A Prolegomena to Prayer. Part VIII.

A Prolegomena to Prayer. Part VIII. June 23, 2010

Part VII

With all that has been said, there is, nonetheless, another aspect of prayer, briefly mentioned throughout, which must be acknowledged a bit further. This is the concept of communal prayer, for it connects us to the sacraments, such as in the celebration of the eucharist (which will be our main example here of communal prayer). What we have described about prayer is especially true about the sacraments. They are a means of grace given to us; if and when we open ourselves up to them, they are actively transforming us beyond our own abilities, as Dumitru Staniloae suggests:

The sacraments themselves do not give us graces of a static kind, virtues or benefits which are limited and kept carefully enclosed within their present borders so that we can show them to God on the day of judgment neatly preserved, like the unproductive talent in the Gospel parable. The sacraments have a prophetic character, a ‘sacramental prophetisim’ as the Reformed theologian von Allmen puts it, perhaps in a too exclusively eschatological sense. They give us powers which have to be developed and which are meant to lead us towards final perfection by ever more advanced spiritual stages.[1]

What we find in the celebration of the eucharist (and the other sacraments) is that prayer does not have to be, and is not meant to be, limited to mere individualistic practices, where prayer is done by an individual without connection to anyone else. Rather, prayer is to be done by a person who understands that their existence as a person is relational, and their existence is interdependent upon others. God’s grace can work in through others to reach us, such as in the sacrament of confession, though of course, we must still open ourselves up and accept that grace, and recognize it when God is indeed working through others.[2] As we see in the Trinity, the way we are to communicate and relate to each other is by love, where we give ourselves to others without concern of the individuated self. The goal is unity in the body of Christ, the Church, Divine-Humanity, where we maintain our personal differences and yet share with each other our unique traits as gifts of love. We truly enter into communion with each other as we communicate with God.  Thus John D. Zizioulas says, “The mystery of being a person lies in the fact that here otherness and communion are not in contradiction but coincide. Truth as communion does not lead to the dissolving of the diversity of beings into one vast ocean of being, but to the affirmation of the otherness in and through love.”[3] This is possible not only because we share a common nature, but because we are incorporated into Christ through the Holy Spirit.

The liturgical celebration of the eucharist is a special and central kind of prayer. It is given to us by Jesus, who has given us promises of extraordinary graces if we follow through and participate in it. As Fr. Robert Taft writers, “Sacrament, that is, liturgy, is the existential, common expression of God’s self-giving in Christ. It is a theophany, a breaking into the ordinary of an extraordinary manifestation of Christ as being-in-his-Body, the Church. It makes the inner experience of the life of faith transparent, visible.” [4] We must remember, God has revealed himself to us in the incarnation, and as such, he has also prepared us for communion with him, communication with him, but communicating to us his express desires in and through Jesus, who is himself the Word of God made flesh. Thus, just as we might learn from our parents table manners, so we know that if we want to receive salt at the table, we ask someone to pass for it. Likewise, we have been taught and guaranteed that if we follow Jesus’ example at his table, the Last Supper, we will be participating in the gift of his body and blood, so that we can be united in him. In this way, we are to become his body on earth. This participation in Christ, in the bread of life, is what confirms upon us eternal existence. Our life is given to us by God, but the proper mode of that life, where it truly is as life, spiritual life, is in communion with God, and this communion is promised to us by Christ himself:

The identification of existence with life through the idea of immortality and incorruptibility will lead naturally into trinitarian theology. If incorruptibility is possible only in and through communion with the life of God Himself, creation or being can exist and live only insofar as the source of being — God– is Himself life and communion. The eucharistic experience implies that life is imparted and actualized only in an event of communion, and thus creation and existence in general can be founded only upon this living God of communion.[5]

Liturgical celebration is based upon the eternal, heavenly worship, and in this way, it is the manifestation of heaven on earth. It brings us together, with all our earthly imperfections, and lets us imitate the perfection to come, where we will together as one celebrate the love of God for us. We come to this celebration knowing full well that God’s love for us, shown in Christ, attracts us and brings us in to God — God loved us first, and it is only because he loved us first that we are capable of loving him back. In the liturgy, as in eternity, we partake of Christ. We become one with him and each other in the eucharist, realizing within our lives the transcendent glory of the eschaton has been immanentized in our lives. “The eucharistic miracle, without any physical transformation, identifies earthly nourishment with the heavenly corporeality of Christ. It is precisely the corporeality, even if heavenly, which makes possible Communion in which each member of the faithful is united to Christ, both spiritual and corporally.”[6] This miracle is possible because of the work of the Spirit. It was the Spirit who vivified the body of Christ in his conception, and it is the Spirit who continues to vivify it and offer it to us, so that in the feast, we can become one with the body of Christ:

The one who makes a single Body of all the faithful, each endowed with his own different gift, is the Holy Spirit. He binds men to one another and creates in each an awareness of belonging to all the rest. He impresses on the faithful the conviction that the gift of each exists for the sake of the others; the Spirit is the spiritual bond between men, the integrating force which unites the whole, the power of cohesion in the community.[7]

It is important to remember that communion which brings us together into the Body of Christ only if we do as he said, if we eat and drink the gift of his self to us. “The presence of Christ in the Eucharist has a very specific purpose which defines and conditions it. It is that Christ be united with the faithful in giving himself as food. Communion with Christ who is present is not fulfilled except in the very act of eating and drinking.”[8] By becoming one with Christ, as a community and not as individuals, we see how the Church becomes the continued presence of Christ into the world, where the eschaton remains in history and remains active in history through us. “The application of Christ’s existence to ours then amounts to nothing other than a realization of the community of the Church. This community is born as the Body of Christ and lives out the same communion which we find in Christ’s historical existence.”[9] This explains the role of the Church in history: it is the sacrament of Christ in the world.[10] We are called to be a part of the Body and Christ. The more we open up to Christ, and allow Christ to transform us into a member of his body, the more we will manifest the work of Christ in the world. The saints are those who have so opened themselves up to Christ, so united themselves with Christ, that the work of the Spirit becomes clear and they truly are ‘christs’ in Christ.

Fr. Taft reminds us that what is done during our liturgical services presupposes the approach God made first toward us; his grace is not meant to be used selfishly, where we take it in for ourselves and do not let others have it; it is, rather, by its nature as a gift of love, meant to be shared, in and out of the liturgy. “Hence liturgy is not just ritual, not just cult, not just worship we offer God. It is first of all God’s coming to us in Christ. Nor is it individual or narcissistic, for it is also a ministry of each one of us to one another.”[11] Thus, we find liturgical celebration to be the perfect representation of prayer, as expressed by Danielou:

We pray in order to please God, not to please ourselves. Although prayer is essentially an act of love for God, it is possible to make it a subtle form of self-seeking. Prayer is a means of bearing witness to God: by this act, which is sometimes difficult, we demonstrate to him that we prayer his will to our own. We give him the part of ourselves that belongs to him.[12]

Thus, we should understand the importance of Christian solidarity. It is necessary for us to be united, so that our mission in the world is not put into jeopardy. We are called to continue the work of Christ in the transformation of the world, and this is possible only if we continue to open ourselves to Christ and to be transformed by him into his body on earth as we transform the world around us. It is as Oscar Romero said: as we receive the grace of Christ in the sacraments, our commitment to justice in the world should grow. “We also remind them of the duty of expressing their faith in loyal solidarity with the church and openness to the transcendence of God through the sacramental signs of his grace, through prayer and meditation on the word of God. This is the only way to ensure that a commitment to justice and the Christian political vocation grow in tandem.”[13] If  we become more desirous for doing the work of God in the world, we can see that as a sign that God’s grace is at work in our lives, even if in the hidden recesses of our being.

With all that has been said, we must be careful and not misunderstand liturgy. Our celebration must not be confused as a “magical rite,” even if there are similarities to liturgical ritual and magic. “Rationalism easily discovers ‘magic’ here, or pagan superstition, because it seems to confine the force of Christianity to the limits of the spiritual world of man. But man is a spirit incarnated, a cosmic being; the cosmos lives in him, it is sanctified in him, for the Lord is not only Saviour of souls, but of bodies, also, and consequently of the entire world.”[14] Our celebration is based upon the free act of God, who, by the Spirit, energizes our work because he desires to do so. And, unlike what one finds with magic, liturgical celebration is not about an attempt to control the world so that our will be done, but rather, about our own dying to the self, and how that allows us to be servants of God, so that his will can be done on earth, even as it is in heaven. It is not our will, but his, which is to be manifested, and his will is for the betterment of the world, for its own good, and not for its objectification so that it can be used and abused to satisfy our inordinate passions.


[1] Dumitru Staniloae, Theology and the Church. trans. Robert Barringer (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1980), 178.

[2] We must understand that what is normative for us does not have to be, however, the only way God can and does act. We know that he acts through the sacrament of confession, and we are promised a kind of grace from it if we follow it through. This promise is an aid for us. However, this does not limit God’s ability to work with and through others in other, extraordinary ways. Confession is normative and helps us move to a full contrition and purification; however, as Catholic theology knows, one who has full contrition for sins will receive God’s forgiving grace; confession allows us to receive forgiveness even without full contrition, and in doing so, helps lead us to that full contrition. Forgiveness in the sacrament comes with a penance to help move us forward, to get us out of our rut, so that we can attain full and perfect contrition. Beyond that, we must understand how the sacrament of confession itself is the sacrament par excellence for opening us up from our self-created walls of sin, because it helps break them down, showing them for the unstable, deficient nature they are. “Sin is intrinsically unstable. The unity of impurity is illusory, and the illusoriness of this pseudo-unity is revealed as soon as it is compelled to confront the Good face to face. The impure is united as long as the Pure is not present, but the mask of unity is torn from the impure at the mere approach of the Pure. This dissolution of the impure, this self-decomposition of the ‘nauseating power’ is graphically portrayed in the tale of the healing of the Gadarene man who was possessed by an unclean spirit. It is worth noting that the singular number of the unclean power is suddenly changed into a plural number as soon as the Lord Jesus asks this power what its name is, i.e., when He asks it what its hidden essence is,” Pavel Florensky, The Pillar and Ground of the Truth. trans. Boris Jakim (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), 135.

[3] John D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997), 106.

[4] Robert Taft, S.J., “What Does Liturgy Do? Toward a Soteriology of Liturgical Celebration: Some Theses” in Beyond East and West: Problems in Liturgical Understanding (Rome: Pontificio Institutio Orientale, 2001), 254.

[5] John D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion, 82.

[6] Paul Evdokimov, “The Eucharist — Mystery of the Church” in In the World, Of the Church. trans. Michael Plekon and Alexis Vinogradov (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001), 253.

[7] Dumitru Staniloae, Theology and the Church, 54.

[8] Paul Evdokimov, “The Eucharist — Mystery of the Church,” 254.

[9] John D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion, 114.

[10] “Amid this universal chorus Christianity alone continues to assert the transcendent destiny of man and the common destiny of mankind. The whole history of the world is a preparation for this destiny. From the first creation to the last end, through material opposition and the more serious opposition of created freedom, a divine plan is in operation, accomplishing its successive stages among which the Incarnation stands out as chief,” Henri de Lubac, Catholicism. trans. Lancelot C. Sheppard and Sister Elizabeth Englund, OCD (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 140-1.

[11] Robert Taft, S.J., “What Does Liturgy Do,” 225.

[12] Jean Danielou, Prayer, 13-4. It pleases God, because, as we said above, God loves us and all lovers are pleased when that love is returned.

[13] Oscar Romero, “Third Pastoral Letter” in Voice of the Voiceless. Trans. Michael J. Walsh (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2000), 102.

[14] Sergius Bulgakov, The Orthodox Church. trans. Lydia Kesich (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1988), 137.

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