The Ecclesial Context of Personal Prayer
As a follow-up to my column The Five First Principles of Prayer, I want to reiterate what I said in the conclusion: “But there is much more that could be said about prayer, about its nature and its stages, and especially about the deep relationship between prayer and growth in perfection.” One of the first additional things that needs to be said about prayer—a point so important that the failure to observe it can render the whole enterprise fruitless—is that whenever possible prayer must have an ecclesial dimension. That is, it must be rooted in the Church.
The Church alone possesses all the goods offered by God for our salvation. She is the conduit of grace through which all of those who are saved, whether they achieve juridical membership in the Church or not, are in fact saved. She is the extension of Christ’s work in the world; indeed, she is both His spouse and His very body. It is an article of the Catholic faith that some sort of connection or “joining” to the Church is necessary for salvation. “Extra ecclesia” (outside the Church, without the Church, completely apart from the Church), no one can be saved. It follows that insofar as someone understands something of the mission of the Church, one must first seek Christ there.
There are two reasons for this. The first is to be filled with divine life, or grace. I had said in my column that no matter how many sacraments one received, their power would not be unleashed without personal prayer. I stand by this assertion, but I would be a colossal fool if I intended it to mean that the sacraments may be ignored. Quite the contrary, the sacraments effect what they signify, always transmitting a share in the Divine life. But they do not force us to tune in to that transmission. It is through personal commitment to God, particularly in private prayer, that we learn how to take advantage of the grace we have received, cooperating with it as Christ intends. Anyone who is aware and able to partake of the graces offered by the Church, and who nonetheless fails to take advantage of them, is keeping himself from what he most needs for his prayer to be effective.
The second reason is to take advantage of the “mind of the Church”—her teachings, her spiritual wisdom. To pray while willfully failing to do this is the classic recipe for the sin of presumption. We presume that God, who has given us everything we need through His Church, will make special provision for us if we ignore these gifts. Instead, by relying only on our own ideas, we will experience three immediate and severe spiritual handicaps. First, we will start off in a state of relative ignorance (perhaps complete ignorance) about the relationship between man and God, how prayer works, the nature of spiritual discernment, and so on. Second, we will have no sound reference points for correcting our own ideas or our own perceptions of what God is saying to us in prayer—or, indeed, whether it is even God whom we are hearing. Third, we will be cut off from the sole authoritative source of spiritual instruction, which must severely limit our personal spiritual growth.
It may be asked whether the grace gained through private prayer can compensate for any or all of these deficiencies? The answer is yes, but under what circumstances? When is God likely to act in such an extraordinary fashion since He has already given us His Church to continue His Son’s redemptive work in the world? Clearly, He is likely to do this only insofar as a particular person fails to take advantage of the Church through no fault of his own. For to reject the Church is to reject Christ, and to reject Christ is to reject the One who sent Him. Thus, anyone who understands that the Church speaks with the voice of Christ yet fails to seek to be formed by the Church is actually begging to be left in the darkness of his own folly.
I assumed in my column that I was writing for Catholics already rooted in the Church and eager for both her doctrine and her sacraments. If this does not describe you, then hit pause and rewind. Pay attention first to the Church, and insert yourself into Her life of grace. Without the Church, any advice I have is mere vapor. But if you hear with the Church’s ears, then you’ll make something good even out of bad advice. So if you started the five first principles of prayer without the Church, try them again after you’re properly connected. That’s the fine print, if you like. Those are the conditions for the guarantee.
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