Growth in closeness to Christ through Prayer

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“O God, we ponder your love” (Psalm 48).

He, Jesus Christ, no mere man but God, is the one who has  called  you to consecrate your life to Him and He has promised  – He who is always faithful to His promises – “I am with you always…”(Mt.28:20). He is present with you each morning as you invoke Him; each night as you recite your final words to Him; especially  present  where a light flickers relentlessly in the darkness of the chapel reminding you that He wished to remain with you as the guide through the dangers of this world as light for your searching mind, as strength for your besieged heart.

            Mental prayer is the oxygen for sanctifying grace. It is – along with self-conquest – your cooperation with Christ in order to bring about your salvation and that of others (Col 1:24). For Jesus Christ only takes willing companions as his comrades-in-arms, men who will second his grace in their souls. Prayer is the signature of acceptance you place to Christ’s invitation to accompany him. Moreover, mental prayer (as distinct from vocal prayer) is the necessary signature for anyone who wants to be a true “comrade-in-arms”. Without it one is like an army that wants to keep advancing and conquering yet  neglects its vital “supply lines” ‒ defeat, as occurred to Napoleon Bonaparte during his invasion of Russia, is the inevitable outcome.

Sanctifying grace is caused exclusively by God. However he has willed that the transforming power of grace in the individual be normally linked to man’s free cooperation.  This cooperation in unleashing the power of grace is activated by prayer and virtuous action: in the measure in which man presses these two “buttons” he progresses in becoming a new man, a Christ-like individual. But one has to press the buttons: otherwise the entire “machinery” of  the organism of the supernatural life simply does not go into action!

             Another way to express it is to say that only the man who walks alongside the ocean becomes drenched in spray, so likewise only the priest who walks on the shores of mental prayer allows the spray of grace to refresh and invigorate his soul.

Of course the first condition is to arrive to the ocean – and some live a good distance inland amidst the swamps of sin with all sorts of disease-infected flies around. Therefore without delay it is important to create a roadway through daily meditation with the aid of  “knee-work”, no matter the stress on muscles unaccustomed to such strain.

In any case it doesn’t take long before one begins to feel sporadic fresh breezes of purity and stillness arriving to the soul from the ever-closer ocean. By the time  one is crossing out of the swamps and going over the mountains into the second stage (enlightenment), one will have discovered the truth of his words “my yoke is easy and my burden light”(Mt.11:30). With pride one will notice hardy muscles; with increasing ease one vanquishes any hostile “Orcs” waiting in ambush along the road; but, greatest of all discoveries – almost shocking at first – is the discovery of the love of Jesus Christ for you:  you are now wide awake to the reality that the Hero whom you so admire has, as St. Paul wrote, “loved me and offered His life up for my sake” (Gal 2:20). For you it has also become the first person singular and with this conviction you continue the journey with a joy unknown until then.

The psalmist in ancient Israel tried to express this sublime experience of God : “When I think of thee upon my bed, and meditate on thee in the watches of the night….in the shadow of thy wings I sing for joy”( Psalm 63:6). « Yahweh, your name, your memory are all my soul desires. At night my soul longs for you and my spirit in me seeks for you» (Isaiah 26:8-9).

The journey through life then becomes the journey of a man who has glimpsed  “the Love that made the sun and the other stars” (Dante). Gradually, the memory and the presence of Christ come to dominate his mind and heart. Such is the paradigm in the following poem:

I see his blood upon the rose

And in the stars the glory of his eyes,

His body gleams amid eternal snows,

His tears fall from the skies.

 

I see his face in every flower;

The thunder and the singing of the birds

Are but his voice—and carven by his power

Rocks are his written words.

 

All pathways by his feet are worn,

His strong heart stirs the ever-beating sea,

His crown of thorns is twined with every thorn,

His cross is every tree.

 

One becomes a man who has found utter fulfillment in the closeness to the Heroic Christ : “I find no enjoyment in reading”, said St. Bernard, “if I do not see the name of Jesus. Jesus is honey for my taste, music for my ear and joy for my heart”. Or, as he expressed it in this hymn:

 

“Jesus! Sweet is the very memory!

It gives true joy to our hearts.

But sweeter above honey or anything else

Is the sweetness of his presence.

 

Nothing more pleasant can be sung,

Nothing more joyful can be heard,

Nothing more lovely can be thought of,

Than Jesus, the Son of God.

 

Jesus, the hope of penitents,

How kind you are to those who pray!

How good to those who seek you!

But it surpasses all to find you!

 

No tongue can tell,

Nor can written word express;

Only experience can say

What it means to love Jesus.

 

Jesus, be our joy,

As you will be our reward:

In you be our glory

For ever and ever. Amen.”

However, we must be patient:  closeness requires enduring effort in mental prayer.  Such effort is like the sunlight thawing away the ice of winter from the frozen surface of a mighty river:  for weeks on end, the sun beats down and slowly and gently the ice begins to thaw out.  By feeding the sight, hearing, imagination, and memory with images and words in prose and poetry, art and music about Jesus Christ, the intellect develops convictions and the will grows intense in love. Above all in meditation and contemplation close to Christ in the Blessed Sacrament, the priest will grow in closeness to the Savior-Hero.

In our hi-tech age of micro-processors that process billions of bytes per second,  man is conditioned against meditation and certainly against contemplation and adoration. They do not produce – apparently; certainly they don’t to a shallow world that is somewhat myopic.  But invisibly a great deal is occurring in the soul of the Christian: “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness, from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”  (2 Cor 3:18)

The saints all recognized this transformation as they journeyed through the stages of purification and enlightenment.  In the midst of their temptations and other struggles, they felt the power surging from the Crucified Hero’s wounds that they knew had been endured for their sakes.  By gazing frequently and intensely at their Heroic friend, that tremendous lover, ordinary men became passionate lovers of Jesus. Such love inflamed the zeal of missionaries, the dedication of Christian intellectuals, the prayer of contemplatives, the ultimate sacrifice in the martyrs, chastity in married kings – and sacred chastity in priests.