This post will be the first in a planned series of posts related to Pope Benedict XVI's new encyclical, Spe Salvi. This first post outlines the encyclical's statements as they relate to prayer and contemplation. It is not a full summary of the encyclical. Future posts will consider the encyclical's statements on some other issues.
For simplicity and clarification, quotations from Spe Salvi are in a different color from quotations from other documents quoted in this post.
1. We seek the Blessed Life, but we do not know what we should pray for as we ought.
Mentioning St. Augustine's letter to Proba on prayer, Pope Benedict mentioned that St. Augustine wrote that ultimately, we only want one thing: the blessed life, and yet St. Augustine also wrote that we do not know what this is. In this, Benedict said, Augustine is describing man's essential situation. Discussing this, the Holy Father wrote (Section 11):
"But then Augustine also says: looking more closely, we have no idea what we ultimately desire, what we would really like. We do not know this reality at all; even in those moments when we think we can reach out and touch it, it eludes us. 'We do not know what we should pray for as we ought,' he says, quoting Saint Paul (Rom 8:26)."
Also, in Section 12, the Holy Father wrote that this unknown thing we yearn for "is the true 'hope' which drives us," the "known unknown" called "eternal life."
Here is a portion of that letter from St. Augustine to Proba:
"For in the house of the Lord “all the days of life” are not days distinguished by their successively coming and passing away: the beginning of one day is not the end of another; but they are all alike unending in that place where the life which is made up of them has itself no end. In order to our obtaining this true blessed life, He who is Himself the True Blessed Life has taught us to pray, not with much speaking, as if our being heard depended upon the fluency with which we express ourselves, seeing that we are praying to One who, as the Lord tells us, “knoweth what things we have need of before we ask Him. . . .
"But whoever desires from the Lord that “one thing,” and seeks after it, asks in certainty and in confidence, and has no fear lest when obtained it be injurious to him, seeing that, without it, anything else which he may have obtained by asking in a right way is of no advantage to him. The thing referred to is the one true and only happy life, in which, immortal and incorruptible in body and spirit, we may contemplate the joy of the Lord for ever. . . . At the same time, because this blessing is nothing else than the “peace which passeth all understanding,” even when we are asking it in our prayers, we know not what to pray for as we ought. For inasmuch as we cannot present it to our minds as it really is, we do not know it, but whatever image of it may be presented to our minds we reject, disown, and condemn; we know it is not what we are seeking, although we do not yet know enough to be able to define what we seek."
2. The "Blessed Life" is community-oriented, and contemplatives perform a task for the whole Church and for the world.
Mentioning the same letter from St. Augustine to Proba, and also mentioning St. Bernard of Clairvaux's perspective on monasticism as including contemplation and agricultural work, Benedict wrote (Sections 14, 15):
"The real life, towards which we try to reach out again and again, is linked to a lived union with a 'people', and for each individual it can only be attained within this 'we.' It presupposes that we escape from the prison of our 'I', because only in the openness of this universal subject does our gaze open out to the source of joy, to love itself -- to God.
While this community-oriented vision of the 'blessed life' is certainly directed beyond the present world, as such it also has to do with the building up of this world . . . In his [Bernard of Clairvaux's] view, monks perform a task for the whole Church and hence also for the world. He uses many images to illustrate the responsibility that monks have towards the entire body of the Church, and indeed towards humanity; he applies to them the words of pseudo-Rufinus: 'The human race lives thanks to a few; were it not for them, the world would perish. . .'."
3. Reason and faith need each other.
Discussing two great themes of "reason" and "freedom" in secular thought, Pope Benedict stated, in section 23, that "reason is God's great gift to man, and the victory of reason over unreason is also a goal of the Christian life." Moreover, he says, reason is "urgently in need of integration through reason's openness to the saving forces of faith." This applies to prayer in that he adds that there is no doubt that "God truly enters into human affairs only when, rather than being present merely in our thinking, he himself comes towards us and speaks to us. Reason therefore needs faith if it is to be completely itself: reason and faith need one another in order to fulfil their true nature and their mission."
This point is not extensively applied to prayer in the encyclical. That application is made more clear through considering this aspect of the encyclical in the light of other writings. The need for faith and reason together is a common topic in Pope Benedict XVI's writings, which can also be found in other Church documents. Among these, Pope John Paul II spoke of the integration of faith and reason in his apostolic letter "Master in the Faith" about St. John of the Cross. There, among the sources cited were two documents from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith ("CDF") which were, in turn, issued by then-Cardinal Ratzinger (Benedict XVI). In Master of the Faith, Pope John Paul II wrote:
"Rational man's superiority to the rest of mundane reality should not lead to pretensions of earthly dominion. Instead it ought to guide him toward his most proper end, union with God, to whom he is similar in dignity. For that reason, faith does not justify scorning human reason. Nor is human rationality to be regarded as opposed to the divine message. On the contrary, they work together in intimate collaboration: "A person can get sufficient guidance from natural reason, and the law and doctrine of the Gospel". Faith is not a disincarnate reality. Its proper subject is man a rational being, with his lights and limits. The theologian and the believer cannot renounce their rationality; instead, they must open it to the horizons of mystery."
Cited there by John Paul II is the CDF's document "Instructions on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian," section 6, which states:
"By its nature, faith appeals to reason because it reveals to man the truth of his destiny and the way to attain it. Revealed truth, to be sure, surpasses our telling. All our concepts fall short of its ultimately unfathomable grandeur (cf. Eph 3:19). Nonetheless, revealed truth beckons reason - God's gift fashioned for the assimilation of truth - to enter into its light and thereby come to understand in a certain measure what it has believed. Theological science responds to the invitation of truth as it seeks to understand the faith. It thereby aids the People of God in fulfilling the Apostle's command (cf. 1 Pet 3:15 ) to give an accounting for their hope to those who ask it."
4. Prayer is essential to Christian hope.
In the subsection "Prayer as a school of hope," the Holy Father stated, in section 32, "A first essential setting for learning hope is prayer. When no one listens to me any more, God still listens to me." He used the example of the late Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan, a prisoner in solitary confinement for 13 years, who found an "increasing power of hope" in the fact that he could listen and speak to God during his confinement. Later, he became a witness for people throughout the world "to that great hope which does not wane even in the nights of solitude."
5. Our hearts must be enlarged and cleansed.
Here, the Holy Father, in section 33, uses an image from St. Augustine's Homilies on the First Epistle of St. John (Homily IV), in which St. Augustine defined prayer as an exercise of desire. Man was created to be filled by God, but his heart is too small and must be stretched by delaying this gift. In St. Augustine's image, if God wants to fill us with honey (His goodness) but we are full of vinegar, our hearts must first be enlarged and cleansed. The Pope wrote, "This requires hard work and is painful, but in this way alone do we become suited to that for which we are destined."
6. Proper prayer purifies us, opening us up to God and to others.
Also in section 33, the Holy Father continued:
"Even if Augustine speaks directly only of our capacity for God, it is nevertheless clear that through this effort by which we are freed from vinegar and the taste of vinegar, not only are we made free for God, but we also become open to others."
Thus, he said:
"To pray is not to step outside history and withdraw to our own private corner of happiness. When we pray properly we undergo a process of inner purification which opens us up to God and thus to our fellow human beings as well."
7. We must learn what is worthy of God.
Also in Section 33, the Holy Father said that we must "learn what we can truly ask of God -- what is worthy of God. We must learn that we cannot pray against others." Instead, he said, when we come before God, we are forced to recognize the "hidden lies with which we deceive ourselves" and recognize our own guilt, the "illusion of our innocence." Our encounter with God awakens our conscience, he said, so that it "no longer aims at self-justification" and is no longer a reflection of self and of our contemporaries, but rather "becomes a capacity for listening to the Good itself."
8. Praying must involve an intermingling of public and personal prayer.
In section 34, Pope Benedict wrote that, for prayer to develop such purification, it must be very personal and, at the same time, it must be "guided and enlightened by the great prayers of the Church and of the saints, by liturgical prayer, in which the Lord teaches us again and again how to pray properly. . . . Praying must always involve this intermingling of public and personal prayer." Christian hope, he said, is always hope for others and not merely for ourselves.
9. Our prayer for others can play a small part in their purification.
In section 48, after a discussion of the transforming fire of purgatory in previous sections, Pope Benedict wrote of how our lives are involved with each other, and how that affects our prayer for other people:
"No one sins alone. No one is saved alone. The lives of others continually spill over into mine: in what I think, say, do and achieve. And conversely, my life spills over into that of others: for better and for worse. So my prayer for another is not something extraneous to that person, something external, not even after death. In the interconnectedness of Being, my gratitude to the other -- my prayer for him -- can play a small part in his purification."
10. It is never too late to hope.
Continuing in section 48, the Holy Father wrote that there is no need to convert earthly time into God's time in our prayer for the purification of others, in our hope for them:
"It is never too late to touch the heart of another, nor is it ever in vain. In this way we further clarify an important element of the Christian concept of hope. Our hope is always essentially also hope for others; only thus is it hope for me too. As Christians we should never limit ourselves to asking: how can I save myself? We should also ask: what can I do in order that others may be saved and that for them too the star of hope may rise? Then I will have done my utmost for my own personal salvation as well."