The love of Christ sets the boundaries of Christian prayer.
Prayer is possible from any condition that Christ’s love reaches. That is because Christian prayer is nothing other and nothing less than entering into Christ. We pray into Christ.
When Christians pray, we join in Christ’s prayer. His prayer is the only prayer: the prayer of the Son to the Father. From his Father, Christ receives everything; and to his Father, Christ gives everything. His prayer is the source of all love, and outside that love we do not have a prayer. The beginning of prayer is the Son of God’s descent to us, and the end of prayer is our ascent with him into the heart of the Father.
From where we are in our ordinary lives, it is hard to imagine what it would mean to be drawn into the heart of the Father. For me a memory—or maybe it is a collection of memories—illustrates this better than a million vague daydreams. You see, I used to love to jump into my father’s arms. I would climb to the top of the tall spiral staircase in my childhood home, squeeze through the railings, and then yell, “Daddy, catch me!” as my father waited below to receive my ailing body. Then I would run back up the staircase and do it again. And again. And again and again and again.
My own children seem to have inherited this proclivity, albeit without the aid of a very tall staircase to begin their descent. They make do with standing on the couch to jump onto me as I lie on the floor, or from the bedside table as I lie in bed. Or they will run at full sprint across the room as I walk in the door and hurl themselves up toward my arms, whether or not I am ready. I have discovered something my father must have felt all those years ago: you’re always ready to catch your child, even when you don’t think you’re ready.
From reflecting on these games of children, I have discovered something else: I could always jump into my father’s arms because I already had a place in his heart. That memory of flying through the air from the top of the spiral staircase—a memory I can still feel—has come to be a metaphor of something deeper. I could lunge to my father from any height because I knew he would catch me. Just so, I could reach up from any low point because I knew he would lift me up. The same goes for my children and my heart.
Christ, the Beginning and End of Prayer. This memory of emerging from and going back into my father’s arms helps me imagine what I have learned about prayer. That is, the descent and ascent of the Son of God is the movement of divine love that makes prayer possible. From the depths to which he plunges and the heights to which he reaches, those whom he claims as his own may pray. Christ’s gift makes prayer possible, but his disciples’ responsibility is to respond to this gift. Discipleship is born of prayer.
Jesus prayed. He prayed human prayers. He prayed as a child, and he prayed as an adult. He prayed in sorrow, and he prayed in joy. He prayed in lament, and he prayed in thanksgiving. He listened, and he spoke. He heeded the Father, and he pleaded with the Father. Through it all, praying is not something he merely did; he is his prayer. Everything about Jesus says, “Dear Father.”
The Christian at prayer never prays alone. She prays in Christ, and Christ prays in her. Left to ourselves, we do not know how to pray. Christ teaches us how to pray and, moreover, Christ is himself the lesson. In him our lives come to say, “Dear Father.”
In Christ we learn how to listen and how to speak—how to receive the will of our Father in heaven and how to act on it. We learn how to beg. We learn how to give thanks. We learn how to become fully human—to become his disciples and even his saints.
To know how to pray as Christians, we must know Christ; and to know Christ for who he is, we must know Scripture. As St. Jerome said, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ.” Familiarity with Scripture leads to familiarity with Christ. Even more, growing in love of Scripture helps us grow in love of Christ.
In the end, “knowing Christ” is not strictly about knowledge; it is rather about love. To know Christ means to love Christ and even to know ourselves as being loved by him. Scripture is the introduction to Christ that we never exhaust in this life. All of Scripture testifies to “the Word [who] became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). In and through Scripture, we discover the height, depth, and breadth of God’s love for the world in his only begotten Son (see John 3:16). But you could read Scripture over and over again without ever encountering the Word of God.
To encounter the Word of God, we must be available for the encounter. He is not a static word; rather the Word of God is personal. Christ offers himself fully to his Church. Within the Church, we are the ones called to receive him. The Word of God speaks to us in Scripture if we have “ears to hear” (Matthew 11:15; see Revelation 2:29). Christ will teach us how to hear better and how to hear more, but we must approach him with a willingness to listen. This is the humility from which discipleship emerges; it is how prayer begins.
Even the humility at the beginning of prayer is a gift. Christ sends us the Holy Spirit to bring us into his own humility. Christ is the one “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself” (Philippians 2:6-7). When the Spirit “intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words,” we come to share in Christ’s humility: we are “conformed to the image of [the Father’s] Son” (Romans 8:26, 29). We become beggars, more like a sinful tax collector than a puffed-up Pharisee, for “the Lord is near to the brokenhearted” (Psalm 34:18).
Therefore, let us seek to rediscover who Christ is, how far his love goes, and how we are to pray. . . . We will try to let go of our stuffy assumptions in order to humbly listen. This requires trust, however, and I have lost much of the unadulterated capacity to trust that I felt when I threw myself into the arms of my father. Perhaps you are like me in this regard. I guard many things. I hold back. I tend to go it alone. I hesitate.
And yet we hope to pray into Christ, who himself prayed and whose whole life was a prayer to the Father, a prayer without ceasing. The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes the path clear:
To seek to understand [Christ’s] prayer through what his witnesses proclaim to us in the Gospel is to approach the holy Lord Jesus as Moses approached the burning bush: first to contemplate him in prayer, then to hear how he teaches us to pray, in order to know how he hears our prayer. (Catechism, 2598)
Those three steps set the itinerary for the journey into Christ’s prayer: contemplate him, heed his lessons, and discover how he hears our prayer. This is all about the boundaries of prayer: how far, how to navigate, and how we change.
This is an excerpt from Into the Heart of the Father by Leonard J. DeLorenzo (The Word Among Us Press, 2021), available at www.wau.org/books