Contemplation and Prayer I ©
Dear Friend of Saint Francis,
This month, we begin a series of reflections on prayer. Each month, we will explore what it meant for Saint Francis of Assisi as well as what potential it holds for us today.
The spiritual life, especially Franciscan, is a perennial tug-of-war between contemplative prayer and apostolic activity. One need only recall the struggle that Saint Francis had with his own vocation. After a period of discernment, he concluded, “It seems to be more pleasing to God for me to interrupt my retirement and go out for such work.” (St. Bonaventure, Legenda Major)
We may profit from comparing this conclusion to the life that Jesus proposes in what I think is the most Franciscan of all chapters in the Bible, Luke 10. The chapter opens with the commissioning of disciples to go ahead of him and deliver across the countryside a message of peace. In the closing narrative, Jesus settles a familiar dispute between Martha and Mary by judging that Mary, who “sat at the Lord’s feet and listening to what he was saying,” (v.39) had chosen “the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (v.42)
Jesus admonished Martha not because she was working but because her approach to hospitality, which is a very worthy pursuit, caused her to be “distracted by her many tasks.” (v.40) Her concern was not to be in relationship with Jesus, or Mary for that matter, but to perform a set of tasks according to her own standards. She lost sight of the purpose of her work.
Saint Francis understood from the start that the expression of love for God in service must not “extinguish the spirit of holy prayer and devotion.” (The Later Rule, chapter V) In fact, his decision to give himself to the service of his neighbour, especially by preaching about God’s love and the need for a conversion of mind and heart, was expressed significantly as mere pauses in prayer: “…to interrupt my retirement.”
Above all, Saint Francis understood that action must be constantly connected to God through prayer—that he was called to serve as Martha while being mindful like Mary of the heart of the love that service expresses. His inspiration came from the life of Jesus who was active in preaching and healing but never ceased to pray. Luke’s Gospel gives us many accounts of Jesus retreating from crowds in order to pray (e.g. 3: 21-22; 4: 1-13; 4: 42; 5:16; 6:12).
In fact, Celano reminds us that Saint Francis “often chose solitary places to focus his heart entirely on God…For his safest haven was prayer; not prayer of a fleeting moment, empty and proud, but prayer that was prolonged, full of devotion, peaceful in humility.” (First Life of St. Francis)
He found several places in the Italian countryside to which he would retreat for private prayer between the major public events of his life, following the example of Jesus. Many are marked by monasteries today. The prayerful spirit of the poverello is palpable when they are visited in a quiet, unhurried way. But it would be a mistake to think of Francis praying only in solitude. He also advocated praying the Divine Office with the community of brothers and attended with prayerful reverence the Sacrament of Eucharist.
Dacian Bluma OFM writes authoritatively about the Franciscan life of prayer in The Cord (1963, 13). He points to the set of rules that Saint Francis prescribed for his brothers, drawing special attention to the rule for living in hermitages: “It has a distinctive Franciscan trait even in his hermitical way of life, namely, fraternity. Three to four constitute a community. They live together, conscious of their dependence upon each other and helped by it.”
Bluma suggests that there was from the start “something very practical in the way this provision for the contemplative life in the Order evolved in Francis’s own life.” The pragmatism with which contemplation was practiced echoed the very concrete inspiration for prayer, namely the historical events of the life of Jesus, especially in the birth and passion of Christ. Hermitages at Greccio and La Verna are emblematic of that fact. They serve too to remind us that Jesus is our inspiration for praying.
In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.
(Mark 1: 35)
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The spiritual act of praying may be understood from a variety of perspectives. In its strictest sense, prayer is a petition or request. (The New Dictionary of Christian Spirituality, 1993) In the Old Testament, prayer is typically praise (e.g. exultation to the Lord), intercession (e.g. prayer for the life of the king) or supplication (e.g. plea for peace.) In the New Testament, the Greek words that are used connote a wish, a vow or a request.
Regardless of its content, what most strikingly characterizes prayer is its personal appeal. It addresses God in the second person and is spoken in the first. God is addressed concretely, as in a conversation about something that is happening in my life, a fear or a desire. The hope is always to forge a personal relationship, a union or communion.
The other remarkable thing about prayer is that it is perceived to be a response to something that God has already done or said, whether perceived negatively or positively. It is as though God were “standing at the door, knocking.” (Revelation 3: 20) It is instructive to note, especially in the Old Testament, the honesty with which the response is expressed or withheld.
Saint Francis astutely turned to the example of Jesus to understand the purpose and nature of prayer. We profit from doing the same. As indicated above, Luke’s Gospel in particular portrays Jesus as prayerful, not as a matter of duty, but as thought it was as vital as breathing. He draws not only strength and wisdom from it; it defines his very identity. Being the Son the God, the Messiah of God, he had to be intimately and continuously connected with the Father. His life’s purpose was not some self-styled mission but the work that his Father had sent him to accomplish.
One of his most revealing acts was his sermon on the bread of life, after which he spent the night in prayer. (Mark 6: 46; Matthew 14: 22-23; John 6: 15) Also, he prayed praise and gratitude to his Father when the disciples “returned with joy” after Jesus had sent them to preach the Gospel: “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth.” (Luke 10: 21)
Jesus prayed for children (Matthew 19: 13-15; Mark 10: 13-16); on his last day in the Temple as his hour was approaching (John 12: 27-28); before the Last Supper (Luke 22: 31-32); during the Last Supper (John 17: 1-26). He also prayed during his ordeal at Gethsemane and as he hung upon the cross. (Luke 23: 34; Mark 15: 34; Matthew 27: 46; Luke 24: 46)
Jesus instructed his disciples to pray and taught us a particular way of praying—proposing that we address our shared Father in a distinctive structure of praise, commitment to God’s kingdom, doing his will, and petitions for our basic physical and spiritual needs. (Luke 11) Saint Francis so loved this prayer that he often made what we now call The Lord’s Prayer the subject of his meditation. On one occasion, he wrote a paraphrase of it that reveals the depth of his devotion.
From this model, we deduce that while there are many forms of prayer, some more formal than others, there are two main purposes: the first is praise and thanksgiving; the second is petition and intercession. The first, a fitting place to start, looks back on what God has already done in our life; the second looks forward to what we want God to do for us. The danger, of course, is to have ourselves become the centre of prayer rather than God. Nonetheless, it is right and proper that we express our deepest fears and hopes to “Our Father” whose many promises point to concern for our well-being.
As for style, it is good to use a variety but also to recognize which is most efficacious for us, a situation that may change as we grow in prayer. The range of possibilities includes mental and vocal prayer; discursive and affective prayer; mediation and contemplation; kataphatic prayer (affirmative, using words and images) and apophatic prayer (negative, evacuating words and images); centering prayer; mystical prayer; and private and communal prayer. (Cf. J. Wright in The New Dictionary of Christian Spirituality)
Brother Leo…preached to the brothers to be eager to have and imitate pure and holy simplicity, holy prayer, and lady Poverty, on which the holy and first brother had built.
(Ubertino Da Casale, The Tree of the Crucified Life of Jesus)
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My prayer for you as we enter a new year is that you make prayer a more regular part of your daily activity. May your communication with God be evermore authentic and meaningful. May it fill you with deep joy and hope.
Crib and Cross