For prayer to develop this power of purification, it must on the one hand be something very personal, an encounter between my intimate self and God, the living God. On the other hand it must be constantly guided and enlightened by the great prayers of the Church and of the saints, by liturgical prayer, in which the Lord teaches us again and again how to pray properly.
Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan, in his book of spiritual exercises, tells us that during his life there were long periods when he was unable to pray and that he would hold fast to the texts of the Church's prayer: the Our Father, the Hail Mary and the prayers of the liturgy. Praying must always involve this intermingling of public and personal prayer.
This is how we can speak to God and how God speaks to us. In this way we undergo those purifications by which we become open to God and are prepared for the service of our fellow human beings. We become capable of the great hope, and thus we become ministers of hope for others. Hope in a Christian sense is always hope for others as well. It is an active hope, in which we struggle to prevent things moving towards the “perverse end”. It is an active hope also in the sense that we keep the world open to God. Only in this way does it continue to be a truly human hope.
Spe Salvi 34
Reflection – We jump ahead in our reading of Spe Salvi now to the section on prayer. I have now done almost the entire encyclical on this blog now, and the whole thing can be found here.
The power of purification in prayer that Pope Benedict writes about here is explained beautifully in the previous paragraph: “When we pray properly we undergo a process of inner purification which opens us up to God and thus to our fellow human beings as well. In prayer we must learn what we can truly ask of God—what is worthy of God. We must learn that we cannot pray against others. We must learn that we cannot ask for the superficial and comfortable things that we desire at this moment—that meager, misplaced hope that leads us away from God. We must learn to purify our desires and our hopes. We must free ourselves from the hidden lies with which we deceive ourselves.”
The Cardinal Van Thuan he refers to here was the Archbishop of Saigon when it fell to the Viet Cong, who spent 20 years imprisoned by them, much of it in solitary confinement. He is the great apostle of hope in our times, and should be much more well known than he is. His books Testimony to Hope and The Road to Hope are modern spiritual classics.
Deprived of his ability to function as a bishop, only able to even celebrate Mass with great difficulty and at great risk, and with little prospect of ever seeing the world outside his prison, he chose to simply live as a Christian within the circumstances he had been given. He strove to love the only neighbors the Lord had provided him with—his jailors. And he strove to pray as best he could each day, and in so doing to deeply entrust his life to the Lord each day. He emerged from his long imprisonment a man transfigured by grace, and ended his years in Rome, a living witness to the power of Christ to redeem the worst and most hopeless situations.
And so we need to really apply this to ourselves, don’t we? Most of us are not so badly off as Cardinal Van Thuan (well, really all of us, since anyone reading this blog post is not languishing in solitary confinement as a victim of religious persecution). But we all can choose to in some way or other lose hope, to focus on those elements of our life that are difficult or painful, that do not seem to be conducive to health and happiness. We can all choose to turn from God, stop praying, despair in His power to redeem our situation. We can all be so sure that the only way we can become joyful is if the painful and difficult things go away, that we miss the gift of God that He is trying to give us in the midst of these painful and difficult things.
And this is losing hope, when we are so determined to find our happiness in this life and in having things as we want them in this life. Meanwhile, God is continually opening us up to this much bigger, much deeper, much more enduring happiness. And it is prayer, the choice to perpetually and continually turn our face and our heart toward God, be it in the liturgical and Scriptural and devotional prayers we have learned or in the simple outpouring of our hearts to God, that continually purifies our hope and makes it grow stronger and more well founded.
And this is our call today—to pray and to let God purify our hearts to seek Him in whatever circumstance we are living in today, good, bad, or something in between. So, let’s get on with that.