Let me begin with a confession: I don’t pray well—often, but not well. Sure, I can manage my way through numerous Hail Mary’s each day (and quickly, too), as well as an occasional Divine Mercy Chaplet. Prayers before meals and before bedtime are regular. As an employee of the Diocese of La Crosse, I’m even blessed to work in a building where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved, so visits throughout the day to the chapel in the diocesan center are common.
But despite this “litany” of good deeds for the day, my prayer life often lacks depth and substance. At times, it even seems less than real.
The main obstacle keeping me from moving deeper into meditative prayer is the apparent silence of God. This, at least, was my complaint to Christ recently (and has been for some time): it seems like I do all of the talking! And when I am silent and listening, how do I know that the messages that I think I hear are really those of Christ—and not merely me talking to myself? Is my prayer just a fantasy?
Gratefully, I’ve received two consolations recently, two insights that have addressed this persistent power of silence as an entrée to the reality of God. The first comes from St. Teresa of Avila and her devotee, St. Alphonsus Liguori, in the now-classic book, Conversation With Christ: The Teaching of St. Teresa of Ávila about Personal Prayer, by Father Peter Thomas Rohrbach, O.C.D. St. Teresa says, “Soon after we have begun to force ourselves to remain near the Lord, he will give us indications that he heard us.” St. Alphonsus goes on to explain: “He does not, indeed, make himself heard in any voice that reaches your ears, but in a voice that your heart can well perceive.” I can attest that the “God who speaks,” as Pope Benedict calls him, speaks in private prayer in a particular way—one that is subtle, silent, and interior.
Still, the heart-to-heart conversations of private prayer are not the only ways God speaks to us. If it were, then I would continue to wonder if these “indications,” as St. Teresa calls them, were really of my own making. Yes, God speaks to us in the silence of the heart. But, no, God is not always so silent. Here’s where liturgical prayer is a helpful—indeed, necessary—supplement to private prayer.
“In the liturgy,” the Second Vatican Council says, “the sanctification of the man is signified by signs perceptible to the senses, and is effected in a way which corresponds with each of these signs” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 7). When we celebrate the Mass, or any sacrament or sacramental, or pray the Liturgy of the Hours, the silent voice of God becomes audible, and I no longer have to wonder if the words I hear are of my own making. They are, rather, audible words of the Word itself. They are no longer simply internal but have an objective, real existence outside of me.
The same holds true for each of the liturgy’s signs and symbols. The sights of the Mass—vestments, windows, the priest—are no longer images of my mind but images of God. The smell of incense around me is an olfactory invitation to heaven above me. The music sounds like angels and saints; the holy water feels like the water that once drowned me in the water from Christ’s side. The host (victim) I receive is a sacramental sign of the true body of Christ. In these and many other ways at the liturgy, God communes and communicates with us in verifiable, tactile, “haptic” ways (as Benedictine Father Eusebius Martis explains in his cover story).
In fact, the “silent” God of private prayer not only becomes sensible in liturgical prayer but even active and—if I can say it this way—“aggressive” at Mass. As mentioned above, receiving communion affords us the chance to have a real foretaste of heaven, but also of its banquet: the body and blood of the Lamb. But let’s go deeper. In his encyclical on the Eucharist, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, Pope John Paul II offers us another insight on receiving communion. He says, “We can say not only that each of us receives Christ, but also that Christ receives each of us” (22). Further (I can’t help but wonder), if Christ receives us, he must go on to digest and incorporate us into himself…. In a certain real sense, Christ transforms us into himself.
Prayer—Catholic prayer—is both silent and audible, interior and exterior, subjective and objective. Both dimensions are necessary. Such, at least, has been the insight and consolation that has come my way recently. The next time you attend Mass, for example, notice how the Incarnation of Christ continues to maintain its reality in the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tactile experiences of the liturgy.
In this fact I take consolation too: because God created us in such a way that we experience the world through our senses, he naturally gave us a liturgy that engages those same senses.
In this way, God truly does help us keep it real.
Christopher Carstens is director of the Office for Sacred Worship in the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin; a visiting faculty member at the Liturgical Institute at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, Illinois; editor of the Adoremus Bulletin; and one of the voices on The Liturgy Guys podcast. He is author of A Devotional Journey into the Mass and A Devotional Journey into the Easter Mystery (Sophia), as well as Principles of Sacred Liturgy: Forming a Sacramental Vision (Hillenbrand Books). He lives in Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin, with his wife and eight children.