The spiritual tradition of the Church is vast, mystical, and not easy to navigate. It consists of Biblical wisdom, experiences of prayer, visions, and signs and wonders.
Some of these aspects will appeal to certain people and others will not. In light of such differences, we can ask: What is definitive? What is optional? How are we to pray and understand the path to encounter God?
While each strand within the spiritual tradition has its own specific answers to such questions, there are some universal answers to these questions. Such universal answers can help any Christian who wants to know and understand the spiritual life. Such answers are contained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Admittedly, at first glance, a catechism wouldn’t seem to be the place to look for a summary of the spiritual life, but a good catechism – and the Catechism of the Catholic Church is certainly an eminently good catechism – will always contain teachings on doctrine, the sacraments, the moral life, and prayer.
Prayer is not an optional part of the Christian way of life. When properly understood and placed within the four pillars of a good catechism, we see the essential place of prayer in the matrix of the Christian life.
If we consider the four parts of the Catechism, we see the intricate connection and dynamism of each part. As the Catechism explains it, doctrine expounds the Christian faith, the sacraments celebrate it, and it is lived by obedience to God’s commandments and in prayer.
At the beginning of the third part of the Catechism, which is on the moral life, the Catechism summarizes its four parts in this way: “The Symbol of the faith [the Creed] confesses the greatness of God’s gifts to man in his work of creation, and even more in redemption and sanctification. What faith confesses, the sacraments communicate: by the sacraments of rebirth, Christians have become ‘children of God,’ ‘partakers of the divine nature.’ Coming to see in the faith their new dignity, Christians are called to lead henceforth a life ‘worthy of the gospel of Christ.’ They are made capable of doing so by the grace of Christ and the gifts of his Spirit, which they receive through the sacraments and through prayer.”
In this summary, we see how doctrine helps us to understand God, the sacraments make God present to us, the moral life is how we live as his children, and the life of prayer is how we bring all these components together in our hearts and begin to speak to God in our own voice and actively listen to whatever he says to us.
For the person, therefore, who thinks doctrine is exclusive, they are missing three parts. For the person who is singularly obsessed with liturgy, they are missing three parts. For the person who wants to minimize the Christian faith into a self-contained moral code, they are missing three parts. And, finally, for the person who wants to discard prayer as an insignificant subjective experience of God, they are missing the big picture of four parts. Prayer is one of the necessary four parts of the Christian way of life.
If we’re going to holistically live the Christian way of life, we need doctrine, the sacraments, the moral life and prayer. The four parts can be symbolically viewed as four legs on a stool. If we remove one of the legs, the stool becomes unbalanced and unsafe to sit on. If we remove one of the components of the Christian way of life, the others run the risk of becoming unbalanced and so unsafe to our discipleship. At times, such an imbalance can lead to a certain extremism in one part of the Christian life or another.
Each of the four components of the Christian way of life – including prayer – helps to complement, temper, and enrich the other parts. Each of the parts needs the others.
Guiding a Christian through the intricacies and mysteries of the spiritual tradition of the Church is as essential to Christian discipleship as teaching the tenets of the Creed, the seven sacraments, and the moral commandments of God.
It is for this reason that the Catechism of the Catholic Church holds a rich treasury of the Church’s spiritual patrimony in its fourth part. It is an invaluable and helpful guide to every Christian who wants to pray and understand the spiritual life. It is the best place to turn for the universal answers to the questions about the life of prayer. It is a must-read for every Christian who wants to live the abundant life promised to us in Jesus Christ.