The Holy Spirit comes to help us in our weakness… (Rom. 8,26)
The American theologian David Tracy once wrote that “there is never an authentic disclosure of truth which is not also transformative.” In other words, we cannot truly encounter God – whether in prayer, in the faces of the poor or in the events of our own life – and remain unchanged. In the final analysis, it is personal transformation that is the test of the authenticity of our encounter with God.
A fascinating example is the present Pope Francis. Paul Vallely, in his intriguing book, Pope Francis – Untying the Knots, traces the remarkable evolution of Jorge Bergoglio from a politically and religiously conservative priest, who initially actively resisted both the radical changes sought by Vatican II to revitalize the Church and the prevailing Liberation Theology in Latin America centered on the option for the poor, to the Pope that would systematically challenge the complacency of an introspective Church and champion ‘a poor Church for poor people.’ Vallely attributes this radical transformation to the lengthy hours of personal prayer that became an integral part of Fr. Bergoglio’s day after a difficult period in his earlier life as a Jesuit. He sees in him “a man who has undergone, if not a religious conversion, then at any rate a deep inner transformation which has wrought a profound and long-lasting change in both his personal and political vision…a man who has become aware of his own frailties and devised, through prolonged prayer, a strategy to handle them.”
Despite his busy schedule, Pope Francis continues to devote up to two hours daily to personal prayer which he speaks of in simple terms:
“Prayer should be an experience of giving way, of surrendering, where our entire being enters into the presence of God…This is where dialogue, listening and transformation begin. Looking at God, but above all sensing that we are being watched by him…Sometimes I allow myself to fall asleep while sitting there and just let him look at me. I have a sense of being in someone else’s hands, as though God were taking me by the hand.”
Francis Libermann shared very similar views on the simplicity of prayer, its importance and its transforming power: “Make your prayer as simple as possible,” he wrote to M. Collin in 1845, “Don’t try to bring in too many ideas or to follow the Sulpician method too closely. Your prayer should consist in simply resting before the Lord in humility and peace” (N.D. VII, 37-38). His own personal experience taught him that people cannot be fitted into a fixed system but that the Holy Spirit leads each one of us individually, according to our own personality, our temperament, our gifts and our weaknesses. God has made us as we are and we have to find our own unique path to God, our own unique way of praying. One of his key insights was that God always comes to meet us in the reality of our situation, God always finds us where we are. It is God who takes the initiative in prayer; we simply have to discover the path along which he is inviting us.
Prayer for Libermann can be described simply as loving attention to God. Love is the measure of the quality of our prayer; it is our attention to God that distinguishes our prayer from all our other daily activities. Although he was aware of the difficulties of climate and fatigue facing his early missionaries in Africa, he nevertheless insisted on an hour of personal prayer each day whatever the demands of their ministry, even if the time spent at prayer seemed of little use: “It costs us a bit to stay a long while at prayer when we are preoccupied with many things throughout the day. These things invade our prayer; the time for the end of the prayer approaches and we are inclined to say that we have wasted an hour of our morning. I could have spent it much more profitably than battling with distractions, I am tempted to say to myself…but if we think that we are greatly mistaken” (N.D. VIII, 398: Letter to the community in Dakar, 1846).
Libermann was convinced of the value of prayer because he was convinced that prayer gradually changes us, or rather that God slowly changes us through prayer, shaping us to be the person he has called us to be. He emphasized that prayer enables us to see God’s action more clearly in our own lives and in the lives of others, to see ourselves and others with God’s eyes; prayer helps us to overcome our faults and weaknesses, freeing us from our compulsions and from oversensitivity to misunderstanding and contradiction; prayer gradually enables us to accept ourselves and our limitations and those of others with patience, gentleness and peace. All of this Libermann learned from his own personal experience. The foundation and early development of his new Society made enormous demands on his time and energy as he battled with ill-health, with criticism and misunderstanding by others and with his own self-belief as he had to face the reality of failure. There were times when he admitted to feeling overwhelmed by it all. It was his practice of ‘examining everything before God,’ of spending time with God on a daily basis, whatever the demands of his work, that helped him to keep things in perspective and gave him the energy to continue. It was in prayer that he found light, patience, and serenity.
“Prophetic action is the public face of mysticism,” wrote Sr. Sandra Schneiders. “Only a life of ever deepening and faithful contemplation can keep the prophet attuned to the dream of a suffering God for humanity and the earth.” Ultimately the encounter with God in prayer would lead both Jorge Bergoglio and Francis Libermann to a profound love for the poor, to share a worldview seen from the perspective of the marginalized and excluded, and to a deep commitment to create a more equal world where the dignity of all is respected and treasured. “If you are full of the love of God … you will be profoundly touched at the sight of the misery of the people among whom you find yourself; consequently it will be in your thoughts always, day and night; you will be weary to the point of exhaustion. You will pray to God to enlighten you and to touch them; you will look for a way to bring them out of this blindness and without a doubt you will find a thousand ways of procuring the good of these souls…”(Provisional Rule, Chapter 10, Article VIII, Glossary).
Prayer then is not a peripheral activity for us as Spiritans, relegated to occasional free moments in an otherwise very busy schedule; it is at the very heart of our mission to serve the poor in the footsteps of our Founders.
“Let us cultivate the contemplative dimension, even amid the whirlwind of more urgent and heavy duties. And the more mission calls you to go out to the margins of existence, let your heart be more closely united to Christ’s heart, full of mercy and love,” urges Pope Francis.
May the Spirit of Pentecost come to help us in our weakness when we do not know how to pray as we ought to ; may the Spirit continue to shape our personal and community lives (SRL 10), lead us along new missionary paths (SRL 85) and enable us to hear his voice speaking to us through the Church, through our environment and the world in which we live (SRL 44.1).
Fr. John Fogarty, C.S.Sp