The Capacity to Receive God through Prayer & Works of Mercy


In his writings, the Early Church Father, St. Augustine often talks about the “The Capax Dei,” which means the capacity man has to receive God. This capacity finds its fulfillment in heaven, when man achieves by the grace of God his purpose for which he was created, to be a saint.

But that which is experienced in its fullness in heaven finds its beginning in man’s receptivity to God while on earth.

God desires to give Himself to us and He communicates His infinite love to us through finite things such as the paper and ink that make up the Bible, the Bread and Wine that gives us the Eucharist, and the flesh and blood that reveals the Body of Christ in His People, the Church. So we are capable of receiving God and being drawn by God to eternity in a number of ways.

And it’s important to know this because it can help us mature in our growth in holiness as we discern how our Lord is calling us to be His Saints.

This past year, before I was assigned to St. Aloysius Catholic Church, I was assigned to Christ the King Parish on LSU’s campus and on a daily basis I would meet with students who were struggling in their prayer life and relationship with our Lord.
In the Spiritual Life, the Spiritual masters teach us that there are three primary reasons for our experience of dryness in prayer.

The first reason why we may be experiencing dryness in prayer is because of our own sins. Some sins we commit literally darken our intellect and ability to perceive God.

The second reason why we may be experiencing dryness is because we are physically sick or tired. When we are exhausted it is very difficult to pray.

The third reason the Spiritual Masters give for dryness in prayer is because our Lord is actively stripping us from perceiving Him in prayer so that we can choose to love Him for Him and not for the gifts or consolations He gives to us in prayer.

I would like to point to a fourth possible reason why we experience dryness in prayer and in our relationship with God. Perhaps the dryness and dullness is a result of our lack of openness and receptivity to encountering God in the particular way He wants to communicate to us in the particular season we are in.

Essentially what I am saying is that prayer is not about us and our relationship with Christ cannot be controlled by us because Jesus is a person and person’s cannot be controlled or forced to act in particular ways. Authentic love doesn’t force or impose.

So when we enter into prayer, we cannot tell God how or when He is to communicate with us just as we cannot tell people how they are to communicate to us.
Some of my students would come to me and tell me they were experiencing dryness and we would then examine why; along with looking at the three traditional reasons for dryness, we would examine how open they were to receiving God in different ways.

So I would ask them, “How do you pray?” Some would say, “I spend time before the Blessed Sacrament and I never hear God speak to me?” Then I would ask, “Well, how often do you spend time with the Sacred Scriptures?” They may reply, “Well I don’t.” To which I responded, “If you do not spend time with the Word Inscribed, the Sacred Scriptures, and listen to Him speak to you from the Bible, then how will you be able to hear Him speak to you when you are in front of His Eucharistic Presence?”

Other’s would say, “Well I pray with the Bible but not with the Eucharist.” To which I responded, “How can you hear Him speak to you if you are not looking at Him.” My mom used to always say, “Boy, you better look at me when I’m talking to you,” because she knew if I was not looking at her then I was probably not listening to her. So if we never gaze at our Lord in the Eucharist, then who’s voice do we expect to hear

Finally others say, “Father, I am spending time gazing at our Lord in the Eucharist and reading His Word in the Sacred Scriptures, and I am still experiencing dryness.” So I ask them, “Well, how often have you visited with the poor this week? Have you been to the Missionaries of Charity Soup Kitchen? Have you fed the poor this week at the homeless shelter or on the streets?

To which I often heard, “Oh no Father, I don’t do that. That’s not my spirituality. I’m more contemplative or I’m more charismatic with my prayer. Social Justice stuff is not my charism.” And I responded, “So you are anti-Catholic?” They would look at me and say, “Father, what are you talking about? That’s just not my stuff.

The reality is though, feeding the poor is not an option. It is first of all a way that we can encounter Christ because He identifies Himself with the Poor, but it is also a necessary disposition to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. God never said we will burn in hell for missing a Holy Hour of Adoration. God never said we would go to hell if we do not pray Lectio Divina with the Bible. God did say however, we will spend an eternity in hell if we do not feed Him in the poorest of the poor when He is hungry.

A natural unhealthy tendency that many of us have is to latch on to the particular way we once experienced God and only that way. If we had a conversion at a Youth Conference then we only want to go to that Youth Conference. Or if we had a powerful experience of our Lord at a Silent Retreat then we only truly open up to God once a year at that Silent Retreat.

We see this happening in the secular world as well. Listen to the lyrics of pop culture’s most popular songs. In 2014 Sam Smith released the song, “Latch,” and it hit the top of the charts. In this hit he sang, “Now I’ve got you in my space, I won’t let go of you, got you shackled in my embrace, I’m latching onto you.”

What happens when we latch on to something? We lose the opportunity to receive how the other is trying to communicate to us because our hands are closed grasping at this one way. Well not only does this posture inhibit us from receiving the gifts that could be given to us if we were open to them, but it also smothers the thing we are latching on to

If we grasp too hard, we will surely lose the gift, because the gift will be controlled and possessed, and gifts are not meant to be possessed. No fact, St. Bernard of Claireveaux says that once we possess gifts, we will lose the gift

We see this reality in Secular music as well. Once again, Sam Smith released one of the biggest hits in 2014 with his song, “Stay,” in which he begs the other person to stay with him: “Won’t you stay with me, cause your all I need, this ain’t love it’s clear to see, but won’t you stay with me.” But it’s obvious the other does not want to stay because he latched too hard on the other in the song, “Latch,” and tried to posses and control the other person.

In the Gospel of Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus says, “When the Son comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him

And he will separate the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’

Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you? And the King will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’
Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. ‘For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, baked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’… Amen I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me. And these will go off to eternal punishment.’

You see, Jesus Christ, directly identifies Himself with His people. We can’t separate Him from His people. And a concrete way that we are able to not only give to Jesus, but to also receive from Jesus is in His people, and particularly the poor.

When Saul was persecuting the Christians in Acts 9:4, Jesus did not ask him why he was persecuting the Christians. Rather, He said, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Again, Jesus directly identifies Himself with His people and it is not an option for us to be open to receiving Him in our service to Him in the poor.

Jesus Christ is the Second Person of the Trinity. Because He is a Person, He must be respected as a Person and Persons cannot be controlled and forced. A person is meant to be loved so we must love Jesus and receive Him and His gifts however He chooses to give them to us. Certainly God speaks to us through Adoration and Scriptures and Magisterial Teachings from the Church, but He also speaks to us through the poor and our service to the poor.
We have to be open to God. We cannot grasp at what we think is best. We have to receive God however He chooses to give Himself to us and we HAVE to see in the poor an authentic voice of Jesus Christ.

When we spend time with Jesus in the Eucharist, He will transform our hearts.

When we spend time with Jesus in the Scriptures, He will transform our hearts.

When we spend time with Jesus in the poorest of the poor, He will transform our hearts.

We are capable of being transformed by God by our prayers and works of mercy, so let us act upon that capacity so that we can follow the path of the saints who have gone before us into the Kingdom of Heaven and be the saints we are called to be in this generation.

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Father Josh

Father Josh Johnson is a priest for the Diocese of Baton Rouge.

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