Prayer and the Fatherhood of God
By Dr. Anthony Lilles
How to start a daily prayer life? This question may seem unrelated to fatherhood at first, but there is a profound relation between prayer and paternity. This relation is rooted in the fertile ground of the Catholic faith: divine paternity, which is the source and summit of the Holy Trinity. Prayer drinks from this source. Prayer ascends this summit. It is with this end in view that Christ commands us to pray “Our Father.” The Spirit, too, moves us to pray “Abba, Father.”
Lack of devotion to God the Father is the most difficult obstacle to daily prayer. Where does this lack come from? Our vision of paternity is skewed. Traumatic failures in fatherhood have robbed many souls of the confidence and hope that would otherwise incline to prayer. Instead of firm, faithful and benevolent tenderness, many have experienced a betrayal of paternal authority through arbitrariness or else have suffered from its absence altogether. As a result, they feel a void, haunted by anxiety, instead of a healthy attitude to the future. This experience, common enough in the broader culture, is also present in the Church, where the expectations are higher and the failures even more catastrophic. Believers are enduring a traumatic crisis of spiritual fatherhood that leaves them suspicious toward the whole Catholic spiritual tradition.
The solution to this failure in piety is not in an analysis of complex sociological and psychological dynamics. Rather, to pray, one must act against one’s own hostility to the Father and begin to pray. We take up this beginning each day as if for the first time. The Father’s mercy is patient, and so we must patiently begin through daily commitment. No formulas, techniques or programs can replace this humble cry for mercy. Let us disconnect from earthly cares to plug into heavenly realities. Not with cellphones and computers, but with candle, crucifix and the sign of the cross made with devotion. As we dedicate ourselves to periods of solitude each day, we gradually learn how to receive what the Father yearns to share with us. Only in the secret of the heart does one learn patient surrender to the mercy of the Father and, in this surrender, come to experience his blessing: “The Father who sees in secret, will reward you” (Mt 6:7).
By faith in a love we do not understand, we allow the love of the Father to touch our distrust. In daily prayer, the Father Himself makes our piety great, and soon we find in His love the only ground firm enough to bear the weight of our existence. How the Father touches our distrust and helps us surrender is a great mystery –– but He never does it the same way twice. He always comes with new and unexpected gifts. Even if we reject the gifts He offers today, He will come again tomorrow because He is good. But those blessings will be different than the ones you could have had. Saying “yes” to this daily bread, and tasting how good it truly is, is how we learn trust under His guidance.
Christ’s own parable about fatherhood touches on this. It’s only when the prodigal allows the father to kiss him that he finds what he longs for. He journeys from grasping for power, money and pleasure to the moment when, receiving the paternal kiss, he finds the freedom to be a son. Empty of all else, the prodigal finally enters into the joy of the father. If lack of paternal love is a terrible misery today, the kiss Christ attributes the merciful Father is what believers most need. Prayer allows the Father to fill the absence of paternal love in our lives with His own kiss. Kissed by the Father in prayer, souls are fathered by God as sons and daughters into a new freedom, the freedom of obedience. In daily prayer, we experience what the prodigal son experienced: The kiss of the Father heals our rejection of Him.
Most Catholics do not ordinarily connect this kiss of the Father with adoration. Yet the Latin root of the word adoration suggests something pressed to the lips. Indeed, adoration is an act of surrender, the offering to another one’s own life-breath. This is the same surrender offered in a kiss. In true adoration, there is always a gift of self, a handing over of the deep things of the heart. Prayer opens to adoration because an eternal kiss, an act of adoration, constitutes the depths of the Trinitarian mystery.
If St. Ambrose says that when lovers share a kiss, they seem to be breathing their life into one another, it is because those who love are in the image and likeness of the divine persons. The Father and the Son breathe the Holy Spirit together in an eternal act that communicates ultimate goodness and truth. The intensities of divine glory in this kiss are ever ancient and ever new, and it is this ancient newness that the Father yearns to share with us.
Dedication to prayer is the pathway home, a journey into divine adoration, a choice to be vulnerable to the kiss of the Father. This kiss is cruciform because divine › tenderness suffers our hostility out of an irrevocable love. So, the merciful Father waits for us to turn to Him in prayer; He waits to disclose the affection that we cannot receive until we remember His goodness; He waits for us to decide for Him in our hearts. We desire to pray, we desire God, because He desires us even more. It is when we are convinced of this divine desire that the daily practice of prayer grows in determination and perseverance.
If you have ever been kissed by someone whom you deeply love, or else if you have ever kissed a loved one goodbye for the last time, you have felt a distant breeze from the furnace of adoration burning in the heart of God. In a kiss, one finds shelter from the chaos of life, and something flowing out of the depths of the heart is given and received. Such kisses live in the sanctuary of family life. They serve as the primary language in the sheltering walls of the home. This intercourse of hearts is an orientation point for the rest of life. The world revolves around it. It expresses a sacred communion. This natural experience is only a shadow of the tender goodness poured into the heart in the adoration of the body of Christ.
The kiss of peace, as is true of the kiss of the betrothed, exceeds symbolic courtesies. The Church intends liturgical acts that are sacramental, which is to say: public, metaphysical, relational and intimate. God’s very life lives in this holy exchange, this communion of saints. As is true in all the most sacred kisses shared between loved ones, when the heavenly Father kisses our humanity, prayer tastes mysteries too great for this world to hold. If lovers who kiss cannot bear to live without each other, even more do we who He has kissed live for the goodness of His love. A real moment of grace, the tender touch of God who heals our misery, realizes communion in Christ, an embrace of hearts, a true spiritual unity.
The kiss of the Father is not some spiritual feat achieved only by the esoteric few. Instead, we the baptized receive this very act of love on our lips in Holy Communion, and, when we do so in faith, what touches our lips penetrates to the very dregs of our humanity. We finally become free men and women in this love, which begets personal maturity in us. Something of this resonates with our very creation. For it was when the Father kissed the mud of the earth with His word that humanity stood upright before Him. Even more in the Eucharist, His tender blessing animates our whole free spiritual center with new power. In daily prayer, the depths of our hearts drink in this kiss until it fills abysses meant to hold the infinite.
On fire with the Holy Spirit, a soul receives the gift of the Father’s kiss through conversing with Christ about His own life, especially in those places where God seems most absent. Reading and thinking about the Scriptures, one discovers in these depths even deeper moments of silence where the heart is still in His presence. In such prayer, a soul is imprinted with the loving obedience of Christ. When we are fathered by God in this way, His love animates, illumines, enflames our whole bodily existence into spiritual worship. Only in being fathered in this way can a soul discover the wonder of life and the greatness that God intends for it.
The filial obedience evoked by the Father’s kiss is a new freedom. This is the freedom not only to avoid wrongdoing and act virtuously, but also to take up freely the great work God entrusts to the whole of humanity. In the grace-filled society of Christ’s mystical body, hearts share the very adoration of God Himself. The Trinity breathes into our loneliness, and our hearts begin to praise His glory.
The kiss of the Trinity bestows obedience where we ache with distrust. This obedience is not a forced or imposed conformity, but the subtle movement of gratitude arising from the deepest center of the soul. The Eternal Son is the example of responding in kind to the Father’s adoring touch. From eternity, the Son is fathered in the power of the Holy Spirit so as to manifest to the Father all the glory that the Father has given Him. In this eternal kiss, the Trinity also contemplates every man and woman who has ever lived or will live, and longs that they, too, should share in this joy.
Prayer knows that God wants us to share His kiss. Each of us, who is an unrepeatable instance of His glory and an eternal purpose of His mind, delights His heart to the point that He freely chooses to summon this delight into existence. He shares his paternal delight with us in an incarnate fullness that is an intercourse of divinity and humanity. So it is that through the kiss of the Father that Christ dwells in the power of the Holy Spirit in the very substance of our humanity, in that secret intimacy where we are even now irrevocably ushered into being by love alone.
This adoration into which prayer enters strengthens the heart, gives courage in gravest trial and bestows a joy that no power in heaven, on earth or below the earth can ever take away. We taste something of the truth of who we are and of who the Father is. If only for a few minutes, we allow the Father to protect us from the tyranny of the moment and the fragmentation of the workaday world, and in this shelter we find the courage to forgive, to seek forgiveness, to be reconciled, to love.
The horizons of God’s love fuel daily prayer. The Father has freely chosen to ache over our misery. He has taken our side. He has implicated Himself in our plight. He comes to relieve us and shelter our dignity. He does not want us to suffer alone. To be kissed by God means to be drawn into this loving ache and to join with Him in His beautiful work of mercy. Through this kiss, one knows deep down that the Father would never have it any other way. One feels with God’s kiss a covenant more solemn than death.
A new communion guides our attempts at prayer toward unfathomable fruitfulness. This incarnate kiss is the fruit of a virgin womb; it draws the Mother of God close to us so she can teach us her fiat. Armies of angels and saints charge into the fray of our lives. Through their efforts on our behalf, these heavenly allies teach us how to respond to all that the Father’s delight demands of our humble and broken humanity.
Yes, daily prayer in the face of our brokenness is very demanding. Even as we struggle to adore, eternal fatherhood kisses us that we might share in His Son’s unvanquished obedience and hope. Overcoming sin and death through self-sacrificial obedience, the divine kiss casts a cruciform shadow that shades our dignity against the glare of the world. Hidden under the cross of Christ, prayer discovers this pattern and principle of real love, a truth that every tender kiss bears. Instead of taking challenges away, prayer kissed by the Father baptizes us in difficult trials, hardships and renunciations until our minds are renewed and our lives transformed. Kissed by the Father through the passion of His Son and the breath of the Spirit, such prayer teaches us that we love only at our own expense.
To begin to pray, we must remember who we are and be sober about where we are in life. A kiss is always a gift to be received, not loot to be grasped. However much prayer grows through good habits, it is even more a grace from above. Not entitled yet loved, we come as beggars, prodigals confident in the Father’s goodness. Prayer dares to beg for such a gift in hope because so much has already been given. Rooted in the goodness of the Father, standing on His mercy, such prayer sees Him running to welcome us home.
Thus, we dare to pray, to set our face toward the Father’s house, to hope for His kiss. The Father did not create us for the pigsty, and He takes no delight when our self-neglect leads to our degradation. Daily prayer is not about proving ourselves before God or claiming entitlements. This prayer is about taking care of everything that is good, noble and true. It is about choosing to love ourselves because we are loved by God, and then learning to love others in the same spirit. It is about choosing to be His children. To act against this love, or to neglect or abuse this kiss, is to act against ourselves and to step toward personal and social catastrophe. To begin to pray each day is to enter the Father’s embrace, to allow Him to kiss our face, to share His joy that we who were dead have been brought back to life.
Dr. Anthony Lilles is a professor of spiritual theology at St. Patrick’s Seminary & University. Dr. Lilles has assisted in the formation of clergy and seminarians since 1994.
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