Part of a Series on Prayer at the St. John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, DC.
“Prayer to the Point of Blood” (3/24/2019)
Fr. Ignatius John Schweitzer, OP
You are some brave souls, coming to a conference entitled “Blood.” And you don’t know what to expect! But no, no, I’m a gentle soul so there’s nothing to fear.
“Blood” is mentioned in our Gospel today for Mass to highlight something as a very serious matter. And does not prayer carry with it the seriousness of blood?
We continue this series on Friendship with God during this Lenten season. For this talk, I chose the single word “blood” to denote both the steadfast struggle sometimes entailed in prayer but also the strong bond of brotherhood by blood we share with the Lord. As we will see, the struggle of persevering in prayer has sometimes been compared to the shedding of blood, to a giving of all. But in the midst of it all, Jesus is with us, who shares our flesh and blood and makes the yoke of prayer to be a sweet yoke. As he says, “My yoke is easy, my burden light.” So we will consider both aspects as we look at friendship with God: our struggle to the point of shedding blood and also Jesus’ blood shed for us. We will draw from the wisdom of the Saints in the apprenticeship we are all involved with: the art of prayer.
St Catherine of Siena, before she died, uttered these words, “Blood, Blood!” “Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit!” The cry of “Blood, Blood!” was certainly characteristic of Catherine’s life. The word was often on her lips and often appears in her writings, blood. She writes to her Dominican spiritual director Raymond of Capua with words we can think about in terms of prayer. She says, “Watch that you don’t pull back because of the devil’s illusions (which have, I know, caused you difficulties, and will [continue to do so]) or because of people’s talk. No, whenever things seem most cold to you, always persevere until we see blood shed with sweet loving desires.” “So don’t be surprised” Catherine continues, “if I impose on you only my desire to see you drowned in the blood and fire pouring out from the side of God’s Son. No more apathy now, my sweetest [child], because the blood has begun to flow and to receive life.” (vol I 86-7) Elsewhere she says, “[Jesus] gave his life for you; decide now to give your life for him, blood for blood” (188).
Catherine shows us two dimensions to the word blood. First, blood denotes the steadfast struggle, which is needed in the life of prayer. Second, blood also denotes the blood Jesus shares with us in his bond with humanity, the blood shed for us and winning us grace beyond all imagining. In the blood is struggle, to the extent of pouring out one’s life. But in the blood is also the sweet and saving grace of Jesus’ life poured out for us.
Here’s another example of both these aspects, struggle and sweetness, with respect to the life of prayer. This time from the East and closer to our own day. Elder Joseph the Hesychast, a renowned spiritual father of Mount Athos, who died in 1959, says of prayer, “We are not battling with a man, whom you can kill in many ways, but with the powers and rulers of darkness. They are not fought with sweets and marshmallows, but with streams of tears, with pain of soul until death, with utter humility, and with great patience. Blood must flow from over-exhaustion in saying the prayer [of Jesus]” (p 51). Yet for this modern hesychast, it’s not just struggle and blood, there’s a sweetness to it all since Jesus is with us as a blood-brother.
Elder Joseph continues, “Let me tell you a true story. Once, because of my continual and frightful temptations, I was overcome with sadness and faintheartedness, and I presented my case to God as if I had been treated unjustly….In this time…I heard a very sweet and clear voice within me say with extreme compassion, ‘Will you not endure everything for My love?’ As soon as I heard that voice, I broke out into many tears and repented for being overcome with faintheartedness. I shall never forget that voice, which was so sweet that the temptation and all my faintheartedness immediately disappeared. ‘Will you not endure everything for My love?’” (70-1)
The presence of Jesus changes everything. Bound to the blood of our humanity, he remains close to us and His sweet voice lifts us up out of our faintheartedness. So prayer is not as easy as soft and fluffy marshmallows but neither is it a drudgery. We don’t want to say about prayer, “the more difficult, the better.” We don’t want to say about anything in the Christian life, “the more difficult, the better.” Prayer is difficult, yet easy; hard yet gentle; demanding yet rewarding. The Lord says his yoke is easy, his burden is light. Prayer can be as painful as shedding blood yet through it all, there is the presence of God and Jesus’ blood shed for us in love. It’s no mistake that we call prayer an art, as in the title of this series “The Art of Prayer.” And it certainly applies here.
The art of prayer implies something of a skill. It’s about finding the sweet spot. It takes skill in finding the sweet spot of what works in the long run and with abiding fruits. It’s an art. Sometimes when we are hit with difficulties in prayer, we should just push forward with constancy. If it’s a question about getting started in our prayer life and developing the habit of making prayer a regular part of our daily schedule, then it probably will mean a lot of just remaining constant and committed to being faithful to prayer. You have to be committed to the extent of shedding blood, so to speak, remembering the blood that Jesus shed for you.
At other times difficulties may mean we should adjust something, do something a little different. Maybe bring more spiritual reading into our times of prayer, pray the psalms, pray while taking a walk. Or at other times it may mean we need more silence in our times of prayer, simply sitting quietly and attentive to the presence of God.
Prayer is an art. It takes skill and intuition to find the sweet spot. How do we know we’ve found the sweet spot? Well, like much discernment there’s hardly an easy answer. But one thing to consider is the fruits of the Spirit. Does this or that practice in the long run bear the fruits of the Spirit? St Paul speaks of the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5. He says, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal 5:23-4).
Notice, St Paul does not just say the fruits of the Spirit are what make you feel good. In his list of fruits, he includes self-control, faithfulness, and patience. He then speaks of a crucifixion that occurs, a share in the Cross of Jesus. If in the midst of this Cross, we find a love, joy, peace, kindness, and gentleness, it’s a good sign that the Holy Spirit is there. If our spiritual practices and prayer bear these fruits, it’s a good indication we have found the sweet spot. Not difficulty for difficulty’s sake. But neither consolation for consolation’s sake.
It can also help to have a spiritual director you open up to and share your life of prayer with and receive advice from. It can also help to read the classics in Catholic Spirituality or other tried and true books on prayer and Spiritual Theology. It’s like any other art; there’s a period of apprenticeship and we always learn from others and those who have gone before us. And it takes a skill to find that sweet spot of the Spirit. The Spirit will lift us up and bear us forward but there will probably also need to be some effort to the point of shedding blood, so to speak. St Paul’s list of the fruits of the Spirit is quickly followed by mention of sharing in the crucifixion of Jesus.
St Padre Pio was a living example of this. He was among those most blessed with charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit, and he bore the wounds of Jesus Christ and was among those who most shared in his Passion. The presence of the Holy Spirit and the Cross came together. Finding the sweet spot of the Spirit may involve shedding blood. This is true, in its own way of the life of prayer.
Prayer is not just one compartment of our life. Rather how we live affects our prayer and how we pray affects the rest of our life. St John of the Cross asks the question of why so few people make it to the greatest depths of prayer and intimacy with God. His answer is basically because of a lack of generosity and faithfulness to what God is asking of them. We might say they are not steadfast to the extent of shedding blood. His response is worth considering. We need not take it as the only answer, but it is worth having on the table for our reflection. He is clear that the main reason people fail to move forward in prayer is not because of God’s lack of generosity or God’s unwillingness to offer his grace. Rather the lack comes from our side.
St John of the Cross says, God “the Father of lights…is not closefisted but diffuses himself abundantly as the sun does its rays, without being a respecter of persons, wherever there is room.” Later John says, “it ought to pointed out why so few reach this high state of perfect union with God. It should be known that the reason is not that God wishes only a few of these spirits to be so elevated; he would rather want all to be perfect, but he finds few vessels that will endure so lofty and sublime a work. Since he tries them in little things and finds them so weak that they immediately flee from work, unwilling to be subject to the least discomfort and mortification…he proceeds no further in purifying them and raising them from the dust of the earth through the toil of mortification. They are in need of greater constancy and fortitude than they showed” (LF 1.15, 2.27).
It should be noted that John’s accent here is not on doing more penances but rather it’s about people submitting themselves with docility to what God is working in them. He says it’s about accepting these trials from God’s hand and not fleeing from them (LF 30). It’s about persevering steadfastly when prayer is difficult.
On one side, there’s our generous God and Father, who is not closefisted in pouring out his gifts, but on the other side there’s our resistance in responding to grace and remaining steadfast. What holds us back is not accepting in love the trials that will purify and transform us.
How do the words of John of the Cross strike our ears? Is it a discouraging verdict from John of the Cross? Or do we hear it as encouraging? We could hear it in either way. Right? John does say that God is not closefisted, but pours out his graces abundantly. Isn’t that Good News? Yet there is a lack of faithfulness to prayer in us.
In this time of Lent, perhaps we have a good examination of conscience here. How we hear John’s words could say something about our soul. Perhaps they sound discouraging because we know we are prone to hold back and pull back from what the Lord may be asking of us. Yet there is something encouraging in these words in that God wants to bring all to the heights of union and He provides the way forward. That is a message of hope, isn’t it? It may take a long time and much struggling, to the point of blood so to speak, but God wants us to reach the deepest union with him more than we ourselves do.
However, if we hear John’s words too quickly and solely as words of encouragement. It might be because we lack self-knowledge. We might not realize yet how much we do hold back and pull back from what the Lord wants of us. We have to realize that what John has in mind here can be a rather subtle thing. We might be holding back and pulling back in a way we can easily come up with a justification or a rationalization. I’m doing just as much and maybe a little more than others, could the Lord really be asking me for more? I love the Lord with all my heart except maybe for this little area of my life.
Do you remember for Teresa of Avila, what it was that held her back in the spiritual life for years? It was just a little too much worldly conversation in the parlor of a monastery. In the parlor of a monastery! But then she wised up and broke through into a new depth of intimacy with the Lord. Let’s avoid scruples here. Let’s avoid a burdensome law imposed by ourselves. The Lord has a unique call for each person. But let’s listen carefully to that call.
What’s small and harmless for you, may be big and harmful for me, and vice-versa. There are many such things for us. How much time to spend on the internet? How much television? How early do we wake up to make time for prayer in the morning when we make that first-offering to God? With whom do we associate? What books and articles do we read? What do we watch? What do we listen to? These kinds of questions apply to each of us, in our own individual ways. There’s no easy answer. Prayer is an art. We have to seek what the Lord wants of us and be steadfast in responding, even to the point of shedding blood.
There’s one final dimension to prayer and blood that’s very important. We are bound to Jesus by the blood he shares with us. And in union with him, he wants us to love to the point of shedding our blood for the sake of others. Our difficulties in prayer may not be for ourselves alone. Our work of steadfastness may be drawing down grace upon others. Our labor of love in prayer may be benefitting others. For example, Staretz Silouan, a Russian monk who died in 1938, said this at the end of his life, “Pray for people…Pity God’s People.” A disciple remarked that this is difficult at times. Silouan replied, “Of course it is difficult. Praying for people means shedding blood. But we must pray….To pray for humankind is to shed blood” (236, 240). Those were the wise words of Staretz Silouan after years of experience: “To pray for humankind is to shed blood.” As we know, prayer can be challenging at times and so this Eastern Saint can find no better comparison than the shedding of blood.
Yet on the other hand, the same Silouan would say things like this: “O Lord, how Thou hast loved Thy creature! Thy soft, gentle gaze the soul can never forget.” “Guard the grace of God: with grace, life is easy. With God all is well, all is pleasant and joyous: the soul is at peace in God and walks, as it were, in a fair garden in which live the Lord and the Mother of God.” (104, 127, 110)
So again, we see the same dynamic. On the one hand, Silouan says “With grace, life is easy. With God all is well, all is pleasant and joyous”; and yet on the other hand he says “Praying for people means shedding blood.”
So it is true, in prayer we have to be ready to shed blood, to remain constant to the end. And maybe this constancy of blood will win graces for others. We are willing to persevere in constancy in prayer because Jesus himself first persevered in constancy on the Cross. We are willing to shed blood in prayer because Jesus first shed his blood for us. “We love because God first loved us.” And this love compels us to keep praying, for love of God and love of others.
Brothers and Sisters, here we are speaking about blood. And here’s blood right in our midst. We have here the relic of St John Paul II, a vial of his blood. It’s the blood he poured out for the Church, not literally in martyrdom but in his service of the Church. It’s his life’s blood he gave for the Church. And it speaks more eloquently than the blood of Abel. It speaks more eloquently than any of my words—this blood of JPII.
St John Paul II once said, “Prayer joined to sacrifice constitutes the most powerful force in human history.” He’s right, that’s what moves history forward: prayer joined to sacrifice. And sometimes prayer itself is that sacrifice as we persevere in prayer to the point of blood. And this is what the Church and world needs so badly today: prayer to the point of blood. Our blood. The blood of John Paul II. The blood of Jesus Christ.