Prayer is the lifting up of our hearts and mind to God, a communication of love to deepen our relationship with God. In order to develop any kind of relationship, the parties involved must communicate with one another, which means talking and listening. When one is talking, the other is listening. This is true for human and divine beings. Very often however, we tend to talk to God more than we listen to him, in contrast to what Samuel did who, at the suggestion of Eli said, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:10). Of course, we need to remember that Jesus, who taught us how to pray the “Our Father” and who was in constant dialogue with the Holy Trinity, is our supreme model of an intimate Christian prayer.
Why do we need to pray? Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI describes prayer as a “desire to see God, to experience His mercy and forgiveness, to grow in virtue, and to receive divine help in all that we do.” Our desire to see God and to be in union with Him is written in our hearts. When we turn away from Him because of sin, we receive His mercy and forgiveness through the grace of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. We grow in virtue, by living our faith and keeping His commandments. Moreover, God gives us what we need when we ask for His divine help.
Prayer, therefore, is not just about talking to God. Prayer is about developing a deep relationship with God and, therefore, should include both talking and listening. How do we listen to God? We listen by looking at the beauty of his creation and by life itself trusting that He is there for us even in good and difficult times, and, in stillness, paying attention to what God is telling us. We might just hear the plan that He has for us.
Thus, we need to learn to pray more with authenticity, or in St. Benedict’s words in Chapter 20 of The Rule, to have reverence in prayer, because our life depends upon God. Although Benedict wrote The Rule for the monastic life in the 6th century, we can still glean from it ways in which we can grow in holiness in our everyday life today. Chapter 20 speaks to me very strongly about prayer.
1Whenever we want to ask some favor of a powerful man, we do it humbly and respectfully, for fear of presumption. 2How much more important, then, to lay our petitions before the Lord God of all things with the utmost humility and sincere devotion. 3We must know that God regards our purity of heart and tears of compunction, not our many words. 4Prayer should therefore be short and pure, unless perhaps it is prolonged under the inspiration of divine grace. 5In community, however, prayer should always be brief; and when the superior gives the signal, all should rise together. (The Rule, Chapter 20)
Although Chapter 20 of The Rule seems to focus only on asking God for a favor, St. Benedict offers a few key words which foster reverence in prayer and which help us pray to God with authenticity. These words are: 1) Lord God of all things; 2) humility and sincere devotion, 3) purity of heart, 4) tears of compunction, and 5) short and pure.
Benedict immediately recognizes that God is the source of all things, and, because of His loving care for His creation, He gives us everything we need. He knows what we need, even before we ask. And when we ask, we must do so with an attitude of humility and sincere devotion. How do we cultivate such attitude? St. Benedict suggests that the first step is the fear of God. This means being mindful of God and of His divine providence over all of His creation, whose very existence depends upon Him. We can also grow in humility through an attitude of gratitude for all of God’s blessings. The Psalmist exemplifies this attitude of gratitude by constantly expressing his praise and thanksgiving for God’s wonderful works and enduring love. “I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart; I will tell of all thy wonderful deeds.” (Psalm 9:1)
Benedict begins with the analogy of presenting a petition to “a powerful man” who requires humility and respect, “for fear of presumption.” In real life, and as a sign of humility and respect, we use an intermediary, when we seek a favor from a powerful person, such as a politician, a bishop, or the like. We do so in humility, understanding that we do not rank among their peers. It is, therefore, understandable that, out of respect for the Almighty God, who is the source of all things, we seek intercessors such as the Blessed Mother and all the saints.
Moreover, we need to pray with “sincere devotion.” We need to be aware of God’s presence in prayer, not with many words, but with “purity of heart and tears of compunction.” As Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure of hearts, for they shall see God.” (Matt 5:8)
To be pure of heart is to be detached from material things and in control of our human passion. Of course, such detachment, nowadays, is counter-cultural in our society, which urges us to pursue ever more of material goods. With divine grace, however, we can learn holy detachment. In addition, we need to experience, even with weeping and “tears of compunction” through habitual examination of conscience, true sorrow for our sins. The Sacrament of Reconciliation enables us, not only to experience God’s mercy and forgiveness, but also to grow in virtue and to receive divine help in everything we do.
Benedict ends Chapter 20 by writing that prayer should be “short and pure” unless “prolonged by divine grace.” This suggestion must be about private prayer, because community prayers, such as the Liturgy of the Hours or the Mass are canonically set with times for kneeling, standing, and sitting, as well as common prayer and singing. Monks are to spend time alone with God, engaged in meditation and in the prayerful reading of Scriptures, in order to enter into a deeper relationship with God. This makes them mindful of God’s presence throughout the day. In this way, they “pray without ceasing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:17)
Outside of the monastery, we can also follow Benedict’s suggestion about short and pure prayer. We can set aside regular times of private prayer. A 15-minute prayer time should satisfy Benedict’s short and pure recommendation. Pope Emeritus Benedict has strongly promoted Lectio Divina. Fifteen minutes should provide enough time to read, meditate, pray, and contemplate—the four steps of Benedictine scriptural prayer, which can help in being mindful of God’s presence throughout the day. Of course, our hearts should always be open to “prolonged prayer by divine grace” to hear God’s voice.
Benedict’s rule concerning reverence in prayer makes sense, because we are, indeed, encountering the Almighty God, who holds us in existence. He is also the Source of all things, who, in His divine providence, provides us with everything we need, even before we ask. And when we have to ask, we need not do so with many words, but in humility and with purity of heart. This, according to Benedict, is how we pray with authenticity, with reverence and mindful always of God’s presence.