December 2014 / January 2015 - Vol. 77

 woman praying in

Prayer Is the Language of Hope 

by Christoph Schonborn

Just before her conversion, Blessed Edith Stein went into the cathedral in Frankfurt and saw a simple woman come in from the market, kneel down, and pray. By Edith Stein's own testimony, the sight of this woman made a decisive impression upon her on her journey toward the faith: a simple woman, kneeling and praying in the cathedral. Something inexpressible, very simple, so ordinary, and yet so full of mystery: this intimate contact with the invisible God. Not a self-absorbed meditation, but quiet relaxation in the presence of a mysterious Other. What Edith Stein sensed in this humble praying woman would soon become a certainty for her: God exists, and in prayer we turn toward him. 

Longing to pray
Think of the impression the silent prayer of Jesus made on his disciples, prayer that often went on for hours, all night long, in fact! What was it about this secret place, this long turning in silence to him whom our Lord calls "Abba"? "He was praying in a certain place, and when he ceased, one of his disciples said to him, 'Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples'" (Luke 11: 1).

Teach us to pray. The disciple yearns to enter this place of silent intimacy, this vigilant prostration before the presence of the Invisible One. He feels such a great reverence for the mystery of the prayer of Jesus that he does not dare to interrupt, to "burst in" on our Lord with his question. He waits till Jesus himself comes out of his prayer. Only then does the disciple make bold to ask, to implore: "Teach us to pray!" 

Does it not move us when we come into church and find someone silently praying there? Does this sight awaken in us the longing to pray? Do we hear at this moment the murmuring of the spring that summons us to the living water? As the martyr Ignatius of Antioch writes: “Living water murmurs within me, saying inwardly: ‘Come to the Father!’” (1) The longing for prayer is the lure within us of the Holy Spirit, who draws us to the Father, Yes, this longing is already prayer, is already the prayer of the Spirit within us, “with sighs too deep for words" (Romans 8:26). 

Is the ground of prayer dried up today?
There is, of course, a question we have to consider carefully: Is the ground of prayer dried up today? Isn't the hidden "murmuring" of the wellspring of the Holy Spirit drowned out by the noise of our times? Can prayer prosper when, as Neil Postman writes in his disturbing book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, the average American spends fifteen years of his life in front of the television? …There is no doubt that there is much in today's society that is detrimental to prayer.

And yet we are permitted to hope that no secularization can entirely drown out the call of God in the hearts of men. …For prayer is the expression of a longing, which has not been “produced” by us but has been placed in the hearts of men by God. It is an expression of the “fecisti nos ad Te” of Saint Augustine (Thou madest us for thyself). …He who prays hopes. For someone who cannot hope to be heard cannot ask. After all we only ask other human beings for something when we have the hope that our petition has a chance of being granted. "Prayer," says Saint Thomas, “is the spokesman of hope”(2) 

For what do we pray and hope?
By our prayer we can gauge the state of our prayer. For what do we pray? For what do we hope? The reason why prayer and hope are so closely related is that both realize that what we pray and hope for does not lie within our own powers but can only be given to us. But what are we permitted to hope for? And what should we pray for? In his long quaestio on prayer (the longest in the whole Summa), Saint Thomas says: 

Since prayer is a kind of spokesman for our desires with God, we only ask for something in prayer rightly if we desire it rightly. In the Lord’s Prayer not only do we ask for all that we may rightly desire, we also ask for them in the order in which we are supposed to desire them. This prayer, then, not only teaches us to ask, it also shapes all our affections (sit informative totius nostri affectus). (3)

A wonderful statement: The Our Father shapes our whole affective life into its right proportions; it places in us desires and yearnings and therefore the right priorities in our praying. 

Is it really reasonable for our primary hope, and therefore our greatest longing, to be: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done”? We have a concern for our “daily bread” (think how many of our people are worrying about their jobs or have already lost them!). We want to get on well with one another (“Forgive us our trespasses ...”). Above all, we beg for protection from evil and temptation, from anguish and despair (“Lead us not into temptation,” “Deliver us from evil”). All of these petitions develop out of the problems of our life. They force their way to the front of our attention and harass our hearts. They are usual1y, therefore, our first and most pressing petitions.

Prayer is the language of hope
The fact that we turn to God with these petitions shows that we expect, that we hope for, help from him in all these needs. As Cardinal Ratzinger has said, prayer is “hope in action,” for “prayer is the language of hope.”(4) “The despairing man no longer prays, because he no longer hopes. The man who is sure of himself and his own strength does not pray, because he relies only on himself.

The man who prays hopes for a good and for a strength that go beyond his own powers.”(5) If we really pray for what we ask for in the four petitions of the second part of the Our Father, then we are already hoping, and that hope goes beyond the thing we ask for, it is directed toward the Person of whom we ask it: “Hallowed be thy name, thy Kingdom come, thy will be done....” These petitions become the articulation of an ever greater trust, which dares to call God “Our Father”. 

Saint Thomas [Aquinas] says that the Our Father is "informativa totius nostri affectus": it shapes all our desires and feelings. And indeed, time and again, we hear of people being healed in the very roots of their lives through the Our Father. I am thinking, for example, of Alexander Solzhenitsyn's friend Dimitri Panin,(6) or of Tatiana Gorischeva, who received the grace of conversion through reciting the Our Father.

When our affectus is shaped by the Our Father, our desires and yearnings are sound and in conformity to the action of God, and then our prayer will be more and more efficacious, because it really will be in harmony with God's plan, really will be cooperating with God's providence. Then our praying will be in harmony with the "sighs" of the Spirit, who "intercedes for the saints according to the will of God" (Romans 8:27). In the Compendium theologiae, Saint Thomas says: "The Our Father is the prayer through which our hope in God is raised up to the highest degree."(7)

Just as faith is certain, because it believes God, so hope does not disappoint (cf. Romans 5:5), because, full of trust, it expects from God what he promises. It is from God alone that hope derives its triumphant certainty: "In te, Domine speravi, non confundar in aeternum" (In thee, O Lord, have I trusted, let me never be confounded). 

[Excerpted from Loving the Church, by Christoph Schonborn, Archbishop of Vienna, Austria; translated by John Saward, © 1998, Ignatius Press, San Francisco. Used with permission.]. 

(1) Epistula ad Romanus 7, 2.
(2) STh 2a2ae 17, 4, obj. 3.
(3) STh 2a2ae 83, 9. 3.
(4) Auf Christus schauen: Einubung un Glaube, Hoffnung, Liebe (Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder, 1989), 68f.
(5) ibid., 69.
(6) See The Notebooks of Sologdin  (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976).
(7) Compendium theologiae 2, 3.

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