The Priesthood: Hallowed be Thy Name

seven sacramentsLast week we considered how “Our Father, who art in heaven” is a reminder of our Baptismal dignity. Baptism makes us children of the heavenly father. But Baptism, like childhood, is only potential, looking forward with promise.

That promise looks forward, above all, to praise. We are given divine birth so that we can know the divine. We become “sons in the Son” so that, like the Son, we can become eternal praise of the Father.

Every newborn baby has a father, but does not yet know his name. The promise of earthly birth is, above all, the possibility of relationship, of knowing others in the world, above all our family, by name. The promise of our heavenly birth is that we can know the name of the holy one, know the holiness of his name, hallow his name. “Our Father, who art in heaven” bears fruit in “hallowed be thy name.”


We can enter more deeply into this next line of the prayer by picturing a priest at the altar. He lifts up his hands in praise, he hallows God’s name. Indeed, Baptism is the door into the Church – so that we can attend the perfect praise of the Mass. We dip our fingers in baptismal water at the door, and go up to the altar; our Baptism gives us access to the place of the Priest; calling God our Father opens up the possibility of hallowing his name.

Now, in Catholic theology there are two kinds of priesthood. Baptism itself makes us priests: “Having been drawn to Him, a living Stone, indeed rejected by men, but elect, precious with God; you also as living stones are bulit up a spiritual house, a holy priesthod, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. . . . You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for possession, so that you might speak of the praises of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (I Peter 2:4-5, 9). We are all stones building up the Church, all priests, all people of praise.

And so the proper name for what we typically call the sacramental priesthood is really Holy Orders. Orders means hierarchy, leadership. It is not that the sacramental priests are the only priests – it is that they lead the priestly people in the priestly service of worship.


If we are a priestly people, why do we need priestly “orders”? Imagining the ordained priest when we pray “Hallowed be thy name” can help us understand.

Yes, my life is called to be praise. I am called to hallow God’s name. But I need an image of that hallowing. I can think of myself at Mass best by drawing to mind the one who leads me in worship.

The sacramental order is all about making things vivid – giving us, fleshly people, clear images of the truths of our faith. We are not left to understand vaguely that we have been born again to a new Father – we see it happen, in Baptism. We understand that all of life is praise when we have special moments of praise, with special leaders in praise.

The ordained priest is, first of all, a sacramental image of our praise. He manifests in his body this truth of our faith.


He is also a sacramental image that praise is a gift. I do not make myself a Son of God, I receive it – it is poured onto me in Baptism through the ministry of the Church, the Body of Christ. I do not rise up to God in praise by my own strength, but that too is a gift. The ordained priesthood is a gift to us, something that we cannot make ourselves. We cannot ordain priests except through the hand of the ordained, reaching back to Jesus and the Apostles. And we cannot offer perfect praise except through that sacramentally ordained ministry.

The point is not that priests are better Christians. The point is that the priesthood itself – all of our priestly service – is a gift from God. The sacramental priesthood is an icon showing that worship is a gift.

We further remind ourselves of that gift by invoking the word “name.” We only know God’s name because he has told us. Again, there is an icon of this truth in the Magisterium of the Church: God speaks to us from outside of us, through Scripture, interpreted by the Tradition, interpreted by the ordained leaders of the Church. To know God is all gift.


Finally, it is a gift that draws us together, not dispersed to our private rooms, but gathered around the altar of praise – gathered around the ordained priest, who leads us in procession.

When we pray “hallowed be thy name,” even in our private rooms, we call to mind the ordained priest and understand how all of life is drawn to the altar of praise.

How would it change your day if you saw it pointing to the altar?

Vocal Prayer and Verbal Prayer

lauds1When I was first learning about the Catholic Church I was taught about three kinds of prayer: vocal prayer, mental prayer, and contemplative prayer.  Whether or not you have learned these particular names, I think they name ideas that most Catholics today have about prayer.  And I think those ideas are very wrong.

I hope I don’t take too strong a stance here, but I’ll try to explain.


Vocal prayer is prayer with your voice.  Mental prayer is prayer with your mind.  Contemplative prayer is some sort of mystical prayer of union.  Those definitions I think are correct.

What is incorrect is that we tend to think of these as things we do at different times.

So someone who prays the Liturgy of the Hours might think that saying those words is vocal prayer.  But then he needs to set aside some time for mental prayer, by which he means some sort of spiritual exercise, probably using the imagination.  And then if he’s really serious, he’ll set aside some more time for contemplation.  I was taught about “the prayer of silence,” where you just sit and do nothing, and that’s contemplation.

Someone who prays the rosary might consider all the Hail Mary’s as vocal prayer, but then you have to add mental prayer.  The mental prayer might mean that before you say the Hail Mary’s, you spend some time imagining the mysteries.  It might also mean that while your mouth says the Hail Mary’s, your mind does a separate kind of prayer, imagining the mysteries while ignoring what the mouth is saying.  And then if you’re really spiritual, maybe when the rosary is over you can just be silent and “contemplate.”


Many serious Catholics today think this is how the life of prayer works.  I think they are missing the Catholic tradition’s deepest insights about prayer.

To the contrary, I think if you read the doctors of the Church and understand the traditional ways of prayer, these three things are supposed to happen at the same time.  St. Benedict’s adage is, “let your mind be in harmony with your voice.”  Mental prayer means that as you say your vocal prayers – the Liturgy of the Hours, the rosary, the Our Father, the Mass, whatever – you actually think about what you’re saying.  Not about something else, but about what you’re saying.

If you read traditional masters of prayer – for example, I’ve been reading St. Catherine of Siena and St. Teresa of Avila, who are doctors of the Church because of their teaching on prayer – when they say that mental prayer is necessary, they don’t mean, “after you say your vocal prayers, set aside time to do something else.”  What they mean, I think, is “pay attention to the words you’re saying.”

The words are there for a reason.  We don’t say all those Hail Mary’s, or all the prayers of the Mass, or the Psalms, so that we can ignore them.

I call this “verbal prayer.”  Words are something we say with our voice – and understand with our mind.  Mooing or screaming are “vocal” activities that are not words – but the Church teaches us to pray with words, which engage our mind.  Groaning is not the traditional Catholic way to pray.

Contemplation, it seems, is something that happens now and then while we are doing verbal prayer.  Now and then we catch glimpses, we feel stabs of love.  That’s something that happens while we are saying our vocal prayers with our minds attuned to our voices.


Teresa of Avila is insistent that contemplation is always a gift, “infused” not “acquired.”  What she means, I think, is that it is foolish to set aside time for contemplation.  Contemplation is something divine that happens while we are doing human kinds of prayer – verbal prayer.

She insists that we focus on the humanity of Christ.  I think what she means – please, read her at greater length – is that we have to pray in human ways.  Humans use words.  The Psalms are the divine made human.  The Gospels are the divine made human.  Jesus is the divine made human.

When we separate contemplation from vocal and mental prayer, we separate the divine from the human.  The whole point of Jesus – and of the Bible and the sacraments – is that we can come to God through human things.  Do not separate the humanity from the divinity!

And she insists that she never prays without a book.  That’s Teresa – but it’s even more in the rest of the tradition.  Catholic prayer is verbal prayer.


Finally, prayer is not merely an act of will.  The verbal prayer I am describing passes through our understanding: we catch contemplative glimpses when we understand the words that we say.

To make prayer into merely an act of will is to separate our intellect from our will.  Christ does not carve up the human person.  Our will and intellect are engaged together.  We pray with our will by also praying with our intellect – and vice versa.

And to make prayer into merely an act of will is to separate humanity from divinity.  At its root – historically, philosophically, and theologically – the idea that prayer is merely effort is really the idea that we encounter God by leaving our humanity behind, by leaving our understanding and our affections and just pushing.  That might sound very heroic, but it is not the Catholic tradition.  Human prayer – the prayer the saints describe – is humble; we attain God through the humanity of Christ, we do not leap into the heavens.


The Catholic tradition does lectio divina: reading and understanding and so contemplating.  The Catholic tradition does liturgy: the most sublime prayer is prayer using words – words that we can understand.  It is valuable – don’t get me wrong – to set aside time for silence and for various spiritual exercises.  But these are not the highest forms of prayer – they are only preparations to pray better with words.

Where do words fit in your prayer life?

Praying for the Virtues with the Hail Mary

Hail Mary ImageThere is a tradition of praying for the virtues with the Rosary.  It makes sense: what we should pray for more than anything is personal transformation.

Sometimes people have a virtue for each mystery, like poverty for the Nativity.  Or you could make the first three Hail Mary’s be faith, hope, and charity, and the next seven be the Beatitudes or the Gifts of the Spirit.

There is also a tradition – John Paul mentions it, and Louis de Montfort makes it almost normative – of naming the virtue or the mystery, or both, within the Hail Mary.  This is a way of focusing ourselves on the words of the Hail Mary.  The Hail Mary isn’t there just as a timer – it’s not replaceable with the ABCs.  It’s there so we can pray it.


Hail Mary – of charity (or whatever virtue).  First we say, “look at Mary.”  Now, the point of everything – in Christianity, in the rosary, in Marian devotion – is that Christ is the source of all that is good.  Mary is not good by herself, Jesus makes her good.

But see how important it is to begin by looking at Mary.  If we turn it around, and say, “the Lord is with you – and you have charity,” the danger is that we can think she, and we, don’t really have charity, it’s really just him nearby.  The point of the Lord’s gift, of grace – and the point of Marian devotion – is that when Christ gives the grace, we really do receive it.  Mary really is charitable, Our Lady of Charity.  First we look at her: see Mary, full of charity.

And we always recall: “Hail” (Latin Ave, Greek Chaire) is a joy word.  We start by saying, “see Mary; she is charitable; and how happy!”

Full of grace.  Ah, everything about her is a gift from God.  This happiness of Mary, this virtue of Mary: it is grace.

The Lord is with you – at the Baptism in the Jordan (or whatever mystery).  The mysteries make vivid a key point about grace and Christian virtue: it is given to us through the Incarnation of Christ, to unite us to himself.  So we think not just vaguely and generally about the Lord’s presence: we think of him in a particular mystery.  And we see, as it were, the virtue (charity, or whichever) drawing Mary to him.  In every situation, he gives us the grace to live virtue there.


Blessed art thou among women.  Now we look around.  What distinguishes Mary?  What makes her different from all the other women, all others “like” her?  It is the virtue that Christ gives her.  Here, at the Jordan river (or at the Crowning with Thorns, or wherever), there are many women: and what makes Mary stand out is her charity (or poverty of spirit, or wisdom, or whatever).  Virtue is what sets her apart.

And blessed is the fruit of thy womb.  We named Jesus “Lord”; now we name him “the fruit of your womb.”  In the first, we speak of his divinity – radiating grace, and drawing her to him.  Now we think of his humanity: he too has these virtues, though in a special way.  See him there, in that mystery, with his own super-abundant meekness, or hope, or fortitude.

Jesus.  Jesus means savior.  He is savior because in his blessed humanity he has the virtues that our humanity needs.   His divinity fills his humanity with exactly what we need to be united to him: grace, and love in general, but also all the specific virtues we pray for.  He is savior because he carries the “blessing” that we need.


Holy Mary.  Now we turn to the petition.  First we point out whom we are addressing.  It is as if we say, “virtuous Mary”: what am I going to ask of the virtuous one, but virtue?  “Dear Mary, who are poor in spirit, please give me a car?”  No.  But instead of virtuous, we say “holy”: Christian virtue, the virtue that unites to Christ.  That’s the person we are addressing, that’s what we are talking about.

Mother of God.  We invoke her authority.  It is an authority of grace.  It’s not that God “has to” listen to her.  It’s better than that: God chooses to listen to her.  He made himself her child, chose to be obedient to her.  Really, we invoke the whole mystery of the Incarnation: God has chosen to come close to us, and it is in this mystery – a mystery summed up in the womb of Mary – that we beg for grace.

Pray for us sinners.  Ask for us what we need.  And what do we need?  Not to be sinners.  To be holy (like Mary).  Christian virtue.

Naming ourselves as sinners also names the reason for God’s grace: not because we are good, but because he is.  Many of our intercessions point this out: for the sake of your name, though I am miserable.  I am not demanding, I am asking, as a beggar – and in the order of virtue, the name for a beggar is sinner.

Now and at the hour of our death.  We have seen in what situations Mary received the grace of the virtues.  In what situations do I need it?  I need it now.  And always I consider that I will need it in the final test, in the final moment, at the hour of my death.

How do you use the Hail Mary?

Verbal Prayer

Fra Angelico, St. Benedict of Nursia (detail)

Fra Angelico, St. Benedict of Nursia (detail)

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. At the end of our long series of commentaries on the Our Father and the Hail Mary, and at the beginning of Holy Week, I would like to argue that words take us places inaccessible to pictures. Words are the heart of Christian spirituality.

The modern Church has come to like a sort of hierarchy of prayer, with “vocal prayer” at the bottom, “mental prayer” higher than that, and “contemplation” at the top. The Catechism takes up this threefold division at 2700-2724.

Many Catholics, whether familiar or unfamiliar with these names, have a vague idea that mumbling your prayers is for beginners, but people who “really” pray replace words with pictures, and then ultimately there’s nothing but silence. This division might have some basis in the Ignatian Exercises, I’m not sure. But it isn’t traditional, and I don’t think it’s right.


Instead, we can read our threefold division in light of the famous chapter 19 of St. Benedict’s Rule, on the Discipline of Praying the Psalms:

“We believe that God is present everywhere and that the eyes of the Lord behold the good and the bad in every place (cf Prov 15:3). Let us firmly believe this, especially when we take part in the Work of God [that is, singing the Psalms in the Liturgy]. Let us, therefore, always be mindful of what the Prophet saith, ‘Serve ye the Lord with fear’ (Ps 2:11). And again, ‘Sing ye wisely”’(Ps 46[47]:8). And, ‘I will sing praise to Thee in the sight of the angels’ (Ps 137[138]:1). Therefore, let us consider how it becometh us to behave in the sight of God and His angels, and let us so stand to sing, that our mind may be in harmony with our voice.”

That our mind may be in harmony with our voice: ut mens nostra concordet voci nostrae.

In a too common reading, the “mind” (of mental prayer) is opposed to the “voice” (of vocal prayer). What Benedict reminds us of is that the mind expresses itself in words, and words are meant to express the voice. Mental prayer, then, is not prayer without words. Mental prayer is prayer where we pay attention to the words we are saying. Our mind should be in harmony with our voice.


This traditional view is less elitist than the ideas we sometimes have about contemplation. Old ladies mumble their rosaries, read holy cards, and go to Mass: all verbal prayers. Children, too, learn to pray with words. But that doesn’t make their prayer immature, just because they don’t know the techniques of “meditation” or absolute silence.

Words are not for the elite. The Our Father and the Hail Mary – the prayers of the Rosary, and of children – are words that are available to everyone. And their depths are unfathomable. We all have them at our fingertips. We just need to practice paying attention to the words we pray.

So too is the Bible available. Now, the Bible is hard reading. But we needn’t understand everything. Indeed, we don’t understand everything precisely because there’s so much good stuff there. The problem with leaving behind words is that we reduce prayer to only what we already understand.

The traditional discipline of lectio divina is not a technique, not some trick you have to learn. It just means prayerfully reading the Bible. We bathe in its richness, we aren’t surprised that it is deeper than we are, and we get glimpses of riches we never would have imagined.

That’s really the point of verbal prayer: it is a recognition that we have much to learn, and that God has given us his word, in Scripture and in the Word Incarnate, to teach us.


Holy Week gives us the opportunity for many words, and to discover the richness of those words. When we read the story of the Passion, we realize that pictures can see a man with bread, but only words can tell us this is his Body; pictures can show a man on a Cross, but only words can say, “Truly this was the Son of God.”

If we pray the stations, we will see images of Christ crucified – but use our words to express love, and to know how much he loves us. And we will pray the Our Father and the Hail Mary, many times, and discover that this is not just a mourning mother, but the Mother of God, full of grace.

Let us enjoy the words of Holy Week, and let our minds be in harmony with our voice.


What words can you use to pray? Is your mind in harmony with your voice when you pray them?

Lenten Practices: Prayer

King David Doing Penance, Albrecht Durer

King David Doing Penance, Albrecht Durer

Lent is supposed to be marked by extra prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Over the next few weeks we will consider each of these in turn.

First, some preliminary points. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are the topics of the central section of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6:1-18), with the Our Father at the very center. The Sermon is really fabulous, with a few different points each laid out such that they can be pointed to as the very essence.

For example, the Sermon on the Mount begins with the Beatitudes. It is not hard to say that the Beatitudes really are the entirety of Christian teaching, in a nutshell. But then the very center of the Sermon on the Mount is the Our Father, and as we have been arguing on Mondays, the Our Father as a whole, and in fact any one line of it, can also be taken as the very essence of Christianity. All these wonderfully dense, rich lines, ripe for memorization and meditation.

So too the sections on almsgiving, prayer, and fasting can be seen as the heart of the Gospel: to love our neighbor in his need (almsgiving), and God in his richness (prayer), more than we love material comfort (fasting). Or, again, the refrain of this section of the Sermon is “Your Father who sees in secret.” Each of these practices takes us to the heart of our spiritual relationship with God. Each of them cuts us to the heart. To understand what they have to do with the heart, the “secret place,” and with knowing God as Father is, in a sense, to know everything there is to know about Christianity.


A second point. Sometimes we phrase Lent as a preparation for Good Friday, as somehow getting us ready to appreciate what Jesus did for us. That’s okay. But we might actually put it the other way around.

Lent is a time when we dig more deeply into the very central practices of our faith, the very heart of the Sermon on the Mount: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. In a sense, Good Friday and Easter are unnecessary for explaining this. We are simply working harder to be Christians, digging deeper into our faith. Perhaps it is helpful in this context to remember that Lent is not just fasting: it’s about the whole package, Christianity in its essence. Prayer, fasting, almsgiving.

Easter aside, it makes good sense to have some “retreat” times, when we work harder at the essentials, so that they can flow into the rest of our life when we come home from retreat. And to really enter into prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, we need more than a couple days. We get a deeper taste by having a long time. Jesus, in fact, made his own retreat of forty days.

We could see the relationship between Good Friday and Lent not in terms of Lent preparing us for Good Friday, but of Good Friday crowning our Lent. After our forty days of struggle, after our often failed efforts to be better Christians, we look to Christ, and say, thank God, on the Cross he lived perfect prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

He infuses our very meager efforts with the fullness of his Sacred Heart. The Cross reaches out into our Lent, so that we make our efforts, not alone, but in communion with him who really was a man of the Beatitudes, who really was Son of the Father, who really prayed, and fasted, and gave to the needy. We receive alms from him, in all our Lenten efforts.


How then should we think of prayer, as the first pillar of Lent? There is an interesting irony in prayer. Prayer is time of communion with God, of reaching out to him, letting him be our sufficiency, making him the good we seek. The irony is that this is what our whole life should be. It is not entirely wrong if someone says they see no reason for prayer, because their whole life is prayer.

But it is wrong to say that because, in fact, our whole life isn’t prayer – not yet, anyway. We need explicit times of prayer to train ourselves for a life of prayer. In one sense, the Eucharist is the perfect prayer, and everything else is insufficient in comparsion. But we learn to enter into the Eucharist by taking other times of prayer in our life, by practicing what it means to love God through explicit times of prayer. Indeed, even the Eucharist is that in relation to the rest of our life: a time of explicit prayer so we can train ourselves to live prayer in every moment of our life.

That, really, is the heart of Lent: a time of practice, so that when we return to ordinary life, we can live its richness more deeply.


How are you practicing for ordinary life this Lent? How do you practice for life in your times of prayer?

The Sacramental Life: Keeping Our Eyes on God

seven-sacraments-rogier-van-der-weyden-bigIn recent weeks we considered several names for the spiritual life as it relates to various persons of the Trinity, and then we considered St. Louis de Montfort’s four different names for the spiritual life as it relates to Mary. Today we begin a series that will consider how the sacraments can serve as names for the spiritual life. All of these things name the same basic reality: our incorporation in Christ, our sharing in the life of God.

But they highlight it in different ways. This is important because in fact it is easy for us to lose track of what the spiritual life is really about.


The two basic poles of the spiritual life are God as our destination and God as our means of reaching that destination. “Charity,” or divine love, is the theological name for loving God as the ultimate good toward which everything is aimed. Grace is the theological word for the transformation of the person by contact with God: the work God does in us.

Our constant temptation is to sink into ourselves. We replace charity with love of self when we focus on experience, as if the real point of the spiritual life was to have visions, or warm fuzzy feelings – or no feelings: spiritual dryness can be idolized too. In fact, I fear that there’s a certain kind of pseudo-mysticism about where people feel like if they space out, especially in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament, that emptying of the mind is the presence of God. Liberal Catholics call this “centering prayer,” and conservative Catholics know it must be bad. But I think a lot of conservative, or quasi-orthodox Catholics, also think silence itself is prayer: a dangerous incursion of Buddhism, a loss of the fire of charity.

But so too can be the fad of journaling. Now, Mother Teresa herself, a real model of divine charity, seems to have liked both silence and journaling. But what are we journaling about? Are we gazing at ourselves in the mirror? Or are we creating a God in our own image, describing the God we love in our own terms, rather than his?

To love truly, we have to keep our eyes on God. Scripture can be a helpful way to do that, which is why the tradition is so in love with the Psalms and various kinds of lectio divina. But in any case, the point is, Catholicism urges us to look beyond ourselves. The true Christian spiritual life maintains charity by thinking about the various names for the spiritual life we have been considering.


The same is true of grace. The constant temptation is to think either that we do it all by our own power (or by the human power of our community) or that we cannot do it – despair is just another angle on trusting in our own powers. When we lose a clear sense that the spiritual life is the work of the divine Trinity, or of the Lord, incarnate in Mary’s womb, true spirituality is replaced.

On the one hand, we focus on our own strength, and begin to exalt in what we do for ourselves instead of what God does for us. But on the other hand, since our own strength can’t get us very far, we begin to set our sights too low, as if the things we can do on our own are the only possibilities of the spiritual life. The spiritual life without an intense emphasis on divine grace becomes hardly any spiritual life at all.


In the next several weeks we will go through the seven sacraments, considering the richness of naming the spiritual life by reference to Baptism, or Confirmation, or the Eucharist (either sacrifice or communion), or Penance, or the Anointing of the Sick, or the Priesthood, or Marriage. In fact, each of these sacraments provides an excellent description of the spiritual life as a whole.

But first, briefly, what is a sacrament? Sacraments are signs that give what they signify. Baptism is a symbol of spiritual washing – and it does in fact spiritually wash us.

Sacraments provides an intense focus on grace. Just as touching the hem of Jesus’s robe made clear that grace came from him, not from our own power, so too with the sacraments. The sacramental life means trusting in his power.

And the sacraments make vivid that the spiritual life means coming out of ourselves in pursuit of the Good God. They are profound signs of the spiritual reality of Christianity.


How do you find nourishment through the sacraments?

Pope Benedict on Personal and Liturgical Prayer

Another fine passage from Spe Salvi:

For prayer to develop this power of purification, it must on the one hand be something very personal, an encounter between my intimate self and God, the living God. On the other hand it must be constantly 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. Cardinal Nguyen Van Thuan, in his book of spiritual exercises, tells us that during his life there were long periods when he was unable to pray and that he would hold fast to the texts of the Church’s prayer: the Our Father, the Hail Mary and the prayers of the liturgy. Praying must always involve this intermingling of public and personal prayer. This is how we can speak to God and how God speaks to us. In this way we undergo those purifications by which we become open to God and are prepared for the service of our fellow human beings.

We become capable of the great hope, and thus we become ministers of hope for others. Hope in a Christian sense is always hope for others as well. It is an active hope, in which we struggle to prevent things moving towards the “perverse end”. It is an active hope also in the sense that we keep the world open to God. Only in this way does it continue to be a truly human hope.

Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi

Pope Benedict on Prayer as an “Exercise of Desire”

Pope Benedict’s encyclical on hope, Spe Salvi, contains many beautiful passages on prayer. I have broken the following into paragraphs, and added some bold face, to make it a little easier to read:

“Saint Augustine, in a homily on the First Letter of John, describes very beautifully the intimate relationship between prayer and hope. He defines prayer as an exercise of desire. Man was created for greatness—for God himself; he was created to be filled by God. But his heart is too small for the greatness to which it is destined. It must be stretched. “By delaying [his gift], God strengthens our desire; through desire he enlarges our soul and by expanding it he increases its capacity [for receiving him]”. Augustine refers to Saint Paul, who speaks of himself as straining forward to the things that are to come (cf. Phil 3:13).

He then uses a very beautiful image to describe this process of enlargement and preparation of the human heart. “Suppose that God wishes to fill you with honey [a symbol of God’s tenderness and goodness]; but if you are full of vinegar, where will you put the honey?” The vessel, that is your heart, must first be enlarged and then cleansed, freed from the vinegar and its taste. This requires hard work and is painful, but in this way alone do we become suited to that for which we are destined.

“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. It is only by becoming children of God, that we can be with our common Father. 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.”

–Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi