 2566). We could say (as I explained in my last catechesis) that there has been no great civilization, from the most distant epoch to our day, which has not been religious.
Man is religious by nature, he is homo religiosus just as he is homo sapiens and homo faber: “The desire for God” the Catechism says further, “is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God” (n 27). The image of the Creator is impressed on his being and he feels the need to find light to give a response to the questions that concern the deep sense of reality; a response that he cannot find in himself, in progress, in empirical science. The homo religiosus does not only appear in the sphere of antiquity, he passes through the whole of human history. In this regard, the rich terrain of human experience has seen the religious sense develop in various forms, in the attempt to respond to the desire for fullness and happiness. The “digital” man, like the cave man, seeks in the religious experience ways to overcome his finiteness and to guarantee his precarious adventure on earth. Moreover, life without a transcendent horizon would not have its full meaning and happiness, for which we all seek, is spontaneously projected towards the future in a tomorrow that has yet to come. In the Declaration Nostra Aetate the Second Vatican Council stressed in summary form: “Men look to their different religions for an answer to the unsolved riddles of human existence. The problems that weigh heavily on the hearts of men are the same today as in the ages past. What is man? — [who am I?] — What is the meaning and purpose of life? What is upright behaviour, and what is sinful? Where does suffering originate, and what end does it serve? How can genuine happiness be found? What happens at death? What is judgement? What reward follows death? And finally, what is the ultimate mystery, beyond human explanation, which embraces our entire existence, from which we take our origin and towards which we tend?” (n 1). Man knows that, by himself, he cannot respond to his own fundamental need to understand. However much he is deluded and still deludes himself that he is self-sufficient, he experiences his own insufficiency. He needs to open himself to something more, to something or to someone that can give him what he lacks, he must come out of himself towards the One who is able to fill the breadth and depth of his desire.
Man bears within him a thirst for the infinite, a longing for eternity, a quest for beauty, a desire for love, a need for light and for truth which impel him towards the Absolute; man bears within him the desire for God. And man knows, in a certain way, that he can turn to God, he knows he can pray to him. St Thomas Aquinas, one of the greatest theologians of history, defines prayer as “an expression of man’s desire for God”. This attraction to God, which God himself has placed in man, is the soul of prayer, that then takes on a great many forms, in accordance with the history, the time, the moment, the grace and even the sin of every person praying. Man’s history has in fact known various forms of prayer, because he has developed different kinds of openness to the “Other” and to the Beyond, so that we may recognize prayer as an experience present in every religion and culture.
Indeed, dear brothers and sisters, prayer is not linked to a specific context, but is written on the heart of every person and of every civilization. Of course, when we speak of prayer as an experience of the human being as such, of the homo orans, it is necessary to bear in mind that it is an inner attitude before being a series of practices and formulas, a manner of being in God’s presence before performing acts of worship or speaking words. Prayer is centred and rooted in the inmost depths of the person; it is therefore not easily decipherable and, for the same reason, can be subject to misunderstanding and mystification. In this sense too we can understand the expression: prayer is difficult. In fact, prayer is the place par excellence of free giving, of striving for the Invisible, the Unexpected and the Ineffable. Therefore, the experience of prayer is a challenge to everyone, a “grace” to invoke, a gift of the One to whom we turn.
In prayer, in every period of history, man considers himself and his situation before God, from God and in relation to God, and experiences being a creature in need of help, incapable of obtaining on his own the fulfilment of his life and his hope. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein mentioned that “prayer means feeling that the world’s meaning is outside the world”. In the dynamic of this relationship with the one who gives meaning to existence, with God, prayer has one of its typical expressions in the gesture of kneeling. It is a gesture that has in itself a radical ambivalence. In fact, I can be forced to kneel — a condition of indigence and slavery — but I can also kneel spontaneously, declaring my limitations and therefore my being in need of Another. To him I declare I am weak, needy, “a sinner”. In the experience of prayer, the human creature expresses all his self-awareness, all that he succeeds in grasping of his own existence and, at the same time, he turns with his whole being to the One before whom he stands, directs his soul to that Mystery from which he expects the fulfilment of his deepest desires and help to overcome the neediness of his own life. In this turning to “Another”, in directing himself “beyond” lies the essence of prayer, as an experience of a reality that overcomes the tangible and the contingent.
Yet only in God who reveals himself does man’s seeking find complete fulfilment. The prayer that is openness and elevation of the heart to God, thus becomes a personal relationship with him. And even if man forgets his Creator, the living, true God does not cease to call man first to the mysterious encounter of prayer. As the Catechism says: “in prayer, the faithful God’s initiative of love always comes first; our own first step is always a response. As God gradually reveals himself and reveals man to himself, prayer appears as a reciprocal call, a covenant drama. Through words and actions, this drama engages the heart. It unfolds throughout the whole history of salvation” (n 2567).
Dear brothers and sisters, let us learn to pause longer before God, who revealed himself in Jesus Christ, let us learn to recognize in silence, in our own hearts, his voice that calls us and leads us back to the depths of our existence, to the source of life, to the source of salvation, to enable us to go beyond the limitations of our life and to open ourselves to God’s dimension, to the relationship with him, which is Infinite Love. Many thanks.