Friday, 8 March 2013

Breathe, think, struggle, love: pray


To me one of the highlights of the last weeks has been the ability to follow Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi’s Lenten spiritual exercises, delivered to the Vatican’s staff and to Pope Benedict XVI before his resignation. Being able to download them as podcasts, or purchasing their text in book form, means that anyone (who understands Italian :|) can follow them and in effect participate in an event that in the past would have been open to only a very select audience. I don’t mean to dwell on the fact of this new openness and would instead like to focus on the specific content that Cardinal Ravasi created and shared.

I have to admit that I am a huge fan of Cardinal Ravasi and have been ever since I first found out about the Courtyard of the Gentiles initiative launched by Benedict XVI and executed by the Pontifical Council for Culture under Ravasi’s leadership. The Courtyard fosters dialogue between believers and non-believers and has resulted in multiple events already at which Christian, agnostic and atheist speakers were invited to speak about different topics (the first one was in Paris and subsequent ones took place also in Stockholm and Assisi). Instead of just being a job that Ravasi has to oversee, this open, broad dialogue comes across as a core passion of his and a thread that can be traced through his publications and talks. In many ways Ravasi takes a similar view of the believer/non-believer dichotomy as Cardinal Martini did (who asserted that there is a part of both in each one of us, including himself), by declaring it as unhelpful and quoting Nietzsche, who said that “Only a person of deep faith can afford the luxury of skepticism.” Ravasi has also been quoted as saying that “[h]alf of my friends are non-believers” and answering “Absolutely not.” when asked whether he wanted to convert atheists. In short - a cardinal very much after my own heart and one who, I believe, embodies the following verse from the Gospel: “For whoever is not against us is for us.” (Mark 9:40).

Let me now return to the Lenten spiritual exercises that Cardinal Ravasi lead in the Vatican only a couple of weeks ago. Their theme was “The Face of God and the Face of the Human Person in the Prayers of the Psalms” and they consisted of 17 half-hour talks delivered over the course of a week. The topics spanned a very broad spectrum from creation, via wisdom, suffering and happiness to the family and immortality, to name but a few. While their backbone were the Psalms, Ravasi - in his characteristically open-minded style - took advantage of the insights of sources as diverse as Kierkegaard, Planck, Evdokimov, Bloch and the Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose III - just to give you a flavor …

The first thing that attracted me to this theme, beyond being delighted that it was Ravasi whom Benedict XVI picked to deliver it, is the fact that the Psalms are essentially the collection of prayers that Jesus himself used. Jesus, being a Jew, grew up with the Psalms as his prayer book, which means that when I pray with their help, I am following his example and am united with him. As soon as I heard that these spiritual exercises were centered around the Psalms, my first thought was immediately directed to prayer, which made it particularly pleasing that this was precisely the subject of Ravasi’s first talk too.

That’s where my ability to anticipate Ravasi’s moves ended though and his take on prayer was both novel, greatly thought provoking and deeply enjoyable. Instead of trying to give you an overview of all 17 talks, which I highly recommend in full, let me at least share what to me were the first talk’s highlights.1

To begin with, Ravasi approaches prayer by setting out to “outline the essential map of its structure,” which he does by identifying the four verbs of prayer. The first is “breathing,” which he kicks off by quoting Kierkegaard: “Rightly the ancient peoples used to say that praying is breathing. It shows how foolish it is to talk about whether one has to pray. Why do I breathe? Because, otherwise I would die. That is also how it is with prayer.” The link to the Psalms then comes in the form of highlighting that there is a single Hebrew word - nefesh - for “soul” and “throat,” which allows for a dual reading, e.g., of Psalm 42:3 “My soul/throat thirsts for God, the living God.” This in turn emphasizes a “physicality,” which leads Ravasi to the following exhortation:
“We, therefore, have to recover that spontaneity and constancy of an explicit, praying breath that the woman of the Song of Songs [… expressed as] “I was sleeping, but my heart was awake.” (5:2). Faith, like love, does not take up only some hours of existence, but is its soul, a constant breathing.”
The second verb of prayer is “thinking,” which leads Ravasi to the following affirmation: “Prayer is not simply an emotion. It has to involve reason and the will, reflection and passion, truth and action.” The model here is Mary, who, after giving birth to Jesus is reported by Luke to have “kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.” (Luke 2:19). Ravasi then digs deeper into the Greek word symballousa that is translated in the Gospel as “reflecting” and points out that its meaning is more of a “joining together in transcendent unity,” which is the “true “thinking” according to God.” The part on prayer as thinking concludes with a quote from Wittgenstein’s notes from World War I, where he says: “Praying is thinking about the meaning of life.”

“Struggling” is then the third verb of prayer, which has its roots in Jacob, Job and Jesus. Jacob, who at Penuel (Genesis 32:23-33) wrestled a mysterious, unknown being, so strong that it not only changed Jacob’s life and mission, but even his name (to Israel). This struggle is later referred to by Hosea as a cry to God and therefore a prayer: “He contended with an angel and prevailed, he wept and entreated him.” (Hosea 12:5). Job’s struggling prayer even refers to God as follows: “He pierces me, thrust upon thrust, rushes at me like a warrior.” (Job 16:14). Finally, in Jesus this aspect of prayer finds its peak on the cross, where he cries out: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mathew 27:46), quoting verse 2 of Psalm 22 in his moment of extreme suffering.

The verbs of prayer culminate in “loving,” which Ravasi introduces by quoting from St. John of the CrossSpiritual Canticle and thereby smoothly transitioning from struggle:
“Where have You hidden Yourself,
And abandoned me in my groaning, O my Beloved?
You have fled like the hart,
Having wounded me.
I ran after You, crying; but You were gone.”
Next, Ravasi introduces the transcendence and inaccessibility of God that is prominent in some religions and starts with the example of the Sumerians, who said about their chief deity, Enlil, that he was “like a knotted bundle of yarn than no one could untangle, like jumbled-up threads where no end is to be seen.” In Christianity the relationship is one of intimacy instead, since God is addressed as “abba” - Father (or more precisely, “daddy”) and this closeness can also be seen in some aspects of Islam, from where Ravasi quotes the 8th century Muslim mystic Rābiʿah al-Baṣrī:
“My Lord,
Each love is now alone with his beloved.
And I am alone with You.”
Finally, Ravasi concludes by the following passage from Psalm 123:1-2 and leaves us in a “silent meeting of gazes, where prayerful contemplation blossoms”:
“To you I raise my eyes,
to you enthroned in heaven.
Yes, like the eyes of servants
on the hand of their masters,
Like the eyes of a maid
on the hand of her mistress,
So our eyes are on the LORD our God,
till we are shown favor.”

1 All quotes from Ravasi’s talks here are my own translations from Italian - their crudeness is all mine.