For those that have followed the close collaboration and friendship between Pope Francis and Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, it will come as no surprise that the spiritual head of the Church of England selected a Roman Catholic priest’s manuscript for his 2018 Lenten prayer book.
Luigi Gioia, a Benedictine priest and academic scholar, has spent the past two decades bringing together ecumenical thought and spirituality in both the Church and the classroom.
Gioia is a professor of Systematic Theology at the Pontifical University of Sant’Anselmo in Rome and also a research associate at the Von Hügel Institute in Cambridge, England. Along with his academic work, he has also given retreats around the world. His new book, Say it to God: In Search of Prayer, was just released last month and offers practical reflections particularly designed for the Lenten season.
He spoke with Crux about what monastics offer the modern age and how “the more we grow in authentic prayer, the greater our compassion grows.”
How did a Catholic priest end up writing the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lenten prayer book?
Justin Welby is a great admirer of Catholic spirituality, in fact, he often goes on retreat to monastic communities in France. When he moved to Lambeth Palace, he invited the French community of Chemin Neuf to send a few members (men and women) to live with him. I believe it is a sign of the times: we are eager to learn from each other and are able to overcome our suspicions against each other. For me, this is the real meaning of Catholicism: embracing the whole with an eagerness to learn from everyone, and in this, he shows an authentic ‘catholic’ spirit. Welby wanted a book about prayer for Lent this year in connection with his pledge to pray to promote the global prayer movement “Thy Kingdom Come.” This is why, I think, he selected my book among those my publisher suggested to him.
You write that the Psalms helped switch on your interior prayer life. How so?
Nothing of what is human is absent from the Psalms. They do not present an idealized version of how we should feel in God’s presence. Instead, every human feeling is there, the best and the worst. What is extraordinary is the level of trust in God that this attitude implies: God is ‘big enough’ to take in the whole of what we are—provided that we entrust it to him in prayer by ‘saying it to him.’
There’s a distinction you make between one’s singular, personal prayer and prayers that are formal or collective. What’s the difference and why is that important?
There is no spiritual life without ‘prayers’ that make up the liturgical life of the Church where we are fed with the Word of God, initiated by his projection of love on to us. With that said, prayers are meant to lead us to prayer in the sense of spending time with God on a personal level — meeting him ‘in the secret’ as scripture say. If we remain only at the level of ‘prayers,’ we are like people who want to be friends with somebody only by reading about the other person or hearing about him or her but not wanting to actually spend time with him or her. As in every relationship, we have to find our way of communicating with God in our own style. No two ways of praying are identical because nothing is more personal than the way we talk to God.
The “Our Father” is a reoccurring mediation in this book. What does it teach us about how to pray and what to expect in response?
The idea is that the “Our Father” is not only nor primarily a ‘prayer’ but a way of positioning ourselves in relation to God. The way it unfolds, the order of what is asked, the inner feelings it encourages — all this teaches us in which way we can find our way through prayer. The very fact, for example, that it invites us to call him Father and to say not ‘my Father’ but ‘our Father’ set us in a particular direction: it is like a compass that shows us in which direction to direct our attention, feelings, desires — and at the same time by praying it we are shaped by it.
You write about the significance of one’s posture during prayer. What should that be and how should we be mindful of it?
We cannot see God, and the initial temptation — which we never fully overcome once — is that instead of talking to the real God, we talk to our projections of God or we represent him to ourselves as overindulgent or exacting and punishing or distant. I believe we need to hear from the Gospels, in particular, who God really is. Jesus has come to give us the right image of God, that of a loving, caring, and forgiving Father, a God who never forces us but always opts for gentleness and persuasion and is infinitely patient. Seeing God in this way is less easy than we would think because we are battling with our guilt and tend to think that we are not worthy to be loved by God. Prayer requires this level of trust and feeds it more and more in return.
What do the monastics have to offer to the modern age?
Monasteries are places where searching for God goes hand in hand with self-knowledge. We can only know ourselves well if we mirror ourselves in God’s eyes rather than in other people’s expectations. Monks seek God not only in prayer but also in everything: work, study, architecture, singing, food, gardening, common life, silence – all the aspects of human life are considered part of this quest. Simply put, it is a spirituality with the feet on the ground.
What has Pope Francis taught you about prayer?
Francis teaches us that the authenticity of our prayer can be measured by the level of openness to others that it fosters within us. He also reminds us that some misleading forms of spirituality close us on ourselves and can lead to us losing contact with reality and the real suffering of people. The more we grow in authentic prayer, the greater our compassion grows.