Today I would like to begin a new series of catecheses.
After the catecheses on fathers of the Church, on great theologians of the Middle Ages, on great women, I would now like to choose a subject that we all have very much at heart: It is the subject of prayer, specifically, Christian prayer, which is the prayer that Jesus taught us and that the Church continues to teach us.
It is in Jesus, in fact, that man is made capable of approaching God with the depth and intimacy of the relationship of fatherhood and sonship. Together with the first disciples, we now turn with humble trust to the Master and ask: “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1).
In the forthcoming catecheses, approaching sacred Scripture, the great tradition of the fathers of the Church, the teachers of spirituality, and the liturgy, we will learn to live yet more intensely our relationship with the Lord, as though in a “school of prayer.”
We know well, in fact, that prayer cannot be taken for granted: We must learn how to pray, almost as if acquiring this art anew; even those who are very advanced in the spiritual life always feel the need to enter the school of Jesus to learn to pray with authenticity.
We receive the first lesson from the Lord through his example. The Gospels describe to us Jesus in intimate and constant dialogue with the Father: It is a profound communion of the One who came into the world not to do his will but that of the Father who sent him for man’s salvation.
In this first catechesis, by way of introduction, I would like to propose some examples of prayer present in ancient cultures, to reveal how, virtually always and everywhere, people have turned to God.
I begin with ancient Egypt, as an example. Here a blind man, asking the divinity to restore his sight, attests to something universally human, as is the pure and simple prayer of petition on the part of one who is suffering. This man prays: “My heart desires to see you … You who made me see the darkness, create light for me, that I may see you! Bend over me your beloved face” (A. Barucq — F. Daumas, Hymnes et prieres de l’Egypte ancienne, Paris, 1980, translated into Italian as Preghiere dell’umanita, Brescia, 1993, p. 30).
That I may see you; here is the heart of prayer!
Prevailing in the religions of Mesopotamia was a mysterious and paralyzing sense of guilt, though not deprived of the hope of rescue and liberation by God.
Hence we can appreciate a supplication by a believer of those ancient cults, which sounds like this: “O God who are indulgent even in the most serious fault, absolve my sin … Look, Lord, to your weary servant, and blow your breeze on him: Forgive him without delay. Alleviate your severe punishment. Free from the shackles, make me breathe again; break my chain, loosen my ties” (M. J. Seux, Hymnes et prieres aux Dieux de Babylone at d’Assyrie, Paris, 1976, translated into Italian in Preghiere dell’umanita, op. cit., p. 37).
These are expressions that show how, in his search for God, man intuited, though confusedly, on one hand his guilt and on the other, aspects of divine mercy and kindness.
At the heart of the pagan religion of ancient Greece we witness a very significant evolution: prayers, though continuing to invoke divine help to obtain heavenly favor in all circumstances of daily life and to obtain material benefits, are oriented progressively toward more selfless requests, which enable believing man to deepen his relationship with God and to become better. For example, the great philosopher Plato reported a prayer of his teacher, Socrates, who is justly regarded as one of the founders of Western thought. Socrates prayed thus: “Make me beautiful within. That I may hold as rich one who is wise and possess no more money than the wise man can take and carry. I do not ask for anything more” (Opere I. Fedro 279c, translated into Italian by P. Pucci, Bari, 1966).
Above all he wanted to be beautiful and wise within, and not rich in money.
In the Greek tragedies — those outstanding literary masterpieces of all time that still today, after 25 centuries, are read, meditated and performed — there are prayers that express the desire to know God and to adore his majesty. One of these reads thus: “Support of the earth, who dwell above the earth, whoever you are, difficult to understand, Zeus, be the law of nature or of the thought of mortals, I turn to you: given that, proceeding by silent ways, you guide human affairs according to justice” (Euripide, Troiane, 884-886, translated into Italian by G. Mancini, in Preghiere dell’umanita, op. cit., p. 54).
God remains somewhat nebulous and yet man knows this unknown God and prays to him who guides the affairs of the earth.
Also with the Romans, who constituted that great Empire in which a large part of the origins of Christianity was born and spread, prayer — though associated to a utilitarian conception fundamentally bound to the request for divine protection on the life of the civil community — opens at times to admirable invocations because of the fervor of personal piety, which is transformed into praise and thanksgiving.
Apuleius, an author of Roman Africa of the 2nd century after Christ, is a witness to this. In his writings he manifests contemporaries’ dissatisfaction at comparing the traditional religion and the desire for a more authentic relationship with God. In his masterpiece, titled Metamorphosis, a believer addresses a feminine divinity with these words: “You, yes, are a saint, you are at all times savior of the human species, you, in your generosity, always give your help to mortals, you offer the poor in travail the gentle affection that a mother can have. Not a day or a night or an instant passes, no matter how brief it is, that you do not fill him with your benefits” (Apuleius of Madaura, Metamorphosis IX, 25, Translated into Italian by C. Annaratone, in Preghiere dell’umanita, op. cit., p. 79).
In the same period the emperor Marcus Aurelius — who was as well a thoughtful philosopher of the human condition — affirmed the need to pray to establish a fruitful cooperation between divine and human action. He wrote in his Memoirs: “Who has told you that the gods do not help us even in what depends on us? Begin then to pray to them and you will see” (Dictionnaire de Spiritualite XII/2, col. 2213).
This advice of the philosopher-emperor was put into practice effectively by innumerable generations of men before Christ, thus demonstrating that human life without prayer, which opens our existence to the mystery of God, is deprived of meaning and reference.
Expressed in every prayer, in fact, is the truth of the human creature, which on one hand experiences weakness and indigence, and because of this asks for help from heaven, and on the other is gifted with extraordinary dignity, as, preparing himself to receive divine Revelation, he discovers himself capable of entering into communion with God.
Dear friends, emerging from these examples of prayer from various periods and civilizations is the human awareness of his condition as a creature and his dependence on Another superior to him and the source of every good.
The man of all times prays because he cannot fail to ask himself what is the meaning of his existence, which remains dark and discomforting, if he is not placed in relationship with the mystery of God and of his plan for the world.
Human life is an interlacing of good and evil, of unmerited suffering and of joy and beauty, which spontaneously and irresistibly drives us to pray to God for that interior light and strength which aid us on earth and reveal a hope that goes beyond the boundaries of death. The pagan religions remain an invocation that from the earth awaits a word from Heaven.
Proclus of Constantinople, one of the last great pagan philosophers, who lived already at the height of the Christian age, gave voice to this expectation, saying: “Unknowable, no one contains you. Everything that we think belongs to you. Our ills and goods are from you, every breath depends on you, O Ineffable One, may our souls feel you present, raising a hymn of silence to you” (Hymn,ed. E. Vogt, Wiesbaden, 1957, in Preghiere dell’umanita, op. cit., p. 61).
In the examples of prayer from the various cultures that we considered, we can see a testimony of the religious dimension and of the desire for God inscribed in the heart of every man, which receive fulfillment and full expression in the Old and New Testaments. Revelation, in fact, purifies and leads to fullness man’s original longing for God, offering him, with prayer, the possibility of a more profound relationship with the heavenly Father.
At the beginning of this journey of ours in the “school of prayer” we now wish to ask the Lord to illumine our minds and hearts so that our relationship with him in prayer is ever more intense, affectionate and constant. Once again, let us say to him: “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1).