I recently had the great privilege of attending a three-day retreat based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, a sixteenth-century saint and founder of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits). The crux of the Exercises is total indifference to all things except for the will of God: that is, the salvation of one’s soul and the glorification of His Divine Majesty. Retreatants follow a series of meditations on various topics, in keeping with this central theme. For example, the Exercises instruct the retreatant to contemplate Christ deigning to be enthroned over Jerusalem, the most beautiful sight imaginable, in contrast to Satan, ruling over Babylon amid fire and brimstone, with his army of innumerable demons: a cosmic war in which we must stand under Our Lord’s standard. This and other meditations brought into clear focus our all-encompassing debt to God as our Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer, and the radical commitment required from us as Christians. In this way, each retreatant was led to consider and discern God’s will for his life, in both the near and distant future.
These meditations were reinforced by the retreat’s regimen of prayer throughout each day. Indeed, the weekend was a perfect illustration of how prayer is supposed to work. The centerpiece and summit of our devotions was, of course, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. More specifically, each day we celebrated a Traditional Latin Mass, a form of the Mass that emphasizes a receptive disposition towards meeting Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, praying to God and listening to Him in the sacred silence of the liturgy. The next major component of our prayer on retreat was the Divine Office, an ancient cycle of daily prayer made up mostly of Psalms some version of which is prayed daily by all priests and religious brothers and sisters (and also by many laypeople). In addition to Mass and the Office, retreatants prayed the rosary together, had ample opportunity for the sacrament of Confession, and spent a great deal of time in Eucharistic adoration (that is, mental prayer in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, the real presence of Christ).
What is so special about this approach? For one thing, it made for a beautiful expression of unity with the universal Body of Christ. Christian men gathered from around the country, without knowing each other or knowing anything about each other, yet we all could pray together seamlessly. Furthermore, these same prayers—the Mass, the Divine Office, etc.—have sustained the universal Church since its very beginning, wherever it has existed in the world. Even Christ prayed these same psalms, possibly even with the same tunes. Thus we prayed the same prayers and received the same sacraments that have been the core of the life of the Church going back to its founding. And above all, we did all this in the real, physical presence of the Lord, who is praised and adored in like manner in every tabernacle throughout the world, as he has been for two millennia.
What is the point of all these signs of unity? Aside from the fact that we must all confess the same Lord and Savior, what does this visible unity with the rest of the Body of Christ accomplish in our efforts to lead a Christian life? It may seem that the expectation of conformity simply dampens any attempts at developing a personalized relationship with Christ. In reality, though, it is a blessing and a source of grace, because it prepares one’s heart to receive Christ.
The core of prayer is offering oneself entirely to the Lord, which means surrendering one’s own will and instead saying, “Thy will be done.” It means becoming merely a humble worker in the Lord’s vineyard, a member of a larger body, and treating that identity not as humiliation but as the proudest possible boast.
In this attempt to make one’s will not our own, it helps to make one’s words not one’s own. It helps to pray the simple prayers of the universal Church, so that one can approach the Lord as a simple Christian, first and foremost. Josef Pieper, the great Thomistic thinker of the 20th century, wrote, “What the true listener forbids himself is simply this: neither to obscure the radiance of his own eye that gazes on the sun nor to allow the soul’s ability to answer (wherein lies its closest cor-“respondence” to the Source of Being) to lapse into words. Thus, the world reveals itself to the silent listener and only to him; the more silently he listens, the more purely is he able to perceive reality.” This practice of praying with the universal Church gives a Christian the disposition of a true listener. Then, with this mindset and in the context of a universal community, he is ideally situated to develop a deeply personal relationship with His Creator and Savior, which is exactly what my fellow retreatants and I were able to do in our time spent praying silently before the Eucharist.
I encourage all my fellow Christians to give this sort of prayer a try, especially now as we begin to approach Easter. Pray part of the Divine Office, perhaps. In attending a liturgy, unite your prayers to those of the whole Body of Christ, and participate not as one performing an action but solely as a recipient of a divine action. Finally, as you join with the universal Church, pray the words from one prayer to the Sacred Heart of Jesus: “make our hearts according to Your own.”
This post was written by staff writer Jim McGlone ’15.