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Sunday, 30 April 2006

Sermon on Prayer and Meditation

A spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have.” (Luke 24.39)

Our Lord showed himself to the apostles and made it clear to them that he was risen in the flesh; he was not just an appearance, a dream or a ghost.

It is essential to know that Jesus is real if we are to pray properly. I promised that I would spend some time after Easter talking about prayer and how to pray. Many people have been to confession during Lent and the beginning of the Easter season. The celebration of the sacrament of penance is a good way of beginning a deeper life of prayer, a life that follows our Blessed Lord more closely.

In order to lead a devout life, we must first do battle against any serious sin in our lives. Battle is the right word because we must be determined to root out any sin that can kill the life of grace in our soul. The weapons are many and varied but will always include the regular use of the sacrament of penance and a daily act of contrition. We also need to change our lives to avoid any occasions of sin: people places or things that we know will make it easier and more likely for us to sin. If we cannot avoid them entirely, we must make them more remote – for example making sure that we are not alone with a particular person or making sure to avoid some place.

Now I said I would talk about prayer but I want to make it clear first of all that we cannot undertake any serious progress in the spiritual life if we are not coming to Mass every Sunday or if we are breaking one of the other commandments in a serious way. People sometimes say "I can pray to God just as well in my own room." They are wrong. We do not have the real, substantial presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist in our own room and the one perfect sacrifice of Christ is not made present anew in our own room as it is in the Mass. We must come to Mass at least every Sunday as Our Lord asks us - and also pray in our own room.

Christian prayer is a personal encounter with God who is himself personal. Some pagan forms of prayer were simply rituals that had to be carried out in order to achieve specific results or avoid particular evils. For many of the ancient Romans, it was not all that important whether the gods actually existed; what mattered was that the public rituals were carried out. We find this sort of thing today when people rub crystals or burn incense sticks for good karma or good luck or whatever.

Christian prayer is very different. It is the conversation of a human person with a personal God. A traditional Christian definition of prayer is “the raising up of the mind and heart to God.” We may do this in various ways.

Set prayers are helpful to us because they were: composed by Christ (e.g. the Our Father), inspired by the Holy Spirit (e.g. the psalms) or written by saints (e.g. the Memorare). When we come to Mass, we participate in “Liturgical” prayer: the words and actions are specified by the Church and we are united with Christ and the whole Church when we pray this Liturgy.

When we pray using set forms of words, it is important to try to pray with the heart: to mean what we say. This can be difficult because we may not understand some of the words or we may find it difficult to concentrate. For our understanding, the new Compendium of the Catechism is an excellent place to start. For many people, it would be a great idea to become familiar with some traditional Catholic prayers such as the Hail Holy Queen, the Memorare, the prayer of St Ignatius and others that can be found in the Simple Prayer Book.

So if you are not in the habit of praying every day, it is a great start if at night, before going to bed, you say the Our Father, the Hail Mary, the Act of Contrition and one or two other prayers from the Simple Prayer Book. Make sure that Sunday Mass is an absolutely fixed part of every week and come to Confession regularly. Then God will call you a little closer.

God always does this. I heard a good saying recently: “God is easy to please but difficult to satisfy”. He will never treat us with contempt and allow us simply to be mediocre or lukewarm. He will always beckon us to something greater.

For very many people, that something greater could begin with some daily mental prayer or meditation. This is not difficult or esoteric. Unfortunately, the word “meditation” can be associated with beads, sandals and smoking strange substances. But meditation has always been a part of the Christian way of prayer.

It is simply the offering of some time to Almighty God, in which we ponder the scriptures, one of the incidents in our Lord’s life, or some truth of our faith. As we do so, we speak to God in our own words or simply rest in his presence. Since our prayer should always change our lives, many of the great saints who wrote about prayer recommended that before the time of prayer ends, we should make some practical resolution for that particular day; something small perhaps, some kindness to someone, some act of self-control when we know we are going to be angry, a resolution to drive more carefully – we can all think of some way we could be more like Christ that day.

The best time for this prayer for most people is first thing in the morning – we could get up a quarter of an hour earlier to make room for it. There have been very many good books written by saints about prayer and meditation. If I were to pick just one, I would recommend the Introduction to the Devout Life written by St Francis de Sales.

If we begin to give God even a short time, say ten minutes, and pray in this way, we will very soon find that it is the most precious and fruitful time in our day. Of course, the Mass is even more precious but this practice of spending some time with God in meditation will be a new thing for many people and will immeasurably enrich our participation at the Mass. What we will be doing is to allow God to work in our soul, to teach us, to sanctify us – and to love us. We are then motivated to love him in return.

Sermon at Blackfen for the 3rd Sunday of Easter 2006
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