When contemplative prayer, with its persistence in faith and charity focused on God, is practiced regularly, this has an impact on liturgical prayer. One may regularly exercise silent faith before God and also return from time to time to the prayer of meditation, in particular when it turns out that silent prayer stops being an encounter with God and becomes only indulging in daydreaming. Also vocal prayer, especially liturgical prayer, has to be practiced throughout one’s life. Habituation in silent prayer, in which faith touching God is dominant, influences liturgical prayer and shows the spirit in which it should be celebrated.
Since, through faith, contact with God is established that triggers the effusion of grace, it follows that, when this happens in communal prayer, grace touches the entire community. But it is essential that the direction of faith toward God truly takes place during the liturgy. This has to happen not only in the soul of the main celebrant, but in all who are participating.
During communal prayer, all should exercise their faith. So, too, the readers and cantors should draw attention not to themselves but to God. Also, the altar servers, the organist, those who take up the Sunday collection, and all the faithful should pray in faith. Sometimes there are liturgies in which it seems as if the altar servers are not praying, the organist is singing without faith, the priest is going through the routine motions in a mechanical way, carelessly, as if informing everybody that he is bored, and the preacher is delivering empty verbiage with no faith. In these difficult moments faith needs to be repeatedly exercised.
Faith is an encounter with the mystery. And when the liturgy is celebrated in a sloppy manner, a strong, persistent faith is needed with the conviction that faith ensures a contact with God and initiates the effusion of grace.
Since faith sets grace in motion, all people, priests or laypersons, who perform acts of faith generate a prayerful climate that in time draws others to the spirit of prayer. This is sometimes very difficult for the celebrant, requiring conscious internal recollection, in particular when those present at the liturgy are not praying, but rather treating it as some social gathering. This is not so much a problem during daily Masses, because those who attend them normally truly pray. But during weddings, First Holy Communions, or funerals, often there are people in the church who are not praying at all, being interested only in the social event and in the taking of pictures.
Great care is needed to ensure that there will be persistence in faith during the liturgy and that those who have found themselves occasionally in church will be drawn by the faith of others. Some technical details are useful, such as the maintenance of silence in the sacristy before proceeding to the altar and the closing of the door leading to the sacristy, in particular when there are conversations there during the celebration.
All liturgies, including those at the occasion of weddings, First Holy Communions, or ordinations, should be celebrated in such a way that they will enflame and not extinguish the spirit of prayer. In the past, pictures and, even more so, videos were not taken in such moments. If there were pictures, they were shot after the celebration and outside the church. When the first place in the liturgical celebration is attributed to the photographer, this wipes out the spirit of prayer. In churches that are visited by tourists because of their works of art, ways must be found to ensure that there will be silence in them, that mobile phones are turned off, and that at least a part of the church is reserved for those who come to pray.
Persistence in faith during prayer is not a question of emotions. One does not have to have a sad face or be indifferent toward others. Prayer does not consist in emotional rigidity. Prayer is the practice of faith, the humility of the mind that reaches out toward the mystery, and not the activation of the emotions.
A special moment for the awakening or renewal of grace, including the grace of faith, is the reception of the sacraments. They are not just occasions to remind oneself about God, Who gives Himself to us anyway. In the sacraments there is a new, objective meeting with God, Who gives Himself through the physical sign of the sacrament. The force of the sacraments derives from the gift of self made by Jesus Christ, Who offered Himself on the Cross. The Son of God, Who had assumed a human physical body and conquered sin and death by the power of His charity, continues to give Himself in the Church through the sacraments.
Always during the reception of the sacraments there is an objective meeting with God, irrespective of the power of faith of the one who administers or receives the sacrament. The priest who is celebrating Mass may be distracted; the confessor may be somewhat deaf; they even may be seriously entangled in sin: But this does not impair the validity of the sacraments. A sinful priest administers the sacraments validly and contributes through his ministry to the sanctity of the faithful. The one receiving sacraments may have a weak faith, but this does not affect their validity. We do not know what sort of faith an infant has as he or she is baptized, or the depth of faith of the family who is present. A bride may be worried about her wedding dress, thrilled about the event, and not at all prayerful, or the groom may be thinking about the fun he will have at the wild reception after the ceremony, but this does not affect or weaken the validity of the sacrament of matrimony.
Forgetting about the real, objective causality in the sacraments, something against which Aquinas vigorously warned, leads to centering attention on the catechetical, social, or artistic aspects of the sacramental celebration. These dimensions may quickly wane or become boring. What is most important in the sacraments is the gift of God, given truly and anew through the sacrament, irrespective of the quality of the accompanying preaching or the prayerfulness of those present. But certainly the reception of the sacraments within a lively faith and the renewal of their graces by repeated acts of faith enhance their fruitfulness. At the wedding ceremony or during the ordination to the priesthood the receiver of the sacrament may have had a weak, distracted faith. But the living out of the graces of the sacrament and their renewal through prayer and the reception of the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist result in growth in the vocation and in the reception of graces that give the strength to persevere in it.
What is the relationship between the reception of the sacraments and the expression of faith during prayer that, after all, also unites one with God and opens one to His grace? The internally expressed faith sets the supernatural life in motion. The renewal of acts of faith animated by charity deepens the encounter with God and habituates one to a further receptivity to the power of God in the events of daily life. All this takes place in a supernatural way within the human interior, and so the power of God is not felt. Subjectively one may only recognize that the act of faith was made and that further acts were made on the basis of that trusting belief.
Meanwhile the sacraments, due to their physical, visible structure are an objective fact that is perceptible also to others and to the community of the Church. The subjective consciousness of faith may vacillate, but the objective reception of a sacrament grants certitude. During an ardent personal prayer, subjectively, somebody may be convinced that sins have been pardoned by God. But the reception of the sacrament of Penance grants the certitude that these sins have been burned away by God, and so those sins can be forgotten and life may commence anew, strengthened by grace that inclines toward goodness. Similarly, the one who for some reason cannot receive Holy Communion may, through faith that is animated by charity, receive a spiritual Communion and in this way unite with God.
The objective reception of the Eucharist, however, gives the certitude that Christ has been welcomed in the heart. Similarly, the reception of sacraments that change the status of the person and generate obligations, such as Baptism, Matrimony, or Holy Orders, is objective and clear. The reception of these sacraments leaves no doubt about the status of the person and guarantees that God will not be stingy in offering the graces needed for living out one’s vocation on the condition that sensitivity to these graces will be animated by a lively faith exercised in prayer.
The sacraments are therefore extremely important for the life of faith and life in the Church. But they do not dispense one from the necessity of caring for one’s faith and deepening it through authentic prayer that expresses faith and the love of God.
Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from The Spark of Faith: Understanding the Power of Reaching Out to God, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.