The pursuit of the spiritual life is not for the fainthearted. After some initial consolations and encouragement, the way of the Spirit calls forth a certain level of discipline and mentoring.
The mentoring that’s required to live a life of prayer involves spiritual reading. As we need directions to get where we’re going in this life, so we need to read about the spiritual life to know where we’re going and how to get there.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church is preeminent in its collation and explanation of the life of prayer. It helps to make elevated truths of the spiritual life very approachable and understandable.
In the first chapter of part four, the Catechism highlights great people of prayer. After a passing reference to Abel, Enosh, and Noah, the focus is given to Abraham. He stands as the first exemplar of what it means to speak and listen to the living God.
After praising his obedience of heart to the will of God, the Catechism exalts the patriarch’s kindness and hospitality. The Catechism teaches us: “Because Abraham believed in God and walked in his presence and in covenant with him, the patriarch is ready to welcome a mysterious Guest into his tent… Abraham’s heart is attuned to his Lord’s compassion for men and he dares to interceded for them with bold confidence.”
It is only Abraham’s faith and prayer that allows him to heroic generosity and selfless kindness. As the later Greek philosophers will stress, every good action is preceded by contemplation.
Abraham was a man of prayer first and foremost, and only from his life of prayer was he able to be a man of goodness and hospitality. And so, it’s no surprise that in offering hospitality, Abraham actually welcomes God into his home.
After a life lived with God and immersed in prayer, Abraham was given the ultimate test. He was asked by God, whom he loved and trusted, to offer up his own son. He was summoned to sacrifice Isaac, the beloved son of the promise. Only his life of prayer helped him to hear the command and find the grace to obey. Abraham is convinced that God will provide the sacrifice and that, should Isaac die, he will be brought back from the dead.
By Abraham’s obedience, humanity is given a glimpse, a dress rehearsal, of the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus which would be crowned by his glorious resurrection.
It was Abraham’s faith, nourished by prayer, that enabled him to see as God sees. He was able to look through and beyond the surprising state-of-affairs and declare his faith in God’s endless bounty. Such faith is not possible without the vital relationship of prayer.
Salvation history continues, but the Catechism clearly puts the figures of Jacob, Moses, David, and Elijah in Abraham’s shadow. The great patriarch is the model and litmus test of true prayer, a prayer that helps us to encounter God, changes our lives, and selflessly love and serve others.
And so, after the testimony about Abraham, the Catechism presents us with Jacob, “the ancestor of the twelve tribes of Israel.” The Catechism describes a scene in Jacob’s life: “Before confronting his elder brother Esau, Jacob wrestles all night with a mysterious figure who refuses to reveal his name, but he blesses him before leaving him at dawn.”
In this exchange, Jacob is renamed Israel. He realizes he was wrestling with God and named the place Peniel, which means “face of God.” The Catechism explains: “From this account, the spiritual tradition of the Church has retained the symbol of prayer as a battle of faith and as the triumph of perseverance.”
Yes, Jacob – now Israel – has met and engaged the living God. In response to his willingness to fight, rather than flea, God grants him his blessing. Jacob has continued the witness to prayer of his grandfather, Abraham. With Abraham, Jacob’s life also gives us teachings and encouragement to trust God and persevere in prayer.
In our lives, are we seeking to draw close to God and rely on his providence? Do we seek to see as Abraham saw and to wrestle with God as Jacob did?
The call to prayer is a challenge. We must be willing to face our own fears and fallenness and trust God enough to listen to him and do whatever he asks of us. We must die to ourselves so that we can live in the peace of God. As his spiritual posterity, we are invited to walk with Abraham and to pray as he prayed and to live as he lived.
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