Saturday, 17 March 2012

Theology in 15 Seconds

By John O’Brien, S.J.

When I was a young lad, my mother, good Christian woman that she was, instructed my siblings and me in a series of nighttime prayers, which she repeated each evening over the years.

I can still remember the routine. She would walk into the room, sit on the edge of my bed and we would say the lines together. It was almost always the same string of phrases, prayerful sound-bytes that contained powerful truths. Sometimes we would say them together. Other nights, when the sand in my eyes was drawing me too fast into slumber, she would say them for us both.

It’s been a good twenty-five years since the last time we prayed like this, but I can still hear her voice reciting our set-list of invocations:

Mother Mary, I belong to you. Keep me and guard me as your property and possession.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I give you my heart and my soul;
Jesus, Mary and Joseph, assist me in my last agony;
Jesus, Mary and Joseph, may I breathe forth my soul in peace with thee, amen.

I have loved you with an everlasting love – you are mine, says the Lord.

There were a few others like that.

Now I was not particularly pious by nature – perhaps few boys are – but these were always soothing, even if it was just something “that mum did.” More importantly, they informed my budding faith in ways I can only recognize with hindsight. These prayers, and my mother's voice, imaged God for me in a fundamentally formative way.


There is one prayer she taught me that has stayed with me year in and year out. Long before I learned to develop a taste for the practice of regular meditative prayer, there was always the Morning Offering. Mum made me learn it by rote, and so I would always fall back on it in times of spiritual desert or straying – times when I had dropped the habit of praying in other ways. And it sustained my faith. I am still struck by its power, and how it contains an entire spiritual theology in concentrate. The version of this classic prayer that she taught me was this:
Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, through the Immaculate Heart of Mary, I offer you my prayers, works, joys and sufferings of this day. In union with the holy sacrifice of the Mass offered throughout the world, in reparation for my sins, for the intentions of your most Sacred Heart. And for the Holy Father’s intentions for this month, I pray. Amen.
I’m now going to boldly assert that every child, male or female, age seven or thirty-and-still-living-in-his-parents’-basement, should learn the Morning Offering. It only takes fifteen seconds to recite, but it contains a world of spiritual significance, and is therefore one of the most valuable spiritual investments one can make. If we unpack it, line by line, we will see how richly endowed it is with theological truth.

“Most Sacred Heart of Jesus…”
This preeminent title is loaded with meaning. It evokes the holiness of God with the word sacred. It also tells that Jesus IS a Heart that burns for His creatures, illustrating in one image the Johannine teaching that God IS love. This is why we address the Heart-that-is-Jesus, not Jesus-who-has-a-big-heart. Right away we are reminded that Christ is a fathomless abyss of love for me personally and for humanity.

“Through the Immaculate Heart of Mary…”
We are reminded next that Jesus has given His mother – through the dogma of the coronation of Mary queen of heaven and earth, among others, but also at the foot of the cross – a powerful participatory role in the economy of grace. Through her own sinless heart, which felt so keenly the sufferings of her son, graces also flow to and from heaven. It’s a good idea to stay close to her.

“I offer you…”
I can give stuff over and up to God. This is a powerful act of filial trust, the most religious act. It is also imitating what Christ did to the Father to a perfect degree.

“…my prayers, works, joys and sufferings of this day.”
Basically, I am giving to the Father through the Son everything important today. Hopefully I will pray more to Him throughout the hours of this day. I will also be working, so may all my actions be for Him as well! This day may contain consolations; it may also contain sorrows and setbacks. If these are all given over from the beginning, then the burdens will be light, and all things will be experienced “in Christ”. In this way, everything will potentially be fruitful for His Kingdom.

“In union with the holy sacrifice of the Mass, offered throughout the world…”
Here I unite myself with the greatest of all prayers, that of Jesus on the Cross, which is reenacted at every Mass, where the greatest of graces are given into our lives and into the world. Not only that, I am uniting myself with the communion of saints on earth, a reminder that the family of God is universal. We are not alone. If I can’t make daily Mass that day, I am at least able to unify my heart with that great Heart in a kind of spiritual communion.

“In reparation for my sins…”
Yes, I am sinner, saved by grace. It is very, very healthy to remind myself of this humbling reality at least once a day. By offering everything to God I am continuing, in a way similar to penance after Reconciliation, to participate in the restoration of that which my past sins may have broken. In this way, I help Jesus make all things new.

“For the intentions of your most Sacred Heart…”
St. Thérèse of Lisieux stopped praying for her own desires at one point in her religious life, and began offering all her prayers and sufferings for “whatever Jesus desired”. Now, Jesus also encouraged us to ask anything of the Father (“and He will give it”), but the Theresian point, which I see as embodied in this line, is that we should also look to what Jesus wants. It’s just good for our relationship. All too often we look to God for our own needs – which, I repeat, is a good thing – but forget that God is not just a giant dispensing machine in the clouds. As a living person he actually has desires for His creatures. So this line helps binds us to Him, and participate in His redeeming work.

Sacred Heart of Jesus, Michael D. O'Brien, 2000
Acrylic on masonite.
“And for the Holy Father’s intentions for this month.”
This line at the end always adds an ecclesiological touch, adding to my own prayer the prayers of the Pope for the world. These intentions, by the way, have been promoted by a venerable Jesuit ministry called The Apostleship of Prayer, which receives these intentions directly from the Pope and promotes them around the world. With this last line, I am uniting my prayer to that of millions of fellow Catholics, and is powerful sign of unity and of communion.

If the only prayer you make is the Morning Offering, by virtue of the elements it contains, it will be a sustaining force in your faith life. Although short, you are "praying" the key aspects of a relationship with the living God: the reality of Christ’s love for you, of Mary’s presence in your life, the offering of all things in your day to Him, of the Eucharistic sacrifice, that I am a sinner in need of grace, that Christ has a will for me, and that I belong to the Catholic Church which also prays for the world. It is a fifteen-second credo or catechesis in the spiritual life. It sustained me when I otherwise would not have prayed. It continues to nourish me now in religious life. Thank you, mother, for starting me off in the life of prayer! May you, dear reader, be sustained by this practical habit as well. Oremus!

4 comments:

  1. Great article, John. I've been thinking about doing regular morning prayer with the boys, but shied away from this one because I thought it was too "intellectual" for preschoolers. But this is a good reminder that they can learn something without fully understanding it, and unpack it later.

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    1. Very true. Most of the theology I'm studying right now is just unpacking what I already know from "lex orandi, lex credendi" - that which we know from faith, prayer and liturgy. Much is planted in our regular life of faith; it can take a lifetime to ripen. -John

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  2. Yes, very nice John.
    You helped me understand the idea of referring to Christ as the "Sacred Heart", thank you.
    Mine has little differences, like, "all my prayers" etc., Mass "celebrated throughout the world", (I suppose "offered" and "celebrated" have slightly different connotations or can make one view the sacrifice in a particular light...?). "For the salvation of souls and union of all Christians" which I suppose are implied in Jesus' intentions, "for our Holy Father's health and intentions", and for all those who asked for my prayers and those who I said I would pray for, especially the enemies of Holy Mother Church".

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    1. Glad it was of service, Nic! As you may know, current Eucharistic theology holds that the Mass is both a sacrifice and a celebration, both dimensions held "in tension" at one and the same time. We "celebrate" Christ's sacrificial offering of his life for us by its reenactment with bread and wine, as a community of faith.

      By the way, there are several different versions of the morning offering prayer at http://apostleshipofprayer.org/morningofferingprayers.html

      God bless you! -John

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