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Retreat - The Essentials of the Religious Life

The Church's Teaching on the Prayer of Religious

December 29, 1983 — Evening Conference

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

We would expect the Church's new Code of Canon Law to be clear and explicit on the practice of prayer by religious, as persons dedicated to the consecrated life. In order to do justice to a vast subject, the matter will be covered in three stages: first, prayer in general; then, the place of the Holy Eucharist in religious life; and finally, the role of penance as sacrament and practice among religious.

There are not a few canons of the Code legislating prayer among religious. One reason for the extensive and precise legislation is the Church's felt need to restore where it has wavered and to strengthen the life of prayer among consecrated persons. First, the appropriate canons will be quoted; then we will go back over these elements and briefly comment on their meaning and apply the implications.

First: "Religious are to find their supreme rule of life in the following of Christ as proposed in the Gospel and expressed in the Constitutions of their own Institute."

Second:     "The first and principal duty of all religious is to be the contemplation of things divine and constant union with God in prayer."

Third: "They are to devote themselves to reading the Sacred Scriptures and to mental prayer."

Fourth: "In accordance with the provisions of their own Law, they are to celebrate the Liturgy of the Hours worthily."

Fifth: "They are also to perform other exercises of piety."

Sixth: "They are to have a special devotion to the Virgin Mother of God, the example and protectress of all consecrated life, including by way of the Rosary."

The other pertinent texts applying to the Eucharist and to Penance will be seen later on in context.

We actually have seven areas of Church legislation to religious, clearer than ever before in canonical history.

First, then, the imitation of Christ. That is the rock bed of our life of prayer. Religious life is part of God's revelation. Until the Son of God became a human being, there was and could not be religious life in the world. Clearly, with the Church's plainness, consecrated life means going beyond, above, doing more than mankind is required to do or would have been required to do in order to be saved.

God did not have to become man. Having become a human being, He did not have to live the life of poverty, and virginity. (Absolutely speaking, Christ might have married. We know He didn't.) He is God. He surely did not have to subject Himself in obedience to His own creatures. Christ did what He did not have to do. He did more; He went beyond. That is where the evangelical counsels begin, and that is the foundation of religious life, doing more. When the Church places the example and teaching of Christ as the bedrock of our religious life and the foundation of all our prayer, she is telling us what is no mere academic dogma of faith. It is something upon which we must reflect and re-reflect in order to have the mystery daily more deeply sink into our souls.

Before we go on with the other aspects, suppose we ask for just a moment, "Where is this Jesus Christ?" whom we are told to learn in order that learning Him we might love Him, and loving Him we might serve Him. He is first of all in the Gospels, the four narratives of the evangelists. He is also in all the writings of the rest of the New Testament: in the letters of Saint Paul; in the history of the early Church as described by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles. Christ is in the lives of the saints. If Paul told his contemporaries, "Be imitators of me as I am of Christ", in greater or less measure every saint is telling us the same thing. Except for inspiration and grace from Christ, there wouldn't be any saints.

Where is Christ? In the teaching of the Church, nineteen-hundred years of Magisterial teaching. Needless to say, if we want to learn about this Christ we must expose our eyes and ears and of course our minds to the sources of this knowledge about Christ.

Where is Christ? He is in the Holy Eucharist, the Son of Mary. The Eucharist began in Mary's womb at Nazareth.

Where is Christ? In other people. The holier they are, the more they strive to become like the Master, the more we should see in them the life of Christ - dim no doubt, a shadow indeed, but Christ no less.

Finally, where is Christ? In the depths of our own souls. "If you love Me" Christ tells us, "My Father will love you and He (Father and I) will make our abode with you."

All of this is about that simple, prosaic legislation, that our primary rule of life and the basis and focus of all our prayer should be Jesus Christ.

Second. We are told by the Church that our first and principal duty of all religious, even the most active, "is to be the contemplation of things divine and constant union with God in prayer." The law couldn't make it stronger: "first and principal". Why not be satisfied in saying it is our principal duty? No, the Church had to say "first and principal".

Why "first"? Because it is the foundation. Unless we are men and women of prayer we are hypocrites. Among the many wise things that Padre Pio has said, when asked "What do you think is the greatest problem in the Church today?" he said, "It is hypocrisy." What a statement, and how true. We are religious only if we pray; we are as good religious as we pray earnestly. We are poor religious if we pray badly. Our prayer life is "first" because it is the foundation; it is "primary" because it is the most important.

What kind of prayer should it be? It is to be contemplation and union with God; but look at the adjective - "constant" prayer. Over the centuries the Church has come up with some beautiful definitions of contemplation. Here is one: "Looking at Christ with love," when you are past the stage of having tostudy or reason and finally convince yourself that Christ is worth conversing with.

The third feature of our life of prayer is that we are told by the Church to daily read the Sacred Scriptures. We should do so every day and methodically. Men on their way to work in the morning in New York crowd into an already crowded train and ritually read the morning newspaper. Our reading of Scripture should not be mechanical, but it should be methodical. We never seem to be bored by being called regularly to meals.

There are two parts to our human nature, the body and the soul. God might have made it otherwise, but He didn't. Children are hungry from the moment of birth. The body must be constantly, regularly fed with food. But since there are two parts to our nature, our souls must be fed no less than the body. Just as without food the body weakens and dies, so without nourishment for the soul, it weakens and dies.

What is the nourishment of the soul? Truth. And not only truth, but Truth as the infinite wisdom of God become man and dwelling among us. Christ told us, "I am the Truth". Reading the Scriptures is nourishing the soul. We must do so daily, methodically. We should also memorize certain passages in the Scriptures, especially from the Gospels.

The fourth feature of the Church's legislation on prayer we will consider is mental prayer. Mental prayer is the prayer in which we do not use the words of someone else, even of the Church or Christ Himself, but our own reflections as the heart dictates and the Spirit of God inspires. We should plan and prepare what we are going to meditate on; it makes sense to anticipate before hand what we are going to mentally reflect on so that when meditation starts we are more than half finished before we have really begun because our minds are wandering. We would carefully prepare to give even a five minute conference. Why not prepare to appear before the all-holy God.

Fifth. The Church tells religious to practice other exercises of prayer besides all the standard ones we would expect, such as the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours. In the life of every religious there should be the Way of the Cross, Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, novenas, aspirations, and of course, standard vocal prayers.

The sixth aspect, devotion to the Blessed Virgin. Why cultivate this earnest prayer? We are told by the Code that after Christ she is our great exemplar. She practiced chastity, poverty and obedience. She lived the counsels. She, more than any other human being ever on the face of the earth, lived in constant intimacy with Jesus. And most marvelous, the world's greatest contemplative (after Christ Himself) was a woman who worked. We know that she engaged in all the household chores of a wife and mother who was poor. Why should we be devoted to our Lady? Because after her Son, she is our primary pattern and model; as the Code says, she is the great protectress of religious. How religious life needs protection today, and not only from enemies on the outside. No liberated woman she, as "liberation" is nowadays understood. We are told explicitly to cultivate tender devotion to the Mother of God. What, practically speaking, does this devotion to Mary mean?

Devotion to Mary means venerating, invoking, and imitating Mary. It is therefore a composite of three ways of practicing devotion. First, of venerating her. Consider much of the Hail Mary: "Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God..." Every word so far was an act of veneration. We didn't ask her for anything; we just told her with the angel and Elizabeth and the Church how wonderful she is. We recited one title after another. Venerating Mary, then, is praising Mary, honoring and just plain talking to Mary; it is respecting and admiring Mary, speaking well of Mary.

The second level of being devoted to Our Lady is invocation. There are two words that are used interchangeably, and in popular language it makes no difference. But theologically speaking, "invocation" is not quite the same as "intercession". We invoke Mary that she might intercede. Continuing with the Hail Mary: "...Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death." "Pray for us." We are invoking her that she might intercede, for the best of reasons. She stands a better chance of being heard than if we just, on our own, brazenly went up to her Son and told Him, "Lord, I need such-and-such." He might well say, "Have you talked this over with My Mother?" That is invocation.

Finally, imitation is the third element in this triad of devotion to Mary, our striving to imitate her who is our great paradigm, our primary exemplar before God. Of course, there are many virtues that Our Lady has which her Son has, except in a much more exalted degree. But there are two virtues of Our Lady that Jesus did not have. Mary had faith and Mary had trust. Christ did not have to have faith; He had vision. He did not need trustful hope; He possessed, He was the Son of God. When we speak of imitating Our Lady, though we might well go down her Litany and find one virtue after another that is profoundly imitable, these two bear special emphasis. Mary believed. She did not see. The Child that she carried in her womb for nine months she had to believe, as the angel told her, was the Son of the Most High. And the Child helpless and speechless that she held in her arms at Bethlehem, she had to believe was the creator of heaven and earth. And over the centuries, the Church has canonized Saturday as Our Lady's Day, because it commemorates the faith that Mary, more than anyone else, had in her Son, believing what He foretold, that He would rise from the dead.

How she had to trust against all possible odds that, as Elizabeth told her, "You who trusted that all the things the Lord promised you would be fulfilled." How we need trust, in our own lives, in the lives of those we love, for the Church of God which is going through its most grave crisis in all its nineteen centuries of existence.

Finally, the Church tells religious to recite or sing the Liturgy of the Hours. What is liturgical about the Divine Office? Liturgy is the Church's public, official prayer. "Public" and "official" constitute liturgy. When religious are bidden to be faithful to the Liturgy of the Hours, we are being told to join the whole Church throughout the world. The Divine Office is public in every sense of the word, because it is uniform for the whole Catholic Church; because the very words are prescribed and their sequence is legislated; because we are not reciting the Divine Office alone, for the whole believing world is reciting the Hours with us. It is public especially because we join together. The Church prefers that the Divine Office be said with others rather than privately.

Where there are Associates, Affiliates, or Oblates that are related to a Religious Institute, one of the first things that they should be encouraged to do is to recite one or more of the Hours of the Divine Office daily, according to their opportunity.

The Divine Office is mainly public because the intentions for which we are praying are those of the universal Church. The words we use when we say the prayers, the specific purpose of one part of the Divine Office after another, is the common purpose of the Mystical Body of Christ. And we may believe mysteriously that the saints and angels in heaven join us in our recitation of the Hours.

The most important thing that we should remember about the Divine Office is that, after the Eucharist, it is the Church's most solemn form of giving praise to God. The expression "sacrifice of praise" reminds us over the centuries that our most important responsibility as religious before everything else is to praise the Almighty. The Divine Office is mainly intended to give constant praise to God on earth as a precondition for reaching heaven, which is where everyone gives joyful praise to God.

This closing statement is from our Holy Father's address to religious women at the National Shrine in Washington. "The aim of religious life is to render praise and glory to the most Holy Trinity and through your consecration to help humanity enter into fullness of life in the Father and in the Son and in the Holy Spirit. In all your planning, in all your activities, try to keep this aim always before you."

Retreat given to and recorded by the
Handmaids of the Precious Blood

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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