This spring, Pope Benedict XVI published a 10-chapter book titled Jesus of Nazareth. And while the Pope specifically instructed that the work is a personal project and not part of the magisterial teaching of the Church, his book is a profound reflection on Jesus authored by one of the greatest theological minds in the history of Christianity. Father Raymond J. de Souza, the Register’s former Rome correspondent, analyzes the book’s contents and its significance in an exclusive five-part series for the Register. This is Part IV.
How then should we pray? The Holy Father, writing as Joseph Ratzinger, takes up that question in his analysis of the Sermon on the Mount in his book, Jesus of Nazareth.
“A false form of prayer the Lord warns us against is the chatter, the verbiage, that smothers the spirit,” Benedict-Ratzinger writes. “We are all familiar with the danger of reciting habitual formulas while our mind is somewhere else entirely.”
True enough. Everyone has had the experience of praying the Rosary only to forget entirely one’s place, even with rosary in hand. And how often does a morning Our Father compete with a simultaneous review of the day’s shopping list? So one might conclude that formulaic prayers are best set aside, except perhaps for children.
Yet Jesus himself teaches the disciples the Lord’s Prayer, and they seemed to understand from the beginning that it was a prayer to be repeated verbatim. Does a prayer like the Lord’s Prayer really meet the requirements of personal prayer? Wouldn’t it be better to simply say what we mean?
“In the formulaic prayers that arose first from the faith of Israel and then from the faith of praying members of the Church, we get to know God and ourselves well,” writes Benedict-Ratzinger.
Schools of Prayer
Such prayers actually teach us to pray, he argues, calling them “schools of prayer that transforms and opens up our life”.
Benedict-Ratzinger goes on to make a point famously made by the late American rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel. He explained to his congregants who were complaining about Sabbath services: “The point is not that the liturgy says what we mean, but rather that we mean what the liturgy says.”
The Holy Father, unsurprisingly, found a rather more ancient source for that same point: St. Benedict.
“In his Rule, Saint Benedict coined the formula mens nostra concordet voci nostrae — our mind must be in accord with our voice,” he writes. “Normally, thought proceeds word; it seeks and formulates the word. But praying the Psalms and liturgical prayer in general is exactly the other way around: The word, the voice, goes ahead of us, and our mind must adapt to it. For on our own we human beings do not ‘know how to pray as we ought’ (Romans 8:26) — we are too far removed from God, he is too mysterious and too great for us. And so God has come to our aid: He himself provides the words of our prayer and teaches us to pray.”
Benedict-Ratzinger notes that St. Benedict was addressing himself to the Psalms, the great prayer book of the Jewish people originally, and subsequently the daily prayer book of the Church in the Divine Office. Yet what St. Benedict applied to the Psalms, “applies even more, of course, to the Our Father.”
“When we pray the Our Father, we are praying to God with words given by God, as St. Cyprian says,” the Holy Father writes. “This also reveals something of the specificity of Christian mysticism. It is not in the first instance immersion in the depths of oneself, but an encounter with the Spirit of God in the word that goes ahead of us.”
Because the Our Father consists not of our words, but of God’s words, Benedict-Ratzinger argues that the prayer introduces us to a depth that is beyond human capacity alone. How sad then to rush through it unconsciously!
“It is important to listen as accurately as possible to Jesus’ words as transmitted to us in Scripture,” writes Benedict-Ratzinger. “We must strive to recognize the thoughts Jesus wished to pass on to us in these words. But we must also keep in mind that the Our Father originates from his own praying, from the Son’s dialogue with the Father. This means that it reaches down into depths far beyond the words. It embraces the whole compass of man’s being in all ages and can therefore never be fully fathomed by a purely historical exegesis, however important this may be.”
Benedict-Ratzinger returns here to a constant theme in Jesus of Nazareth, namely that only in the fullness of the Church’s tradition can the figure of Jesus in the Scriptures be understood. Therefore the guides, both in meeting Jesus and in the art of prayer, are not the biblical scholars, but the saints.
“The great men and women of prayer throughout the centuries were privileged to receive an interior union with the Lord that enabled them to descend into the depths beyond the word,” he writes. “They are therefore able to unlock for us the hidden treasures of prayer. And we may be sure that each of us, along with our totally personal relationship with God, is received into, and sheltered within, this prayer.”
Father Raymond J. de Souza served as the Register’s Rome correspondent 1999-2003.
He writes from Kingston, Ontario.