Prayer and the Spiritual Life (13.12.02)

Prof. Michael F. Hull, New York


"Prayer is the ascent of the mind to God or the beseeching of good from him" (St. John Damascene, De fide orthodoxa 3.24; cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae II-II, q. 83). Prayer is our response to Godís love; it is an act of the virtue of religion wherewith we acknowledge the omniscience and omnipotence of God vis-à-vis the First Commandment (ST, II-II, q. 81). Prayer is the foundation of the spiritual life, because it is in prayer that we raise our minds to the Father in the goodly aspiration to lead a life on this earth in imitation of the Son, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, so that we might enjoy eternity in the company of that same holy Trinity and the saints. Prayer is vocal (common or individual) or mental (affective or contemplative) in adoration, petition, intercession, thanksgiving, and praise. The model of prayer is the Lordís prayer (Matt 6:9Ė13 and Luke 11:2Ė4), which is the perfect balance of manís recognition of God and manís dependence on him; the model of the spiritual life is the Lordís life, which is the perfect example of virtue and holiness.

St. Paul reminds us: "Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you" (1 Thess 5:17). Insofar as prayer is the lifting of the mind and heart in response to God, the spiritual life is the constant and consistent life of prayer that has as its end union with God. Such a union is begun in this life and continues into the afterlife. The Church teaches that "all Christians in any state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and the perfection of love" (Lumen gentium, no. 40). The bedrock and irreplaceable foundation of the "fullness of Christian life and the perfection of love" is prayer. Thus, it behooves each of us to inculcate a life of prayer in order to lead a spiritual life. That is, there is no such thing as a spiritual life that does not begin and end in prayer, "in the ascent of the mind to God or the beseeching of good from him." Again, as St. Paul reminds us: "For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain" (Phil 1:21). The spiritual life is a participation in the Love that proceeds from the Father and the Son, namely, the Holy Spirit (cf. John 14:16, 23). The art of prayer, first introduced by the Lord in his own prayer, and a careful attention to the things of God, inaugurates the spiritual life. Imitating the virtue and the holiness of the Lord and begging for the indwelling of the Spirit, we are enabled to offer fitting praise and acts of charity in the spiritual life. This spiritual life has its impetus and its fruits in the spiritual works of mercy. It is precisely by the indwelling of the Spirit that we might enjoy sanctifying grace, that the soul be lifted above nature to the supernatural, and that we be brought closer to union with God, whose "love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us" (Rom 5:5). So long as we remain in the Spirit in this life, physical death (and any concomitant suffering) can be gain only, as it brings us to the beatific vision where all that remains is love.

Prayer is the hallmark of our spiritual life, because it was the hallmark of Jesusí earthly life. "In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear" (Heb 5:7). Prayer is our response to the Fatherís grace in imitation of the Son through the Spirit. In the spiritual life, we seek to know Christ, to experience the power of his resurrection, to share in his suffering, and to become like him in his death, so that we may attain "the resurrection from the dead" (Phil 3:10Ė11).