The first Christians soon learned that there were many ways of expressing themselves to God. There were times they spoke to God about His Beauty — or their needs — and that was conversational Prayer.
They spoke to Him silently in their thoughts, and as they spoke to Him they realized He answered them. He answered in the same way they spoke — by thought.
Many times they were afraid as they were hunted like animals — and that very fear reached up to God for help. It was at times like these that they felt a surge of courage revive their spirits, and the words of Jesus would run through their minds. Then they wondered why they had been so afraid. They would realize God had spoken to them, and His Word was proven by power.
There were other times when they had to fight the enemy within and they realized they needed mental discipline to control the spiritual faculties that caused such havoc in their souls.
They would quiet their minds by using their memories to recall some incident in the life of Jesus. This effort calmed that faculty of any resentment that might be deposited there. To ensure their thought of Jesus taking hold, they would use their imagination to picture the scene, and suddenly it was as if they were really there. They would feel the sentiments of His Heart in that situation and begin to apply them to themselves.
To the first Christians this kind of Prayer was a “Jesus experience,” but to us it is a “meditation.” To them it was a heart experience; to us it is a mind experience. To them it was a faith vision resulting in a change of life; to us it is an intellectual exercise resulting in speculations and theological arguments. They prayed and changed themselves; we pray and change things.
Some worldly Christians do not live and breathe Jesus. Their prayer life is limited to conversational Prayer when in need, formal Prayer when they cannot think of what to say to God, and sometimes mental Prayer when their souls are at peace.
All these forms of Prayer are limited to a time and a place. They are part of our prayer life, but only a part, and if that life is fed only by these forms of prayer, Jesus will come and go in our lives according to our needs, spare time, and abilities. He will not be our Constant Companion and Intimate Friend. We shall never pray without ceasing.
The first Christians’ Prayer of Imitation gave them the necessary drive to bring about in their mind and will the desire to be like Jesus in everything. In order to prepare their hearts for this transformation, they read and reread everything that related to Jesus and His Personality.
It was the Personality of Jesus that the Christians were trying to emulate. They realized Jesus was the perfect model of how a son of God acted and thought.
In order to perfect their own personalities and bring out those qualities that were buried by sin, weakness, and imperfections, the Christians had to keep their eyes, mind, and heart on the Divine Model. They had seen other imperfect men like Peter, Paul, James, and John develop within themselves qualities of soul that astounded the world. They seemed to be born again, to be full of joy, in control of themselves, and unhampered by the cares of this world.
They realized that the foundation of their actions was their thoughts and so they began to fill their minds with a mental concept of Jesus that wove itself into every situation and brought to their minds a pattern and parallel between themselves and Him.
Because they loved Him, this effort was never forced or strained. It was the natural consequence of a deep love — a love that made the parties involved one.
When they heard or read of Jesus “feeling sorry” for a crowd of people, they were not satisfied with thinking about the scene to contemplate His compassion; they entered into His Spirit and began to “feel” as He felt.
Had He not put His Spirit into them when they were baptized? Were they not called upon to follow Him as faithful disciples? Well then, they would cooperate with that Spirit and act accordingly.
His compassion for sinners would be theirs, and they would develop the Gifts given to them by using every situation to grow into His image.
Their minds had to “think like Jesus.” Their hearts had to “feel” like Jesus. Their voices had to spread the Good News about Jesus.
St. Paul had told them in a letter to “guard your hearts and your thoughts in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7). This is how they would persevere in their Prayer of Imitation — they would set a guard at the door of their Memory, careful that no bitterness or resentment ever took up residence there. They would fill their minds with “everything that was good, pure, true and noble” (Phil. 4:8).
When they were tempted to anger or to cursing, they would immediately think of Jesus as He stood before His enemies in calm serenity. Their contemplation looked beyond the “thinking” stage. Their imagination pictured Jesus in perfect self-control, and their hearts responded by doing the same as He did.
They used their minds to recall the life of Jesus, but they went further and penetrated into the Heart and sentiments of Jesus. Their minds not only remembered and saw what He did, but their spirits, united to His Spirit, began to “feel” as He felt and to absorb His Spirit. They literally “put on” Christ, and their lives bore the fruit of that union.
The minds and hearts of the first Christians worked together in harmony. Their faith was not the prisoner of their minds, but was made fruitful by penetrating the whole person, so that it touched every facet of life.
Faith, thoughts, and actions were as one. They guarded all three so no conflict ever came between them, trying not to think one thing and do another. With the Spirit of Christ in their souls, they had to act accordingly but could not until their thoughts were under control and their hearts totally God’s.
They had to see everything that happened to them through the eyes of faith. When they were persecuted and their reason told them to go back to the old ways, Faith told them to dance for joy for their reward was great in Heaven.
They blessed their enemies and prayed for them as a remedy to cure the cancer of resentment and never permitted it entrance into their minds. Jesus gave them this secret to peace, and they followed in His footsteps.
When home, friends, and lands were lost for the sake of the Kingdom, they thought of Jesus leaving Heaven and living on earth with no place to rest His head. Entering into that spirit of sacrifice, they left all for the sake of Jesus.
Life as a Christian was often painful but it was never without a challenge, fruit, or opportunity. They stumbled and fell many times but merely used these occasions as stopping places in the journey of life — places to take stock of themselves, replenish their strength by repentance and prayer, and move forward with greater earnestness.
The Spirit of Jesus was a power within them that gave them the opportunity to choose on every occasion between being weak or strong, good or bad, holy or sinful, a son of the world or a son of God. It was a personal choice, but the power to accomplish the best thing would always be present.
If they became so absorbed in the situation or in themselves, they would fall prey to weakness, sin, and imperfections. They could not bear fruit alone. But when they thought like Jesus, and took upon themselves His Spirit, they bore the fruit of Jesus and acted as a son of God, not a son of the world.
It was difficult, for human nature revels in pride and recoils at humility, seeks independence and rejects obedience, desires luxury and spurns poverty, covets pleasure and rebels at penance or sacrifice. It was not possible to make such changes alone. Only God’s grace could make mere men sons of God and capable of heroic virtue. They had to choose often and every day between acting like men or sons.
One thing they learned — they had to control their thoughts. Jesus told them to forgive their enemies and do good to those who cursed them. They soon realized it was for their own sake that He told them this. They noticed that every time they began to hate a persecutor, it interfered with their union with God. Their minds became cluttered with resentful and revengeful feelings. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth soon made them into vessels of hate, not love.
They became irritable and critical and were thrown back to their “old ways.” The newborn man seemed to die and wither and he stood alone, buffeted on every side by temptations and doubts.
Yes, when Jesus told them to forgive and have compassion on those who offended them and pray for them, it was to keep their own souls untouched by the hatred of others. They were to have pity on those who did not know Jesus and pray for them so they, too, might be born again or at least have the opportunity to make a choice between God and the enemy.
They were to shake the dust of dissension and hatred from themselves and let their peace return to them (Matt. 10:14).
Paul had to remind them often of the Lord’s Will for them. “Do all you can to live at peace with everyone. Never try to get revenge; leave that, my friends, to God’s anger. If your enemy is hungry, you should give him food, or if he is thirsty, drink. . . . Resist evil and do good” (Rom. 12:18-21). By doing this they were to win over many who lived in darkness. The enemy of God, who was Prince of this world, would lose many followers by the virtuous lives of these Christians.
“Let us not lose sight of Jesus,” Paul told them over and over (Heb. 12:2). Everything the Christians were before their conversion had to change. They could no longer be spiteful, deceitful, hypocritical, envious, or critical of their neighbor (1 Pet. 2:1).
They were to agree among themselves, be sympathetic, love one another, have compassion, and be self-effacing (1 Pet. 3:8). The only way they could accomplish this was to “think of what Christ suffered in this life, and then arm themselves with the same resolution that He had” (1 Pet. 4:1).
Their minds were to be disciplined and trained to think in a new way, guided by a new set of principles and values, and motivated by a deep love for Jesus. They had to acquire a “habit” of thinking like Jesus.
Peter realized the importance of renewing their minds when he said, “I am continually recalling the same truths to you, even though you already know them and firmly hold them. I am sure it is my duty to keep stirring you up with reminders . . . so after my departure you still have a means to recall these things to memory” (2 Pet. 1:12-15).
He prayed that the “morning star” would rise in their minds so their lives would reflect the Light captured there and the whole world see their goodness, understanding, patience, kindness, self-control, true devotion, and love (2 Pet. 1:3-11).
Christianity was so unlike any religion of its time. It was made up of people who worshiped, prayed, and shared together. The religion or religious sects that were so numerous were only concerned with the individual and the Absolute. To fear and pacify was the essence of their worship of idols. Their relationship was never one of the heart and never reached out to their neighbor in love.
The Christians accepted invisible truth and called it Faith. They lived by these truths and called it Hope. They permitted these truths to change them and their lives and called it Love. The total person reached up to God in love and then stretched itself out to the world in love. That was the Chris-tian’s cross — a vertical relationship with God that was so powerful, it diffused itself in all directions. This was the cross they were to carry.
This is the Cross Jesus carried: His love for His Father and mankind made Him empty Himself to the point where “He did not count equality with God a thing to be clung to” (Phil. 2:6). He emptied Himself to be obedient to His Father. By that obedience He made reparation for the sin of Adam and Eve. He opened up the gates of Heaven and merited Divine Adoption for all of us.
His humility confounded the pride of the enemy and showed us the way to Heaven. Behind both His obedience and humility was a great love — love for the Father and love for mankind.
Filled with love, He came down and took upon Himself our nature and then sent His Spirit to fill us with a Divine participation in that nature.
The first Christians realized this truth and reciprocated by loving Jesus and their neighbor with the love of the Spirit who dwelt within them. Their one desire was to give glory to the Father as Jesus did and they would do it in the same way — by obedience, humility, and love.
They would fill their minds with the Word of God, their imagination with the life of Jesus, their understanding with Faith, and their will with love.
Christianity was, above all, Someone, and that fact demanded an intellectual assent to truth and a total giving of the heart to Jesus. It was a Faith that reached up to Heaven and touched God and a deep burning Love that spread out and touched each neighbor.
It was a life of choices and decisions — some right and some wrong — but each one building up some part of the soul and making it into a new creation.
The first Christians believed and loved, and they did both with joy and freedom. They would see Jesus in everyone and be Jesus to everyone.
They would imitate the whole Christ by doing everything for the Glory of the Father and seeing everything in the light of Eternity rather than time.
Most of all, they would manifest the Spirit who lived within them — the Spirit of Love.
Editor’s note: This article is adapted form a chapter in Mother Angelica on Prayer and Living for the Kingdom, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.