By Fr. Clifford Howell, S.J.
EVERYBODY would agree that Mass is liturgical prayer
and that a personal visit to the Blessed Sacrament is private prayer. There are, then, prayerforms which clearly belong to one category or the other. But what about Benediction? What about a group of laity who meet together to sing Compline (as happens sometimes)? They are not easy to classify, hnd there are quite reasonable arguments on both sides of the question.
We conclude, then, that apart from a merely legalistic classification (which is certainly possible), we cannot draw a hard and fast line between liturgical prayer and private prayer. There is a type of prayer which seems transitional. But, even though this be true, it still remains that some forms of prayer are unquestionably liturgical while others are unquestionably private. And the first point I want to make is that when the distinction is clear it should be kept clear; confusion or indistinction should not be caused by mixing what is obviously private into what is obviously liturgical. I mean simultaneously: for the result of such a mixture would be neither liturgical prayer at its best nor private prayer at its best. To pass from one to the other Successively is, of course, absolutely in order—in fact, to be recommended.
HUS it is admirable for a priest to devote himself to that clearly private form of prayer known as meditation before he performs his clearly liturgical functions in the Mass. And it is admirable that a layman should follow up full liturgical participation in the Mass by private thanksgiving after Communion when Mass has ended.
What is not admirable is for priest or layman to give himself up to private prayer during the liturgical worship of the Mass. Priests could not do this without dislocating the Mass; for their participation in the liturgy must, of its nature. be continually external, Hence they do not do it.
But as it is possible for the Mass to go on without any external participation of the laity, it is possible for them to give themselves up to private prayer without causing dislocation. Many of them do so, and it is a pity. For they arc then treating the Mass as a mere background for their private devotions. And that is not the ideal which the Church holds up; as Blessed Pius X said, "Do not pray during Mass, but pray the Mass."
Not good enough
THIS does not mean that the
laity must follow the Mass word for word in their missals; but it does mean that they ought to be doing at least with their minds and hearts that which is, at any given moment, proposed to them by the liturgical worship as their part in it.
They should "take part in it," says Pope Pius XII in Mediator Dei, "not passively or negligently or with distracted mind, but with such active devotion as to be in the closest union with the High Priest" (§ 84). Again he says: "They must not be content to take
part in the Eucharistic Sacrifice by the general intention which all the members of Christ and children of the Church ought to have; they ought also, in the spirit of the liturgy, to unite themselves closely and of set purpose with the High Priest and His minister on earth" (§ 110).
Hence "uniting their intention" in a general way while they get on with something else is not good enough. They ought "in the spirit of the liturgy to unite themselves closely and of set purpose."
This means that at the beginning of Mass they should send up to God prayers of contrition, entreaty and praise; during the readings they should seek to hear God's word; at the Creed they should "make an act of faith"; at the Offertory they should offer themselves as symbolised by the bread and wine to God; after the Consecration they should offer Christ, really present under the forms of bread and wine, to God the Father (themselves through Him and with Him and in Him): at the Communion they should receive Christ as God's return gift to them.
The words of the missal are strongly recommended as being a help to do all this expressly and fittingly; but it is not these words which constitute genuine participation—it is these acts of mind and will. That is liturgical prayer during the liturgy; it is not private prayer during the liturgy. Do not let us indulge in private prayer during liturgical prayer.
A SECOND thing to note with regard to these two forms of prayer is that a healthy spiritual life needs them both, It would be quite wrong to think that liturgical prayer alone is enough. Private prayer is needed to prepare the mind and dispose the heart and will for fruitful participation in liturgical prayer.
"Private devotions strengthen the spiritual life of Christians and help them to take their part with better dispositions in the august sacrifice of the altar, to receive the sacraments more fruitfully, and to assist at the sacred rites in such a way as to derive from them a greater fervour" (Mediator Dei § 39).
But a third point is to note that these private prayers should be of a nature such that they do actually "cause Christians to take part with greater profit in the public functions" (§ 187). They "should be influenced by the spirit and principles of the liturgy" (§ 196).
If they dispose people against the liturgy, forming in them a sort of isolationist individualism which makes them "prefer to say their own prayers" instead of joining in the liturgical worship when they are present thereat, then they are prayers of the wrong type. People should not allow practices of private devotion so to monopolise them that they become unfitted in disposition for liturgical worship.
THIS third point needs em phasising nowadays far more than the second; for the number of people who worship liturgically but never pray privately must be extremely small—if indeed there are any such people at all.
But there arc lots and lots who pray privately but never worship liturgically, except by that "general intention" which the Pope says is not enough. For, even when they are at liturgical functions they do not join in the public worship but, instead, get on with their private prayers.
Yet "liturgical prayer, being the public prayer of the august Bride of Christ, is superior to private prayers" (§ 41). Both liturgical prayer and private prayer are needed for a well-balanced spiritual life; those who allow the latter to encroach on the former (which is today's danger rather than the contrary) are not only impoverishing their own souls but also, by their lack of collaboration, diminishing the excellence of the public worship which the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, offers to the Heavenly Father.
E have an excellent example of how private prayer can be `influenced by the spirit and principles of the liturgy" in some of the private prayers which have come down to us from former ages when people's minds were formed by the liturgy. The holy martyr St. Polycarp prayed in his torments: "Lord God Almighty, Father of Thy beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, I bless Thee because on this day Thou has deigned to grant me to be counted among the martyrs and to share the chalice of Thy Christ for the resurrection of soul and body into eternal life, through the Holy Spirit. May I he received this day before Thee as an acceptable sacrifice. In all this I praise Thee, I bless Thee. I glorify Thee through the immortal and heavenly High-priest. Jesus Christ Thy Son, through Whom is glory to Thee, with Him and the Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen."
It is a private prayer; but the spirit of the liturgy shines forth in its beautiful wording; and the principles of the liturgy appear in its form whereby it is directed to the Father, through Christ the One Mediator, in the Holy Spirit.
Tutor and guide
IDART1CIPATION in liturgical
prayer is, indeed, an enormous help to private prayer. It provides thoughts and even phrases for private prayers; it acts as tutor and guide.'
It prevents private prayer from becoming narrow, individualistic, selfish; it teaches the right hierarchy of values in prayer, putting praise of God and thanksgiving in the forefront, and relegating the asking for favours to its subordinate and rightful place. It keeps God in the centre, instead of our own small selves.
If people do not take part in the liturgy, familiarising themselves with its thoughts and words, they do not stock their minds for private prayer—they lack resources, become narrow and self-centred; and their prayers tend to degenerate into little more than is expressed in the slang word 'Gimme!
No wonder Blessed Pius X said that "the primary and indispensable source of the true Christian spirit is active participation in the sacred liturgy."