St. Thérèse of Lisieux (1873-1897) considered prayer to be “a surge of the heart; it is a simple look toward heaven; it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy” (CCC, n. 2558). While it can take many forms, prayer can primarily be understood as a petition that is made to God because, as creatures, we are totally dependent upon Him. We beseech God for help in a variety of particular situations or for a special need. While God certainly listens to our prayers, He remains free to respond to the petition or not.
The early Church adopted the Jewish custom of audible, public prayers accompanied by the use of gestures, so that the Lord’s Prayer often served as the common thread of public prayer. In the ensuing centuries, prayer became more than vocal and public, it also became private and interior. This type of prayer was seen as the means by which an individual developed spiritually, from a mere beginner, through affective prayer, reaching a level of intimacy with God that is considered unitive. From pre-Christian times even to our own day, what constitutes a legitimate request for any prayerful petition to God has been the source of lively debate. Saint Augustine believed that it was proper to pray for whatever “can be lawfully desired.”
Another issue in regard to the object of our prayers is derived from the nature of God Himself—because God is omniscient, He knows our needs even before we ask His help. Saint Thomas Aquinas wrestled with the apparent conflict between divine knowledge and our asking. He concluded that prayer does not force God to do something that He has not already willed. To pray is to submit our human needs and desires to God. The intention needed is to cooperate with God in bringing about what He has decreed. There you have a certain attitude that we have to bring to every prayerful act and that is to fix our thoughts and minds on God alone.
In the East, at least, this requirement for intense concentration led to the development and repetition of short, intense formulæ for prayer that included the name of Jesus. Eventually, these demands coalesced into the Byzantine prayer of the heart and the best known example is the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” Those formulaic words, along with clearing the mind of all distractions, were thought to lead to the discovery of the Spirit—when that point is reached, merely human prayer becomes united with the prayer of the Spirit.
Initially, in Western Christianity, the practice of short, intense prayer also prevailed; however, during the High Middle Ages, longer periods of prayer came into vogue. Prayer became increasingly understood as our seeking after God and, thus, it came to be seen as a desire for the divine. As these practices took hold, differences between prayers of meditation and acts of contemplation became blurred and, so, various kinds of prayer emerged: discursive, affective, and contemplative styles of praying were identified. Moreover, a developmental notion of prayer classified stages in the deepening process of the spiritual life. The focus of petitionary prayer was also augmented by words of divine praise and acts of thanksgiving to God.
As the concept of prayer became more and more intricate, various methods developed, e.g., the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius. The Catholic tradition has always placed great emphasis on intercessory prayer—our prayers are also directed to the Virgin Mary and/or to the angels and saints. Prayer to the saints differs from the words that we address directly to God. God alone warrants our worship and adoration, which is the equivalent of the Greek term latreia (Gk. Λατρεία). Veneration of the saints is considered dulia (a Latinized form of Greek δουλεία or service). Hyperdulia is accorded to the Virgin Mary and to her alone, due to her singular grace-filled life.
In the encyclical Dives in misericordia, especially in Appendix A, Saint John Paul II sought to deepen the Church’s understanding of misericordia. Our English word mercy (Lat. misericordia) inadequately conveys the true biblical depth of that notion. In the Old Testament, the two Hebrew words hesed (or steadfast love) and rahamim constitute mercy’s biblical foundations. Hesed entails that a profound attitude of goodness must prevail in any given situation, so, if that attitude exists between two people, then the two become faithful to each another. When steadfast love or hesed is used to refer God, it is only used in reference to God’s original covenant with Israel—the supreme sign of Yahweh’s overflowing generosity and grace. Eventually, hesed acquired a juridical quality, when Israel broke the covenant and God’s legal obligation to the Chosen People technically ceased with those infidelities. Yet, therein, the divine form of hesed revealed its deeper qualities—a generous love that always remains so, as a divine love that is more powerful than repeated infidelity, and as an unearned grace that is stronger than sin.
The second Hebrew word used for mercy is rahamim (or womb-love) that serves to illustrate the love of a mother and also describes the unique bond (viz. the particular love) between the woman who is with child and the child in her womb. Such maternal love exists without merit and, as truly heart-felt, rahamim gives rise to both moral goodness and maternal tenderness, not to mention it also creates patience and understanding. These are all the prerequisites which are essential for someone or anyone to become eager to forgive.
Within the writings of the New Testament, the Greek word eleos is the term that those sacred authors used for mercy and, as a result, eleos (lit. “oil that is poured out”) can be understood as implying loving kindness or divine compassion. One form of the Penitential Rite is the use of the Greek Kyrie eleison and Christe eleison. In preparation for offering God true worship, the Church begs the Lord to pour out His merciful love, like holy oil from above, on those assembled before the altar of sacrifice.
Within the Catholic liturgical tradition, the key word for mercy is misericordia, which literally means a “wretched heart.” As a true virtue, misericordia entails a heart-felt reaction to another individual’s suffering coupled with a willingness to do whatever is necessary to help relieve the cause of their pain or suffering. The contemporary understanding of mercy as pity differs sharply from the divine or biblical version. In modern usage, mercy has an air of condescension, whereas mercy’s divine form that we should have is a powerful feeling, welling up from inner attitudes of tenderness and love, such that mercy is akin to a wretched heart that aches for the suffering that has prompted that reaction in the first place. This gut-wrenching sensation is the impetus for concrete action to relieve and heal whatever has precipitated another’s suffering—the Lord’s mercy is like that and, of course, even deeper and much more profound.
In the Apostolic Constitution Paenitemini, Pope Paul VI significantly altered the formerly strict Lenten fast and reorganized the rules governing penitence. The Pope reaffirmed that “Lent preserves its penitential character” and that Ash Wednesday and all the Fridays of Lent are to be observed as days of penitence. The manner in which penitence must be observed on such days by abstaining from meat on all the Fridays of Lent and by “abstinence and fast...on Ash Wednesday…the first day of “Grande Quaresima” (Great Lent) and on Good Friday” (Paenitemini, Ch. III).
The practice of fasting is a common practice in a variety of religions. Whenever we fast, it must be placed within its biblical framework: Fasting is both the prelude and the means to a deeper spiritual life for those who engage in it. Thomas Langan, in his book The Catholic Tradition, wrote, “….medieval man enjoyed an understanding [that] for the material order to be disciplined by the higher order of the spirit, the body becoming forced to submit to the intellectual will. Hence the emphasis on fasting and penance, practices of ascesis, in order to control the unruly passions that tend to bog down in the nearest materially desirable object, and to order the will by building up strong habits (“virtues”) enlightened by the Word of God, to fulfill the Lord’s mission” (p. 187).
Broadly understood, fasting is willingly refraining from enjoying something that is known to be good. In ordinary use, to fast can be partial, which means to restrict the amount or kind of food that is eaten or fasting can be complete or a total fast. Though fasting appears to be a physical act, in fact, it is meant to really be a spiritual undertaking. Saint Thomas Aquinas ascribed a three-fold purpose to any fast: (1) fasting tames our desires; (2) fasting enhances the mind’s ability to contemplate divine or spiritual realities; and (3) it is an act that serves as satisfaction for our sinfulness.
While Pope, Benedict XVI encouraged the faithful to not simply fast out of selfish reasons, but to see fasting as an act linked to the benefit of others. The Pope Emeritus envisioned fasting as spiritual armor that “mortifies our selfishness and makes us sympathetic to those who have little.” Pope Benedict added this, “In our own day, fasting seems to have lost something of its spiritual meaning, and has taken on, in a culture characterized by the search for material well-being, a therapeutic value for the care of one's body. Fasting certainly bring benefits to physical well-being, but for believers, it is, in the first place, a 'therapy' to heal all that prevents them from conformity to the will of God.”
Abstinence from Eating Meat
All Catholics, 14 years or older, must abstain from meat (beast or fowl) on all the Fridays of Lent and on Ash Wednesday. This does not prohibit the use of laticineria (viz. eggs or milk products) nor condiments, even if they are made from animal fat.
Fasting is required for Catholics between18 years of age and who are not yet observed their 59th birthday. Those who are subject to the obligation to fast may take only one full meal. While two smaller meals (or collations) are allowed to maintain strength and according to particular circumstances, these two collations should not equal one full meal. On fast days, eating solid foods between meals is not permitted. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are the only two fast days required; though fasting is encouraged throughout Lent.
Paschal Fast Includes Abstinence
The paschal fast should be observed on Good Friday. According to the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, “The Paschal Fast must be kept sacred. It should be celebrated everywhere on Good Friday, and where possible should be prolonged throughout Holy Saturday (SC, n. 110). Since Lent officially ends on Holy Thursday, this is no longer a Lenten fast after the Evening Mass of the Lord’s Supper; no, this is a fast of anticipation—the most ancient act of fasting known to the Church. It is highly recommended to extend the paschal fast until the Easter Vigil. Regardless of the nature or duration of fasting, restricting what we eat, when we eat and how much is eaten should be seen as the minimal response to the Lord’s call to live this Lenten season as a time of penance and conversion.
Lent is the ideal time for interior repentance—the radical re-orienting of our lives to God and a turning away from sin. Repentance entails a degree of spiritual affliction. Interior penance is expressed externally by prayer, almsgiving and fasting. It is a time for a more frequent examination of conscience, increased acts of devotion (e.g., attending daily Mass), self-denial that lead to forgiveness of sins and Easter joy!
Rev. Msgr. Peter R. Beaulieu, M.A., S.T.L.