The heart of Christian spirituality is the following of Christ. God became man in the person of Jesus Christ in order to show us by word and example how we are to live in this passing world on the road to eternity.
The single most important directive in the Gospels is the Savior's "follow me." It occurs in all four Evangelists.
The following of Christ, therefore, is practically a summary of Christianity. We are as good Christians as we are faithful followers of Jesus, no more and no less. Indeed, our fidelity to His person and teaching is another way of describing our loyalty in following Him.
But there is one gnawing question: How? As we read the great masters of the spiritual life they keep insisting on the necessity of following in the footsteps of the Divine Master. We accept this principle of Christian sanctity. But then we look around us at the world of noise and frenzied activity, of blaring voices in the media clamoring for attention, and millions of daily words poured out in print demanding to be read. We see the streets of our cities crowded with people and moving vehicles. We look at the sky and see planes traveling at speeds that were not even dreamed of at the beginning of this century. We find ourselves surrounded by human beings, like ourselves, who are pre-occupied with money and pleasure and "having a good time," and then we wonder. Our faith is tried to its roots as we compare the quiet words of the Savior, "Follow Me," with the allegedly real world in which we live.
How, we ask, can a believer in Christ be His devoted follower in an age that is so immersed in space and time as to seem oblivious of heaven and eternity and everything that Jesus stands for?
Not just a volume, but a library could be written in answering this question. Here only two recommendations will be made, which can be reduced to two imperatives: learn the secret of silence, and develop the art of mental prayer. Both are closely related and each one depends on the other. Yet they are not the same, and together they will give us some idea of how Christ can, indeed must, be followed in our day.
The Bible recommends silence so often, in so many ways, that it seems almost excessive in its praise of not using the tongue. Among the ancients, Judith and Esther Job and Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah tell of the beauties of silence and of how it pleases to Lord to receive from His faithful, the sacrifice of words unspoken and of thoughts that, for the love of Him are not expressed.
But the great revelation on the meaning of silence came only in the Person of Christ. He was the omnipotent Word of God whose utterance made the universe, yet He came into the world as the Infans, the speechless One, and remained so for months after His birth. Until the age of twelve we have no recorded words of the Savior, and after that silence for another eighteen years at Nazareth.
During his short public life He spoke often, but He also did not speak with men during the long hours He spent in quiet conversation with His Father.
At two dramatic points in His passion, His silence spoke with an eloquence that will be remembered for all time. He did not answer the accusations leveled against Him before Pilate and He did not say a word while Herod and the king's court mocked Him as an ignorant fool.
No wonder the apostle James made the astounding statement that "the only man who could reach perfection would be someone who never said anything wrong" (James 3:2). He would be able to control every part of himself. James knew. He had seen Christ in action and watched the dialectic between the Savior's speech and silence. Christ, he discovered, revealed Himself as perfect man in both ways: whenever He spoke, He had the right thing to say; when He was silent, He refrained from saying anything wrong.
If we are to imitate Christ in our day we must not be taken in by the prevalent philosophy of communication. Implicit in this philosophy, is the idea that the only valid (or valuable) source of knowledge is another human being. Ours is the most communicative culture in the history of the human race. But it is all communication between (or among) human persons.
What the Savior taught us, and wants us to follow His example, is to challenge the talkative, media-preoccupied world in which we live.
We must take time out from talking with people. We must provide for periods and places of silence. We have to "go apart" or "go away," even as Christ did, from the crowded world that clamors for attention to be seen and looked at, to be heard and listened to.
No two of us are in the same situation in this matter. Some have more freedom for planned solitude, and some have less. The duties of one's state of life differ for different people. But everyone should take stock of himself and allow himself freedom from the oppressive clamor that the world places on its devotees of communication.
The precondition for recollection of soul is silence. The purpose of this silence is to communicate with God.
By now, mental prayer has almost as many meanings as the authors who write about it. But mental prayer is the single most important quality that we should strive to imitate in our following of Christ.
Faith tells us that, as God, Christ was one in being with the Father. But we also know that, as man, Christ was in constant communion with the Father. To teach us the need for this communication with God, Jesus "retired into the desert and prayed" (Luke 5:16). On another occasion, "Having dismissed the multitude, He went into a mountain alone to pray. And when it was evening He was there alone" (Matthew 14:23). His long discourse at the Last Supper as narrated by St. John, was the spontaneous mental prayer that He allowed His disciples to overhear, and thus gave us the inspiration to pour out our hearts to God.
The following of Christ means the imitation of Christ. In our day, the virtues of Christ that we are to imitate are indispensable if we hope to remain Christians in a de-christianized society. In a world in which the self is idolized, we are to imitate His humility; where lust is canonized, we must emulate His chastity; where the accumulation of wealth is idealized, we must approximate His practice of poverty; where the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain are a norm of life, we must learn from His patience and, like Him, carry our daily cross, and where cruelty, even to the murder of unborn innocents is legalized, we must give witness to Christ's heroic charity.
All of these mean the following of Christ, the eternal Son of the eternal Father. He became man so that by imitating His life on earth we might become more like Him who is our God.
But the bedrock of all these virtues and the foundation of our following of Christ is His constant, prayerful union with God. Even as we write about Christ's prayerfulness, we realize that we are scratching on granite and trying to scale Mount Everest. It is a profound mystery that we can never fully comprehend. But we had better understand something of its meaning because on our imitation of Christ at prayer we are laying the groundwork for everything else in our spiritual life.
Unlike us, Christ did not have to pray for the graces that we sinners so desperately need. Yet He prayed in order to teach us that without conscious awareness of God's presence and without constant admission of our need for divine help, in a word, without mental prayer we cannot live up to the humanly impossible demands of God's will and certainly cannot become Christlike in our lives.
Notice, we are speaking of mental and not precisely vocal prayer.
Vocal prayer is the prayer in which we use the words of someone else, like the inspired prayers of the Psalms or the official prayers of the Sacred Liturgy. But in mental prayer we talk to God as our own mind, animated by His grace, is moved to speak with Him.
Call it spontaneous conversation or instinctive communication. By whatever name, mental prayer is the language of a soul in love with God, telling Him what we are thinking and sharing with Him the deepest sentiments of our heart.
It is on this level of the spirit that we are most perfectly imitating Christ.
Vocal prayer is not only useful. It is necessary. But if we are to imitate Jesus, the Master of prayer, we may not stop there. The saints became saints because they knew what this means. "There are persons," St. Catherine of Siena observed, "who pay attention to nothing except completing the Psalms and saying many Pater Nosters. When they have finished their appointed tale, they think of nothing more to do, but seem to place devout attention and affection in merely vocal prayer. If you ask me," she continues, "whether the soul should abandon vocal prayer, I say no. But the soul should gradually advance to mental prayer" (Dialogue on Prayer, 2).
St. Alphonsus Liguori compared the practice of vocal with mental prayer by contrasting their respective influence on a person's soul. By experience we see that many persons who recite a great number of vocal prayers, the Office and the Rosary, fall into sin and may even live in sin. But a person who practices mental prayer scarcely ever falls into grave sin, or if he does, have the misfortune of committing mortal sin. He will either give up mental prayer or repent of his sin. Meditation and sin cannot stand together (Selva II, 5).
The variety of forms which mental prayer can take is almost infinite. It can be meditation, or the planned reflection on some mystery of the faith, or examination of conscience as a periodic inventory of our service of God, or aspirations which are momentary acts of patience, humility or love according to the circumstances of divine providence and the inspirations of His grace.
What matters is that our thoughts should be turned to God and our wills intent on doing His will. This is what St. Paul meant when he told us to "pray without ceasing" (I Thessalonians 5:17). This, we are sure, is what Christ our Lord did during His stay on earth. He prayed always. This is mainly how we are to imitate Him in our day, even to the endless day of eternity.
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