Quick Lessons from the Catechism – What is Prayer?

Since today is the National Day of Prayer here in the United States of America, and since I have not written a Quick Lessons from the Catechism (QLC) in many months, I thought I would quickly review with you what the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) says about prayer. Now it should be noted, the entire last section of the Catechism focuses on Christian prayer. It should also be noted that I have written on other aspects of prayer in the past. You can check those out on the QLC page on this website.

Recently, I have had two excellent experiences with prayer – first, was on Monday night with my Brother Knights of Knights of Columbus. Since it is May – the month of Mary, I thought it would be good to get together and pray the Holy Rosary. We had 32 men show up to pray the Rosary. It was pretty awesome to pray the Holy Rosary with so many Brothers. Because they enjoyed it so much, this is going to become a regular prayer gathering before our monthly meetings.

Second, during the Season of Lent and into the Easter Season, I have been praying the Liturgy of the Hours (Divine Office), which is actually the official prayer of the Catholic Church. Priests and Religious are required to pray it daily. What I have been doing, since it is bit difficult to get into a habit on your own (most times it is said in community), is that I try to pray 1-2 offices a day (morning prayer/daytime prayer/evening prayer/night prayer). Personally, I have found that when I do pray it, my day is more complete and my relationship is better that day with Christ and His Church. The app, iBreviary, is a great way to start praying the Liturgy of the Hours without purchasing the four-volume set.

Sassoferrato – Virgin Mother

Now let’s quickly examine what the Catechism says about the question – What is Prayer? The CCC answers the question directly with a quote from St. Therese of Lisieux –

“For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.”

Furthermore, the Catechism says,

“Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God” (St. John Damascene, De fide orth. 3, 24:PG 94, 1089C). [#2590]

God tirelessly calls each person to this mysterious encounter with Himself. Prayer unfolds throughout the whole history of salvation as a reciprocal call between God and man. [#2591]

The prayer of Abraham and Jacob is presented as a battle of faith marked by trust in God’s faithfulness and by certitude in the victory promised to perseverance. [#2592]

The prayer of Moses responds to the living God’s initiative for the salvation of his people. It foreshadows the prayer of intercession of the unique mediator, Christ Jesus. [#2593]

The prayer of the People of God flourished in the shadow of the dwelling place of God’s presence on earth, the ark of the covenant and the Temple, under the guidance of their shepherds, especially King David, and of the prophets. [#2594]

The prophets summoned the people to conversion of heart and, while zealously seeking the face of God, like Elijah, they interceded for the people. [#2595]

The Psalms constitute the masterwork of prayer in the Old Testament. They present two inseparable qualities: the personal, and the communal. They extend to all dimensions of history, recalling God’s promises already fulfilled and looking for the coming of the Messiah. [#2596]

Prayed and fulfilled in Christ, the Psalms are an essential and permanent element of the prayer of the Church. They are suitable for men of every condition and time. [#2597]

For a more complete understanding, I would encourage you to read paragraphs 2558-2589. If you are looking for Catholic prayers, here is EWTN’s page on Prayer. If you are interested in learning more about the Liturgy of the Hours, you can read about it here.

Psalm 51 – Have Mercy on Me, O God…

Now that we are officially into the season of Lent, I wanted to write on something that would be beneficial to this Lenten season and really anytime we have sinned and are seeking forgiveness. As I was praying before Mass on Ash Wednesday, my next blog post was on my mind. I opened up my Daily Roman Missal and read that Psalm 51 was going to be the Psalm for the day and the two days to follow.

Honestly, I love this psalm! It’s by far one my favorite psalms in the Psalter. This psalm was always a favorite of mine, but after taking a class in graduate school on the Psalms with Dr. John Bergsma, this scripture text became even more fruitful for me. It’s the perfect psalm to begin the Lenten Season since its focus is on repentance and forgiveness.

Psalm 51, the Miserere, is one of the most popular psalms in the Psalter (prayed every Friday in the Liturgy of the Hours), yet it is also one of the most difficult psalms to pray because of it’s nature – it’s a song about sin and asking for forgiveness. It’s a prayer that focuses on guilt and God’s grace. I don’t know about you, but these are topics I tend to avoid because it’s hard to admit at times my own faults and sins.

Over the centuries, this psalm has been on the lips of many Jews and Christians seeking repentance for their sins, but historically, this psalm was more than likely composed by King David after he committed the sin of carnal knowledge with Bathsheba (the prophet Nathan called him out). In Psalm 51, we see David as the Repentant Sinner. Over the past two years teaching high school theology, at least one of my students understands the exact time this psalm should be recited for us Catholics – before or after receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

In Psalm 51:1-2, David feels the magnitude of his guilt and is very sick from the sin he just committed.  He prays fervently that God will not take his mercy from him – “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your merciful love, according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!”

Now it should be understood that term mercy is translated in the Hebrew as hesed (covenant love/fidelity).  I spoke about this term in the reflection on Psalm 41. David is hoping that God will not take away his hesed from him. If you replace the term hesed or covenant love for the word mercy the entire two verses completely change – try it now. David does not want God to take away the love that he established with him when he formed the covenant in 2 Samuel 7.  David is fearful that God will remove his hesed from him. Those of you that are familiar with the words that a priest says in Mass before the Consecration should know verse 2 very well – “wash me of my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.” He says this as he is washing his hands just before he consecrates the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.

In verses 3-6, David continues to ask for repentance. He is aware of his sins and clearly sees them. It’s not just the sin with Bathsheba that is the issue, but that he has offended the hesed that God has given to him. In verse 5, David speaks of the sin he was conceived in. As Christians, we clearly see this at the doctrine of original sin that is taught by the Church.  David is fully aware that God has given him the intellect to know that he has sinned and the ability to confess his sin and make amends.

In Verses 7-9, David continues to ask for forgiveness and to be healed of the illness that has overtaken his life. Now there is an interesting statement in verse 7 – “purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean.” A hyssop was a brush like branch that grew in the Middle East. The Israelites used the branch to spread the blood of the lamb on the doorposts before the Death of the Firstborn (the last plague) in Egypt and it’s also used to lift up a sponge filled with wine to Jesus while he is on the cross. David is either using the branch to sprinkle water upon himself as a ritual cleaning or maybe he is using the branch as mortification and he is purging himself as penance for the sins he committed.

As Catholics we may no longer use physical mortifications as penance as much, but when we do our penance after the Sacrament of Confession, we are mortifying ourselves from the sins we just confessed. At times and depending on the severity our sins, this is very painful.

In verses 10-12, we see David seeking not only a physical healing from his sins, but he seeks an internal healing as well when he says, “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.” He seeks God’s loyalty and wants a heart, a heart that is circumcised (Dt 30:6) and made new. Simply, he wants to remain in God’s presence! Blessed John Paul II says in his book, Psalms and Canticles, “The Psalm, however, was enriched in later centuries, by the prayer of so many sinners, who recovered the themes of the “new heart” and of the “Spirit” of God placed within the redeemed human person, according to the teaching of the Prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel.”

For us a Catholics, after the Sacrament of Reconciliation, not only are we healed physically because our sins hurt the Body of Christ, but we are also healed internally and souls are made new. We walk out of the “Medicine Box” as saints!

In verses 13-17, David vows to make God’s ways known to all men. He desires to speak of God and to praise him in all that does, even in the face of those who despise him. After committing this terrible sin, David seeks to do contrition. As Catholics, we say an Act of Contrition in the Sacrament of Reconciliation to confess all that we have done, give praise back to God, and to avoid sin and the near occasion of sin. Just as David said his contrition to God, so must our contrition be said to God as well.

Verses 18-19 were more than likely added on at a later date during the rule of Nebuchadnezzar after the Temple had been destroyed and the city of Jerusalem set in ruin.

This is an important psalm that should be read and prayed more often, especially during the Lenten Season. I would encourage you to place these words on the lips of our Lord Jesus Christ while he suffers and dies for our sins on the cross.  As I stated above, this is a great psalm when entering or exiting the Sacrament of Confession.

As Catholics, we should look to the great saint and Doctor of the Church, St. Augustine, who could have prayed this psalm many times during his conversion to the Catholic Church – “I know my fault; my sin is always before me…my sacrifice is a contrite spirit…a new heart create in me, O God…”

May this Lent be fruitful and filled with God’s blessings.

Conscience Formation 103

In the previous two posts, I spoke about what conscience is not (see CF 101 – below) and what conscience is (see CF 102 – below). Now I want to focus my attention on how the conscience works. In our daily lives, most of the decisions we make come very easily; they are habitual. A virtue, according to CCC 1803,  “is an firm and habitual disposition to do the good.” Not only will a person perform acts well, but also the best of who he is will come through.  On the flip side of virtue, we have vice. A vice is a bad habit that pushes us to bad/evil choices.

Virtue and vice can slightly be compared to the Jedi and Sith philosophies in the Star Wars films. The Jedis were the more virtuous of the two since most of their decisions were well thought out, they lived for others, and they always tried to choose the good in all situations. The Sith were ones of vice and often chose evil things such as killing all the Jedis or conquering the entire universe. They were always about themselves as we see clearly in Return of the Jedi and how the Emperor has no concern for Vader or Luke. Not all Jedis were virtuous such as the case of Anakin Skywalker (see Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith). Anakin Skywalker was never virtuous, struggled with his many vices, and they eventually lead him to Darth Vader.  Anakin was given chance again and again to mend his ways, but chose not to and ended up in vice rather than virtue. Many of his choices contradicted the Jedi philosophy and he could never conform his behavior to do the good.

Although most of our decisions tend to be habitual, there is an importance for us to learn how to be virtuous in all that we do (let me tell you…it’s not easy). The virtues are like “spiritual muscles” that help us grow in responsible acts without any effort at all. Our bad habits, which we must learn to identify first, have to be avoided at all cost. Our bad habits will only be overcome with the grace of God. For us Catholics, we have the great Sacrament of Reconciliation (and the other sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist) that dispense grace upon us. Learning to be virtuous and avoiding vices are part of our spiritual training at Catholic Christians and a major characteristic of forming our Christian consciences.

Most of our daily decisions are made with ease habitually, but what about those major decisions, those important decisions that take time to deliberate and could have a monumental impact on our conscience? What do we do then?

When making those major decisions we must deliberate, choose, perform, and assess. As I stated in CF 102 (see below), Blessed John Paul II said that conscience is not a decision, but a judgment made with the intellect. Our conscience is about the discovery of objective truth, not about feelings and emotions. Emotions and feelings come and go. A fundamental element of Catholic morality is to inform our consciences and to continue inform them by careful deliberation. Before we make a major decision, we must gather all the information about the decision at hand and consider all the good and bad consequences that will stem from this decision. We should keep in account the Golden Rule, love your neighbor as yourself, and understand that evil actions will not produce a good result. In deliberation, we should look towards those individuals that have mentored us in the past as well as the teachings of Jesus Christ that are safeguarded in the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. Our decisions as Catholic Christians should be in conformity with that of Jesus Christ and his Church.

After deliberation, we should then choose the best course of action that reflects Jesus Christ and person that we are as God’s creation. A key factor in the choosing step is PRAYER. Prayer allows us to communicate with God and He with us. Prayer aids us to remember that we are created in God’s image and dignity. It also slows us down to focus on him and the decision at hand. Listening to God helps us make rational decisions and not just go with our gut or what feels good at the moment. There is an old saying – God gave us one mouth and two ears. Its is so we will listen twice as much than we talk. We should that the Holy Spirit will direct us towards God’s will for our lives.

Once a choice has been established, we must now perform the action. In this step, we see the importance of responsibility coming into play. Listening to our conscience is important because if we go against our conscience, we sin. We should never react here. Temperance (self-control) is a fundamental aspect of this step. We must always be as mature as possible. Being responsible and staying the course is the most difficult part of this entire process.

The last step in our conscience formation process is to assess our actions. Our conscience is not just about deliberating, choosing, and performing the actions we will perform, but it also aids in the actions that we have already committed. When we follow the steps given above, our conscience will be clear for we know we made good choices, the virtuous choices. If we have not made the correct decision, our conscience will let us know by calling us to reconciliation and penance.

If you pray the Liturgy of Hours (official prayer of the Catholic Church), Night Prayer includes an Examination of Conscience. It’s here where we can review the day and examine our good decisions and actions that contrasted those decisions. You don’t have to pray the Liturgy of Hours to do this either. Making a simple examination a “habit” will ensure that your day was reviewed before you laid your head to rest. It will also help you to grow in holiness and to do God’s will in your life.

As Christians with God’s help, we must form our conscience, continue to form it and to follow it. The formation of our conscience is a life long process and it is not always correct. Blessed John Paul II in Veritatis splendor said, “conscience is not an infallible judgment, it can make mistakes.”

After this post, you should understand more clearly why the HHS Mandate from the Obama Administration is such an evil proclamation that violates our religious freedom (this is the BIG issue).  As Catholics, we know by our consciences that sterilization, contraceptives, and abortifacients are intrinsically evil – that means they are always wrong! How does the Obama Administration want us to violate our consciences when we clearly see these methods as evil?! This is what Cardinal-Elect Timothy Dolan meant when he said that the President has given us a year to violate our consciences. As Catholics who should be forming our consciences, we must stand up against this tyranny that is upon us. Thomas J. Olmsted, Bishop of Phoenix said in his letter to the Diocese of Phoenix, “We cannot- we will not – comply with this unjust law.”