What Is Prayer Before the Blessed Sacrament?
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
December 29, 1987
Our present conference, the first of two, will
be on prayer before the Blessed Sacrament.
As we come to the end of our series of conferences on the
priestly spirituality of Father Gerald, we approach what I consider the heart
of his distinctive spirituality. For Father the soul of the spiritual life
is devotion to the Holy Eucharist and the fountain head of this devotion is
the Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. I plan therefore to give
two conferences on this large subject. In the present conference I suggest
that we ask two questions. What is prayer before the Blessed Sacrament? What
are we talking about? And then, why is prayer before the Blessed Sacrament?
What are we talking about? And then, why is prayer before the Blessed Sacrament
so important in the spiritual life of the priest, the religious and the believing
faithful Catholic? In the next conference, we will reflect on how - how should
we pray before the Blessed Sacrament. Our focus here therefore is on the What
and the Why.
What is Prayer Before the Blessed Sacrament?
What is prayer before the Blessed Sacrament? First,
a general answer. Prayer before the Blessed Sacrament is prayer offered to
Jesus Christ, present in the Holy Eucharist, while the person praying is physically
present in the Church or Chapel; in other words, Christs physical presence
is met by our physical presence. We begin by observing that Christ present
in the Holy Eucharist is truly conscious of our being there and we are to be
correspondingly conscious of His being, should I say, here. The key to what
is prayer before the Blessed Sacrament is that two persons are each physically
present to the other. The crucial word, I think, in this expression, Prayer
before the Blessed Sacrament is the preposition before. A few synonyms; in
front of, physically near, geographically close, bodily present, actually in
the vicinity of - one reason, by the way, that the Church even with the discovery
of our marvelous, modern communications media, has not said that a person would
really be present at Mass while watching Mass celebrated a wonderful experience
the point is, you have to be there. However, even as we emphasize the physical
presence in explaining the word before, this word before is not merely a bodily
proximity, it is also and, with emphasis, a spiritual before; as I like to put
it, it is not only proximity but intimacy. But lets not cheapen or weaken
that physical proximity that I would say is the conditio sine qua non,
the condition without which Im not really present as the Church understands
being present before the Blessed Sacrament, unless I am there physically where
Christ is physically.
But not only, it is not mere physical presence, thus as is
obvious we can be bodily close to someone and yet be elsewhere spiritually.
Ive called on too many students over the years wrapped, I thought, in attention.
They were wrapped in attention all right but not at what I was saying. And
conversely we can be bodily far from someone and yet spiritually very near.
My favorite definition of spirit which I keep repeating is: that reality which
is independent of space and time. So much for the word before. Moreover, we
said this is prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. This means communication.
We are so used to using the word communication as a one-sided enterprise that
we forget the essence of communication is exchange. Communication from Christ
being really present is presumed but communication from us to Him, ah! That
must be voluntarily entered and what may be harder - and voluntarily sustained.
What the adverb voluntarily means, Ive got to use my will. To do what? To
tell my mind; Will you please pay attention to the one in whose presence you
are. Prayer is a necessary conversation. God as God is constantly communication
from His side to His rational creatures. In fact we call this in theology,
actual graces that God is constantly pouring out in the form of enlightening
our minds and strengthening our wills, but is especially, to put it mildly,
communication when we are present to Him. And of course when He is present
to us. So much for the what. Now the why.
Why We Should Pray Before the Blessed Sacrament?
The basic reason why we should pray before the
Blessed Sacrament, is because Christ wants it. And before I go into an analysis
of what we find in revelation and the Churchs teaching, you might say it stands
to reason what do people want when they come to visit or you happen to meet
them? We want people to say something. What we are dealing with, however,
in this why, is of the substance of our faith. First, lets remind ourselves,
God is God and in the world that He made from the moment that He made it. Otherwise,
to use a crude expression, God would have stepped out of the world, well, that
would have been the end of the world. That God became Man in order to be with
us, (we use prepositions, like with or before and dont give them a second thought)
God became Man in order to be with us in a depth and intimacy that until He
had become Man, quite frankly, God had not yet manifested to the world. That
is why I like Father Geralds Christology. As you know we believe on faith
that God became man in order that as Man He might suffer and die and thus redeem
the world. De facto God became Man in order as Man He might suffer and die
and thus merit our salvation. But may we ask, if man had not sinned subjunctive
mood would God nevertheless have become Man? Many great minds and doctors
of the Church say, yes! St. Francis De Sales and Father Gerald. But no matter
how we answer that question, whether God would have become Man even though man
had not sinned, which is a speculative question, again de facto, having become
man, did God become Man only that He might suffer and die and thus redeem the
world? And the answer is no. God became man indeed that by His Passion and
death the world might be redeemed, but having become man and knowing that He
would become Man, He decided what He did not have to do. He decided that before
He would die He would change the common elements of bread and wine into, and
this is our faith, Himself. But not only that, He gave His Apostles the power
that He alone possessed, as God, but as God He had the corresponding power to
confer. God therefore became man for two reasons. He became man that in His
human nature, He might die on the Cross and redeem the world. But he also became
man that God in His human nature might remain on earth until the end of time.
And behind that divine purpose He is all we are talking about when we are talking
about prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. Because what are we saying? We
are, with all of the infallibility of the Church of God behind us, affirming
prayer before the Blessed Sacrament is prayer before the living, physical, bodily
Jesus Christ on earth. Having said that, we go on.
People Drew Close to Christ in the Gospels
As we read the Gospels and, by the way, it is always
good whenever we read the Gospels to look for something. Otherwise, the odds
are, we may perchance find something. If you reread the Gospels, looking for
what we are talking about, what do we find? During His visible stay on earth
and look, the only difference between Christs stay on earth before His ascension
and His stay on earth now in the Eucharist, is that in the first case, it was
visible, sensibly perceptible, to the eyes of His contemporaries and now He
is just as really, just and completely, just as wholly present, only now perforce
we are unable with our bodily eyes to see Him. Ah, my friends that is what
faith is for. Back to the Gospels. During His visible stay on earth, Christ
wanted and my notes underline wanted Christ wanted those geared
to Him to be always near to Him. Reread the four Evangelists and you will
be surprised at how the principle that Ive expressed is so frequently and sometimes
dramatically manifest. For example, Johns Gospel, just before the resuscitation
of her brother Lazarus, Martha had been engaged in conversation with Jesus,
mildly but nevertheless in effect reprimanding the Savior; Lord, why didnt
you come sooner? I like to quote the expression: by this time he stinketh.
Then Christ told her that He was the Resurrection and the Life and in the very
words that Peter had used in the Gospel of Matthew, Martha used, and told Him;
I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God. Then, perhaps surprisingly,
because John does not bring it out, but we can infer from what Martha then did.
She walks away from Jesus and, says John, she quietly went over to her sister
Mary and told her - memorize this said Martha; The Master is here and He
is calling for you. It is a physical, geographic, bodily presence of Jesus
and however He manifested His desire, Martha drew the conclusion that Jesus
wants Mary to be there too. During Christs public ministry, how many times
Jesus made sure that His disciples were near. Again, reread the Gospels, compare
the way our Lord deals with the multitude, as we know on occasions, thousands,
thats quite a crowd, then, we are told, He would call His disciples to be near
Him, so that He might tell them what He had not told the multitude. Indeed,
go back to the Gospel of St. Matthew, verify for yourself. The Beatitudes.
The Beatitudes were not given to the multitude. Of course they were intended
for all of Christs followers but their primary communication was to the disciples,
so they in turn, as Christ told them right after He finished giving them the
Beatitudes, told them; You are the light of the world. You are the salt of
the earth. They having received the Beatitudes, when they were physically
close, near to the Master. There is far more here than symbolism. There is
much more here than symbolism. There is much more here than even religious
poetry. We are touching on the mystery of Gods love for man when we say, that
God became man in order to be in such intelligible words as we can use in
order to be nearer than He would have been had He never become Man. And having
become Man, and I keep repeating, and remaining as Man is the humanity of Jesus
Christ which is the raison detre of the Real Presence. We are asking
ourselves, why? He wants us to respond in kind in that He became Man in order
to be nearer to us than humanly speaking He would have been had He not become
Incarnate. This is God. He wants us, then - we must use the comparative degree
- to, be nearer to Him with the physical proximity of a body as the expression
of the spiritual intimacy of the spirit. Dont we as human beings, someone
who is near and dear to us, we want to be close, we want to touch, we want to
embrace? All of this transferred by our being near Him, with Him, because thats
why He is here.
Still on the Gospels. More than once we read in
the Evangelist that people were so close to Him now lets be frank, if Christ
had not wanted it, it would not happen people shoved, they pushed. Now the
classic passage in the New Testament. During His agony in the Garden, Christ
selectively chose the three that were dearest to Him, even among the Apostles,
Peter, James, and John. He told them to watch and pray. So what do they do?
O they were all right but they fell asleep. And ever since Christ, we hardly
want to say admonished them, poured out His heart and told them; Could you
not watch one hour with me? In other words Christ wanted, past tense, He wants,
present tense, He wants us to be near to Him. After the Resurrection, Christ
made sure that the disciples saw Him, that they heard Him, that they had a chance
to eat with Him and, indeed, to be fed by Him and now with the doubting Apostle
Christ did not have to say but He did we are not really sure what Thomas
did. We can safely believe that He was so overwhelmed that although he was
told; Thomas, you said that you would not believe unless you placed your fingers
in the wounds of My hand and placed your hand into my side. I repeat, we dont
know whether Thomas took Christ at His word. What we do know is, that even
Thomas was convinced and what Thomas said to Jesus, is the clearest, most explicit,
most unqualified affirmation of Christs divinity in all of Revelation; My
Lord and my God. Clearly Jesus wanted now we change the verb wants, those
who are dear to Him, to also be near to Him.
Miracles in Favor of Those Close to Christ
We go on. However, as we go over the miracles
performed by Christ in the Gospels, what do we find? We find with no exception
this is now answering the question why on another level than the one we
have just seen why prayer before the Blessed Sacrament? Because, as we see
from all four Evangelists, Christ performed His miracles in favor of people
who listen selectively drew near to Him. Could Christ perform, and did
He on occasions as we say in Latin, miracles in distancia (at a distance)?
Christ is God but time and time again, the people came close to Him and He came
He couldnt have been more close to those whom He healed. And for me the
most outspoken and explicit manifestation of how Christ wants people to be near
Him in order that by their manifestation of faith through the physical proximity,
He might then work miracles in their favor, for me the most outstanding wonder
He worked remember? was the woman with years long hemorrhage. Somehow,
must have crawled through the crowd and (talk about being near) tugged at His
cloak. But the important thing is the statement that Christ spoke; Who touched
me? Then weve heard this so many times; Master who touched You? They are
pushing, shoving; who touched Me? No, said Jesus, and this is the key; I
felt power going out from Me, because the woman touched Me. Am I clear? Dont
tell me that physical nearness is merely symbolic. Oh no, oh no. It is a divinely
ordained condition of our faith for the same Wonder-Worker of Nazareth to work
His miracles in Jemez Springs. And dont tell me the cities and small towns
of America dont need miracles.
I am almost but
not quite finished, for the obvious reason theres too much here. We repeat
our question. Why does Christ want us to pray before the Blessed Sacrament?
Because we thus satisfy the primary purpose that Christ has in being on earth
in the Holy Eucharist. That purpose is to honor and praise God, and God is
here with a plentitude in which, thats our faith, He is not present anywhere
else except where the Real Presence exists. Why does He want us to pray before
the Blessed Sacrament? To honor and praise God become man and to obtain from
Him the graces that God became Man to confer, and listen, that God became man
to confer through His humanity. And now we could begin a whole new series of
conferences. All the grace, all the grace, all the grace the human race receives
comes from God but through the humanity that God assumed. Just as it was that
human nature which redeemed the world in the first place, so it is the human
nature here now on earth through which the graces of that redemption are communicated.
Ah, communicated but we must add, conditionally, conditioned on our faith in
His Presence, and our faith in putting our faith into practice by also being
present where He is present, so that He through His humanity might give us what
we human beings so desperately and constantly need.
Lord Jesus, You became man to redeem the world
on Calvary but You are in the Blessed Sacrament in order that the ocean of merit
that You won for us on the Cross might be poured out on a sinful, suffering
human race. Teach us, dear Jesus, to realize that You are here and want us
to be here too, so that believing in You, being near You, we might obtain from
you, what will make us happy even in this valley of tears and assure us that
everlasting experience of living in the Real Presence unveiled. Amen.
Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica