We have seen many examples of selflessness and heroism in the midst of some catastrophic situations recently. However, there has also been a sentiment expressed by a few people who are understandably frustrated and overwhelmed by these events. What they have essentially said is that they wish people would stop saying that they would keep them in their thoughts and prayers because the prayers are ineffectual. My response to this is no and yes. I say “no” because prayer is never ineffectual, therefore my first reaction is to emphatically encourage people to continue praying in an intercessory fashion for those who are suffering. But my “yes” is because I also see where these folks might be coming from: if all we do is pray, but then always expect someone else to respond to whatever the need, then our prayer did not change our own hearts, which is indeed a function of prayer. Our society encourages us to have the attitude of 'take a pill and everything will be healed' when it comes to being sick and sometimes this same attitude spills over into our prayer. We unwittingly believe that a prayer said for another is all we have to do and 'that should do the trick.' Not so. The truth lays somewhere in between ‘saying a prayer’ and praying in a way that opens our hearts to change. Indeed, all prayer is good prayer, but to be most effective it is important that we are aware of what it is we are asking and who it is we expect to do the answering.
One of my 'saint-heroes' has always been St. Teresa of Avila, (1515-82) a true giant when it comes to prayer. Briefly, St. Teresa had an inner conversion which took place after she had been a Carmelite nun for 19 years. She realized that she was simply going through the motions, getting by, with all that she should have been doing in her prayer life. A near-death illness changed how she saw her life and her purpose: she felt that she did not deserve the gifts given through Jesus’ suffering and death due to the lack of appreciation she showed by her poor response to Him. Filled with new-found gratitude and inflamed love for Jesus, she began to pray in earnest, becoming a mystic and a master at prayer. Ever humble, she was also direct, and so in addition to cleaning up the lax habits of her entire community, she also wrote a number of books for her sisters to help them learn how to pray more effectively, which essentially meant to open their minds and hearts to God rather than to simply go through the motions of saying the words. Centuries later St. Teresa would be named a Doctor of the Church because of her writings, particularly those on prayer.
St. Teresa taught that we should strive to always grow in our ability to pray. She taught that just about everyone can learn meditation (to prayerfully reflect upon something) and that if we continue to open ourselves to God we can receive the gift of contemplation. She taught that we can start with vocal prayer, prayers which contain words such as the Lord’s Prayer, the Rosary, a Psalm, or any other devotion. But she said that we are then to reflect upon the words we are saying so that we can allow the Holy Spirit to open us to the deeper meaning in the words and devotions and then what God might be trying to say to us through those words. In doing so, one learns how to listen both to what is going on interiorly in our own thoughts and what is being revealed to us deep within our hearts. If we continue at this practice eventually God can give us the gift of contemplation which means we no longer need words, thoughts, or images and simply rest in His presence. However, St. Teresa was brilliant in her understanding of both prayer and of human nature. She recognized that some people would desire so ardently to get to contemplation that they would misplace their priority: the goal is not contemplation, but rather the goal is (always) God.
The other thing St. Teresa knew is that if prayer is authentic, (sincerely from our heart), it will indeed move us outward to action. If all we do is pray, hoping that God will respond in a particular way, that is not a bad thing. All prayer is effective since God can do anything and can inspire anyone. But what if God is calling us to be the answer for someone else’s need? If all we do is pray and then walk away, our prayer did not really change our own heart, which is indeed a purpose of prayer. If our heart is touched by God during our prayer, (regardless of what we feel or don’t feel), then His mercy and love ought to propel us outward in some way to help our brothers and sisters in need. St. Teresa said that “we are the only hands and feet Christ has now” (slight paraphrase) and therefore we must take up the responsibility to work at putting into effect that which we desire. We have a responsibility to do what we can; and it is not responsible to keep expecting someone else to do the work that we know needs to be done. Of course, we have to discern what is within our ability and/or what is reasonable. For example, I can pray for world peace, but it is not reasonable to think that I can solve that problem myself. I can contribute to peace within my community by acting the way Jesus taught, inspired by my meditation, doing corporal works of mercy, being kind to those I meet, forgiving those who have hurt me, exercising patience, and promoting peace through my actions. Also, I cannot heal a sick person, but I can call or visit them to buoy their spirits. Therefore when we pray for a person, if we let God expand our hearts, it ought to lead us to some sort of action, direct or indirect, which might help our prayer to become reality. Simply put, when we pray and walk away, we are limiting God’s ability to respond to our very prayer. We need to realize that perhaps God intends to work through us to be part of the answer to our own prayer along with those who also can contribute.
Another aspect to consider is to examine our understanding of who God is. God is not like the proverbial genie in a bottle and He is not Santa Claus, so we cannot expect that He will give us everything we ask no matter how good we may be or even how beneficial our desire might seem. Even St. Teresa, as great an expert on prayer as she was, struggled with this. It was she who humorously quipped after things did not go as she had hoped: “If this is how you treat your friends, Lord, it is no wonder you have so few of them!” All of us will struggle with hoping for things to go the way we desire and therefore with the frustration when they do not. Of course we often do see the result of answered prayer, but the bottom line is that God’s ways are mysterious and often things are much more complex than we can ever know; if we continue to trust in Him by praying and then responding appropriately, we are indeed living what we profess as Christians, trying our best to give witness to the gospel Jesus taught.
St. Teresa reminded us to pray according to the gifts we have. Her attitude about it was to 'pray as you can, not as you can’t.' In her wisdom she realized that not all of us are able to meditate or to reach contemplation, but we all can and should pray in whatever way we are comfortable. All prayer from the heart is good prayer. However, we should remember that prayer is not something one says, but something one does. In other words, it is a practice, a work in progress, and it always leads us outside of ourselves and our way of doing things. It is always directed to the other: it is directed to God, and it is directed toward the good of others. That is not to say we should never pray for ourselves; yes, we can and should. But even then the prayer is directed toward God insofar as it is about us, but it is to Him. Let us go forward, then, in faith, continuing to pray for the needs of others but with a mind toward putting our prayer into action in accordance with our means and talents. We need to continually discern, but also to trust that our efforts will not be in vain. Never stop praying. All prayer is good prayer and all prayer is effective.
May we ask for the intercession of St. Teresa of Avila that we might continue to grow in our life of prayer! May our efforts at prayer help us to grow in relationship with God that we might know, love, and serve Him better! May we continually become more open to the movements of the Holy Spirit that we might know what we can realistically do to work toward the good for ourselves and others! And may our hearts always be moved with mercy, compassion, and love that we might learn to love as Jesus taught! Let us continue to meet in the heart of Jesus! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
Note: Next post will be November 6.
Images: (All the photos are mine, which means everything but the icon in #2 is mine.)
1. This first one was taken at the Western Wall (sometimes referred to as the Wailing Wall) in Jerusalem, Israel. I chose to use it here because there is never a time day or night that people are not gathered here in prayer: it is always a bit of a mob scene. People have been praying in this area for centuries upon centuries since this is the remaining wall of the Temple.
2. This is an icon of St. Teresa of Avila by Fr. William Hart McNichols. I chose it to use here because of the hands. Her hands are uplifted and raised towards the hands of Jesus. She is modeling that we are the hands and feet of Jesus. I love that their hands are directed toward one another. You can find this icon here if you wish to purchase a copy in any of a variety of formats: https://fineartamerica.com/featured/st-teresa-of-avila-177-william-hart-mcnichols.htmlfineartamerica.com/featured/st-teresa-of-avila-177-william-hart-mcnichols.html.
3. I took this photo in the bedroom of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati in Pollone, Italy. I chose it first because of the Rosary which of course belonged to Bl. Pier Giorgio. But I also loved that everything around his bed speaks of prayer, particularly the crucifix and the framed print of a portrait of St. Catherine of Siena, a favorite saint of his. (Both Pier Giorgio and St. Catherine were Third Order Dominicans.) If anyone was a pray-er and a doer it was Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati. He prayed ardently for hours, living a normal life, but one dedicated to helping the poor, marching against injustice, and basically always doing something to work toward evangelization, peace and justice. He was the pray-er led to doing 'par exellence!'
4.This photo is of stained glass taken in a hotel at which I stayed while in Salzburg, Austria a few years ago. The image is of St. Christopher carrying the Child Jesus across a river, according to legend. "Christopher" translates to Christ-bearer. I chose this photo because it reminded me of being the hands and feet of Jesus. Sometimes we need to do more than just be His hands and feet: sometimes we need to completely carry Him to others by an outpouring of love, mercy, forgiveness, kindness and care which is heroic.
5. This was taken in Colorado, in Rocky Mountains National Park. I chose to use it here because when St. Teresa said the words quoted (in the paragraph where the photo appears) she was trying to cross a stream or river which probably looked like this one: the mule she was riding upon stumbled and fell, resulting in Teresa ending up in the water. That was when she made her famous remark to God.
6. This was taken in Bethlehem, Palestine, in a chapel of perpetual adoration near a shrine called the Milk Grotto, a place Mary and Joseph were said to have stopped on the flight into Egypt so Mary could breast feed the child Jesus, (according to legend, but it is not Scriptural.) What is pictured here is actually the tabernacle in the chapel with the tabernacle itself acting as a monstrance. That is indeed the Body of Christ, a consecrated host, in the center of the tabernacle 'door' behind the altar!
7. Finally, I took this photo last year at Port Aransas, on the Texas Gulf Coast (long before Hurricane Harvey sadly destroyed the area and tore up this beach.) I chose to use it because the sun shining through the clouds reminded me of the effectiveness of our prayer. God does 'break through' the darkness. And yes, this beach, like all places affected by storms and disasters, will heal with a bit of love and care.
Heart Speaks to Heart