In 2014, I’m reading and blogging through Pope Francis/Cardinal Bergoglio’s Open Mind, Faithful Heart: Reflections on Following Jesus. Every Monday, I’ll be writing about the next meditation in the book, so you’re welcome to peruse them all and/or read along.
At the beginning of this week’s chapter, Pope Francis refers to a theologian who argues that prayer exists because we are imperfect and separated from God. If we weren’t sundered by sin, there would be no need to ask for objects or explanations, because we would be a deeper kind of communion with God, and our current forms of prayer would be superfluous.
But, in the world we do live in, prayer must be directed at eventually healing that wound of separation and restoring us to a full relationship with God, thus, for Pope Francis, prayer isn’t just a means of communication but a way of inviting and accepting change and growth.
In each case, flesh is required, for only flesh can be divested and passed through the crucible of contempt, dislodgement, derision, and humiliation…
The obedience required for prayer affects our lives and wounds our flesh. Let me explain. The ordinary conception of prayer is “asking God for things” or “asking God to change situations that are difficult for us.” No doubt, this is true prayer; even the Lord urges us to pray this way. But there is another basis for our prayer, arising from the certainty of our hope, as I mentioned above. Prayer touches the very depths of our flesh; it touches our heart. It is not God who changes; rather it is we who change, through obedience and surrender in prayer.
Pope Francis gives several examples of people being sustained by prayer in extreme circumstances: Abraham with his son, Elijah in his despair, Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. Even as they were tested, because they remained close to God, their trials helped them see their missions more clearly, with greater joy.
One thing that occurred to me, as I read his exegeses, is that prayer strengthens the best part of ourselves, and allows us to go through the crucible of suffering and emerge, purer, on the other side. If we allow our sin to thoroughly pervade us so that it is too bound up in everything that makes us us to be able to even wish (or comprehend the wish) to cast it out, then suffering will just be self-erasure and lead to despair.
But someone who has clung closely to God and strengthened what is most like Christ in themselves (through prayer and the Eucharist), can go through a process of ablation and wind up bringing the best part of themselves to the surface. In the world we live in, where people are internally divided, and, thus, wind up in enmities with other people and the world itself, turbulence and struggle is a given. What prayer provides is a chance to be sustained and refined by difficult circumstances.