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Theological Notebook: Von Balthasar on Prayer

On the Memorial of Ignatius of Loyola (a fairly big deal here at Marquette)...
There was a really interesting set of articles on Hans Urs von Balthasar in this week's America. Over breakfast today, I was reading one called "The Witness of Balthasar" which was written by Edward T. Oakes, SJ, a Von Balthasar scholar down south of me in Illinois. The opening of the article struck me as a particularly good treatment of how useful Von Balthasar can be in taking theology into spirituality.
Because I have spent much of my life trying to convey Balthasar’s massive achievement through translations, essays and monographs, I am often asked what first drew me to his theology. Actually, it was rather accidental. I had entered the Jesuit novitiate in 1966 and came across a book by him titled simply Prayer. The first paragraph showed me that here was a writer who got down to business right away. The opening lines struck me as so relevant to my own experiences in prayer (or rather lack of them) that their author captivated me from the start. Here is how the passage begins:
Prayer is something more than an exterior act performed out of a sense of duty, an act in which we tell God various things he already knows; a kind of daily attendance in the presence of the Sovereign who awaits, morning and evening, the submission of his subjects. Even though Christians find, to their pain and sorrow, that their prayer never rises above this level, they know well enough that it should be something more. Somewhere, here, there, is a hidden treasure, if only I could find it and dig it up—a seed that has the power to grow into a mighty tree bearing abundant flowers and fruits, if only I had the will to plant and cultivate it.
Ah yes, I said, that’s me! Rote prayer I knew well enough from my Catholic upbringing, but when I entered the novitiate I thought there should be something more. Yet here I was, trying to pray one hour in the morning and a half-hour in the afternoon, but I was apparently still the same religious automaton I had always been. Balthasar seemed to know just what I was feeling: Christians, he said, often feel like a foreigner forced to speak in a language whose rules they have never learned, or a stuttering child who wants to say something but cannot.

Still, how was Balthasar going to solve the problem he had so accurately diagnosed? Imagine my surprise, then, when I found the problem resolved not just over the course of the whole book but in the very next paragraph! The point of prayer, Balthasar said, is not to learn some new way of speaking, a task as arduous as memorizing French irregular verbs. No, prayer is first an act in which we learn, in his words, that “our halting utterance to God is but an answer to God’s speech to us.”

This might sound all well and good, but how is one to pray in a language God has spoken, when one’s very aridity in prayer makes God seem so silent? Again, the answer was not slow in coming: “Just consider a moment: is not the Our Father, by which we address him each day, his own word? Was it not given to us by the Son of God, himself God and the Word of God? Could any man by himself have discovered such language? Did not the Hail Mary come from the mouth of the angel, spoken, then, in the speech of heaven; and what Elizabeth, ‘filled with the Spirit,’ added, was that not a response to the first meeting with the incarnate God?”

Among other things, this passage explained to me why the Rosary is so popular. For it is almost entirely composed of these God-given prayers to help us in our need. Why worry about aridity or “experience” when we can resort to the Rosary when contemplative prayer seems to fail? Of course, Balthasar did bluntly assert in the first paragraph that prayer is something more than stereotyped formulas, and the Rosary is often considered to fall into just that formulaic rut. But as the book progressed, Balthasar explained that by interiorizing the Our Father and Hail Mary, one gradually learns to make use of the key privilege of prayer, what the New Testament calls parresia.

This term is usually translated “frankness” or “free speech.” But because of habits learned from a typically American devotion to the First Amendment, “free speech” does not really get at what the Greek term meant to the New Testament writers. Rather, true intimacy with God means we can be free to say whatever is on our minds. The Psalmist provides an admirable example of such bluntness; he feels no compunction about expressing his bitterness, sense of persecution, laments, sufferings, sicknesses and so forth. In other words, all inner movements of the soul are appropriate to bring before God—and that is true freedom.
Tags: books, mysticism/spirituality, prayers, quotations, theological notebook, von balthasar
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