Pray by doing

I’m taking a course this fall which marks my first return to the classroom in several years.  During the shopping period, the week when professors give an overview of their courses before you have to register, this professor spent the 40 minutes explaining to us why, if we were crazy enough to sign up for the course, we would hate our lives over the next three months.  Someone seriously had to raise their hand at the end and ask if there were any benefits to taking such a grueling course.

As an employee of the university I get a great discount on tuition, but there is some paperwork involved.  After completing some of this paperwork with the professor’s assistant, I asked her if she had any advice for me.  This very kind woman sat there with a pensive look for a moment, and then with a laugh asked, “Are you a praying man?”  She was only half kidding.  It was also the only counsel she had for me.

While she didn’t do much to help calm my nerves, I did reflect on the way out that, had I answered her question honestly, I probably would have had to say that no, I am not a praying man.  I worship, and I articulate the Creed, the Our Father, and all the other prayers with the rest of the congregation at Mass, but I can’t really say that (despite being an Irishman) I spend much time in conversation with the Almighty.  I much prefer to pray by doing.

There’s too much to do in this world to sit still, but it’s not as if I never spend a quiet moment in prayer.  When I cook for myself I make a point to say grace, and now that I’m a homeowner with a backyard and a grill I am doing more of that.  Not much, but more.  I find that it makes me much more appreciative of the meal, the backyard, and the grill than when I eat ice cream from the tub and drink beer in my recliner and call it breakfast.

While I am not about to become a flagellant, I discover more meaning from employing redemptive suffering than contemplative prayer.  When I give platelets, for example, I always offer it up for a college friend who is battling cancer and receiving transfusions.  I know that my blood won’t end up in his veins, so accepting the pain of needles in both my arms and uniting it with the suffering of Christ in the Crucifixion is about all I can do for him from several hundred miles away.  Likewise when I run, I often offer up various miles for people and intentions that are important to me.

As St. James tells us, “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?”  What good is it indeed?  St. Augustine said that he who sings prays twice, and I think the same could probably be said of he who does.

The course I am taking is in applied data analysis, and it is the applied part that intrigues me.  Come December, I’d like to be able to take a bunch of data and actually be able to use it, as opposed to simply knowing how to work out the mathematical formulas.  I think it is much the same with prayer.  I’d rather go out and feed the hungry and clothe the naked than pray for an end to hunger and poverty.  Then again, if this class is half as tough as the professor made it out to be, I’ll likely end up on my knees at some point during the semester.  St. Jude, pray for me.

An earlier version of this article identified the author of the linked biblical quote as St. Paul instead of St. James.

Lumen Fidei Casts Light on Key Catholic Social Teachings

Pope Francis released the fantastic new encyclical “Lumen Fidei” (“Light of Faith”) on Friday, which Pope Benedict started before his resignation this past winter. Encyclicals are the most important form of papal teaching and comprise much of the vast body of our Catholic social tradition.

Here is a collection of some of the quotes from the encyclical, by paragraph, which demonstrate how loving care for human life and commitment to social justice are essential parts of our faith as Christians. A brief reflection follows each quote.

No. 17: Our culture has lost its sense of God’s tangible presence and activity in our world. We think that God is to be found in the beyond, on another level of reality, far removed from our everyday relationships. But if this were the case, if God could not act in the world, his love would not be truly powerful, truly real, and thus not even true, a love capable of delivering the bliss that it promises…Christians, on the contrary, profess their faith in God’s tangible and powerful love which really does act in history and determines its final destiny: a love that can be encountered, a love fully revealed in Christ’s passion, death and resurrection.

God is here and now at work among us as much as God has ever been anywhere. How easily even we believers can forget that. It’s our job to let God’s always-available love inspire us to make that love visible in the world through our lives.

No. 22: Faith is necessarily ecclesial; it is professed from within the body of Christ as a concrete communion of believers. It is against this ecclesial backdrop that faith opens the individual Christian towards all others.

Our faith must be lived out in community.We are social creatures made to be in relationship with God and others. Commitment to the communal life leads us to notice and care about the needs of others.

No. 46: The Decalogue [Ten Commandments] is not a set of negative commands, but concrete directions for emerging from the desert of the selfish and self-enclosed ego in order to enter into dialogue with God, to be embraced by his mercy and then to bring that mercy to others.

We don’t have commandments and doctrines and dogmas as Christians because we really like rules. We have them because believing in God comes with responsibilities and real-world implications. Faith cannot just be words or beliefs without action, but must reach out to others, especially to those in need.

No. 51: Precisely because it is linked to love (cf. Gal 5:6), the light of faith is concretely placed at the service of justice, law and peace.

Christian love, rooted in faith, is not just found in affections of the heart, but also in an action of hands.

No. 52: The first setting in which faith enlightens the human city is the family…Faith also helps us to grasp in all its depth and richness the begetting of children, as a sign of the love of the Creator who entrusts us with the mystery of a new person. So it was that Sarah, by faith, became a mother, for she trusted in God’s fidelity to his promise (cf. Heb 11:11).

A pre-born child is not a choice or a burden, but a miracle that a family and community are called to embrace.

No. 54:  The boundless love of our Father also comes to us, in Jesus, through our brothers and sisters. Faith teaches us to see that every man and woman represents a blessing for me, that the light of God’s face shines on me through the faces of my brothers and sisters.

This reminds me of a great Dorothy Day quote: “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.”

No. 54: Thanks to faith we have come to understand the unique dignity of each person, something which was not clearly seen in antiquity…At the heart of biblical faith is God’s love, his concrete concern for every person, and his plan of salvation which embraces all of humanity and all creation, culminating in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Without insight into these realities, there is no criterion for discerning what makes human life precious and unique.

Our faith that each human is a unique, beautiful creation of God is the bedrock of Catholic social teaching. We don’t work to protect life and promote justice because of some vague philanthropic concern. We do it because in each person, we find the face of God.

No. 55: Faith, on the other hand, by revealing the love of God the Creator, enables us to respect nature all the more, and to discern in it a grammar written by the hand of God and a dwelling place entrusted to our protection and care. Faith also helps us to devise models of development which are based not simply on utility and profit, but consider creation as a gift for which we are all indebted; it teaches us to create just forms of government, in the realization that authority comes from God and is meant for the service of the common good.

There are two important points in this passage. First, the Earth is a gift from God to us, and it’s our job to take care of it by conserving natural resources and taking meaningful action to combat climate change, for instance. Second, faith calls us to build societies and economies that serve the common good. We do not judge our success based on how the wealthy are doing, but how the most poor and vulnerable are treated.

No. 57: Nor does the light of faith make us forget the sufferings of this world…Faith is not a light which scatters all our darkness, but a lamp which guides our steps in the night and suffices for the journey. To those who suffer, God does not provide arguments which explain everything; rather, his response is that of an accompanying presence, a history of goodness which touches every story of suffering and opens up a ray of light.

Our God is compassion, and calls us to be compassionate: literally, to “suffer with” those who are hurting. It’s so difficult to see another suffering and to go toward that pain. It’s much easier to put blinders on and to turn away. But faith demands movement toward those who are lonely and forgotten.

Thank you, Pope Benedict and Pope Francis, for this wonderful gift that enlivens our faith and sends us out to take God’s love to others.

This post is also featured on the website The Ampersand for the Diocese of Camden Life & Justice Ministries.