There is an ancient principle in the Catholic Church: lex orandi, lex credendi. People often take this to mean that there is some vague identity between our prayer (orandi) and our belief (credendi). But it’s much deeper than that. The saying can be traced back to a student of St. Augustine, Prosper of Aquitaine. He noted in the fifth century that the sacraments had been handed down by the apostles so that “the law of praying might establish the law of believing.” In other words, our doctrine flows from our prayer, our sacraments, and the right worship of God in the liturgy. Good theology is grounded in the liturgy, because good theology comes from God—and the liturgy is our means of ascent to God.
The Church’s greatest theologians have borne witness to this truth. When St. Thomas Aquinas, the universal doctor of the Church, was stuck on a theological question, he would rest his head on the tabernacle and weep for love of God. People who find his metaphysics abstruse can turn instead to his moving Eucharistic hymns, which after 800 years remain central to the worship of God in the Blessed Sacrament. He himself noted near the end of his life that all of his scholarship was “like straw” compared to what God had given him in his prayer. Today, as his brother Dominicans continue Aquinas’s project, they hold it to be essential that their intellectual work spill over from their contemplation of God in prayer.
St. Augustine’s was a life firstly of prayer and the ascetical struggle, not of scholarship. We can only benefit today from everything Augustine said and wrote because he ordered his life toward God, achieving sincere repentance through the sacraments. St. Theresa of Avila, another great doctor of the church, accomplished her reforms by leaning on a steady life of prayer. We should not fail to see the connection between the tremendous heights she reached in her mysticism and her practical, almost mundane advice: to take a few deep breaths before a time of prayer, to diligently follow the advice of a good spiritual director, to always have a book when trying to pray.
Lex orandi is not just a lesson for academic theologians, although some of them would do well to return to this precept. If we as believers are to understand the deepest mysteries of our faith, it will only be through our reverent worship of God in the liturgy, primarily the holy sacrifice of the Mass.
Last year, a survey found that only a third of American Catholics believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Our focus in the US has sadly moved on, but we need to address this problem at its roots. I am not the first to observe that this is just as much a crisis in the liturgy as it is a crisis in belief. Certainly, we need well-formed priests to teach God’s faithful what is true. But the priest, like Christ, is not just a teacher. He has three roles: to teach, to govern, and to sanctify, and this last one is essential. We don’t just need better catechesis to address the lack of belief in the Eucharist. We need increased reverence during Mass, and we need to sanctify our ordinary lives through prayer, thereby living in the presence of God. Newcomers to Catholicism, children and adults, will learn just as much by watching us at Mass and prayer as they will from their parents’ teaching or from RCIA.
Christ had 33 years on earth before returning to heaven. Of these, he chose to spend only 3 in active ministry. What did he do for most of his life? We know that as a child, he grew in wisdom and favor before God and men. As an adult, he would have worked, probably as a carpenter. Most importantly, as a devout Jew, he worshipped God ceaselessly. Are these hidden years in the life of Christ accessible to us? Only in the measure that we accompany him in prayer and receive him in the sacraments.
When the time finally came for him to begin his public life, he retreated to the desert for 40 days of prayer and fasting. Even after he had called his apostles, his first priests, he continued to live as a contemplative in the world. How often do we read in the gospels that Christ spent the night in prayer, or retreated to the mountain to pray? He chose to spend so much of those 3 years, his only chance to form the men to whom he would entrust his church, in silent prayer.
Christ grounded all of his teaching and ministry in the contemplation and worship of God. With the saints, we would do well to remember his example. It is the roadmap for renewal in our church, and our world.
Juan Carlos Fernández del Castillo ’20 is a senior in Mather House studying Mathematics.