Christian prayer is rooted in the truth that Christ crucified is fully God and fully man. The prayer of the Lord is theandric — the highest expression of the perfect unity of divine and human energy in His Divine Person. Theandric comes from the Greek words for God (Theos) and for man (anthropos). To say that the Lord’s Prayer is theandric means that when Jesus prays, although He is God, God prays as man, and although He is man, man prays as God. This is why the Father always hears His prayer and why His prayer raises the hearts of men. In Jesus, God hears humanity’s prayer because humanity has learned to cry with a divine voice. In Him, all humanity hears God because God has learned to cry with a human voice. The supreme moment of this theandric prayer was expressed on the Cross. All Christian prayer comes from and goes to this last wordless cry of prayer offered by the Word made flesh.
When the Father sent the Son into our tired old world, the Father was giving humanity to His Son in this whole new way. In assuming humanity as a particular man, the Son now opens up the ability to pray and give thanks to God to each individual man and woman in a whole new way. When the Son of God prays as the Son of Mary, He puts into human speech and devotion the inexhaustible exchange of blessing and thanksgiving to which He gives substantial expression in His Person. Whenever anyone offers prayers in the name of Christ, he joins himself to this divine and human reality.
Perfect praise and thanksgiving offered in the unity of this saving mystery is the beginning and final purpose of the Christian life. For those who believe what the Word of the Father revealed, God has implicated Himself in the plight of humanity in the most intimate way, assuming our frail nature and filling it with His own power and life. In the Lord’s own particular human soul, the presence of God dwells in perfect fullness and in His Divine Nature, and at the same time human souls in all their particularity and uniqueness are given an eternal place to abide together in the order of grace through faith in Him. This perfect unity of humanity and divinity attains its fullest achievement in His Divine Person — the Eternal Son of the Father who is the ultimate source and summit of all unity of man and God.
By the grace of divine adoption, Christians analogously participate in this eternal relationship and extend what Christ expresses in His own humanity through the life and prayer of the Church. They are adopted into this divine Sonship so that Christ’s manhood and strength informs their prayers too — while at the same time, animated by His perfect humanity, the fullness of His divinity is given them.
The Risen Lord in fact prays in them by their bold faith in Him. Their prayer becomes the revelation of His prayer extended into space and time, here and now. Christian prayer is therefore essentially a relational reality, a personal encounter between God and man, made possible by the eternal Son of the Father and the Son of Mary.
Risen and continually sent into our hearts by the Father in the power of the Holy Spirit, the Son reveals the mystery and discipline of prayer. In the Bible, His prayer is so attractive that His disciples beg Him to teach them to pray like Him. His prayer itself teaches how to pray (CCC 2607).
The Witness of Saint Thérèse
Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, Doctor of the Church, not only deeply understood the Lord’s desires and expectations for us but also felt this grace and shared it with others:
He thirsts for love. Ah, I feel it more than ever — Jesus is suffering thirst. He only meets ingratitude and indifference over and over among the followers of the world. Among his own he finds (This is so overwhelming!) so few surrendering themselves to him without reserve, understanding the tenderness of his love.
Saint Thérèse sees the thirst of Christ as something painful and difficult to bear. In other words, this thirst is not appropriated as a vague metaphor for a simply sentimental idea accidentally to our faith in Christ. Instead, it is an existential, essential, and heartrending reality that we confront in our relationship with Him.
She distinguishes the followers of the world from the followers of Jesus. She expresses no astonishment that those who follow the discipline of the world should not welcome Christ. They have no idea Who He is and why He has come to them. She asserts, nonetheless, that their ingratitude contributes the thirst that He suffers. In other words, rejection, even by those who do not know Him, disappoints Him.
Saint Thérèse is not overwhelmed by this state of affairs. It simply is the reality Christ confronts in the world. What overwhelms her instead is what she observes about those who do follow the Lord. Christ’s thirst is made all the worse because His own followers do not surrender themselves to Him without reserve. This desire in the heart of Jesus was not simply a fact to which Saint Thérèse wistfully assented. It was a theological reality — meaning a deeply grace-filled human reality that impacted her prayer. How this is possible is explained, at least in part, by what our tradition calls the grace of divine adoption.
The Prayer of Christ in Us
When we join Christ by faith, the Holy Spirit moves us with the thoughts and affections of the Word made flesh. Our subjectivity is not our own but is caught up in a more beautiful mystery. The Holy Spirit brings our wills into conformity with the Lord’s will. Through the Holy Spirit praying in us, what we pray bears relation by faith to Christ’s prayer. In this movement of love and communion, Christ’s prayer and ours remain distinct but not separate. The Holy Spirit brings our hearts into harmony with our great High Priest.
This means our unique petitions, in all their particularity, in the concrete circumstances from which they arise, are each endowed with inestimable value. As we articulate the deep longings of our hearts and entrust them to God, the Lord hears them according to the communion that we have with Him.
It is beautiful to think about the analogy between Christ’s prayer and ours that this suggests. This mystery of His prayer did not cease at His death. All the ways He expressed His devotion to the Father is given to us through the mystery of our faith.
If, as a child of Nazareth, Jesus makes pilgrimage to the Temple, Christian prayer is also in the form of a pilgrimage to the Father’s house.
If His prayer echoes in the hidden quiet of ancient Nazareth, Christian prayer must echo behind the closed doors of our bedrooms and in the heart of our homes.
If He prays the psalms by heart daily — bowing in the morning, raising His hands like incense in the evening, and musing on His heavenly Father through the night, we must allow the affections of our hearts to be formed by the Bible and the Liturgy of the Church.
We find Him ardently in conversation with his Father through the night in deserted places, mountains, and gardens. Christians who are serious about the life of prayer also frequently withdraw for this same conversation. They take up these same struggles and strive to offer this same devotion to the Father.
The Pattern and Power of Christ’s Prayer
The pattern of the prayer of Christ is not merely an external example of how to pray, but actually forms the very nature of Christian prayer. After His baptism, He goes into the wilderness and devotes Himself to supplication, fasting, and resisting all forms of dehumanizing irrationality that threaten the human heart. What is begun there continues throughout His ministry. And it continues in our lives after our baptisms.
Jesus rejoices when He recognizes His Father’s work. He raises His eyes to heaven. He calls out with joy. He blesses God and offers thanksgiving at meals, even when it appears that there is not enough to eat or when He knows that He will be betrayed. So powerful is His prayer that He makes the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, the leprous whole, the demonically oppressed free, the dead come back to life, and the sinner forgiven. He weeps over death in prayer. His prayer frees His friends from death.
He prays sweating blood over the plight of those who would reject Him. He dies asking that even His enemies be forgiven. At the same time, the Lord teaches His disciples that they will do even greater things in His Name.
Jesus’ devotion to the Father was so dynamic, so beautiful, so compelling that the disciples begged Him to show them how to pray. Yet when the Lord taught his disciples to pray, the only technique He promoted was petition and thanksgiving rooted in unshakable confidence and vulnerability before our heavenly Father. The disposition of the heart and the virtues that come from Christ characterize, more than any method, how Christians are to pray.
The Way the Lord Commanded Us to Pray
By tradition, Jesus is believed to have given His great teachings on prayer on the Mount of Olives, not far from the garden of Gethsemane, at a place now commemorated by the Church of the Pater Noster. The ancient Byzantines believed Jesus ascended into heaven in the same vicinity. This hill stands between Jerusalem and Bethany, between where His enemies and His friends lived. The events recalled in this sacred geography symbolize the nature and place of all Christian prayer: listening to the Word and responding to Him, in the midst of one’s friends and enemies, for their sakes, on our journey to the Father’s House.
The teachings of Jesus concerning prayer are straightforward and sober. He lists petitions that ought to be prayed for, describes the interior attitudes one should adopt in prayer, and warns against using prayer to manipulate God or impress men. Although He directs his disciples to seek the Father in private solitude, He also promotes praying with others and promises to be with those who gather in His Name.
By prayer, He establishes a New Covenant that He seals with His own body and blood. This New Testament is the source and summit of all Christian prayer.
His supreme wish before the Father is that His followers might dwell in unity with Him and one another in the Father. He takes this wish all the way to the death He freely accepted for love’s sake, and by so doing shows us the painful secret of love, the grace of subordinating our will to God’s will. Real prayer has the form of love, and we cannot love except at our own expense.
His last wordless cry on the Cross echoes in all genuine prayer. This cry is the life breath of God flowing into the dying hearts of men and women to raise them up. At the same time, Christ’s dying breath is a perfect offering to the Father of all that is humanly good and beautiful. Because its source is ever in Him, Christian prayer has the power of love unto the end, a love that cannot be conquered by death.
At the right hand of the Father, the eternal prayer of the risen High Priest is forever acceptable to God. The Father is eternally pleased in the prayer of His Son. This kind of prayer is not limited by time or space because it flows from the unending source of time and space. It is no longer subject to suffering, even if it suffers for a while the rejection of an indifferent humanity.
Indeed, such suffering is now subject to the Victor over death. Although this Judge of Heaven and Earth delays for the sake of His mercy, the Day of Justice is ever close at hand.
How We Have Access to the Prayer of Christ
This experience of the mysteries of the Lord, with all their apocalyptic force, is not remote from the practicing Christian. The Holy Spirit communicates this prayer deep in the heart through a gift of grace called the divine indwelling. It is the ever newly present prayer of Christ in the Spirit dwelling in the deepest center of the baptized that causes Christians to pray anew in the Spirit. The bodies of the baptized are true temples of the Holy Spirit — God dwells with us in the fullness of our being, making sacred even our bodies.
Besides the indwelling, there is another way the prayer of Christ is present as a living reality in the Christian life: Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity — His Real Presence in the Blessed Sacrament. Under the veils of bread and wine, the power of Christ’s prayer issues forth into the hearts of those who partake of this mystical banquet and even flows into those who behold the Eucharist with faith. By this Real Presence, He truly takes into His heart all our deepest needs, makes them sacred in the very blood and water that flowed from His side, and offers them to the Father.
His Eucharistic Presence, by its very nature, is never static, but always dynamic. It is the true center around which the whole cosmos revolves. In perpetual thanksgiving, intercession, and adoration of the Father, the dynamism of Christ’s prayer by which He comes to us also draws us to Him. The loving gaze He bestows on us through the Blessed Sacrament leads us to gaze upon Him in return, even when His presence is completely hidden by brutality and suffering in our lives.
Those who discover this gaze know even in the midst of unimaginable catastrophe that He comes in power and glory. The very foundations of the world may be shaken, but rooted in Him they stand firm. Heaven and earth will pass away, but the Word made flesh will remain forever.
Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from Dr. Lilles’ Fire From Above: Christian Contemplation and Mystical Wisdom, which is available from Sophia Institute Press. The image is from Sainte Chapelle in Paris by Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P. / Flickr