"The spirit of God made me,
the breath of the Almighty keeps me."
Our lives as human beings—whether or not we’re aware of it or acknowledge it—are intimately bound together within the presence of God. Our mere existence is a manifestation of the divine presence, since it is God who creates all things, and gives life to all being. As the Book of Genesis tells us, God formed the first human being from the dust, breathing the spirit or breath of life into his nostrils (cf 2:7). In this way we became living beings—literally and spiritually animated by the breath of God.
Thousands of years after the first human being was enlivened with God’s breath, St. Paul expanded on this theme, telling the Athenians in the Acts of the Apostles (17:24-28):
He himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For “in him we live and move and have our being.”
Several hundred years later, St. Benedict incorporated this profound, foundational theology into his Rule for monks, writing, “We must believe that God is always with us” (7:23) and “We believe that the divine presence is everywhere” (19:1).
Of course, this intimate connection between the human and divine has been short-circuited by Original Sin. Though we live and move and have our being in our Life-Giving Creator, on our own, we do not have the capacity to fully participate in and be aware of the mystery of the Divine Presence in the same way Adam and Eve did before the Fall.
As Christians, though, we believe that God gives us the necessary help in this regard through the Person of Jesus Christ, and with the aid of the Holy Spirit. Jesus bridges the gap between the human and divine, and offers us a participation in the life-breath shared among the three Persons of the Holy Trinity. Jesus came into the world bodily 2,000 years ago, but the beginning of John’s Gospel tells us that his Word made flesh was one with us long before that: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him” (John 1:1-3). In other words, Jesus is not only the instrument of our redemption and resurrection; he was also there at our creation. God’s breath—or spirit—held our being within his Word before being spoken into this world—and before the world even came to be!
“In him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). Before he left this world, Jesus promised that he would fulfill this through the Holy Spirit. “I am with you always, to the end of the age,” he said (Matthew 28:20). “In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you” (John 14:19-20, 26).
So we are never apart from the presence of God. Throughout all of Scripture, we hear God repeatedly reassure his chosen leaders, prophets, and disciples with these or similar words: “I am with you.”
So, truly, “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
So, truly, “in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
Besides within our very life and being, this divine presence is manifested to us—if we’re receptive to it—in numerous other ways each day. For example, the Rule of St. Benedict tells us that we meet Christ especially in the guest, the sick, and the poor. We also can glimpse God’s mysterious beauty and wisdom in such things as a magnificent sunset or the startling profundity of a small child’s words.
Prayer, however, is the principal means by which we are invited to immerse ourselves in the Divine Presence. First, God calls us. Although we forget God, hide from God, make for ourselves lesser gods, and even accuse God of abandoning us—God still calls us. “God tirelessly calls each person to that mysterious encounter known as prayer. In prayer, the faithful God’s initiative of love always comes first; our own first step is always a response” (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2567).
But what is prayer?
But what is prayer?
Prayer is a lifelong rhythm of listening and responding to God’s call for conversion of heart—personally and communally. In other words, it is an honest, living, breathing, Spirit-filled relationship with God. It is a holy and privileged conversation: God speaks, we listen, and then we respond. It is a rhythm of sincere sharing as between two close friends.
This relationship already exists between God and each one of us. We don’t need to establish anything ourselves. We must simply be receptive to what already is—just like a radio must be tuned in to receive a broadcast signal before we can hear the music or program.
Most importantly, prayer is an invitation to surrender our very being to God’s movement of grace in our hearts. We pray not to obtain what we want, but to become what God desires—which is oneness with him. As Trappist monk Michael Casey has written, “We do not produce prayer. We allow prayer to act. We do not create prayer; it creates us” (Toward God: The Ancient Wisdom of Western Prayer).
In prayer, we listen for the invitation, for that “tiny whispering sound” in our hearts that draws us toward God. And to do this we must surrender, let go of our preoccupations, our expectations, and simply be still before the God who created us, chose us, and redeemed us—the God who knows us better than we know ourselves, the God in whom “we live and move and have our being.”
Dwight Judy, a Methodist minister, author, and retreat director, points out that even when we petition God, “the answer to our prayer is not the immediate fulfillment of a specific request. Rather, the answer is a living relationship with the ‘peace of God’ (Philippians 4:7). … What we ultimately receive is the assurance that God is with us, regardless of the way our life [unfolds]” (Discerning Life Transitions).
As Christians, God invites us to pray primarily by meditating on the life of Christ, and we do this in many ways. We do this in personal prayer and in public prayer and communal worship—through the traditional forms or types of prayer such as petition, declaration, intercession, and thanksgiving and praise (cf. 1 Timothy 2:1, CCC 2644). We do this by sincerely praying the “Our Father”—the words Jesus taught us to pray when his disciples implored him, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1-4). We do this with devotions like the rosary. We do this by reading, listening to, and praying with Scripture. In the Catholic tradition, we do all this more intensely in the celebration of the Eucharist—where, and in which, we believe Christ is most fully present.
In addition, we pray by practicing mindfulness of God throughout the day’s activities and human interactions, sometimes with short, silent, memorized prayers.
In addition to all these ways of prayer, there are the brief but graced and priceless moments of wordless adoration and contemplation we sometimes receive from God. Then, of course, there is the more weighty prayer of suffering we all must bear from time to time, offering ourselves to God with trust, but in the dark silence, weakness, and tears that are beyond words or thoughts. In all these moments, when all our normal human faculties are rendered defenseless, God is more present to us than ever. That is because it is God’s Spirit who actually prays in us. As St. Paul wrote to the Romans (8:26-27):
The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
All of these ways of praying are important for the life of the Christian who desires to meditate on Christ and therefore dwell in true relationship within the presence of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. However, there is another form of prayer that is especially dear to Benedictine hearts. That is the regular praying of the psalms—commonly referred to as the Liturgy of the Hours or the Divine Office. It is in the Divine Office—or Work of God, as St. Benedict terms it—that we participate, in a special way, in the life-breath shared among the three Persons of the Holy Trinity. Being with God in prayer is uniquely manifested as hearts and voices unite in the conversational rhythm of listening and responding to one another with the Psalms—the ancient prayers that Jesus himself prayed as a faithful Jew.
Together, animated by the Holy Spirit, our voices become one with Christ’s in praying to God the Father on behalf of the Church and the world. As St. Benedict says in his Rule, “We believe that the divine presence is everywhere … but beyond the least doubt we should believe this to be especially true when we celebrate the divine office” (19:1-2).
Why this is the case can be traced specifically to Jesus, who taught his disciples by word and example about “the need to pray always” (Luke 18:1). When we pray in Spirit and in Truth, Jesus promises, he is fully present to us, and prays with us and in us: “Where two or three are gathered,” Jesus said, “there I am among them” (Matthew 18:20). “In the Holy Spirit, Christ carries out through the Church ‘the task of redeeming humanity and giving perfect glory to God’” in the Eucharist and other sacraments, “but also in other ways, and especially when the Liturgy of the Hours is celebrated. There, Christ himself is present” (General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours, I-III, 13).
So, whether we are praying the psalms together or alone, and regardless of whether or not the sentiment of a particular psalm corresponds with our individual state of mind, we pray in Spirit with Christ, and as Christ, to God the Father for the salvation of all. The Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton had some beautiful things to say on this subject:
There is one mystical Person chanting the psalms. It is no longer we alone…It is the eternal Christ. … All we who are members of his Body are one in Him and one with Him. His Church and bride is one with Him, two in one flesh. … It is not merely the solution of one person’s problem that is achieved in the psalms or in the Mystery of Christ. If in my chanting of the psalms, I arrive only at a sense of individual or personal fulfillment in Christ, a sense that does not reach out and embrace all the other members of the Body who find their fulfillment in Him, then I fall far short. ... The One Man who suffers in the psalms, who cries out to God in them, and by God is heard, this One Man is the Whole Christ. …The mere fact of standing together and hearing 20 or 30 or 50 or 100 voices all blending into one voice, crying out to God in the first person singular, is a great help toward realizing this truth. We all differ, we all have our own problems and troubles, and yet we all sing together: ‘O God, hear my cry, hearken to my prayer.’ … Our vision goes out to embrace the whole Mystical Body, in all its scattered members in every part of the world. And wherever they may be, those men and women are also here, and we are there with them, because we are all One in Christ. Wherever two or three are gathered together in His Name, Christ, in the midst of them, imparts to them his identity. He becomes the ‘I’ who sings and prays and praises in us all.” (Bread in the Wilderness).
So, in the psalms we have been entrusted with a great gift. In them, the voice of Christ is breathed into the world through the very Spirit of God that animates each one of us. For “in him we live and move and have our being.” May we all be faithful in living out this mystery in the presence of God, who is everywhere we are.