Tap into a spiritual tradition that can enrich your prayer life.
Fr. Gary McCloskey, O.S.A., the Executive Director of the Federation of Augustinians of North America
When someone asks a Religious Congregation how they pray, most answer by describing their founder's spirituality of prayer. The Augustinian friars (Order of St. Augustine), commonly called the Augustinians, are in a somewhat unique situation because the Church actually founded us more than 800 years after St. Augustine of Hippo died. In 1244, Pope Innocent IV called various communities that were following an eremitical (reclusive) life to join together and live a mendicant (combination of monastic and public, religiously active) life - similar to Franciscans and Dominicans - with St. Augustine as their spiritual father.
Like other mendicants, Augustinians were called to evangelize the growing cities of Europe. By 1256 some had heeded the call. Others returned to their original ways of life. That year, Pope Alexander IV called more communities to the mission. In this way, Augustinians received a call to pray with the Church for spreading of the Gospel, to pray with one another to become stronger communities, and to follow St. Augustine as a binding community and sharing the Gospel.
Each generation of Augustinians is called to renew through prayer our commitment to the Church, each other, and our Augustinian spirit. We use St. Augustine's approach to prayer, which is very relational, involving spiritual companionship and friendship, embracing God as our companion in prayer.
In his Confessions, St. Augustine writes that his experience taught him that God was closer to him than Augustine was to himself. Prayer also connects us to our local communities, the whole Church, and the wider communion of saints. For St. Augustine, prayer is one of the ways we become with others "one mind and one heart intent upon God" (Rule). In recent years, Christians have used the expression "prayer partners." More than 1,600 years ago, St. Augustine saw prayer as a means to spiritual partnership, companionship, and friendship.
In an Augustinian approach, we are never alone or fully solitary in our prayer because prayer always connects us to others. However, quiet personal prayer time was very important for St. Augustine. In such prayer we are in dialogue with Christ the Teacher within. St. Augustine believed that being the image of God meant that we each have God within us and we must be conversing with this Teacher within. Quiet and personal time gives us the opportunity to listen to God teaching us and leading us to be with Him and to do good. It enables us to step apart from the noise, static, and distractions of life.
How do we find God's voice amid all the voices around us? For St. Augustine the primary way of hearing God's voice is Holy Scripture, the Word of God. While some prayer forms may call us to imagine ourselves within Scripture, for St. Augustine the words of Scripture should illuminate the decisions we make, the paths we follow, and the ways we live in companionship, friendship, and partnership.
Practically, St. Augustine saw Our Father as giving us scriptural words to pray, with instruction in what our prayers should be about (praising God, receiving our needs, seeking forgiveness, etc.) and insights for understanding the message of God. For St. Augustine the psalms were not just the song of David. As Scripture they are also Christ, who inspired David, singing his message for us. As he lay dying, St. Augustine had the penitential psalms displayed on the walls of his room to act as a prayer aid during his last days.
If St. Augustine were alive today, he would be delighted to see an entire congregation praying together the responsorial psalm during the Eucharist. Here, through Scripture, we are truly in dialogue with God and our community.
An Augustinian approach to prayer is not just getting in touch with God: It is allowing God to change us as we reflect on the messages we hear. Personal prayer is an opportunity to slow down and listen to what we have heard in our dialogues with others and with the Teacher within. In his Soliloquies, St. Augustine modeled an inner philosophical dialogue. As he grew in faith, these inner dialogues became more and more spiritual. Such inner dialogues were prayers to help him hear God speaking. At the end of his life, St. Augustine wrote a book called Reconsiderations, in which he reviewed his writings, identifying what stood the test of time and what needed changing. Through reflection in prayer and dialogue with the Teacher within, St. Augustine learned what he had gotten wrong that needed to be changed.
For Augustine, quiet prayer time is not only to hear the message but also to reflect on how we need to strengthen what is right and change what is wrong. We are not called to keep God's message to ourselves. St. Augustine's Confessions is not an autobiography: It is a prayer of praise to God for all the gifts of God's grace in his life, especially the gift of conversion to faith. Prayer not only changed Augustine, it was a means to share his story to help others come to faith, to companionship, and to reflection with the Lord.
Among the truths that St. Augustine found in his prayer was his understanding about what it means to pray all the time. Biblical injunctions like "Pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:17) and "I will bless the Lord at all times" (Psalm 34:2) were a challenge for him initially. In the second of his Expositions on this psalm, Augustine advises, "If you sing with the voice, you must soon be silent. In those times, sing with your life in such a way that your song is never silent."
Chief among the ways that Augustine's "life song" was his prayer was living the corporal and spiritual works of mercy and the Beatitudes he heard in the reading of Scripture. Living these scriptural admonitions becomes a way of praying them. Through them we grow in becoming the Body of Christ as part of the whole Christ - Head and Body. For Augustine, in doing the works of mercy we do not really bring anything. Rather we learn humility in meeting Christ as He suffers in all those who suffer in the world. We learn, with St. Augustine, that not only is God love, but love is also of God.
In his various ways of praying, St. Augustine calls us to the openness we should have during the preface of the Eucharistic Prayer when we are called to "Life up your heart" (Sursum Corda), or as Augustine reminds us in his Confessions, to listen with the "ears of our hearts." With our hearts open we are prepared in our communal prayers, personal prayers, and prayers of our "life song" to follow a favorite Scripture passage for St. Augustine: "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you."
Text originally published in Catholic Digest - January - February 2012 Volume 76 - Number 3 - Pages 24-29 © Bayard, Inc. 2012 - Used with Permission. Permission for further use should be requested.