Prayer Before the Blessed Sacrament
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
Our present conference,
the first of two, will be on prayer before the Blessed Sacrament.
As we come to the end of our series of conferences on the
priestly spirituality of Father Gerald, we approach what I consider the heart
of his distinctive spirituality. For Father the soul of the spiritual life
is devotion to the Holy Eucharist and the fountain head of this devotion is
the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. I plan therefore to
give two conferences on this large subject. In the present conference I suggest
that we ask two questions. What is prayer before the Blessed Sacrament?
What are we talking about? And then, why is prayer before the Blessed Sacrament?
What are we talking about? And then, why is prayer before the Blessed Sacrament
so important in the spiritual life of the priest, the religious and the believing
faithful Catholic? In the next conference, we will reflect on how - how should
we pray before the Blessed Sacrament. Our focus here therefore is on the
What and the Why.
What is Prayer Before the Blessed Sacrament?
What is prayer before
the Blessed Sacrament? First, a general answer. Prayer before the Blessed
Sacrament is prayer offered to Jesus Christ, present in the Holy Eucharist,
while the person praying is physically present in the Church or Chapel; in other
words, Christs physical presence is met by our physical presence. We begin
by observing that Christ present in the Holy Eucharist is truly conscious of
our being there and we are to be correspondingly conscious of His being, should
I say, here. The key to what is prayer before the Blessed Sacrament is that
two persons are each physically present to the other. The crucial word, I think,
in this expression, Prayer before the Blessed Sacrament is the preposition
before. A few synonyms; in front of, physically near, geographically close,
bodily present, actually in the vicinity of - one reason, by the way, that the
Church even with the discovery of our marvelous, modern communications media,
has not said that a person would really be present at Mass while watching Mass
celebrated a wonderful experience the point is, you have to be there. However,
even as we emphasize the physical presence in explaining the word before, this
word before is not merely a bodily proximity, it is also and, with emphasis,
a spiritual before; as I like to put it, it is not only proximity but intimacy.
But lets not cheapen or weaken that physical proximity that I would say is
the conditio sine qua non, the condition without which Im not really
present as the Church understands being present before the Blessed Sacrament,
unless I am there physically where Christ is physically.
But not only, it is not mere physical presence, thus as is
obvious we can be bodily close to someone and yet be elsewhere spiritually.
Ive called on too many students over the years wrapped, I thought, in attention.
They were wrapped in attention all right but not at what I was saying. And
conversely we can be bodily far from someone and yet spiritually very near.
My favorite definition of spirit which I keep repeating is: that reality which
is independent of space and time. So much for the word before. Moreover, we
said this is prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. This means communication.
We are so used to using the word communication as a one-sided enterprise that
we forget the essence of communication is exchange. Communication from Christ
being really present is presumed but communication from us to Him, ah! That
must be voluntarily entered and what may be harder - and voluntarily sustained.
What the adverb voluntarily means, Ive got to use my will. To do what? To
tell my mind; Will you please pay attention to the one in whose presence you
are. Prayer is a necessary conversation. God as God is constantly communication
from His side to His rational creatures. In fact we call this in theology,
actual graces that God is constantly pouring out in the form of enlightening
our minds and strengthening our wills, but is especially, to put it mildly,
communication when we are present to Him. And of course when He is present
to us. So much for the what. Now the why.
Why We Should Pray Before the Blessed Sacrament?
The basic reason
why we should pray before the Blessed Sacrament, is because Christ wants it.
And before I go into an analysis of what we find in revelation and the Churchs
teaching, you might say it stands to reason what do people want when they
come to visit or you happen to meet them? We want people to say something.
What we are dealing with, however, in this why, is of the substance of our faith.
First, lets remind ourselves, God is God and in the world that He made from
the moment that He made it. Otherwise, to use a crude expression, God would
have stepped out of the world, well, that would have been the end of the world.
That God became Man in order to be with us, (we use prepositions, like with
or before and dont give them a second thought) God became Man in order to be
with us in a depth and intimacy that until He had become Man, quite frankly,
God had not yet manifested to the world. That is why I like Father Geralds
Christology. As you know we believe on faith that God became man in order that
as Man He might suffer and die and thus redeem the world. De facto God became
Man in order as Man He might suffer and die and thus merit our salvation. But
may we ask, if man had not sinned subjunctive mood would God nevertheless
have become Man? Many great minds and doctors of the Church say, yes! St.
Francis De Sales and Father Gerald. But no matter how we answer that question,
whether God would have become Man even though man had not sinned, which is a
speculative question, again de facto, having become man, did God become Man
only that He might suffer and die and thus redeem the world? And the answer
is no. God became man indeed that by His Passion and death the world might
be redeemed, but having become man and knowing that He would become Man, He
decided what He did not have to do. He decided that before He would die He
would change the common elements of bread and wine into, and this is our faith,
Himself. But not only that, He gave His Apostles the power that He alone possessed,
as God, but as God He had the corresponding power to confer. God therefore
became man for two reasons. He became man that in His human nature, He might
die on the Cross and redeem the world. But he also became man that God in His
human nature might remain on earth until the end of time. And behind that divine
purpose He is all we are talking about when we are talking about prayer before
the Blessed Sacrament. Because what are we saying? We are, with all of the
infallibility of the Church of God behind us, affirming prayer before the Blessed
Sacrament is prayer before the living, physical, bodily Jesus Christ on earth.
Having said that, we go on.
People Drew Close to Christ in the Gospels
As we read the Gospels
and, by the way, it is always good whenever we read the Gospels to look for
something. Otherwise, the odds are, we may perchance find something. If you
reread the Gospels, looking for what we are talking about, what do we find?
During His visible stay on earth and look, the only difference between Christs
stay on earth before His ascension and His stay on earth now in the Eucharist,
is that in the first case, it was visible, sensibly perceptible, to the eyes
of His contemporaries and now He is just as really, just and completely, just
as wholly present, only now perforce we are unable with our bodily eyes to see
Him. Ah, my friends that is what faith is for. Back to the Gospels. During
His visible stay on earth, Christ wanted and my notes underline wanted
Christ wanted those geared to Him to be always near to Him. Reread
the four Evangelists and you will be surprised at how the principle that Ive
expressed is so frequently and sometimes dramatically manifest. For example,
Johns Gospel, just before the resuscitation of her brother Lazarus, Martha
had been engaged in conversation with Jesus, mildly but nevertheless in effect
reprimanding the Savior; Lord, why didnt you come sooner? I like to quote
the expression: by this time he stinketh. Then Christ told her that He was
the Resurrection and the Life and in the very words that Peter had used in the
Gospel of Matthew, Martha used, and told Him; I believe that You are the Christ,
the Son of God. Then, perhaps surprisingly, because John does not bring it
out, but we can infer from what Martha then did. She walks away from Jesus
and, says John, she quietly went over to her sister Mary and told her - memorize
this said Martha; The Master is here and He is calling for you. It is a
physical, geographic, bodily presence of Jesus and however He manifested His
desire, Martha drew the conclusion that Jesus wants Mary to be there too. During
Christs public ministry, how many times Jesus made sure that His disciples
were near. Again, reread the Gospels, compare the way our Lord deals with the
multitude, as we know on occasions, thousands, thats quite a crowd, then, we
are told, He would call His disciples to be near Him, so that He might tell
them what He had not told the multitude. Indeed, go back to the Gospel of St.
Matthew, verify for yourself. The Beatitudes. The Beatitudes were not given
to the multitude. Of course they were intended for all of Christs followers
but their primary communication was to the disciples, so they in turn, as Christ
told them right after He finished giving them the Beatitudes, told them; You
are the light of the world. You are the salt of the earth. They having received
the Beatitudes, when they were physically close, near to the Master. There
is far more here than symbolism. There is much more here than symbolism. There
is much more here than even religious poetry. We are touching on the mystery
of Gods love for man when we say, that God became man in order to be in such
intelligible words as we can use in order to be nearer than He would have
been had He never become Man. And having become Man, and I keep repeating,
and remaining as Man is the humanity of Jesus Christ which is the raison detre
of the Real Presence. We are asking ourselves, why? He wants us to respond
in kind in that He became Man in order to be nearer to us than humanly speaking
He would have been had He not become Incarnate. This is God. He wants us,
then - we must use the comparative degree - to, be nearer to Him with the physical
proximity of a body as the expression of the spiritual intimacy of the spirit.
Dont we as human beings, someone who is near and dear to us, we want to be
close, we want to touch, we want to embrace? All of this transferred by our
being near Him, with Him, because thats why He is here.
Still on the Gospels.
More than once we read in the Evangelist that people were so close to Him
now lets be frank, if Christ had not wanted it, it would not happen people
shoved, they pushed. Now the classic passage in the New Testament. During
His agony in the Garden, Christ selectively chose the three that were dearest
to Him, even among the Apostles, Peter, James, and John. He told them to watch
and pray. So what do they do? O they were all right but they fell asleep.
And ever since Christ, we hardly want to say admonished them, poured out His
heart and told them; Could you not watch one hour with me? In other words
Christ wanted, past tense, He wants, present tense, He wants us to be near to
Him. After the Resurrection, Christ made sure that the disciples saw Him, that
they heard Him, that they had a chance to eat with Him and, indeed, to be fed
by Him and now with the doubting Apostle Christ did not have to say but He
did we are not really sure what Thomas did. We can safely believe that He
was so overwhelmed that although he was told; Thomas, you said that you would
not believe unless you placed your fingers in the wounds of My hand and placed
your hand into my side. I repeat, we dont know whether Thomas took Christ
at His word. What we do know is, that even Thomas was convinced and what Thomas
said to Jesus, is the clearest, most explicit, most unqualified affirmation
of Christs divinity in all of Revelation; My Lord and my God. Clearly Jesus
wanted now we change the verb wants, those who are dear to Him, to also
be near to Him.
Miracles in Favor of Those Close to Christ
We go on. However,
as we go over the miracles performed by Christ in the Gospels, what do we find?
We find with no exception this is now answering the question why on another
level than the one we have just seen why prayer before the Blessed Sacrament?
Because, as we see from all four Evangelists, Christ performed His miracles
in favor of people who listen selectively drew near to Him. Could Christ
perform, and did He on occasions as we say in Latin, miracles in distancia (at
a distance)? Christ is God but time and time again, the people came close to
Him and He came He couldnt have been more close to those whom He healed.
And for me the most outspoken and explicit manifestation of how Christ wants
people to be near Him in order that by their manifestation of faith through
the physical proximity, He might then work miracles in their favor, for me the
most outstanding wonder He worked remember? was the woman with years long
hemorrhage. Somehow, must have crawled through the crowd and (talk about being
near) tugged at His cloak. But the important thing is the statement that Christ
spoke; Who touched me? Then weve heard this so many times; Master who
touched You? They are pushing, shoving; who touched Me? No, said Jesus,
and this is the key; I felt power going out from Me, because the woman touched
Me. Am I clear? Dont tell me that physical nearness is merely symbolic.
Oh no, oh no. It is a divinely ordained condition of our faith for the same
Wonder-Worker of Nazareth to work His miracles in Jemez Springs. And dont
tell me the cities and small towns of America dont need miracles.
I am almost but
not quite finished, for the obvious reason theres too much here. We repeat
our question. Why does Christ want us to pray before the Blessed Sacrament?
Because we thus satisfy the primary purpose that Christ has in being on earth
in the Holy Eucharist. That purpose is to honor and praise God, and God is
here with a plentitude in which, thats our faith, He is not present anywhere
else except where the Real Presence exists. Why does He want us to pray before
the Blessed Sacrament? To honor and praise God become man and to obtain from
Him the graces that God became Man to confer, and listen, that God became man
to confer through His humanity. And now we could begin a whole new series of
conferences. All the grace, all the grace, all the grace the human race receives
comes from God but through the humanity that God assumed. Just as it was that
human nature which redeemed the world in the first place, so it is the human
nature here now on earth through which the graces of that redemption are communicated.
Ah, communicated but we must add, conditionally, conditioned on our faith in
His Presence, and our faith in putting our faith into practice by also being
present where He is present, so that He through His humanity might give us what
we human beings so desperately and constantly need.
Lord Jesus, You became
man to redeem the world on Calvary but You are in the Blessed Sacrament in order
that the ocean of merit that You won for us on the Cross might be poured out
on a sinful, suffering human race. Teach us, dear Jesus, to realize that You
are here and want us to be here too, so that believing in You, being near You,
we might obtain from you, what will make us happy even in this valley of tears
and assure us that everlasting experience of living in the Real Presence unveiled.
December 29, 1987
Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica
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