Pope Benedict refers to ancient civilizations and their intuition of the existence of God, the desire to have real communion with God, and even their sense of bondage to sin and the need for liberation and God's mercy.
I shall start with ancient Egypt, as an example. Here a blind man, asking the divinity to restore his sight, testifies to something universally human. This is a pure and simple prayer of petition by someone who is suffering. This man prays: “My heart longs to see you.... You who made me see the darkness, create light for me, so that I may see you! Bend your beloved face over me” (A. Barucq — F. Daumas, Hymnes et prières de l’Egypte ancienne, Paris 1980). That I may see you; this is the essence of the prayer!In reading these words, I wonder if Pope Benedict is preparing the ground for the next Assisi gathering which is often considered controversial by traditionally minded Catholics. The Pope wants to be present to ensure that the event has a proper orientation. Some will want him to preach to the adherents of other religions that Jesus Christ is the only Way. Maybe he will, but surely nothing but good can come in gathering men and women who believe that there is a Being to whom we must pray if we are to be truly human. They may not yet know that Being but they are acknowledging Him nonetheless and their dependence on Him, that they are not self-sufficient.
In the religions of Mesopotamia an arcane, paralyzing sense of guilt predominated, but which was not devoid of the hope of redemption and liberation on God’s part. We may thus appreciate this entreaty by a believer of those ancient cultures, formulated in these words: “O God who are indulgent even in the greatest sin, absolve me from my sin.... Look, O Lord at your tired servant and blow your breeze upon him: forgive him without delay. Alleviate your severe punishment. Freed from bonds, grant that I may breathe anew, break my chains, loosen the fetters that bind me” (M.-J. Seux, Hymnes et Prières aux Dieux de Babylone et d’Assyrie, Paris 1976). These are words that demonstrate how the human being, in his search for God, had intuited, if vaguely, on the one hand his own guilt and on the other, aspects of divine mercy and goodness.
In the pagan religion of ancient Greece, a very significant development may be seen: prayers, while still invoking divine help to obtain heavenly favours in every circumstance of daily life and to receive material benefits, gradually became orientated to more disinterested requests, which enabled the believer to deepen his or her relationship with God and to become a better person.
For example, the great philosopher Plato records a prayer of his teacher, Socrates, held to be one of the founders of Western thought. This was Socrates’ prayer: “Grant to me that I be made beautiful in my soul within, and that all external possessions be in harmony with my inner man. May I consider the wise man rich; and may I have such wealth as only the self-restrained man can bear or endure” (Plato, Phaedrus, English trans.: Loeb, Harold North Fowler). Rather than to possess plenty of money, he wanted above all to be beautiful within and wise.
As the Holy Father says:
In the examples of prayer of the various cultures which we have considered, we can see a testimony of the religious dimension and of the desire for God engraved on the heart of every human being, which receives fulfilment and full expression in the Old and in the New Testament. The Revelation, is in fact purifying and brings to its fullness man’s original yearning for God, offering to him, in prayer, the possibility of a deeper relationship with the heavenly Father.Today's audience is on Psalm 23 which happens to be this coming Sunday's Responsorial Psalm.