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The "struggle" against God

On June 16, Pope Francis concluded the second part of the catechetical cycle on prayer. "Stronger than any argument to the contrary, in the heart of man there is a voice that cries out."
Paolo Cremonesi

"We are never alone. On the Cross, Jesus prayed for each of us. We have been ‘prayed for’.” With this neologism, to be added to the many others he has coined, on Wednesday June 16, the Pope concluded the second part of the catechetical cycle on prayer, which lasted a year: thirty-eight audiences, which began in mid-2020 when a way out of the pandemic was not yet in sight. Francis proposed a packed itinerary in which figures from the Old Testament were interwoven with the journey of the people of God, testimonies of the Saints with "glimpses" of daily life, the Gospel, and the experiences of the Benedictines and the Fathers of the Church.

"Stronger than any argument to the contrary, in the heart of man there is a voice that cries out," he observed at the beginning of this journey. "We all have this voice within. A voice that comes forth spontaneously without anyone commanding it, a voice that asks itself about the meaning of our journey on earth, especially when we find ourselves in darkness […] ‘beggars before God’. It is a beautiful definition of mankind: ‘beggars before God’!”

A Christian's prayer is a dialogue, not the repetition of formulas: "One can pray like a parrot – blah, blah, blah – but this is not prayer” (May 12). Dwelling on meditation, he added: "When Christians pray, they do not aspire to full self-transparency, they do not seek the deepest centre of the ego. This is legitimate, but the Christian seeks something else. The prayer of the Christian is first of all an encounter with the Other, with a capital ‘O’” (April 28). Prayer, he recalled, is a relationship, a dialogue, an "encounter between the ‘I’ and the ‘You’," which the Church makes a present experience. "Each time we join our hands and open our hearts to God, we find ourselves in the company of anonymous saints and recognized saints who pray with us and who intercede for us as older brothers and sisters who have preceded us on this same human adventure. In the Church there is no grief that is borne in solitude, there are no tears shed in oblivion, because everyone breathes and participates in one common grace" (April 7).

During this catechetical cycle, Francis was not afraid to touch upon uncomfortable topics, such as the experience of praying for healing or for the end of a war, which is apparently not answered: "Even though You, my God, seem to be doing everything to make me stop believing, I still continue to pray to You" (May 19). "We have all experienced this: we have prayed, prayed, for the illness of a friend, of a father, of a mother, and then they were gone. But God did not grant our request! It is an experience we have all had. The Catechism offers us a good summary of the matter. It puts us on guard against the risk of not living an authentic experience of faith, but of transforming the relationship with God into something magical. Prayer is not a magic wand: it is a dialogue with the Lord. Indeed, when we pray we can fall into the risk that it is not we who serve God, but we expect it to be He who serves us (cf. 2735). This is, then, a prayer that is always demanding, that wants to direct events according to our own design, that admits no plans other than our own desires. Jesus, on the other hand, had great wisdom in teaching us the Lord’s Prayer. It is a prayer of questions only, as we know, but the first ones we utter are all on God’s side. They ask for the fulfilment not of our plan, but of his will for the world. Better to leave it to him: “Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done” (May 26). "When he does not grant us a grace, he will grant us another that in time we will see" (May 12). Prayer thus becomes a "struggle" against God (a term much loved by Bergoglio) so much so that he dedicated a specific audience to the theme, on 12 May, in which he recalled the figure of one of his parishioners, when he was bishop in Buenos Aires, who spent the night in prayer before the closed gates of the Shrine of Our Lady of Luján, to ask for the healing of her daughter.

There are many enemies of prayer: distraction, aridity, bitterness, a grey heart. Number 2728 of The Catechism of the Catholic Church provides a detailed list of them. They are the results of a "life makes us rush all the time" (April 28). "Every time we want to pray, we are immediately reminded of many other activities, which at that moment seem more important and more urgent. This happens to me too: I go to pray a little … and no, I must do this and that…. We flee from prayer; I don’t know why, but that is how it is. Almost always, after putting off prayer, we realize that those things were not essential at all, and that we may have wasted time. This is how the Enemy deceives us" (May 12). “None of us,” warns Bergoglio, “is born holy, and when these negative feelings come knocking at the door of our hearts, we must be capable of defusing them with prayer and with God’s words” (April 21).

With what weapons? The Pope reminds us that vocal prayer is the safest and it is always possible to exercise it. Feelings come and go, whereas the prayer of the lips that is whispered or recited in chorus is always available. "We should all have the humility of certain elderly people who, in church, perhaps because their hearing is no longer acute, recite quietly the prayers they learned as children […] they are the oaks that from year to year spread their branches to offer shade to the greatest number of people” (April 21). Francis is particularly fond of the prayer of the Russian pilgrim: "Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner". He mentioned the short prayer in several audiences, recommending that people read The Way of a Pilgrim.

Another path against distraction that he pointed out is that of memory and identification: "Christ is not far away, but is always in a relationship with us. There is no aspect of his divine-human person that cannot become a place of salvation and happiness for us. Every moment of Jesus’ earthly life, through the grace of prayer, can become immediate to us, thanks to the Holy Spirit, the guide […] And thanks to the Holy Spirit, we too are present at the River Jordan when Jesus immerses himself to receive baptism. We too are guests at the wedding at Cana […] We too are astonished onlookers of the thousands of healings performed by the Master. We take the Gospel, and meditate on those mysteries in the Gospel, and the Spirit guides us to being present there. And in prayer — when we pray — we are all like the cleansed leper, the blind Bartimaeus who regains his sight, Lazarus who comes out of the tomb…” (28 April).

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Prayer thus becomes a musical score upon which the melody of life is written. There is no opposition between daily reality and spirit, between contemplation and action: "This may have come from the influence of some Neoplatonic philosopher” (May 5). He added: "Everything in the human being is ‘binary’: our body is symmetrical, we have two arms, two eyes, two hands…And so, work and prayer are also complementary […] The monk’s folded hands bear the calluses o one who holds shovels and hoes" (June 9).

With these catecheses, which together almost constitute an encyclical, Francis wanted to remind the Church of the importance of prayer in such a challenging moment in history. There is a risk of turning it into an organisation of "entrepreneurs of faith […] doing charity and many things" (May 14) and, repeating Jesus' question in Luke's Gospel (18:8), he asked: "When the Son of Man come, will he find faith on the earth?”