I found in a secondhand bookshop a pristine hardback copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It had an inscription in the flyleaf; it had been presented to someone by his parish priest. The book was clearly unopened. I cannot know the history of this particular volume, but it struck me that just as the jibe used to be that Catholics had Bibles on their shelves that were never opened, so many have Catechisms which have not been looked at – or perhaps have been used only in the way that the medical dictionary has: to review symptoms. While one might not read it cover to cover like a novel, the Catechism is more than just a vade mecum.

The section on prayer in the Christian life is of immense richness and practical use. It begins with a familiar definition of prayer as the “raising of the heart and mind to God”, (which I never knew was a quotation from St John Damascene till I saw it footnoted), but proceeds to expand this in a way that speaks so much to my experience and changes the whole sense of what this means. In particular it dispels the notion that it is simply a question of my effort, my raising. It immediately cites humility as the source of prayer.

Only when we humbly acknowledge that we do not know how to pray as we ought are we ready to receive the gift of prayer. This invites a change of perspective. Prayer is a gift I must receive before it is an activity I must perfect. There is no prayer without God’s initiative, as exemplified in the account of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well: “Jesus thirsts; his asking arises from the depths of God’s desire for us.” Prayer is Jesus asking: “Give me something to drink; please consider the need I have for you to return my love.” I wonder how many of us have considered our own poor prayer from such a point of view and how often we are inclined to dismiss it as a thing of little worth. That is the ego at work, and a misguided sense of prayer as a kind of quid pro quo for God to do something for me, even if the something is only making me feel good about my prayer. Prayer is, in fact, a response to already being loved.

The Catechism goes on to analyse how prayer is presented in the Old Testament. The pattern of the biblical history of salvation has parallels with my personal relationship with Him; God reveals Himself gradually to man and in so doing, also reveals man to himself, which is perhaps why prayer is not the inexorably smooth and unimpeded progress I would like it to be. In the Old Testament, prayer develops in the historical space between the Fall, in which God calls to his first children, “Where are you? What is this you have done?” and the perfect response of the Son of God whose entry into human history is hailed by the words: “Lo, I have come to do your will,” presaging our redemption. I too am living a drama between those two types of response to His call.

Prayer is outlined in its simplest form to Enoch as “walking with God”. With Abraham we see this walking is not merely figurative. Prayer is not initially a question of words: Abraham is a man of silence; he simply obeys what God asks of him. “Such attentiveness of the heart, whose decisions are made according to God’s will, is essential to prayer, while the words used count only in relation to it. Abraham’s prayer is expressed first by deeds … he constructs an altar to the Lord at each stage of his journey.” What wealth is here to meditate on. How often when I pray am I subconsciously seeking to use words to build little shrines to some aspect of my own will, or my own spiritual progress?

Paradoxically, it is the attunement to God’s desire, which results in a prayer of words from Abraham the content of which we would recognise; a prayer which asks God why hasn’t He fulfilled His promise. This, says the Catechism, is one aspect of the drama of prayer which appears from the beginning: “the test of faith in the fidelity of God”. Even once the promise appears fulfilled in the gift of a son, there comes the greatest test when he is asked to sacrifice Isaac. “On the mountain the Lord will provide” is the expression of a faith sustained only by prayer.

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