Chapter Talk – Fr Michael Casagram – 4/23/23 – Unintentional Prayer

Chapter Talk – Fr Michael Casagram – 4/23/23 – Unintentional Prayer

+UNINTENTIONAL PRAYER                      Chapter Talk, 23 April, 2023

This morning I would like to share with you a few reflections on prayer, drawing heavily from a recent book by Michael Voigts who has spoken to the community in the past about the spirituality of St Bernard. He belongs to the Lay Cistercians, loves the writings of St Bernard and has lots of pastoral experience.

In his book called The Fourth Degree of Prayer, based on the writings of St Bernard, he touches on what he calls “Unintentional Prayer.” Let me first spend a moment on an earlier comment where he speaks of the mystery of prayer as “unfathomable.”p.27 He tells us that: “In prayer, our thoughts and words do not merely vanish into nothingness. They transcend the entirety of the world we know and travel strait into the heart of God.” P.27 What could be a better description of what our life is about, to have this heart to heart exchange with God. I am here reminded of where St Paul writes to the Romans that “we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings.” (Rom 8:26) Prayer takes into dimensions of human life that we can hardly begin to fathom.  

According to Voigts:

“Prayer becomes unintentional because, as we go about the various activities of life, we fail to realize that our thoughts and actions have in fact become prayers… Because the nature of what it means to be human does not change regardless of time or culture, and because the Holy Spirit continues to dwell in our souls, a life of unintentional prayer in the fourth degree is entirely possible for us, irrespective of our state or station in life.”p.73

The whole of our lives is to become prayer whether this is working in the kitchen, washing toilets in the grand parlor, serving the guests in our retreathouse, preparing liturgical texts, making fruitcake or fudge, shipping items to customers, working with our lay help, attending to the sick and feeble, washing dishes, mopping floors, eating at table. We may not think of these as sitting in quiet meditation but for the person of prayer they all become one of a whole. A true life of prayer as Voigts understands St Bernard to be saying, infiltrates the whole of our lives so that all becomes part of a holy surrender to divine grace.

As we allow Christ’s presence into the whole of our lives a simplification takes place. Thus Voigts describes the early Cistercian reform:

“Cistercian buildings had no ornate stained glass. Their buildings were not wonders to the eye. Their diet was about sustenance rather than pleasing the palate. As the landscape allowed, all Cistercian monasteries were uniform in style and structure. This insistence upon simplicity allowed the monks to spend their energies to focus on contemplative prayer rather than on the maintenance of ornamental architecture.”p.78

The whole of our lives is to become simplified so that everything we do throughout the day may be focused on the life of the Spirit, attentive to the movement of divine love seeking to fill the whole of what we do. As Voigts summarizes this:

“The Holy Spirit trickles down through, or saturates, all segments of our lives. Rather than having complicated, multiple allegiances, the disciple keeps fidelity to God alone. It really is that simple.” P.79

One final instance of this quieting of the heart I found moving was his working with a man named Kevin who had been advised by a therapist to come and talk with Voigts who describes this encounter as follows:

“As we talked I discovered that much of his anxiety came from an overwhelming uncertainty about the future. He grieved an exploitation of the earth’s natural resources, corruption in the government, violent crime, family and career stress due to a predicted downturn in the economy, and even the state of his favorite college basketball team.” P.81

Through his frequent use of modern media, Kevin had become obsessed with all the issues in the news to where he could no longer keep his eyes on God. It is a danger we can all fall into, and I know I have at times. It is only when we can approach what is happening in our world with a divine perspective will we see and do all that we can, to bring about the real changes that need to take place. As monks dedicated to a life of prayer we are in an ideal position to see what is best for our own and our world’s future.