April 18, 2018

At 91 years old, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI calls us all to contemplative prayer 

By Deacon Keith Fournier *
Credit: Unsplash
Credit: Unsplash

A book from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI entitled “Teaching and Learning the Love of God: Being a Priest Today” was released on June 29, 2016. It is a collection of homilies (sermons), focused on those called to priesthood. However, it reaches to all who are in holy orders, Bishops, priests and deacons, calling for a deep reflection on the essential role of prayer in ordained ministry. 

Pope Francis wrote a preface for the compilation. He explained why Benedict is such an extraordinary theologian, noting that Benedict lives his life “immersed in God” and practices “theology on his knees.” Francis affirmed that living lives fully immersed in God is a call that “deacons, priests and bishops must never forget.” 

I agree. And, I am so grateful for the continued witness provided to us by the Servant of the Servants of God, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. April 16, 2018 was his 91st Birthday. I must admit, I truly miss Pope Benedict XVI. He is such a holy man and one of the great theologians of the Church. 

His last act of public humility came on February 28, 2013 when he resigned his office to dedicate himself more fully to prayer. The announcement was made to a consistory of his brothers in the episcopate who had gathered in Rome when he approved over 800 causes for canonization. 

The connection was clear. The last Council of the Church reminded us of the universal call to holiness. That call is issued to all members of the Body of Christ and cannot be fulfilled without prayer. 

As I reflect on Benedict XVI, I am reminded of one of my favorite definitions of a theologian. It was offered by a monk of the fourth century named Evagrius of Pontus. He wrote in his "Mirror for Monks:" "The Knowledge of God is the breast of Christ - and whoever rests on it will be a theologian". 

The image evokes the beloved disciple St. John, the author of the fourth Gospel. He is often depicted at the Institution of the Eucharist, the "Last Supper," with his head on the chest of Jesus the Christ. His Gospel narrative was the last to be written and is the most theologically reflective. Clearly, John learned theology “on his knees.”

So it is with our Pope Emeritus, Benedict. How fitting, indeed how fitting that he is now engaged in a form of monastic life within the walls of the Vatican. It moves me deeply to think that this holy priest is praying for the Church – and the world into which she is sent. And, that he is praying for you and for me.  

I remember a beautiful message he gave on March 6, 2012 during the Wednesday audience for the faithful. He explained that silence is necessary to hear the word of God, noting that "our age does not, in fact, favor reflection and contemplation; quite the contrary it seems that people are afraid to detach themselves, even for an instant, from the spate of words and images which mark and fill our days."

He continued, "the Gospels often show us ... Jesus withdrawing alone to a place far from the crowds, even from His own disciples, where He can pray in silence." Moreover, "the great patristic tradition teaches us that the mysteries of Christ are linked to silence, and only in silence can the Word find a place to dwell within us."

"This principle," Benedict explained, "holds true for individual prayer, but also for our liturgies which, to facilitate authentic listening, must also be rich in moments of silence and of non-verbal acceptance. ... Silence has the capacity to open a space in our inner being, a space in which God can dwell, which can ensure that his Word remains within us, and that love for Him is rooted in our minds and hearts, and animates our lives."

He continued, "in our prayers, we often find ourselves facing the silence of God. We almost experience a sense of abandonment; it seems that God does not listen and does not respond. But this silence, as happened to Jesus, does not signify absence. Christians know that the Lord is present and listens, even in moments of darkness and pain, of rejection and solitude. Jesus assures his disciples and each one of us that God is well aware of our needs at every moment of our lives."

"For us, who are so frequently concerned with operational effectiveness and with the results ... we achieve, the prayer of Jesus is a reminder that we need to stop, to experience moments of intimacy with God, 'detaching ourselves' from the turmoil of daily life in order to listen, to return to the 'root' which nourishes and sustains our existence. One of the most beautiful moments of Jesus' prayer is when, faced with the sickness, discomfort and limitations of his interlocutors, he addresses his Father in prayer, thus showing those around him where they must go to seek the source of hope and salvation."

He pointed to the most profound point of the prayer of Jesus to the Father, the moment of his passion and death. Citing the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2606), he explained that "his cry to the Father from the cross encapsulated 'all the troubles, for all time, of humanity enslaved by sin and death, all the petitions and intercessions of salvation history are summed up in this cry of the incarnate Word. Here the Father accepts them and, beyond all hope, answers them by raising his Son. Thus is fulfilled and brought to completion the drama of prayer in the economy of creation and salvation."

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI continues to live his life immersed in God. IN so doing he invites us all to join him - by his example and his teaching. This immersion is made possible by prayer becoming a way of life. 

He is a man of living faith; the kind that gets into the marrow of the bones of a man who truly walks with God, making him strong, steady and unafraid of any adversary. This is precisely because he is a contemplative. He calls all of us to the kind of conversion that comes only through lives immersed in God through prayer. 

No matter our state in life, vocation or career, we are all called to contemplative prayer. In its section on contemplative prayer (CCC #2709-2719) the Catholic Catechism explains: 

“Entering into contemplative prayer is like entering into the Eucharistic liturgy: we ‘gather up:’ the heart, recollect our whole being under the prompting of the Holy Spirit, abide in the dwelling place of the Lord which we are, awaken our faith in order to enter into the presence of him who awaits us. We let our masks fall and turn our hearts back to the Lord who loves us, so as to hand ourselves over to him as an offering to be purified and transformed” (CCC #2711).

Only a Church of holiness, mystery, mission and majesty can accomplish the huge task that lies ahead of us in this new missionary age. The Church that was born from the wounded side of Jesus Christ, who stretched his arms out on the tree of our redemption to embrace the world, is now desperately in need of deep and profound conversion within. Prayer is the sure path to this much needed conversion, and it begins in our own heart. 

Prayer is an ongoing dialogue of intimate communion with God. Prayer is about falling in love with God, over and over again. Isaac of Ninevah was an early eighth century monk, bishop and theologian. For centuries, he was mostly revered in the Eastern Christian Church for his writings on prayer. In the last century the beauty of his insights on prayer are being embraced once again by both lungs, east and west, of the Church. He wrote these words in one of his many treatises on prayer:

"When the Spirit dwells in a person, from the moment in which that person has become prayer, he never leaves him. For the Spirit himself never ceases to pray in him. Whether the person is asleep or awake, prayer never from then on departs from his soul. Whether he is eating or drinking or sleeping or whatever else he is doing, even in deepest sleep, the fragrance of prayer rises without effort in his heart. Prayer never again deserts him.” 

"At every moment of his life, even when it appears to stop, it is secretly at work in him continuously, one of the Fathers, the bearers of Christ, says that prayer is the silence of the pure. For their thoughts are divine motions. The movements of the heart and the intellect that have been purified are the voices full of sweetness with which such people never cease to sing in secret to the hidden God."

Through his incarnation, saving life, death, and resurrection, Jesus opens the way to full communion with God for all men and women. He leads us out of the emptiness and despair that is the rotted fruit of narcissism, nihilism and materialism. When we enter into the dialogue of prayer, we can experience a progressive, dynamic and intimate relationship with God. He transforms us from within. We, as Isaac said, can "become prayer" as we empty ourselves in order to be filled with him.

Through prayer, daily life takes on new meaning. It becomes a classroom of communion. In that classroom we learn the truth about who we are – and who we are becoming – in Jesus. Through prayer we receive new glasses through which we see the true landscape of life. Through prayer darkness is dispelled and the path of progress is illuminated.

Through prayer we begin to understand why this communion seems so elusive at times; as we struggle with our own disordered appetites, and live in a manner at odds with the beauty and order of the creation within which we dwell only to find a new beginning whenever we confess our sin and return to our first love. Prayer opens us up to revelation, expands our capacity to comprehend truth and equips us to change.

Through prayer we are drawn by love into a deepening relationship with Jesus whose loving embrace on the hill of Golgotha bridged heaven with earth; his relationship with his Father is opened now to us; the same Spirit that raised him from the dead begins to give us new life as we are converted, transfigured and made new.

Through prayer, heavenly wisdom is planted in the field of our hearts and we experience a deepening communion with the Trinitarian God. We become, in the words of the Apostle Peter "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Peter 1:4). That participation will only be fully complete when we are with Him in the fullness of his embrace, in resurrected bodies in a new heaven and a new earth, but it begins now, in the grace of this present moment, as we, in a real sense, “become prayer.”

The beloved disciple John became prayer. He writes in the letter he penned in his later years: "See what love the Father has bestowed on us that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God's children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope based on him makes himself pure, as he is pure. Everyone who commits sin commits lawlessness, for sin is lawlessness" (1John 3:1-4).

As we "become prayer" our daily life becomes the field of choice and we are capacitated to choose the "more excellent way" of love of which the great Apostle Paul wrote (1 Cor. 13). Pondering the implications of the exercise of our human freedom becomes a regular part of our life, as we learn to "examine our conscience," repent of our sin and become joyful penitents. Prayer provides the environment for such recollection as it exposes the darkness and helps us surrender it to the light of love, the living God dwelling within us.

"Becoming prayer" is possible for all Christians, no matter their state in life or vocation, because God holds nothing back from those whom he loves. This relationship of communion is initiated by him. Our part is to respond. That response should flow from a heart that beats in surrendered love, in the process of being freed from the entanglements that weigh us down.

The God who is love hungers for the communion of sons and daughters – and we hunger for communion with him – because He made us this way. Nothing else will satisfy. The early Church Father Origen once wrote: "Every spiritual being is, by nature, a temple of God, created to receive into itself the glory of God."

Mother Teresa once wrote: "God is the friend of silence, in that silence he will listen to us; there he will speak to our soul, and there we will hear his voice. The fruit of silence is faith. The fruit of faith is prayer, the fruit of prayer is love, the fruit of love is service and the fruit of service is silence.

"In the silence of the heart God speaks. If you face God in prayer and silence, God will speak to you. Then you will know that you are nothing. It is only when you realize your nothingness, your emptiness, that God can fill you with Himself. Silence gives us a new way of looking at everything. We need this silence in order to touch souls. God is the friend of silence. His language is silence. 'Be still and know that I am God.'" 

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI calls us all to lives immersed in God through prayer. No matter what our state in life or vocation, his invitation awaits our response. It is the best way we can wish him a truly happy birthday.

Deacon Keith A. Fournier is Founder and Chairman of Common Good Foundation and Common Good Alliance. A member of the clergy, a Roman Catholic Deacon, he is also constitutional/ human rights lawyer and public policy advocate who served as the first and founding Executive Director of the American Center for Law and Justice in the nineteen nineties. He has long been active at the intersection of faith, values and culture and currently serves as Special Counsel to Liberty Counsel. Deacon Fournier is also a Senior Contributing Writer for THE STREAM

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.

Latest Videos:

Follow us: