The issue of prayer is not prayer; the issue of prayer is God. One cannot pray unless he has faith in his own ability to accost the infinite, merciful, eternal God. —Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man’s Quest for God (Hudson River, 1981)
As Catholics, we have a long tradition of prayer. And in our relationships with God we are invited to “talk things over” constantly. This dialogue is one of faith, an abiding trust that God speaks to us in scripture, through the sacraments, in community, in ordinary, everyday experiences. And we are called to respond to this communication with praise and thanksgiving, petitions and pleas for mercy.
“Prayer . . . is communication, in which God’s word has the initiative, and we, at first, are simply listeners,” wrote the late Swiss Catholic Cardinal Hans Urs von Balthasar in his book Prayer. It is good to be reminded of this fact so that we realize our response is to God’s initiative in our lives. But our response often takes the shape of formal prayer, expressing what we believe, how we feel, and how we might respond. Here are five traditional Catholic prayers that are well worth memorizing since they contain both a basic wisdom and express a tender faith.
Saint Richard of Chichester
Thanks be to Thee, my Lord Jesus Christ,
for all the benefits which Thou hast given me, for me,
O most merciful friend, redeemer and brother.
May I see Thee more clearly,
love Thee more dearly
and follow Thee more nearly.
This prayer is both an expression of the centrality of Jesus in the Christian life as well as a formulation of a triple desire regarding one’s relationship with the Lord.
If you were asked, “Who is the lord of your life?” what would your response be? One possible answer as a pragmatic, democratic American would be: “No one is the lord of my life.” Our individual freedom is so stressed that allegiance is given to no one, except perhaps our own ego. But this prayer expresses gratitude to Jesus, Lord, friend, redeemer, and brother for two reasons: all the benefits and blessings that we have gratuitously received and the mystery that Jesus suffered and died for our salvation.
Richard’s prayer is an affirmation of the mystery of the incarnation and redemption. It is a song of thanksgiving for the Paschal Mystery through which we have been given our freedom: the forgiveness of our sins.
This prayer is filled with longing, with the desire to see, love, and follow in the way of the Lord. It is a prayer of discipleship by which we yearn to put on the mind and heart of Christ. Also note carefully Richard’s use of the adverbs clearly, dearly, and nearly (my mother once said that you can tell educated people by their use of adverbs). These are common enough modifiers, but when directed toward the Lord they take on added significance.
Warning: pray this prayer daily from the heart and your life will change in a profound way. Gratitude does lead to joyful generosity and desires do foster enlargement of the heart. As Jesuit Father Thomas Green says, “Prayer is the loving that flows from a deeper and deeper knowing.”
Prayer from the Divine Office
Direct, we beseech thee, O Lord, all our actions
by thy holy inspiration, and carry them on by
thy gracious assistance so that every prayer and
work of ours may begin always from thee and
through thee be happily ended.
Every morning our Latin teacher would begin class with this prayer. But not in English! Within two weeks we all had to stand and recite this petition to the Lord. The words are still lodged in my memory: Actiones nostras, quaesumus, Domine, aspirando praeveni, et adjuvando prosequere: ut cuncta nostra oratio et operatio a te semper incipiat, et per te coepta finiatur.
Looking back on this experience I am truly grateful (at the time, I was not). In one sentence we have a rich theology and an expression of deep faith. This prayer also emphasizes the importance of how we begin and end the events of our lives.
At times our work and our prayer do not arise out of God’s inspiration but rather through our own willfulness. This petition is asking God to truly inspire us, to guide us toward what is true, good, and beautiful. The assumption here is that the Holy Spirit is always available as we make decisions that shape our lives and human history. As in the Book of Genesis, the Spirit hovers over us with gifts of wisdom, sensitivity, and courage to be true disciples of the Lord.
Things may begin well but not necessarily end in happiness and peace. Marriages begun in love do break up; religious commitments begun with dedication and consecration can go awry; an opening birdie on the golf course can be forgotten with a triple bogey on number 18. Our God is not only a creator bringing us into existence. Our God is providential love who wills that we further the kingdom in all we do and say. And as every pilot knows, beginnings and endings are crucial.
Then there is the in-between. The meal begins with “Bless us, O Lord . . .” and ends with “We give you thanks . . .” We also need to be aware of the Lord’s presence during the conversation. The pilot needs to use his or her expertise not just in taking off from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport and landing at New York City’s La Guardia but also during the entire flight. This prayer from the Divine Office helps us to remember that God is with us at all times: beginnings, middles, and ends.
This prayer has a universality about it. We seek God’s direction at all times, in every place—doing the laundry, changing diapers, hoeing the garden, painting a picture, scrubbing for surgery, correcting homework, fixing the kitchen sink, changing a tire, and kneeling to say our nightly prayers.
In the preface of the Mass we proclaim that “it is our duty and our salvation, always and everywhere to give you thanks . . .” We do that precisely because God always and everywhere sends the Spirit to enlighten our minds and enable our wills to do what is right and just.
Prayer to Mary: the Memorare
Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known
that anyone who fled to thy protection, implored thy help, or sought
thy intercession, was left unaided.
Inspired by this confidence, I fly unto thee, O Virgin of virgins,
my mother: to thee I come, before thee
I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate,
despise not my petitions, but in thy mercy hear and answer me. Amen.
During the Second Vatican Council, lengthy discussions were held regarding Mary’s place in the church. A decision had to be made: Would the council write a separate document dealing with Mary or would a theology of Mary be placed in a broader context? As we now know, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, one of 16 documents of Vatican II, addressed “The Role of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God, in the Mystery of Christ and the Church” in Chapter Eight. This document encourages us to turn to Mary for assistance, since she mirrors so powerfully the central truths of our faith and two particular virtues that are central to discipleship: obedience and self-giving. Mary indeed is a sure sign of hope.
The Memorare has been part of the Catholic tradition for centuries. It is a prayer of supreme confidence and trust in Mary as our intercessor. It is also a prayer of honesty and humility. We come before Mary with our sins and our sorrow. In a culture in which sin is often denied, we must have the wisdom to face our darkness and selfishness. We come before Mary as we are, and she embraces us as such. No need for pretense here.
In the Vatican II document, we are told that by her maternal charity Mary cares for all the followers of Christ who “still journey on earth surrounded by dangers and difficulties.” As we confront the dangers of war and illness, the difficulties of strained relationships and unemployment, we turn to Mary knowing that she will intercede for us that we might receive the graces we need to change our situation or to endure that which we must suffer. We are not alone. The Memorare is an excellent prayer to deepen our faith and live more fully the gospel call.
Soul of Christ, sanctify me.
Body of Christ, save me.
Blood of Christ, fill me.
Water from the side of Christ, wash me.
Passion of Christ, strengthen me.
O good Jesus, hear me.
Within Thy wounds hide me.
Never permit me to be separated from Thee.
From the wicked enemy defend me.
At the hour of death call me
And bid me come unto Thee,
That with Thy saints I may praise Thee
For ever and ever. Amen.
The moments after receiving our Lord in the Eucharist are precious. One way to remain focused and attuned to the presence of Jesus within us is to recite the Anima Christi. Said slowly, thoughtfully, and prayerfully, this prayer can help us deepen our union with Christ in profound ways.
The focus is on the Lord—on his passion, death, and love. In this sacrament of Real Presence, we encounter here and now the risen Christ who does many things according to our circumstances—things like sanctifying, saving, washing, strengthening, and healing. Faith is demanded here, a faith that plunges us into the grace of the moment.
Warning: words can be memorized and said too easily. What is essential is the reality that the words symbolize. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, we are given the classic line by King Claudius: “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below; Words without thoughts never to heaven go.” We must mean what we say and say what we mean.
For those who pray the Anima Christi, it might be helpful to transpose the “me” to “us” every so often. People with a sense of social consciousness might accuse the author of this prayer in its present form as simply giving us another example of the individualism that dominates our culture. We must remind ourselves that our spirituality is always communal, that it always embraces the entire Mystical Body of Christ.
After receiving the Lord in Eucharist at Mass, it might be a rewarding practice to pray this prayer as we return to our place in church. Unless we bring a certain level of intentionality to our consciousness we can become so easily distracted by someone’s new red hat, by the parishioners who are leaving early, or by the fear that a second collection is about to take place.
Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow your love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is dying that we are born to eternal life.
This is a dangerous prayer, asking us to become instruments of God’s peace. There are four ingredients in that agency: mediating truth, charity, freedom, and justice. This is serious business and one should not ask for something unless there is a corresponding willingness to follow through on the request. It’s like that most dangerous of all prayers, the Our Father. In it we ask God to forgive us in proportion to our forgiveness of others.
If one is going to be a messenger of peace in a world of hatred, injury, doubt, despair, darkness, and sadness, much courage will be required. The ancient prophets, like Jeremiah and Ezekiel, were reluctant to take on the difficult task of being God’s spokespersons. Yet they were obedient and focused not on the difficult, but on the love, pardon, faith, hope, light, and joy that God longs to bestow upon creation.
Most of us desire consolation, understanding, and love, and rightly so. These are great graces and blessings. Yet the mature disciple of Jesus, crossing a threshold at some point on the faith journey, begins to find giving better than receiving, pardoning a greater joy than being pardoned, and dying to oneself the door to eternity. We have in this prayer an alternative, subversive wisdom that confounds our contemporary culture. Praying and singing this prayer might bring about a holy revolution.
These prayers are part of the Catholic tradition. They have sustained many pilgrims over the years and continue to tend to the souls of many disciples. I close with some reflections on prayer from various authors, passages which might deepen our understanding and love for our vocation of being a praying and worshiping community:
Prayer then means yearning for the simple presence of God, for a personal understanding of his word, for knowledge of his will and for the capacity to hear and obey him. It is thus something much more than uttering petitions for good things external to our own deepest concerns. —Thomas Merton, Contemplative Prayer (Doubleday, 1971)
If our prayer is to be adequate to our vision, there must be a place in it for the Transcendent Mystery and Incarnate Life; for adoration and sacrament, awe and active love. —Evelyn Underhill, The House of the Soul (Seabury Press, 1984)
The only force I believe in is prayer, and it is a force I apply with more doggedness than attention. —Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1979)
And one final prayer from the pen of John Henry Cardinal Newman
Oh, Lord, support us all the day long, until the shadows lengthen and the evening comes, and the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done. Then in thy mercy grant us a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at last.
Image: Flickr cc via Doug Tanner