Msgr. Charles Pope is currently a dean and pastor in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, where he has served on the Priest Council, the College of Consultors, and the Priest Personnel Board. Along with publishing a daily blog at the Archdiocese of Washington website, he has written in pastoral journals, conducted numerous retreats for priests and lay faithful, and has also conducted weekly Bible studies in the U.S. Congress and the White House. He was named a Monsignor in 2005.
So often, prayers aren’t what they used to be. Prayers used to look to God and long for heaven. More commonly today, even when they look to God, they speak more of this earth and ask God to make it more comfortable.
While Catholics do not pray aloud extemporaneously as often as Protestants, I have been in enough settings where the faithful do pray in this way — often at retreats and revivals, and listening to typical Prayers of the Faithful — and I notice that many, if not most prayers, ask God to fix something here: “Fix my finances, Lord; fix my health; fix my situation at work; help people who are suffering; fix it all Lord!”
It is almost as if we were saying to God, “Make this world more pleasant for everyone and just give me enough money, health, friends and creature comforts and I’ll just be content to stay here forever.”
Now, of course it is not wrong to pray for any of the things above. But it is the silence about heavenly things that most concerns me. Do we ever long to be with God? Do we long for heaven or even talk about it much today? When was the last time you heard a reference to heaven in a prayer (except at a funeral when we should probably focus more on purgatory). Or when was the last time heaven was the topic of a conversation, let alone a sermon?
I think a lot has to do with the fact that in the modern age we have been very successful in normalizing comfort. Most of us have air conditioning, stable electrical service, running water, larger homes than ever before, reasonably good health on a wide scale, paved roads, stable governments, and many relatively cheap and diverse consumer goods. Comfort is great, but it creates an illusion that this is it, and that this world can really be home to us. Thus the goal becomes rather exclusively to make things better here.
Sorry, but lasting comfort and repose here is a lie. A very tiny grave, much smaller than our king-sized beds, awaits us all — likely after an extended illness, possibly after a sudden accident. And frankly, especially for a Christian — whatever acceptance and comfort the world has temporarily afforded us — ridicule, scorn and persecution are the more common historical scenario, if we strive to be faithful. Jesus speaks of how the world will hate us and also says, In this world you shall have tribulation, but have confidence, I have overcome the world (Jn 16:33).
Not so long ago the prayers of our ancestors, and even more recent predecessors, had a very different tone, as we shall see. These were people who had a very different experience of life: no air conditioning, electricity, indoor plumbing or modern medicine. One might get something as ordinary as diarrhea and be dead by week’s end. They worked in coal mines, miserable factories and hot fields; they had 10-12 hour shifts, six days a week, with little education or hope for change. There was no TV or radio, and few medicines to give relief. And there was far less entertainment.
My father quoted his grandfather as saying, “In the old days things were tough all over. Life was brutal and (thank God) short.” Life had its pleasures, but they were more basic and pure: Sunday rest, a family meal, the birth of a new child, perhaps a day at the shore, or a walk in the park.
The arduous, painful and passing quality of life affected their prayers. Some of them we still remember and recite, though with little thought to the pain, longing for heaven and desire for rest with God they contained.
Perhaps the most familiar was the Salve Regina: Hail Holy Queen…” The prayer spoke of asking Mary’s prayers for us who “cried” to her as “poor banished children of Eve” who sent up our “sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears” and asked her that she would “after this our exile show unto us the blessed fruit of her womb, Jesus!”
This was not a prayer that asked God to make this world more pleasant, nice thought that might be. There were few illusions that this world being more pleasant was really the main goal. Rather this was a prayer that asked God to keep us faithful so that we could escape exile in this tearful world, and merit by his grace to go to heaven, where every tear would be wiped away and there was no more death or mourning or crying or pain, because the old order had passed away (Rev 21:4).
The Old Protestant prayers and hymns had similar themes. For example an old hymn, emblematic of countless others, said:
We are often tossed and driven on the restless sea of time;
Somber skies and howling tempests, oft succeed a bright sunshine;
In that land of perfect day, when the mists have rolled away;
We will understand it better by and by!
Yes, this world was going to be unpleasant, and often so. The goal was heaven and the prayer focus was to stay faithful so as to attain that blessed goal after this, our exile.
A beautiful old hymn, St. Thomas Aquinas' Anima Christi, was also a well-known prayer by many not so long ago. Among other things, it expressed this desire to stay faithful so as to one day escape to glory: Soul of Christ, sanctify me, Body of Christ save me... Suffer me not to be separated from thee; from the malicious enemy defend me. And bid me come to thee, that with thy saints I may praise thee for ever and ever.
Is it just me, or do I seldom hear such prayers today? Do people pray for or long for heaven and the sanctity without which we cannot attain to it? Perhaps I have not purchased the correct collection of modern prayers or attended the correct prayer meeting. But, as already stated, most prayers today seem to me more focused on asking that this world be a better place. A fine notion to be sure, but rather fleeting and unlikely given that we are living in a fallen world, governed by a fallen angel and we ourselves have fallen natures. Only a brief and worldly notion of happiness can possibly attain to us here.
Other things being equal, I do hope for stable governments, justice, financial prosperity, medical breakthroughs, good employment, and so on. But worldly comfort is illusory and passing, even from a worldly point of view.
From a spiritual point of view, wealth and comfort are dangerous, for it is hard for the rich and comfortable to enter the kingdom of God. And from a heavenly point of view, worldly comfort is contemptible. Heavenly glory is the true goal, with joys unspeakable, and glories untold.
Perhaps our prayer, while not neglecting worldly needs and concerns, should once again pierce the clouds and set our minds on heavenly things?
Lord, give me neither poverty nor riches; lest in my poverty I steal and defame your name, or in my riches say, “who is the Lord?” (Prov. 30:8). Lord, I want to die loving you, not the world. I want to die loving you more than myself, or anything, or anyone. Do whatever it takes to keep me faithful unto death. If I ask for wealth or fame or comforts, please ignore my request as feverish delusions if in any way they would hinder me from my one true goal, which is you Lord, and joy with you forever. If it is poverty, persecution, sickness and suffering that is necessary to prepare me Lord, I accept it. Please be gentle; I am weak and can only take so much. But do what it takes, Lord, to prepare me to see you. You are the One I desire, my heart’s true longing. Nil nisi Te, Domine, nil nisi Te (None but you O Lord, none but but you!)