Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Prayer with a View: If We Expect Our Prayer to Illuminate the World, We Should Allow the World to Shed Light on Our Prayer

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

Prayer with a View: If We Expect Our Prayer to Illuminate the World, We Should Allow the World to Shed Light on Our Prayer

Article excerpt


A Jewish teacher offered this advice in the Talmud: "Never pray in a room without windows." What did he mean by this?

Many of us worship in churches defined by walls of stained glass. We pray in a place literally full of windows. In my own parish, there's a simple four-paned window of clear glass behind the altar. This is because our church sits right on the edge of the Sierra mountain range. Framed in the window behind the altar is an extraordinary view of jagged peaks. Visitors to our church may struggle to pay attention to what's happening inside the sanctuary, since what's outside that window is so spectacular.

Is this what the rabbi meant? Did he mean, always pray in a room with a view?

Windows are intended, first of all, to admit light. In traditional churches they also admit the stories of our faith. The lives of saints, episodes from scripture, or symbols of the sacraments are often portrayed in stained glass. Could the teaching moment these windows supply be what the rabbi was alluding to?

Here's what the teacher is actually proposing: Never pray in a sterile world of piety. Our prayer isn't primarily about us, nor is it simply for our benefit. It can never be an inside job. If we pray only to save our souls, illumine our lives, or justify ourselves before God, then we miss something vital.

Never pray without windows. If our prayer does not see out, beyond ourselves, to the needs of the world at large, it will suffocate us.

On the night before he died, Jesus did two things that were quite remarkable. Neither of them was self-serving. First, he offered himself to his friends in actions we imitate in our Eucharist. He also washed their feet.

Both of these are "actions with windows." Both point to realities beyond themselves. When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim something far greater than the contents of a meal. We proclaim our intentions as those who come to serve. We proclaim our intention to become bread for the world.

Eucharist, then, is a sacramental act with a gigantic window to a world of responsibility. Yet often we receive communion without ever glancing out. We tend to consider our attendance at Mass as a form of personal allegiance to Jesus or to his church. It's a matter of Catholic identity. We may talk about the privilege of this sacrament, the holiness of this hour, or the joy of this celebration.

In our less enthusiastic moments, it may come down to obedience: Jesus said, "Do this," so we do this. The act can be further reduced to mere obligation: We present ourselves for this hour or risk the consequences. On the average weekend, there are as many reasons for attendance at Eucharist as there are attendees.

Is there another, better reason for going to Mass?

Thirty-five years ago, Catholic theologian Monika Hellwig wrote the best little book on this topic: The Eucharist and the Hunger of the World. In it she describes the Sunday assembly as composed of passengers and participants. Passengers clamber into the pew and expect to be carried along for the ride--as they are in front of any spectacle. They're bored or disappointed when the ride takes them nowhere discernible.

By contrast, it requires active engagement to be a participant. A dance instructor noted that the primary meaning of a dance is in the dancing of it. Sure, you can watch a dance, admire it for esthetic reasons. But on a fundamental level, a dance can only be appreciated by the dancing of it.

What are we dancing in the Mass? …

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