This was the biblical image proposed Sunday by Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, as he opened the annual Lenten retreat for the Pope and the Curia. Cardinal Ravasi was selected by the Holy Father to be the preacher for this year's spiritual exercises.
Before entering into the meditations, the cardinal spoke of the affection, gratitude and admiration of the Church for the retiring Pope.
Referring to the Old Testament episode (cf. Exodus 17), he said: "We will stay in the valley, where Amalek is, where there is dust, where there are fears, terrors, nightmares, but also hopes, where you have stayed over these eight years. Henceforth, however, we know that you will be interceding for us on the mountain."
The theme of this year's Lenten spiritual exercises is "Ars orandi, ars credendi. The face of God and the face of man in the Psalm prayers."
As the cardinal recalled, referring to Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the retreatants' mission is to "examine the conscience," to meditate and to "reject all disordered affections in oneself."
Cardinal Ravasi then mentioned the experience of Jewish writer Etty Hillesum, victim of the Nazi Holocaust (also mentioned by Benedict XVI during last Wednesday's general audience), who in her diary of Auschwitz wrote about the need to discover in herself that "very profound source," often submerged under stones and sand, in which God dwells.
Likewise, for Catholics the spiritual exercises are an occasion to "free the soul from the earth, from the mire of sin, from the sand of banality, from the nettles of chatting, which especially in these days is occupying our ears uninterruptedly," stressed the cardinal.
The spiritual exercises, continued the biblicist, imply "ascesis" (word which in Greek means in fact "exercise") and, at the same time, they can be nourished by "creativity," united of course to theological rigor.
The four key moments of the act of prayer were singled out by the cardinal in four verbs: 1) To breathe, 2) to think, 3) to fight, 4) to love.
Therefore, in the first place prayer is breathing, it is an essential act for faith, as breathing is for life. As Cardinal Yves Congar said, breathing is prayer, while the sacraments are nutrition.
Thinking is no less an essential act in prayer, given that prayer is not just "emotion" or "instinct" but involvement in our request to God. Saint Thomas Aquinas, quoted by Cardinal Ravasi, said that "prayer is an act of reason that applies the desire of the will to Him who is not in our power but is superior to us," namely, God.
The verb to fight, noted the cardinal, makes one think of Jacob's struggle with the angel, "that centuries later Hosea interpreted as a prayer." In fact, according to the prophet, Jacob fought with the angel, "won, wept and asked for grace" (Hosea 12:5).
The fourth key verb is to love. The experience of God as love is distinctly Christian, whereas in other religions, He "is not so close to us so as to be able to be embraced." Far from being an "immobile motor," as Aristotle said, the Christian God "is not a God of whom one wishes to speak but a God to whom one wishes to speak."
It is because of this that, for the Christian "prayer must have this dimension of joyful intimacy, of conversation," always compatible with the three dimensions previously listed: to breathe, to think and to fight, said Cardinal Ravasi.
A fifth component, which in a certain sense is the cement of the four verbs of prayer, is silence. "When two people truly in love have exhausted the whole arsenal of the common places of their love, repeating also the stereotype of love, if they are truly in love, they look into one another's eyes and are silent."
Therefore, prayer is not that different: it is "a silent meeting of the eyes which makes prayerful contemplation flower," stressed the biblicist.
The Spiritual Exercises for the Pope and the members of the Roman Curia will end on Saturday morning, Feb. 23. Audiences, including the Wednesday general audience, are suspended for the whole duration of the spiritual exercises.