Pray with the Pope: December 2020
Prayer: Take the time
Intention: We pray that our personal relationship with Jesus Christ be nourished by the Word of God and a life of prayer.
As a Jesuit, I am what is called a “contemplative in action”. This is an Ignatian term which is often taken to mean that those who follow the tradition of Ignatius of Loyola don’t pray in a formal way. Rather, we weave prayer into the action of our ordinary day. The old joke goes that the Jesuit will not permit you to smoke while you pray, but he will allow you to pray while you smoke.
However, I think this is all an unfortunate misconception. Certainly, contemplatives in action must keep their eyes on the Lord in the midst of their busy lives, but it’s by no means as simple or as minimal as that.
We are not active contemplatives in the sense that prayer is an unfortunate but secondary necessity, despite what many people think and despite the impression we often give. No, Jesuits really are contemplatives; as religious our first and foremost aim is to find God. Certainly, this means “finding God in all things”, but it also means finding all things in God.
This cannot be done by a life of frenetic activity in which I make the odd sidelong glance at the Lord. On the contrary, it demands a life of prayer of some depth — and depth requires some length.
A recent biographer of Pope Francis says that the Holy Father, a Jesuit, rises at 4:30 every morning to read Scripture and to pray, and that the very fruitful action of his pontificate flows from this lifelong practice. It is striking that this old man, who never seems to take a holiday or a break, almost always seems so highly energised.
The press often repeats the cliché that he finds his energy by meeting people. I would be willing to bet, however, that he wouldn’t be half as energised by all the people he is constantly seeing if he didn’t spend that sacred time with the Lord each morning.
I have just emerged from a seven-month lockdown. In order to ensure that we could complete the year’s programme at the seminary where I teach, we decided to remain under strict isolation, without domestic staff, for a telescoped academic year. It has been a relentlessly busy time, a treadmill of teaching and formation, with the additional burdens of cooking, maintenance and cleaning. There were times of intense fatigue and of claustrophobic “cabin fever”.
What I discovered was that if I didn’t get enough sleep, exercise and especially prayer, I struggled much more than when I did. I discovered anew the simple force of Thomas Merton’s advice about prayer, which is that we have to “take the time”. I rediscovered the truth of that old paradox of how really busy people need to try to pray longer.
Life is hard. Sometimes it seems pretty meaningless. We might even ask ourselves: “Why do I live this way?” The one who listens daily to the word of God and spends time striving to become deeply immersed in God, will find some answers to these mysteries — and in the heart rather than the head. And some days, tasks that often are the last thing I want to do can be taken on with peace and an ample supply of energy.
All Christians are contemplatives. We must all struggle to find the Lord in our lives. Whether they be fascinatingly engrossing or tediously boring, we will manage to live out our vocations to whatever type of Christian life we have been called only if we heed Merton on prayer and we “take the time”.
This column by Fr Chris Chatteris was printed in the December issue of The Southern Cross Magazine.
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