Let's begin from a classic definition by St. Thomas Aquinas: "Oratio est proprie religionis actus" - prayer is properly the act of religion ("Summa Theologiae" II-II, q. 83, a. 3). This definition is still recognized today as universally valid in the area of the history of religions, in terms that are paradoxically broader even than the recognition of the relationship of religion with a personal God [...].
Buddhism remains the most significant instance of a great religion that has no room for a personal God, but traces everything back to the undifferentiated "Nothing," in which any "I" and any "you" dissolves, including a purported divine "You."
In this instance, prayer changes its nature so to speak, and becomes a "mysticism" (in a sense rather different from Christian mysticism), meaning a journey that leads from distinction to non-distinction, and finally presents itself as the very experience of non-distinction, which is claimed to constitute the supreme and decisive reality, the only truly binding reality, in the area of religion.
But in the perspective of the history and phenomenology of religion, this does not seem to be the approach to natural, spontaneous prayer, which is instead that of addressing the divine as a "You," as radically superior, mysterious, and ineffable as this is, with which in any case we can enter into relationship – and it with us – in order to obtain its favor and be protected from the threats and snares of life, but also in order to honor it in its greatness and recognize our radical debt toward it, or to adore it.
The function of prayer consists precisely in making possible and realizing this mysterious relationship. And myth, or better the myths, especially the creation myths, can be considered as the explicative and interpretive context in which humanity has structured and justified for many millennia such a relationship with the divine.
GREEK CRITICISM OF MYTHOLOGY
Five or six centuries before Christ, however, a rational and philosophical criticism of mythology was developed in Greece, which tends to replace it with "logos," rational argument concerning knowledge of the reality of ourselves and the world, while leaving it room to guide the lives of those who are not capable of taking full advantage of "logos," and also, in part, in order to reach those higher realities which the "logos" of man cannot grasp with certainty.
In any case, Greek philosophy is not "atheistic," at least in its most prevalent and significant forms. On the contrary, it also describes itself as "theology": a theology that is no longer mythical, but "physical," natural, in the sense that it rationally grasps the true nature of the divine.
It would be too hasty to say that this philosophical theology is genuinely monotheistic, but it nonetheless conceives of the supreme reality as unitary, or as the One at the summit of reality. The problem is that this One or Absolute as such is not "accessible" to us: precisely because of its absolute transcendence, we cannot enter into relationship with it, and therefore prayer, a fundamental act and attitude of the religious man, cannot be addressed to it.
Prayer can find meaning and justification only on a different level, in relationship with our essential and social needs, in concretely addressing those gods who are in reality only images of the Absolute, constructed for us and in view of out needs.
It is interesting to note that at the same time, during the 6th century B.C., but in a very different geographical and cultural area, Buddhism emerged, which can also be understood as a criticism of the previous forms of mythological religion, and which also leaves no room for prayer as a personal relationship with a divine You.
But also during the same period, an equally radical criticism of polytheism was developed by the prophets of Israel, in particular by Second Isaiah (Is. 40-55), in conjunction with the end of the Davidic monarchy and the Babylonian exile.
But this was a profoundly different criticism, not based on human reason like that of Greek philosophy, nor on mystical experience like that of Buddhism, but rather on the direct revelation of the one God who, through the prophet, addresses the people of Israel.
Faith in Yahweh as the one true God and the exclusive relationship with him certainly have much more ancient roots, having to do with the very origin of Israel as a people, but the extremely serious crisis constituted by the exile in Babylon and the end of national independence, which in itself tended to bring into question the power of Israel's God – defeated, according to the mentality of the time, by the gods of Babylon – was instead an opportunity to respond by further developing and deepening faith in him as Creator of the universe and the one true God of all the nations.
We can also say that it was only in Israel that we encounter monotheism in the proper and full sense, the essence of which consists not simply in the affirmation of the unicity of a supreme Being, but also in its "accessibility," in being able to relate to him and pray to him, and in the consequent exclusion of the worship of other divinities.
Thus from the outset biblical revelation overcame the separation that plagued religion in classical antiquity, putting back together the one God who reveals himself to us, the absolute Being which the philosophers had reached in some way, and those divinities which could still be worshipped, but had been reduced by philosophical criticism to a myth devoid of reality and substance.
In a historical-religious perspective, a divorce seems to have taken place in certain regards many millennia earlier: in fact, belief in a supreme Being can be found in almost all of the ancient peoples and myths, but gradually this supreme God seems to have withdrawn from the world and from men, to have lost interest in them and given up his power to inferior divinities, thus becoming a "Deus otiosus," an idle God, and as such less and less an object of prayer.
Biblical revelation thus presents itself as a tremendous, decisive shift in the history of religion and of the religions: the supreme God now takes the initiative, bursts onto the world stage and into the life of man, presenting himself as a "jealous God" who wants prayer, worship, and adoration for himself alone, because he alone is God, and everything else is his creation.
In the Old Testament, therefore, prayer originates in the initiative of God who speaks to man, who responds in turn: "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening," says the young Samuel (1 Sam. 3:9).
Prayer is thus a presentation of oneself before the living God, and its fundamental motive is the covenant that God has sealed with his people and that requires consistency of life, faithful observance of the law that God has given. T
he ethical and communal dimensions are therefore in the forefront: but when, as I have mentioned, the national community enters into crisis – because of its stubborn infidelity to the covenant – the personal character of prayer takes on greater prominence, as can be seen in many of the psalms.
THE PRAYER OF JESUS
Another breakthrough in prayer – the decisive breakthrough – takes place with Jesus of Nazarath, and first of all with his personal prayer, in which his relationship with God the Father is expressed: a unique relationship that in some way ushers us into the mystery of God, because the man Jesus of Nazareth is, and knows that he is, the Son totally oriented toward the Father, the Son whose food it is to do the will of the Father (John 4:34), the Son who is truly known only by the Father and who in turn is the only one who truly knows the Father (Mt. 11:27), in the final analysis the Son who in the unity of reciprocal love is one with the Father (John 10:30).
The early Church kept in its original Aramaic form the crucial word with which Jesus addressed God in prayer, "Abbà," which means Father with a note of profound intimacy united with great respect and dedication.
Jesus himself brought his disciples into his own prayer and into his relationship with the Father, to the point of teaching them that prayer – the "Our Father" – which remains forever the fundamental and distinctive prayer of the Christian.
We will limit ourselves to observing that its first three petitions concern God himself, the recognition and adoration that, as children, we we owe to him, while the other four concern our hopes, our needs, and our difficulties.
In the New Testament as in the Old, prayer implies and therefore requires consistency of life, specifically the unity between love of God and love of neighbor, a unity that is radicalized in the New Testament: "whatever you did for the least of my brothers, you did it for me" (Mt. 25:40).
As Benedict XVI wrote in his JESUS OF NAZARETH: "The more the depths of our souls are directed toward God, the better we will be able to pray. The more prayer is the foundation that upholds our entire existence, the more we will become men of peace. The more we can bear pain, the more we will be able to understand others and open ourselves to them" (pp. 129-130, Italian edition).
THE PRAYER OF THE CHURCH
In the history and life of the Church, prayer has had and continues to have a prominent place, which becomes fully visible only to those who experience it personally, or directly study the historical documents about it.
This prayer is structured above all as liturgy, the public and communal prayer of the Church which, united with Jesus Christ, addresses God the Father in the Holy Spirit.
Here emerges in all its poignancy the specifically Trinitarian character of Christian prayer, as participation and immersion in the relationship that Christ has with God the Father in the Holy Spirit's bond of love.
We are immersed, or raised up, in a life that is not ours as men, as creatures, but is the life of God, and the God to whom we turn in the liturgy is not a generic God, and not even properly the one and triune God, but God the Father of Jesus Christ, and in Christ, the Father of us all.
In Christian prayer, moreover, the public and communal dimension and the intimate personal dimension lead to one another and grow together: the "we" of the Church's prayer accompanies a listening to that God who sees in secret, and whom we are called to encounter in the isolation of our room and in the secrecy of our heart (Mt. 6:5-6).
Over the course of the centuries, this personal character of prayer has been expressed in many ways, often sublime, which remain a precious treasure, as the humble expressions of popular piety also remain precious.
Another major characteristic of Christian prayer concerns its "mystical" dimension. I am not referring only to the great mystics in whom the Church is exceptionally rich, but more radically to the specific character of Christian mysticism, as we are able to identify it already in the writings of the apostles Paul and John.
It is directly connected to what we have mentioned about the prayer of Jesus and his relationship with God the Father. The Johannine formula of the reciprocal "remaining in," according to which the Father is in the Son and the Son in the Father, as believers are called to remain in the Father and in the Son, while the Father and the Son remain in them (John 17:21), expresses in an unparalleled manner that union with God which is the heart of all authentic mysticism.
Here, however, union with God follows the gift of himself that Christ accomplished in history on the cross, and demands the ethical concreteness of practical love of one's brethren: "If we love one another, God remains in us, and his love is brought to perfection in us . . . Whoever does not love a brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen" (1 John 4:12,20).
It is not, therefore, a mysticism that is closed in on itself. On the contrary, it has descended upon history and demands conversion, the transformation of life.
THE MODERN OBJECTIONS
At this point, however, we must take into consideration the many difficulties that prayer has encountered beginning in the modern age, especially in traditionally Christian countries.
Some of these have to do with ideas and convictions, and for a long time were not very widespread at the popular level. They are fundamentally of three types.
The first difficulties emerge from the denial of the existence of God, or at least from an agnostic position: one could think, for example, of the materialism already present in some strands of 18th century Enlightenment thought, then in Feuerbach and Marxism. But even the forms of pantheism that were revived starting with Spinoza do not leave any real room for prayer.
The second type of difficulty does not bring into question God, meaning the "You" to whom prayer is addressed, but considers him inaccessible to a personal relationship with us. For example, Kant, although he retains the Christian concept of God to a great extent, considers prayer a "superstitious illusion" ("La religione nei limiti della sola ragione", M. M. Olivetti (ed.), 1993, p. 217), and with him many others, who believe that only a natural religion common to all men is true and authentic, not a revealed religion.
We thus arrive at the third cause of difficulty, which consists of opposition to Christianity. At first, this mainly concerned the Church as an institution and its social power, but then it gradually extended to bringing into question the central elements of the faith, like the divinity of Christ and the very possibility of an intervention by God in history.
In this regard, we spontaneously think of the Enlightenment, especially in France, but the most radical and historically effective criticism of Christianity may have been conducted in Germany during the 19th century, as demonstrated capably by the book by K. Löwith "From Hegel to Nietzsche: the revolution in nineteenth century thought."
In particular, this criticism involved the historical reliability of the figure of Christ presented to us by the Gospels.
It is easy to understand how much all of this could and can obstruct that trusting and filial relationship with Jesus Christ and with God the Father which is proper to Christian prayer.
THE CHALLENGE OF SECULARIZATION
The difficulties that have had the largest impact on ordinary people, however, do not depend on ideas and theories, but on the enormous changes that have taken place over the past few centuries, at an increasingly rapid pace, concerning the concrete conditions of our lives.
I am referring to the Industrial Revolution, and to the great transformations that followed it, which had their engine in the development of the modern sciences and the technologies connected to them.
The world that is derived from this and of which we have direct experience presents itself to us increasingly as the work of man, and less and less as "nature," which points back to its Creator.
The process of change is even more vast than this, because it gradually embraces social relations and institutions, the sciences, and in general, the public use of reason. These are restored exclusively to the intelligence and freedom of man, removing them from the influence of God and religion.
This macro-process, which is called "secularization," found its classic expression as early as 1625 with the formula coined by a great Dutch jurist, himself a devout believer, Hugo Grotius: "etsi Deus non daretur," even if God did not exist.
The meaning of the formula is that natural law, and the ordering of the world in general, maintain their validity even in the hypothesis – absolutely impious for Grotius – that God did not exist.
The practical consequence is the tendency to reduce the relationship with God solely to the personal and private sphere, which is theorized today through a restrictive interpretation of the concept of "secularism."
To be concrete, we must add the great and almost suffocating negative influence of the daily commotion, the idolatry of money and success, the ostentation of sexuality as an end in itself. In this way prayer is in danger of being suffocated not only at the public level, but also within our hearts.
In the dynamism of history, these different factors necessarily interact among themselves, and at times converge in the attempt to eliminate religion and prayer from the horizon of humanity. One of the major attempts of this kind belongs to the recent past, although in some areas of the world it is still very active, while the other belongs to the present day.
The first is the state atheism systematically promoted by the communist regimes. It is rightly observed that this attempt has failed, because faith and prayer have survived its attack, and in certain ways even demonstrate a new vitality in the countries that have passed through this experience.
But this is only one part of the story: the damage and destruction caused have, in fact, left profound consequences for the human and moral fabric of many persons and of entire societies, and also, specifically, for their anchoring in Christianity.
Today, in any case, our attention must be turned above all to a phenomenon that is much more complex, subtle, and impalpable than state atheism.
It is the attempt to present religion and prayer on the one hand as something without an objective foundation, because God does not exist, or anyway is not knowable to us, or at least does not have a personal character that would make him accessible to us.
On the other hand, however, religion and prayer could be explained fairly well as one of our psychological functions, based in specific areas of our brain, seeking to meet our need for protection and security, and in the past may have played a positive role in the survival and evolution of our species.
I note incidentally that this obscures a fundamental characteristic of religious and moral experience: when this is authentic, it relates to the Absolute and therefore cannot be completely explained by virtue of relative and contingent purposes without being misunderstood and denied in its true essence.
Prayer and religious experience do, in fact, propose other aims, knowingly or unknowingly, and can contribute to obtaining them, but only according to the logic of "seek first the kingdom of God and his justice, and all these things will be given to you as well" (Mt. 6:33).
Concretely, the influence of religion and of faith in one God in particular is often considered harmful today.
A public role for these, in fact, is believed to compromise freedom of behavior and even to create opposition among men and peoples according to the different faiths that they profess, to the point of becoming a source of violence.
Even on the personal level, religion is believed to be a cause of unhappiness, provoking feelings of guilt and repressing the joy of living.
PRAYER AS A SERIOUS MATTER OF FAITH
This is not the place to address the many problems obstructing the exercise of prayer in our day. It is right to acknowledge that these have not gone by without leaving a mark, and that many people, including those who are believers in some way, have lost the meaning and enjoyment of prayer, in addition to its practice: although they sometimes spontaneously ask others to pray for them, demonstrating that they still have at least a slight appreciation and perhaps a certain nostalgia for prayer.
However, there is also evidence of the opposite phenomenon: a growing number of people, especially among the young, are thirsty for prayer and are making courageous decisions in order to satisfy it.
One confirmation comes from the increase, including in Italy and Europe, of contemplative vocations, which is rather significant in a period in which vocations to the priestly and active religious life are instead, unfortunately, falling in these countries.
In any case, beyond the numbers of the statistics, and also beyond all the difficulties and influences that can come from the sociocultural context, prayer, like faith, is a personal choice, in which the last word belongs to our freedom.
Or better, in a Christian perspective, there are two forms of freedom at play in prayer and faith, that of God first of all, and subordinately that of man.
For this reason, although it is useful and necessary to dispel as much as possible the fog that currently makes the horizon of prayer hard to see in our culture, the more important thing, for each of us, it is the reality and quality of our personal prayer.
On this personal and almost confidential level, I would like to tell you that in my experience the very exercise of prayer increases the desire for it and makes faith stronger, more secure and joyful.
In his Introduction to the faith, a brief book published almost forty years ago, theologian and now Cardinal Walter Kasper wrote a few pages on prayer that are still highly relevant.
Their title is "Prayer as a serious matter of faith." They express the essence of the act of faith in its most concrete form, and also unite, as in a critical point, all of the contemporary causes of the crisis of faith.
In prayer, first of all, we address God as "you": but does it still make sense today to understand God as a person? This is the fundamental reason why, forty or fifty years ago, Protestant theologians and even the Anglican bishop John A.T. Robinson, in the book Honest to God, maintained that prayer understood in the proper sense must now be replaced by dedication to our neighbor.
In reality, if one thing is clear in the entire Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, it is that God is supremely intelligent and free, and that he takes the initiative of personally approaching us. He is not, therefore, impersonal, but eminently personal, in a way that certainly surpasses infinitely the human way of being a person, just as any other category can be applied to God only by infinitely surpassing the measures of our concepts.
Even more than this, the God of Jesus Christ is interpersonal love, a communion of persons, and precisely in this way is perfect unity. But even on the rational level, to deny that God is a person means reducing him to an obscure and necessary backdrop for existence, and therefore paradoxically means denying his transcendence, which instead was intended to be safeguarded.
Moreover, if at the root of being there is not intelligence and freedom, the entire universe cannot be anything but blind necessity, and therefore there can no longer be any room for our intelligence, freedom, and personality.
We can add, again with Walter Kasper, that God's personality and his distinction from the world, which are essential to the faith, have their practical corollary in the distinction of prayer from the rest of life.
This does not at all mean that prayer is indifferent to our situations, needs, and expectations, nor that all of our life should not be oriented toward God as a form of prayer, but that prayer itself, in order to be rooted within us, needs to have its autonomy with respect to the other moments of life and all of our actions.
Precisely in the autonomy of its direct relationship with God, prayer makes us free and capable of seeing all the realities of life clearly, in order to face them not from a selfish perspective, but in the light of the merciful love of God the Father.
Prayer is therefore the lived refutation of purely immanentist thinking, which can no longer find the right way to the Creator, and also of that idolatry of action and its results, which leaves no room for the experience of the gratuitous and the discovery of the most beautiful side of life.
If from God we pass to the other pole of prayer, which is we ourselves, our time appears to be characterized by a genuine explosion of subjectivity: each of us wants to be above all himself, and to decide by himself his own path in life, although often he ends up as a prisoner of a well orchestrated conformism.
Christian prayer requires the opening of this subjectivity of ours, above all toward God, the encounter with whom infinitely expands our horizons, cleansing them from a false absolutization of ourselves.
The fact that God has revealed himself to us and, in Jesus Christ, has shown us his face – as Jesus said to the apostle Philip, "He who has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9) – also gives our subjectivity a decisive point of reference, which cannot help but represent a precise orientation for those who truly believe in God's revelation of himself.
In the liturgy in particular, we learn to unite our subjectivity and interiority with the objective character of the Church's belief and worship. In reality, this is a crucial point in the current situation of the faith: in the religious sphere, the explosion of subjectivity often becomes an eclecticism that indifferently takes from this or that religious and spiritual tradition whatever seems to fit best the needs and preferences of the individual.
In this way, however, we overlook the fundamental fact that God himself, in Israel and then fully in Christ, has revealed himself to us personally, and therefore, perhaps without realizing it, we withdraw from our faith. Praying in the Christian way is therefore essential for being and remaining Christian.
TOWARD A NEW CHRISTIAN SPIRITUALITY
There nonetheless remains before us, or rather inside of us, that fundamental difficulty which arises not from theories or disputes, but from the change of our situation in the world, through which in the normal circumstances of life we experience the results of our action rather than the work of God the creator.
The fundamental indication for finding the meaning and path of prayer in this new situation has already been given to us by St. Thomas Aquinas.
With the rediscovery of Aristotle in the West, he found himself confronting the innovative and, we might say, "modern" contribution of Aristotelian thought, which proposed an interpretation of the world that was "scientific" in its way, seeking to explain phenomena through physical causes, and not through reference to higher and divine influences, as did the "religious" interpretation of the world that had dominated the Middle Ages until that time.
St. Thomas completely welcomed this new approach, but he did not at all see it as an alternative to what had come before: he proposed, in fact, a "middle way" ("Q. D. de Veritate", q. 6, a. 2) that identifies a specific and complementary place for each of two interpretations: the phenomena of the world have their immanent causes, to be researched using rational methods, but also have, all of them together, their origin in the creative action of God, which concerns not only the origin but also the existence and development of the universe and of man within it.
Today the picture is certainly more complex, and the implementation of the "middle way" is asked not only of the philosophers, but also of the ordinary person, since we have to deal with a much different "science" than that of Aristotle: a science that is capable of transforming the world, and to a certain extent ourselves as well.
The basic direction provided for us by St. Thomas remains valid, however, and was revived by Vatican Council II, in particular in Gaudium et Spes, 36.
It is therefore a matter of developing this and refining it conceptually, in relationship with the realities and sciences of today, and above all of internalizing and concretizing it, making it a guideline for our personal relationship with God, which in some way can be inserted harmoniously into our actual experience of life.
This is a fairly demanding task for the ecclesial community, which, as John Paul II wrote in Novo Millennio Ineunte, 33, is called to be a "school of prayer."
Vatican II (Gaudium et Spes 37), however, offered us a further indication, which to me seems particularly valuable for living our current situation in the world with authentic Christian joy.
On the one hand, that is, we must be fully aware that all human activities are threatened on a daily basis by our arrogance and disordered love of ourselves, and therefore need to be purified through the cross and resurrection of Christ.
But on the other hand, the man who has been redeemed by Christ and has become a "new creature" (Gal. 6:15) through the work of the Holy Spirit can and must love the things that God has created, looking at them and honoring them as if they were coming from his hands now.
He thanks their Author for them, and "using and enjoying" creatures in poverty and freedom of spirit, is introduced into the true possession of the world, having almost nothing but possessing everything (2 Cor. 6:10): "All belong to you, and you to Christ, and Christ to God" (1 Cor. 3:22-23).
In order to describe the Christian approach to the things of the world, the Council combines the word "use," which characterized a spirituality oriented toward fleeing and despising the world, with the word "enjoy," which opens up to a new Christian spirituality that we could call specifically modern.
In it, full legitimacy is granted to engagement in the world and affinity for the world, as a way of accepting the love of God for us and practicing love of God and neighbor: without justifying thereby any intrusion of the spirit of the world into the Church and into the soul of the Christian, but remaining always anchored to the cross and resurrection of Christ, and therefore to the renunciation of ourselves in order to make room for love of God and neighbor.
Dear friends, let us ask the Lord that we may confidently advance along this road.