On St. Paul the Apostles Experience of Contemplative Prayer

"As our union with the Lord grows and our prayer intensifies, we too come to focus on the essential"

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VATICAN CITY, JUNE 13, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Here is a translation of the Italian-language catechesis Benedict XVI gave today during the general audience held in St. Peter’s Square. The Pope today continued his reflection on the lessons taught by the prayer life of St. Paul.

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Dear brothers and sisters,

Daily encounter with the Lord and frequenting the Sacraments allow our minds and hearts to be opened to his presence, to his words, to his action. Prayer is not only the soul’s breath but -- to use an image -- it is also the oasis of peace from which we draw the water that nourishes our spiritual lives and transforms our existence. And God draws us to himself; he causes us to ascend the mountain of holiness and offers us light and consolation along the way so that we might grow ever closer to Him.

This is the personal experience St. Paul refers to in Chapter 12 of the Second Letter to the Corinthians, which I wish to consider today. In defending the legitimacy of his apostolate, he lists not so much the communities he founded nor the kilometers he travelled; he does not limit himself to recalling the difficulties and the opposition he faced for the sake of announcing the Gospel; but rather, he appeals to his relationship with the Lord, a relationship so intense that at times it was marked by moments of ecstasy and of deep contemplation (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:1); therefore, he boasts not in what he has done, in his own strength, in his activities and successes; but rather, he boasts in what God has done in him and through him. With great restraint, in fact, he recounts the experience of being caught up to God’s heaven. He recalls how fourteen years before the sending of the letter “he was caught up – so he says – to the third heaven” (Verse 2).

Using the language and the ways of one who recounts what cannot be recounted, St. Paul speaks of the event in the third person; he affirms that a man was caught up into the “garden” of God, into paradise. His contemplation is so deep and intense that the Apostle fails even to remember the content of the revelation received. But the time and circumstances are present to him, of the moment when the Lord seized him so completely and drew him to himself, as he had done on the road to Damascus at the moment of his conversion (cf. Philippians 3:12).

St. Paul goes on to say that it is in order not to be filled with pride on account of the grandeur of the revelation received that he carries a thorn in his flesh (2 Corinthians 12:7), a suffering, and he implores the Risen One to be delivered from the messenger of the Evil One, from this painful thorn in his flesh. Three times – he says – he besought the Lord to remove this trial from him. And it is in this situation, in deep contemplation of God when “he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter” (Verse 4), that he receives an answer to his plea. The Risen One addresses a clear and reassuring word to him: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (Verse 9).

Paul’s commentary on these words may astonish us, but they reveal how he understood what it truly means to be an apostle of the Gospel. He exclaims, in fact: “I will all the more gladly boast of my weaknesses, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities; for when I am weak, then I am strong” (Verses 9b-10); that is, he boasts not in his activity, but in the action of Christ, which acts precisely through his weakness.

Let us reflect a moment more on this event, which occurred during the years when St. Paul lived in silence and contemplation before commencing his journeys across the West to proclaim Christ, for this attitude of profound humility and trust before God’s self-revelation is also fundamental for our prayer and for our lives, for the way we relate to God and to our own weakness.

First, what is the weakness of which St. Paul speaks? What is this “thorn” in his flesh? We don’t know, and he doesn’t say, but his attitude makes us understand that all the difficulties we meet in following Christ and witnessing to his Gospel can be overcome by opening ourselves in faith to the Lord’s action. St. Paul is well aware of being a “useless servant” (2 Corinthians 4:7) in whom God places the riches and power of his grace. In this moment of intense contemplative prayer, St. Paul understands clearly how to face and live every event, especially suffering, difficulty and persecution: when he experiences his own weakness, the power of God is manifested, which neither abandons us nor leaves us alone but which becomes our support and strength.

Certainly, Paul would have preferred to be delivered from this “thorn”, from this suffering; but God says: “No, this is necessary for you. You shall have grace sufficient to resist and to do what must be done”. This is true also for us. The Lord may not deliver us from evil, but he helps us to mature through suffering, difficulty and persecution. Faith, then, tells us that if we remain in God, “though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day” (cf. Verse 16). The Apostle communicates to the Christians of Corinth and also to us that “this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (Verse 17). In reality, humanly speaking, the weight of difficulty was not light, it was exceedingly heavy; but compared with God’s love, with the grandeur of being loved by God, it seemed light in knowing that the weight of glory will be without measure.

Therefore, as our union with the Lord grows and our prayer intensifies, we too come to focus on the essential, and we understand that it is not through the power of our resources, our virtue, or our abilities that the Kingdom of God shall come; rather, it is God who works marvels precisely through our weakness, through our inadequacy for the task at hand. We must therefore have the humility not to trust in ourselves alone but to work -- with the Lord’s help -- in the Lord’s vineyard, entrusting ourselves to Him as fragile “earthen vessels”.

St. Paul speaks of two particular revelations that radically changed his life. The first -- we know -- is the disturbing question on the road of Damascus: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4), a question that led him to discover and to encounter Christ living and present, and to sense his call to be and apostle of the Gospel. The second are the words the Lord addressed to him in the experience of contemplative prayer we are reflecting on: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness”. Only faith and reliance on the action of God, on the goodness of God, which never abandons us, is the guarantee of not working in vain. Thus, the Lord’s grace was the force that accompanied St. Paul in his tremendous efforts to spread the Gospel, and his heart entered into the heart of Christ, and thus became capable of leading others towards Him who died and rose for us.

In prayer, then, we open our souls to the Lord so that he might come and abide in our weakness, transforming it in strength for the Gospel. And the Greek word St. Paul uses to describe this indwelling of the Lord in his fragile humanity is deeply significant; he uses episkenoo, which we may render as “to pitch his own tent”. The Lord continues to pitch his tent in us, in our midst; this is the Mystery of the Incarnation. The same divine Word who came to dwell in our humanity, wills to abide in us, to pitch his tent in us, to enlighten and transform our lives and the world.

The intense contemplation of God that St. Paul experienced recalls that of the disciples on Mount Tabor, when, seeing Jesus transfigured and resplendent with light, Peter says to him: “Master, it is well that we are here; let us make three booths, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah” (Mark 9:5). “For he did not know what to say, for they were exceedingly afraid,” St. Mark adds (Verse 6). To contemplate the Lord is at once fascinating and terrifying: fascinating because He draws us to himself and steals our hearts towards heaven, carrying them to the heights where we experience the peace, the beauty of his love; terrifying, for it lays naked our human weakness, our inadequacies, the struggle to conquer the evil that threatens our lives -- that thorn that we too carry in our flesh. In prayer, in daily contemplation of the Lord, we receive the strength of God’s love and we sense the truth of St. Paul’s words to the Christians of Rome when he writes: “For I am sure that neither death, nor life, now angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

In a world in which we risk trusting only in the efficiency and power of human resources, in this world we are called to rediscover and bear witness to the power of God that is communicated through prayer, and by which we grow each day in greater conformity of our lives to Christ’s, who – he affirms – “was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God. For we are weak in him, but we shall live with him by the power of God” (2 Corinthians 13:4).

Dear friends, during the last century, Albert Schweitzer, a protestant theologian and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, stated that “Paul is a mystic and nothing other than a mystic”; that is, he is truly a man so enamored by Christ and so united to Him as to be able to say: Christ lives in me. The mysticism of St. Paul is based not only on the exceptional events he experienced but also on a daily and intense relationship with the Lord, who always sustained him with his grace. Mysticism did not distance him from reality; on the contrary, it gave him the strength to live each day for Christ and to build up the Church unto the end of the world of that time. Union with God does not distance us from the world; rather, it gives us the strength truly to remain in the world, to do all that needs to be done in the world. In our prayer lives too, then, we may experience moments of particular intensity, when we feel the presence of the Lord to be more alive, but constancy and fidelity to one’s relationship with God is important, above all in times of aridity, difficulty, suffering, and of God’s apparent absence. Only when we are gripped by the love of Christ will we be able to face every adversity like Paul, convinced that we can do all things in Him who strengthens us (cf. Philippians 4:13). Therefore, the more space we give to prayer, the more we come to see that our lives will be transformed and enlivened by the concrete strength of God’s love. So it happened, for example, to Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who discovered in the contemplation of Jesus and precisely during long periods of aridity the ultimate reason and incredible strength to recognize him in the poor and abandoned, despite her fragile figure. In our lives, the contemplation of Christ does not distance us from reality -- as I already said – rather, it makes us ever more involved in human affairs, since the Lord, in drawing us to himself in prayer, allows us to become present and close all of our brothers and sisters in his love. Thank you.

[Translation by Diane Montagna]

[The Holy Father then greeted the people in several languages. In English, he said:]

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

In our continuing reflection on prayer in the letters of Saint Paul, we now consider the Apostle’s testimony to his own experience of contemplative prayer. Defending the legitimacy of his apostolate, Paul appeals above all to his profound closeness to the Lord in prayer, marked by moments of ecstasy, visions and revelations (cf. 2 Cor 12:1ff.). Yet he speaks too of a trial which the Lord sent him lest he become conceited: a mysterious thorn in the flesh (v. 7). Paul therefore willingly boasts of his weakness, in order that the power of Christ might dwell in him (v. 10). Through this experience of mystical prayer, Paul realized that God’s Kingdom comes about not by our own efforts but by the power of God’s grace shining through our poor earthen vessels (cf. 2 Cor 4:7). We see that contemplative prayer is both exalting and troubling, since we experience both the beauty of God’s love and the sense of our own weakness. Paul teaches us the need for daily perseverance in prayer, even at times of dryness and difficulty, for it is there that we experience the life-changing power of God’s love.

I am pleased to greet the participants in the Twenty-first Intercoiffure World Congress. I also welcome the visitors from the Anglican Diocese of Southwark. My cordial greeting goes to the pilgrims from the Catholic Society of the Two Hearts of Jesus and Mary. I thank the Cantores Minores from Finland and the other choirs for their praise of God in song.

At this time, our thoughts and prayers are with all those taking part in the International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, Ireland. I invite all of you to join me in praying that the Congress will bear rich spiritual fruit in a greater appreciation of our Lord’s gift of himself to us in the Eucharist and a deeper love of the mystery of the Church, which draws us into ever fuller communion with him and with one another through the daily celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice.

Upon all the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors present at today’s Audience, including those from England, New Zealand, Samoa and the United States I invoke God’s blessings of joy and peace!

[Again speaking in Italian, he made this appeal:]

I now affectionately turn my thoughts and greeting with my blessing the Church in Ireland, where in Dublin, in the presence of Cardinal Marc Oullet, my Delegate, the 50thInternational Congress is being held on the theme: The Eucharist. Communion with Christ and with One Another”. Numerous bishops, priests, consecrated persons and lay faithful from the various continents are taking part in this important ecclesial event.

It is a precious occasion to reaffirm the centrality of the Eucharist in the life of the Church. Jesus, truly present in the Sacrament of the Altar by the supreme Sacrifice of love on the Cross gives himself to us, becomes our food in order to assimilate us to Himself, to make us enter into communion with Him. And through this communion we are united also to one another, we become one thing only in Him, members one of another.

I would like to invite you to unite yourselves spiritually to the Christians of Ireland and of the world, by praying for the work of the Congress, so that the Eucharist might always be the beating heart of the life of the entire Church.

[He also added:]

Lastly, I greet young people, the sick and newlyweds. Dear young people, for many of your peers the summer holidays have already begun, while for others this is the time of exams. May the Lord help you to live this period with serenity and to experience His constant protection. I invite you, dear sick, to find comfort in the Lord, who continues His work of redemption thanks also to your suffering. And may you, dear newlyweds, discover the mystery of God who gives himself for the salvation of all, so that your love might be ever truer, lasting and welcoming.

[Translation by Diane Montagna]