I had the privilege of leading an Advent retreat in Tallahassee a week or so ago, and it has left on me an indelible mark that I can only describe as “prayer.”
As every year passes in my life, I become more convinced that the incomparable key to all-things-good in Christian life is prayer. And I have found it to be stunningly true that the more one resolves to be a man or woman of prayer — daily, disciplined, deep — the more one becomes aware of a malicious, pernicious and invisible conspiracy to prevent you from sustaining a relentless commitment to prayer. “The Rake [Satan] hates prayer,” as St. John Vianney once famously said.
I have come to love the Eastern saint and master of the spiritual life, Ignatius Brianchaninov, and especially his collection of essays for monks, The Arena.
To my point, Ignatius argues throughout his writings that the call to relentless and ceaseless prayer is the vocation of monks and laity alike, though the manner of fulfilling that call is unique to each vocation. It’s not just a pious wish, a religious platitude, or a vague counsel. Prayer is life, is breath, and without it the engraced soul, fashioned to be a Temple in Baptism for the living God, withers and becomes a hollow and lifeless tomb.
A priest I once met in Massachusetts went to his bishop back in the late 1980s and told him he was finished with his priesthood, burned out with nothing left to give. His bishop told him he would allow him to go only if he first traveled to Rome to personally tell Pope John Paul II of his decision. The priest went as he was told, and in a private audience said to the Pope, “My priesthood has no meaning to me any longer.” The Pope replied, “Father, do you pray?” The priest said, “No. I was too consumed with my ministry to pray. I stopped years ago.” The Pope said, “Take one year to learn again to pray and come back to see me. If you still wish to leave, I will make certain you can be laicized.” By the end of that year, he had changed his mind. He said, “I realized that I was not burned out; I was dead. To be burned out you have to first be on fire. But I was not on fire, I was dead because I was severed from the source of life: my prayer. Now, I burn.”
Let me allow St. Brianchaninov to argue this point for me:
Prayer is all-powerful on account of the all-powerful God who acts in it. It is the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. Prayer by its nature is communion and union of man with God; by its action it is the reconciliation of man with God, the mother and daughter of tears, a bridge for crossing temptations, a wall of protection from afflictions, a crushing of conflicts, boundless activity, the spring of virtues, the source of spiritual gifts, invisible progress, food of the soul, the enlightening of the mind, an axe for despair, a demonstration of hope, release from sorrow…