Pope Benedict XVI: Prayer is a Matter of Life and Death

In July 2007, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in the book The Joy of Knowing Christ: Meditations on the Gospels, wrote a meditation explaining how prayer is a matter of life and death. The title of the meditation is in fact, “Prayer: A Matter of Life or Death.”

In his mediation, Benedict XVI, looks at the Transfiguration of Our Lord and delves into the prayer life of Jesus and how in this moment, he allows St. Peter, St. John, and St. James to witness the deep intimacy He shares with the Father in communion with the Holy Spirit. It is the same communion that you and I are called to enter into with the Most Holy Trinity.

At the Transfiguration, Our Lord goes up to the mountain specifically “to pray” (Luke 9:28). Christ spent hours on the mountain in prayer and would pray all night, but in solitude. On this occasion, he invites his closest Apostles to come with Him as he prays on the mountain. It is during this prayer that St. Peter, St. James, and St. John witness the glory of His union with the Father in prayer. Benedict XVI writes:

Thus, for the three apostles, going up the mountain meant being involved in the prayer of Jesus, who frequently withdrew in prayer, especially at dawn and after sunset, and sometimes all night. However, this was the only time, on the mountain, that he chose to reveal to his friends the inner light that filled him when he prayed: his face, we read in the gospel, shone and his clothes were radiant with the splendor of the divine Person of the incarnate Word (see Luke 9:29).

This glimpse of His glory, shows the disciples not only His divinity, but the transfiguring power of prayer and communion with the Most Holy Trinity. It is in going up to the mountain to pray that we are transformed into the transfigured saint each one of us is called to be. This transfiguration is impossible without a life steeped in prayer because it is through prayer that we grow in greater intimacy with God and enter more fully into the Divine life.

Benedict XVI shows that Jesus’ prayer at the Transfiguration is a matter of life and death. During this period of prayer, Christ enters into dialogue with the law and the prophets. Moses and Elijah appear and Our Lord discusses with them what He must do in order to bring about our salvation. Benedict XVI again:

Therefore, Jesus listens to the law and the prophets who spoke to him about his death and resurrection. In his intimate dialogue with the Father, he did not depart from history; he did not flee the mission for which he came into the world, although he knew that to attain glory, he would have to pass through the cross.

On the contrary, Christ enters more deeply into this mission, adhering with all of his being to the Father’s will; he shows us that true prayer consists precisely in uniting our will with that of God. For a Christian, therefore, to pray is not to evade reality and the responsibilities it brings, but rather to fully assume them, trusting in the faithful and inexhaustible love of the Lord.

Through His prayer, Christ enters more deeply into His mission and empties Himself out in love to the Father. His will is perfectly united to that of the Father. Each one of us is called to live united to the will of God. We cannot come to understand and unite ourselves fully to His will if we do not make time each and every day for prayer. Prayer is the very breath we breathe that leads us to a richer and deeper way of living. It is through prayer that we can grow to love God and others. Saints are first and foremost people of prayer.

In the busyness of our days, it can be difficult to set aside times for prayer. Depending on the demands of our vocation, we may only be able to squeeze in 10 minutes a day, but we must faithfully set aside those few minutes. The priesthood, of course, needs to be entirely grounded in prayer in order for priests to live in deep intimacy with God, be fruitful, and to avoid burnout. The same is true for families even though the demands are different. Families quickly fall into disarray without prayer being a central aspect of each day.

Our prayers are meant to center our day on Christ. We begin by offering our day to God, along with all of our prayer intentions, and we should end each day by thanking God for what He’s given to us. We should also end our day mindful of how we have sinned and failed to love Him and others through a nightly examination of conscience. This makes preparation for the Sacrament of Penance easier since our sins will already have been brought to mind daily. As time allows, other forms of prayer can be used through out our day. We should also keep in mind that by living our vocations each day, we can offer our sacrifices up as prayers to the Father in love.

As new seasons blossom within our vocations, we will discover greater time for prayer. The habit of prayer must begin now, however, and not down the path when the kids are grown. The Church’s rich prayer traditions can be molded to fit any vocation. We only need to put in the effort to prioritize it within our day. If we have time for social media or television, then we have time for prayer.

The importance of prayer cannot be overstated. Without a regular prayer life, the soul will whither. We become more susceptible to temptations, sins, and our weaknesses. We can very quickly find ourselves in patterns of sin, including mortal sin, if we abandon regular prayer. Prayer will lead the Christian to a fruitful spiritual life, but without it perils abound. Benedict XVI makes the necessity of prayer clear when he states:

Dear brothers and sisters, prayer is not an accessory or “optional,” but a question of life or death. In fact, only those who pray—in other words, who entrust themselves to God with filial love—can enter eternal life, which is God himself….Let us ask Mary, Mother of the incarnate Word and teacher of the spiritual life, to teach us to pray as her Son did so that our life may be transformed by the light of his presence.

Benedict XVI’s strong words are a reminder of what is at stake in our prayer lives. If we do not pray then we cannot know God. We will not be prepared for the glories of the Beatific Vision because we will lack the love, intimacy, and communion with the Most Holy Trinity that is necessary for the next life.

Spouses cannot fully love one another if they only express affection on rare occasions and lack intimacy within their marriage because they rarely spend time together. The same is true of friendships and all other relationships. If we do not put in the necessary time and effort, our human relationships die. This is even more true of our relationship with God, which is the single most important relationship we have in our lives; the implications of which are eternal.

Prayer is a matter of perseverance in love. It is not easy, but nothing worthwhile is ever easy. Charity is demanding precisely because the reward is so great. We will fail in our prayer lives. We will fall short. We must come to recognize that our success in prayer is not up to us. It is up to the Holy Spirit. We are simply called to make the time and to pray for the grace to persevere.  Prayer is truly “a matter of life and death.” As we go about our day, let us remember to make prayer our top priority, so that we can be transfigured into the saint God wants us to become.

image: Frippitaun / Shutterstock.com


Constance T. Hull is a wife, mother, homeschooler, and a graduate with an M.A. in Theology with an emphasis in philosophy. Her desire is to live the wonder so passionately preached in the works of G.K. Chesterton and to share that with her daughter and others. While you can frequently find her head inside of a great work of theology or philosophy, she considers her husband and daughter to be her greatest teachers. She is passionate about beauty, working towards holiness, the Sacraments, and all things Catholic. She is also published at The Federalist, Public Discourse, and blogs frequently at Swimming the Depths.

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