I pray because I am human.
Prayer is as natural to a human person as is breathing, eating, sleeping and loving. For the philosopher, the poet and every human person, prayer is a connection to awe and wonder, and to all that is true, good and beautiful. Prayer opens the individual person, body and soul, to the infusion of Grace, the Gift of Divine Life and Love, which leads to the potential for human flourishing. This potential becomes efficacious when one then acts upon the Gift Received and so Becomes a sincere gift of self to others. This manifestation of love builds up the City of God, the Body of Christ, and so fulfills the very meaning and purpose of our lives.
The default position of the person who does not pray and rejects the Divine Gift is a body and soul closed to the infusion of Grace. One cannot give what is not possessed and the potential for human flourishing is diminished by sin and death. Living in “disconnection” like a cut-flower the human person grasps for life in a futile attempt to replace infinite grace with the finite things of this world. Human beings become ravenous creatures, lustful creatures, as all attempts to build a city upon a foundation of sin and death, fail to satisfy the deepest desires of the human heart.
The human heart was made for more. That is why I pray.
“The reason, however, why the philosopher may be likened to the poet is this: both are concerned with the marvelous.” –Thomas Aquinas
My friend Jimmy Patridge had come home from Vietnam without his legs, the sexual revolution was in full swing, the murder of the unborn become a right that was codified into law. On top of that no-fault divorce left me wondering about the meaning of life and love. I wondered how the love between two people, once so beautiful and promising, could turn to dislike and even to hatred. I saw the negative effect that divorce had on my childhood friends. Then came the sexual abuse scandal in the Church and we were warned, for good reason it turned out, that the government could not be trusted.
At seventeen, the oldest of five boys, I felt confused, boxed in and anxious. I was working 3:00-11:00 PM most nights as a chef’s assistant in a large hotel kitchen after school. My family needed the money; besides, the world of work brought me a sense of satisfaction and an escape for my troubled mind.
I began to wonder, is this all there is? The pain and horror of war, love reduced to sex, marriages that could end, work to pay the bills and perhaps even to forget.
An early interest in philosophy lead me to Josef Pieper who wrote, “More and more, at the present time, “common good” and “common need” are identified; and (what comes to the same thing) the world of work is becoming our entire world; it threatens to engulf us completely…till at last they make a “total” claim upon the whole of human nature. A world in which there is no room for philosophy or philosophizing in any true sense of the word…Plato, as everyone knows, virtually identified philosophy and Eros, the innate desire for all that is true, good and beautiful. And in regard to the similarity of philosophy and poetry, there is the little-known and curious saying of Aquinas which occurs in his commentary on the Metaphysics of Aristotle: The philosopher, he there says, is related to the poet in that both are concerned with wonder, with marveling and with that which makes us marvel.
(The Philosophical Act, pgs. 78, 79, 82)
Pope John Paul II added, “The lessons of history show that this is the path to follow: it is necessary not to abandon the passion for ultimate truth, the eagerness to search for it or the audacity to forge new paths in the search. It is faith which stirs reason to move beyond all isolation and willingly to run risks so that it may attain whatever is beautiful, good and true. Faith thus becomes the convinced and convincing advocate of reason.” (Fides et Ratio, No. 56)
That was enough for me, I needed time to find the truth if it existed. Hopeful that I could discover answers, I left home at the first opportunity, with no plans other than to find space to be and think near mountains or the ocean. I knew someone in Denver, I’d start there. I cashed my last paycheck and threw my backpack, hiking boots, some extra clothes, and my 10-speed bike in the back of an old station wagon, sold or gave away everything else, and drove away.
Hark! My lover—here he comes
Springing across the mountains,
leaping across the hills.
My lover is like a gazelle
or a young stag…
My lover speaks; he says to me,
“Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one,
And come!” – Song of Songs
One time, hiking in the Rockies, I followed a steep animal trail through trees and brush until I came to a clearing just above the tree line. A short distance away I spotted a lone tree standing along what I hoped was the top of the Mountain and headed up toward it. Once there I stood in awe at the scene before me. Across the valley rose an even taller, stunning, snow-capped mountain. Cascading down from its summit, looking like liquid silver glistening in the sun, was a waterfall dropping thousands of feet below. The song of birds was everywhere, bees and butterflies were moving among the wildflowers in the valley below along with a herd of Elk, the calves running and jumping, while the adults grazed nearby.
I took off my backpack and sat down, my back against the tree, to take it all in. I didn’t find all the answers to my questions that day, but I sensed that the awe, wonder and beauty before me opened a door that I was invited to enter. I began to pray. Almost immediately the small circle of my world, where I took up so much space, became much larger. I became smaller, not because I shrunk, but because I was given sight and my circle extended outward. I had been trying to find the truth in a small circle that had me in the center. I was living in a “small and cramped eternity, when what I needed were not new arguments as much as to give it air” (cf. G.K. Chesterton). Prayer, like a branch re-connected to the vine, opened the smaller story of my life to the awe and wonder, of the larger story.
“We want so much more—something the books on aesthetics take little notice of. But the poets and the mythologies know all about it. We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.” – C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory
That is why I pray.
“Prayer is an aspiration of the heart, it is a simple glance directed to heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial as well as joy; finally, it is something great, supernatural, which expands my soul and unites me to Jesus.” – St. Theresa of Lisieux
“Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God.” – St John Damascene. But when we pray, do we speak from the height of our pride and will, or “out of the depths” of a humble and contrite heart? (Psalm 130:1). “He who humbles himself will be exalted” (Lk 18:9-14). Humility is the foundation of prayer! Only when we acknowledge that “we do not know how to pray as we ought” (Rom 8:26), are we ready to Receive freely the Gift of prayer. “Man is a beggar before God” – St. Augustine.
Finally, Prayer is the place where God’s thirst for you meets your thirst for God. In the Gospel of John there is a Samaritan woman who comes to the well to draw water. Jesus says to her, “Give me a drink” and later, “If you knew the Gift of God!” The wonder of prayer is revealed beside the well where we come seeking water: there, Christ comes to meet every human being. It is He who first seeks us and asks us for a drink. Jesus thirsts: his asking arises from the depths of God’s desire for us. Whether we realize it or not, prayer is the encounter of God’s thirst with ours. (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2559-60, Jn 4:10)
“If you knew the Gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” Paradoxically our prayer of petition is a response to the plea of the living God: “They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewn out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water!” Prayer is the response of faith to the free promise of salvation and also a response of love to the thirst of the only Son of God. (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2561)
That is why I pray.