One of the most important dimensions of priestly ministry, and for that matter, for all those involved in spiritual formation, is to help people to pray well. Whether it be forming second graders for first communion or forming catechumens and candidates for full communion with the Catholic church, we fail to accept our full responsibility in formation if we do not help children and adults to enter into active relationship with the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Prayer is about relationship. Relationship with our all-loving, compassionate God, who desires with passionate intent to enter into loving communion with each and everyone.
This is our task as ministers of God: To help people establish and maintain a personal, unique and abiding relationship with God.
And yet, this task is perhaps the most difficult of all pastoral duties because it requires that we ourselves have also established and sustained such personal involvement with our God. Some of us remember from seminary days -- "Nihil dat quod non habet." Or for those of us ordained after 1970 -- "You can't give what you don't have."
Helping people to pray takes patience, a great deal of patience. It also takes a long time -- a year or more to open up people to their inner depths so that they may find their God dwelling within them. Too many of us think that "God is watching us -- from a distance." as the Bette Midler song says. what a joyous gift we can give someone to help them realize that, on the contrary, God is close and intimate: God dwells within us.
To learn how to pray is to acquire a knack, a discipline, very similar to acquiring the discipline of physical exercise. We have to do it regularly and vigorously if we are to achieve its benefit.
The first step in teaching people how to pray is to help them to figure out what their image of God is and how they presently relate to God.
Then we have to help people find their way into Trinitarian relationship. To help people recognize that each of the three persons of the Holy Trinity call them into interpersonal dialogue. We sometimes forget to initiate people into Christian prayer -- to realize that the church always prays to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. We are to be initiated into the life of God Three in One and to share in the dynamics of how each person of the Trinity relates to each other. _________________________________________________________
We are to be initiated into God's own dynamic life. We are to be initiated into and initiate others into -- not knowledge of God -- but experience of God's intimate life. _________________________________________________________
We are called to experience our God creating and recreating us and sustaining us in God's love. We are called to experience. Jesus as not only Redeemer but elder Brother who has such a passionate love for us in his heart that he is constantly drawing us anew into our God's love. We are called to experience the Spirit of God inspiring us, counseling us, consoling us, and guiding us on our pilgrim way by giving us the gift of discernment, the unique gift of the Holy Spirit.
We know all this, brothers. I say nothing new here. But how often do we exert the effort and patience to draw people into this dynamic and enriching experience of God.
People who come to us need to know that God is real; they need to experience God for themselves in their own unique way. People who come to us need to know that WE not only believe but KNOW that God is real in our lives. People need to see God through us and in us.
The catechumenate is the forum par excellence where we teach people how to pray. When I was catechumenate director some years ago, we used the following saying to help catechumens and candidates for confirmation to understand what we were about. . . . __________________________________________________
"Give a person a fish; they'll eat for a day. Teach a person how to fish and they'll eat for a lifetime." __________________________________________________
When people seek us out pastorally for any reason chances are they are primarily asking us to help them know God. Then we, in turn must help them see that we wish to initiate them in God's own life. Even -- and especially -- children need to experience God, to know that God is real. And I really believe that this is possible. Children can not only learn to utter their simple prayers to God but also to listen within themselves for God's own special Voice.
People learn to listen to God as we listen to those who come to us for counsel and guidance. As we have the patience to listen to what is going on in the heart of our counsellees, we will gradually be able to recognize the voice of God within them, and then, in turn, help them to come to listen and discern God's voice so very close to them.
I have been directing an eighty year old man for a year now whose life has been so active he is not comfortable with silence. He is just beginning to reach the point that he can experience silence and enjoy it and recognize that this is the place he will find God. But he still has a way to go to experience the intimate and abiding life of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And I am just beginning to see the places in his soul from which God is speaking.
Yes, helping people learn how to pray takes time and patience. But it is easier when done in community because we can see that there are different experiences, different ways to approach God which are unique to each individual. Again, the catechumenate primordially is the place to teach and learn prayer. I don't believe a person should be elected for the sacraments until they can recognize at least some experience and action of God in their lives.
In my last parish there was a small group of folks who met with me every two weeks to help each other achieve quality sobriety. We went beyond that and looked for God acting in our lives. It was, in reality, a spiritual direction group. Four of these people found in the Liturgy of the Hours a wonderful way to keep the waters of God's life flowing through them. They enjoyed being connected with the sacred liturgy from week to week and day to day. And two of these have gone even deeper to enter into Centering Prayer -- to learn how to quiet their mind and to be supported upon the ocean of God's love.
I am still amazed and deeply grateful that these people are still faithful to the Hours and to Centering for eight years now.
Another forum for helping people to pray is with those who are seriously or terminally ill. We need to help them immerse themselves deeply in the paschal mystery; to be united with the suffering Christ so that they will come to be united with the Risen Christ.
For many sick and most dying patients, prayer may be the only therapy that brings them comfort. Again, we have to take the time and the patience to lead people to Jesus so that he can lead them to the Father in the Holy Spirit to be embraced by his love.
For dying patients, there is a process to lead them through the steps of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance that we have come to understand through the gifted work of Dr. Elizabeth Kubler Ross. The goal of the sacramental ritual for the dying, Viaticum, is that the person be brought to the point in which they have done their work of forgiving and asking forgiveness of others in their lives so that they have come to some modicum of peace. Then it is even possible, as the Viaticum ritual facilitates, that the person can come to joyful, if not eager, anticipation of union with the Lord. On several occasions dying persons have gathered 25 - 30 friends in their home for a Viaticum Mass and a collation in which these friends and family solemnly witnessed their lifelong fidelity to the Lord as they professed once again their baptismal promises.
All of this is the fruit of prayer. Prayer that opens us up on the inside to discover that God was there all the time.
What a wonderful and loving ministry: To help people to pray!