In this post, I would like to discuss some aspects that make Christian Prayer “different” and “unique” if compared to other ways of praying or meditating that we find in other “religions,” even if some aspects in them are valid. In order to do so this time, I suggest taking a closer look at the Prayer of the Heart since it is the core of Christian prayer and impregnates all Christian prayers. The Prayer of the Heart is in fact “an elevation of our heart to Jesus-God, who takes it and immerses it deeply within Himself, pouring his Holy Spirit into it”. The Prayer of the Heart ensures the worshiping “in Spirit and in Truth” (see John 4) that Christ came to inaugurate.
Is it possible, then, to enter God’s life and be immersed in Him without being Christian? Rightly or wrongly, some do claim this is possible! In fact there are many ancient spiritual traditions coming from other “Religions” and new practises of Meditation that we find today who claim to offer some sort of contact with God. But do these means really all access God? Are there differences? How can we identify the Truthful aspects? What makes Christian Prayer so unique?
Note: Today we live in a world very much influenced by a post “new age” spirit, which states that “all religions are equal” and that “since we have good intentions, all roads lead to God”; “freedom” comes first, “diversity” is the law. If you dare to object to anything against these new rules you are considered politically incorrect and are ridiculed. The alleged openness is raised as “the yardstick” and all have to comply with it. On the contrary, however, there are deep differences and everything is not equal! From a Christian point of view we may even say that maybe one day we will have Martyrs who do not die just “because of their faith” (the definition of Martyrdom: to die for your faith), but die because they dared to challenge that meaningless political correctness elevated to tyrannical rule. Also, it is not a lack of kindness to disagree respectfully. Love and Kindness are based on Truth, otherwise they descend into mere habits, their vigour having evaporated. In the last analysis, do I really love a person if I know that I am hiding a Truth from her?
Let us return to our subject: the need to deepen our understanding of some aspects that make Christian Prayer so radically different. Is it necessary to address this subject? Why do we need to know the differences between “Spiritualities” and Ways of Prayer? Ortho-doxy leads to ortho-praxy (correct practice) which in its turn leads to unmistakable contact with God, real happiness and lasting fruitfulness.
“Prayer with the heart” is not only a christian expression, it is also a trendy one that sometimes has nothing to do with Christ. If today, we say that “we need to pray with the heart”, we might find a fair number of other “spiritualities” (belonging to a religion or not) which will compete and say: yes, when we pray we should pray “with our heart”. So what are the main differences between the Christian way of Prayer and the others?
I would like to point out to six essential characteristics – among many others – that shape and determine Christian Prayer.
First Characteristic: Trinity
The deepest characteristic in fact is the Revelation of God’s intimate life made by Jesus Christ. He allows us, by grace, to enter into God’s intimacy and shows us that God is Triune and that this Trinity of Persons has a Life, a “breathing”, a beat. This beat resembles the heart’s two-fold beat :
a- God knows himself, the Person of the Father thinks, and all his thought is the Person of the Son: image of the father.
b- God loves himself, the Father and the Son, love each other and this love is the Person of the Holy Spirit.
Before Jesus Christ’s teaching, nobody knew this. “Only the Son knows the Father”…“Only the Son reveals the Father”… The “Son is turned toward the Father” (John 1) in an eternal embrace, and at the same time He is the one who “reveals the Father” (John 1).
As we see, the Son Incarnate, Jesus, lifts the veil that was hiding God’s intimate Life, God’s most personal and inner operations, that is, knowing himself and loving himself.
Objection: Would praying to any understanding of “God” work?
Answer: Not necessarily. A better understanding of God is of the essence. This is the reason God revealed Himself in Jesus.
Second Characteristic: Likeness
Jesus reveals to us that we are created in the image and likeness of God, which means that we are enabled in our spirit – the deepest part of our soul – to share God’s intimate life, taking part in God’s Nature and Operations. Our spirit is so formed as to enable it to enter into direct contact with the very nature of God. We are capable of sharing God’s being and life (operations). This is the image and the likeness of God in us in its supreme reality.
Objection: Why is this a specificity of the Christian life? We believe that God created ‘man’ (everyone) in his image and likeness. So whether the person praying is a Christian or not, he has this characteristic in him, so it is not solely a Christian trait.
Answer: What is specific to the truth that we are created in the image and likeness of God is the fact that we know it, that we know the greatness of the human being, draw from it and abide with it. Of course we are all created this way, but knowing it makes us more attentive, helps us know who we are, how we are made, our original capacity that Christ came to restore, offering us to take part in that process of transformation. For instance, knowing the doctrine of the image and likeness how it is understood by the Church throughout the centuries, tells us that the human being is created like a god, capable of having an intimate relationship with God and participating in His Life. This Truth is loudly rejected by other “great religions”. Therefore it is important to know it. In other religions the founder of the religion asked to see God and it was denied to him. This is for us Christians a negation of a deep Reality that constitutes the human being and, as a consequence, we would be depriving the human being of it. Any possibility of getting very close to God is usually rejected by Judaism as well. Didn’t Jesus receive the death penalty because he made himself equal to God (please read his trial in the Gospel of St John)?
The Doctrine of the Image and Likeness is the foundation of Christian Mysticism and of the possibility for the human being to see God. As Christians, to see God is our nourishment and our Destiny. To say that we are created in God’s Image and Likeness means that we have a heart (in the biblical sense of the word) capable of seeing God. Knowing that and living by it is essential.
Third Characteristic: The Cross
By original sin we were separated from God. No longer could our spirit have a share in God’s being and life. The Fathers of the Church say that we have kept the image (the spirit) but lost the likeness (its shape and life). But God’s kindness did not surrender to this fate: he wanted to help us rebuild the “lost likeness”.
The Letter to the Hebrews, in fact, states two very important truths about God’s intervention to bring us back to Communion: Incarnation and Redemption:
1- On the Cross the Son offered himself to the Father (Hebrews 7:27; 9:14). Carrying us in Him, he introduced us back into the Trinity’s being and life. He once again opened the Door of the Trinity, so we could access our real Home again.
2- In doing so, the Son opened a new Way to the Father (Hebrews chapter 10). This means that for the first time in history – after the Fall – all human beings are invited by God to take the Son as the Way, the Means, to reach the Father.
By this sacred new Way inaugurated by the Son – actually the Way is the Son himself – we are enabled to join in the Son’s self-offering and therefore we can (in Him, by Him) offer ourselves to the Father. We can start to exercise our Priesthood (the Priesthood of the Faithful) in Jesus the only Priest. We are enabled to offer ourselves as well, through his offering: “May the Holy Spirit make of us an everlasting offering.” (Roman Latin Mass)
The Prayer of the Heart, therefore, implies the fact that we are using this new Pathway. Nobody who practises the Prayer of the Heart (accessing the Father) can use any other means/way/path to reach God effectively: one has to take the Son who is our new Pathway/Access to the Father.
Fourth Characteristic: Baptism
The Grace that enables us to receive what the Son obtained for each one of us on the Cross, is Baptism. That moment in our life is absolutely decisive and remains the Source of everything and the peak of what will develop afterwards. Our life is just to live the Grace of Baptism to its fullest. Baptism for us is the entry door to the Trinity. By it we are enabled to receive all that the Son did for us on the Cross.
Question: Does any possibility to access the Trinity start only with Baptism?
Answer: We need to acknowledge that God wants Salvation for All (1 Timothy 2:4) and that therefore calls every human being in his heart to come and follow Jesus. He uses us, the Baptised, in order to help others access Jesus. This is why the baptised person is invested with a Mission and Responsibility to make Jesus accessible to others. So this means that the Grace of God is working in the heart of all human beings, preparing them to meet Jesus, drawing them toward the Truth. Are we transparent to Jesus? Are we obstacles for the Grace of God? Are we making a supernatural effort to be Agents of His Mercy? Are we walking the extra mile in order to welcome more persons to the Bowels of Mercy of God (Luke 1:78)?
So, it is not about excluding some, but including all, through taking our responsibility in Salvation.
Fifth Characteristic: Free Gift or Grace
Of course, accessing the Father, having the Son open his Heart and the Heart of the Trinity to us is a Grace that we cannot steal. It is given. All is given. When we offer our Heart as well, Christ lifts us up with his Hands, with the Power of the Holy Spirit, introducing us into his Heart. All this is given for Free, nobody can steal this: we ask for it, we receive if for free as a Gift and we dwell in it with Gratitude and Thanksgiving, in a Eucharistic spirit.
Some think that praying or meditating in a supernatural way is possible for any human being, as if this was at the reach of a hand, while in fact it is a Grace. Acknowledging the existence of the Grace, humbles us, and is a clear invitation to ask Jesus for it, and know that without His helping Hands, we cannot be lifted to where He is. People who claim to reach God just by their own human means are either ignorant of something bigger or simply liars. It is simply not possible to steal the Grace of God. One can reach a certain state of peace or quiet while practising some types of meditation, but these states remains natural states, nothing related to a direct contact with God. There is no comparison between that worldly peace and the Peace that Jesus gives!
In his Human Nature He not only rose from the dead, but He also, carrying us in his human nature, ascended to be as close as He could to the Father: He is seated at the Right Hand of the Father. Here is what Jesus the Lord does when we pray in Him: “I will come again and take/receive you to Myself, that where I Am, there you may be also.” (John 14:3) “No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6)
Sixth Characteristic: Enveloped by the Trinity
This characteristic encompasses all the above, blending them in one; therefore it deserves a longer treatment.
At the beginning of the Roman Latin Mass (Paul VI) the Priest has the option of starting the Mass by saying: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Ghost, be with you all.” In fact he is quoting St Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians Chapter 13, verse 14. This quote is trinitarian. It shows how the Trinity embraces us totally. It is one of the oldest forms of blessing, and it starts with the Son, the Door of the Trinity, then moves to the Father and ends with the Holy Spirit. The Sermon of the Mount has the same structure: the Son (Chapter 5), the Father (Chapter 6) and the Holy Spirit (Chapter 7). St Ireneus, Bishop and Martyr (+ 202), states in different parts of his writings that the Father has his two hands: the Son and the Holy Spirit. We are held by him.. . think of Baptism. The classic understanding of our place in the Trinity, therefore, is: dwelling in the Son (“dwell in me”), before the Father, in the Holy Spirit. This is how and why we dare to say: “Our Father”; it is because we are immersed in the Son, and the Father hears in us and through us the very Voice of his Son.
What is interesting to notice is that in many other Rites, this quote of St Paul is mentioned right before the “Sursum Corda” (Lift up your heart). Here are some examples of where it is to be found:
Roman Latin Rite (Paul VI) Compared to the following versions of the other Rites, this version is the simplest one.
Priest: The Lord be with you.
People: And with your spirit.
Priest: Lift up your heart.
People: We lift them up to the Lord.
Priest: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.
People: It is right and just.
The following versions will have essentially one important addition or clarification: the Pauline Trinitarian salute (in bold).
Eastern Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic Churches, for both the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom and the Liturgy of St. Basil the Great.
Deacon: Let us stand well. Let us stand in awe. Let us be attentive, that we may present the holy offering in peace.
People: A Mercy of Peace, a sacrifice of praise.
Priest (blessing the people with his hand): The Grace of our LORD Jesus Christ, and the Love of God the Father, and the Communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.
People: And with thy spirit.
Priest (raising his hands upward): Let us lift up our hearts.
People: We lift them up unto the LORD.
Priest (turning towards the Holy Table): Let us give thanks to the LORD.
People: It is proper and right.
Priest: The grace, the love and the divine sanctifying power of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit be with you all.
Choir: Amen, and with Thy spirit.
Deacon: The doors, the doors. With all wisdom and good heed. Lift up your minds in reverence of God.
Choir: We lift them up unto Thee, O LORD Almighty.
Deacon: And give thanks unto God, the LORD, with the whole heart.
Choir: It is meet and right.
Church of the East (Quddasha of Saints Addai and Mari)
This version adds “all, at all times and for ever and ever” which is an interesting addition showing that this Trinitarian salute is not only for this part of the Mass, or even for all the Mass (beginning of the Mass in the Roman Latin Rite), but for all the time: all our life should be embrace, “hugged” by the Trinity. This is why St Paul in Colossians 2:12 and in other places (Ephesians 2:6, Colossians 3:1) invites us to be where Christ is, at the Right hand of the Father, because this is the effect of Baptism in us: we are raised with Christ and we are with Him, with our spirit, seated with Him at the Right Hand of the Father (Colossians 3:1). This is where our life is, hidden in Christ.
Priest: The grace of our LORD Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all, now, at all times and for ever and ever. (And he makes the sign of the cross over the Mysteries.)
Priest: Lift up your minds.
People: Towards you, O God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, O glorious King!
Priest: The oblation is offered to God, the LORD of all.
People: It is fit and right.
Syriac Orthodox (Anaphora of Saint James)
This form has an extra addition, which clarifies where we do lift our hearts: to Christ seated at the Right Hand of the Father.
(The celebrant, placing his left hand on the altar, turns toward the people and blesses them, saying:) The love of God the Father +, the grace of the Only-begotten Son + and the fellowship and descent of the Holy Spirit + be with you all, my brethren, forever.
People: Amen. And with your spirit.
(The celebrant, extending and elevating his hands, says aloud:) Upward, where Christ sits on the right hand of God the Father, let our thoughts, minds and hearts be at this hour.
People: They are with the LORD God.
Celebrant: Let us give thanks to the LORD in awe.
People: It is meet and right.
Note: Before proceeding it is important to remember when we study Liturgy or do comparative Liturgies (comparing the Liturgy of different Rites), that we need to keep in mind the equal dignity of all liturgies and never judge any of them. They all carry elements of the Truth, according to the genius/spirit of each area/culture in the globe. Each one is totally right from its own angle and has its own richness.
What do we notice? In the Roman Latin Mass (Paul VI) we do not have the introductory part from St Paul. As we said, it is placed rather at the beginning of the Celebration.
Having it at the beginning of the Celebration helps underline the fact that the entire Celebration – from the beginning – is placed “in the Son”, “before the Father”, “in the Holy Spirit” i.e. in the Divine Circulation/Embrace of the Trinity. This is a general fact of Christian Life, since our life is constantly placed the same way because of Baptism. Baptism introduces us into the Life of the Trinity, offering us a Temple, or a Dwelling Place (Christ) in the Spirit. This is why Christ says to the Samaritan lady (see John 4) that : God is Spirit and the true worshippers He wants, worship in Spirit and Truth” which translated means: in order to worship the Father, to know him and love him, we need to be in the Truth (the Son) and in the Holy Spirit.
However, for many Eastern Liturgies (see above) we find the quotation of St Paul, not as an “opening greeting” of the entire Celebration, but as a preparation for the elevation (“anapherei” see in Matthew when Jesus lifts up with him the three Disciples before the Transfiguration: “Jesus … brings them up [anapherei]”) for the Anaphora (Anaphora = Eucharistic Prayer). This is a very interesting point that sheds an important light on Silent Prayer: Silent Prayer is an immersion in God… but the risk is to detach it from its reality: we cannot access the Father whilst shortcutting the Son, or leaving him aside. This is why, before lifting our heart to the Son (notice the beautiful precision we have from the Syriac Orthodox Liturgy (see above): (“Upward, where Christ sits on the right hand of God the Father”), we need to know that we are enabled to do it because we are enveloped by the Trinity, being Baptised in the Son, in the Holy Spirit.
1- God Revealed Himself Directly
The first five characteristics summed up in the sixth, give us a different perspective about God. His inner life is unveiled to us, plus we are introduced into it, invited to take a share in his being and life. This puts us in awe and shows us how different it is to deal with an unknown distant God to getting inside of the Eternal Embrace and Breathing of the Three Persons. Not only according to the saying “the God of the Philosophers is different from the God of Jesus-Christ”, but the God of other religions, God in short, is different from the Christian God, in the sense that many approach Him from outside, which gives an external knowledge of Him, not an experience from within.
Let us acknowledge, then, that by opening His inner Being to us, God is making himself vulnerable, and certainly He hopes that we will respect and value that through a humble and loving attitude.
2- Seeds of Light in the World
What about other “Religions” and more recent ways of meditation which claim to reach God? What is their status? Are they all false?
Despite the existence of seeds of Light in other Religions, claiming to reach the Father while rejecting the Son and His Gift – the Holy Spirit – is like wanting to enter into a house other than by the main entrance! It is equivalent to stealing. And the consequence is to be rejected: “anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the Gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber” (John 10:1) and Matthew 22:1-14: “take him and throw him outside”, because he is not wearing the “Wedding Garment”, i.e. Jesus Himself (St Paul says that we are clothed by Christ: Ga 3:27). God deposited the Revelation of his inner Life in the Church, Jesus’ Body.
3- Why the Church?
In which exact points lie the advantage of having the Church as the Place of the Unveiling of the Trinity? Isn’t God free to do whatever He wants? Why restrain his action to a certain “place”?
Certainly God is free to introduce in Himself whoever He wants, whenever He wants. But is important to know that He does so anyway in the Son, through the Son’s Redemption, because this is His Being and Economy.
Of course nobody can discuss God’s freedom and wisdom. But in God there is a desire to offer himself through the Son and in the Son’s Body, the Church. God does not vacillate when it comes to logic. His Logic is the Incarnation Logic. Plus this choice is not restrictive and is full of richness and variety within it.
Therefore, the following three points explain the difference between the Church in God’s mind, and all the other ways available in the “market of spirituality`’,
1- on a normal regular basis,
2- when aiming for maximum abundance of Graces to be receive and
3- when offering it to everyone, for we can’t state that all ways are equal.
Other “ways” are not empty or necessarily entirely negative. They might offer something, but it is:
1- an exception
2- with poor global content and
3- when it does so, it is only for an elite.
Therefore if any element of Truth is to be found outside of the official Church, it belongs to Christ and should be integrated into its right place within the Church’s structure or within the six characteristics mentioned above. It is a seed of Christ sown in the World which should not be rejected. With discernment it should be kept as an added richness. (see the traditional Doctrine of the Semina Verbi)
4- Inclusion and Responsibility
My point is not about excluding other persons from accessing God. My point is about excluding other “ways” which are closer to “stealing the Grace of God” than to “receiving His Gifts” (the Son and the Spirit). Since, by the Grace of God, we are offered that privilege of joining the Son’s Offering to the Father and since we know that God wants the Salvation of everybody, it is our duty to think of our Brothers and Sisters scattered all over the World, who are deeply yearning to know the Truth. It is our Duty to feel for them, our heart should go out to them, and we need by the Charity of God poured into our heart to carry and take them with us when we offer ourselves to the Father, interceding for them. We need to lift them up with us to the Father, in the Son… in the Holy Spirit. This is our sacred responsibility and we cannot fail here. Being Christian is not a monopoly, it is a Gift, a Gift that we should transmit, otherwise if we keep it to ourselves egoistically, possessively, it will “burn our hands”. This is why the Priest during the Mass prays for all God’s sons and daughters who do not know him yet… saying : “Listen graciously to the prayers of this family, whom you have summoned before you: in your compassion, O merciful Father, gather to yourself all your children scattered throughout the world.” (Third Eucharistic Prayer, Roman Latin Rite) The Mercy of God is entrusted to us, and we need to live it to the end.
In this post, I addressed the characteristics of Christian Prayer that make it different and unique:
the Offering of the Lord made on the Cross
the reception of it in Baptism enabling us to join Him in His offering,
the fact that Prayer is in part a total Free gift from God
St Paul’s trinitarian salute mentioned just before the elevation of the Heart, showing how the elevation/offering happens while we are clothed by the Trinity.
I hope that by pointing out these characteristics one can see with greater clarity that even if – seen from far, and on a “method” level – deeper prayers in other “religions” and new meditation ways have great similarities with the Christian one, the differences are radical. Only then will one be able to appreciate what is unique in Christianity.