Tradition of prayer is a gift from God and church
Lent presents a great opportunity for Catholics to deepen their prayer life. Do you have any suggestions?
One of the amazing blessings of the pontificate of St. John Paul II was the publication in 1992 of the “Catechism of the Catholic Church.” The catechism is divided into four major sections, and Part IV is devoted to Christian prayer. It’s a wonderful place to start for those who are interested in learning more about prayer. The catechism isn’t necessarily meant to be read in chronological order, but it is very logically structured, and the writings on prayer cover about 75 pages, so that’s not a difficult read. Part IV is broken down into two sections: “Prayer in the Christian Life” and “The Lord’s Prayer.”
What about “Prayer in the Christian Life”?
There is a beautiful reflection from St. Therese of Lisieux in the beginning: “For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.” To me, prayer is simply being with God. God has called us first and never stops calling us and chasing after us. In prayer, we acknowledge that we are creatures standing before our Creator and are lovingly dependent on him. God calls us to trust him and accept his love.
What about the various expressions of prayer?
There are many forms of prayer: for example, 1. vocal prayer; 2. meditation; and 3. contemplative prayer. Everyone is aware of vocal prayer. Through words – spoken or unspoken – our prayer is offered. The Our Father is a vocal prayer that Jesus taught to his disciples when they asked him how to pray. Vocal prayer is a prayer most readily accessible to groups. Meditation is a quest, a search. We can use the Scriptures, particularly the Gospels and the Mass texts of the day, to meditate and make those words our own. Through meditation, we can ask the question, “What is God calling me to be and to do?” Lectio divina – which means divine reading – is a prime example of meditation. It is a way of reading the Scriptures where we place ourselves in the middle of the scriptural story and meditate on that passage to hear what God might be telling us. Then we respond and rest in the Word of God. Lectio divina calls us to prayerfully read the Scriptures and to stop whenever the Spirit moves us to do so, letting the Word of God touch not just our ears but our hearts. The main focus is to be quiet and to allow the Word of God to become flesh in us. We are taken into the Scriptures in such a way that God is speaking directly to us. St. Teresa of Avila said contemplative prayer is “nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us.” Contemplative prayer has been described as “a gaze of faith fixed on Jesus.” In contemplative prayer, no words or images are necessary. It’s spending time with God and allowing him to embrace me in a very intimate way.
The Our Father has a separate section in catechism. Why is that?
The Our Father is a summary of what prayer is. It includes many facets of prayer: blessing and adoration, petition, intercession, thanksgiving and praise. We offer praise to God, who is Our Father, and who has a “hallowed” name above all other names. We claim him as Father. When we say, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” we are petitioning for the mind and heart of Jesus to know God’s will for us and our world. And then we petition God for our daily bread, which means we ask for any needs that we have. Then we ask for God’s mercy – “forgive us our trespasses” – and then we ask for the strength to forgive others – “as we forgive those who have trespassed against us.” We ask not to be tempted by the evil around us.
What about the use of physical exercise, such as stretching, to relieve tension. Can that sometimes be confused with prayer?
People can use physical exercises to relax and meditate on their lives – but not necessarily on God. Christianity has borrowed some of those and supplied a Christian dimension to them so that it’s not just a physical experience or the releasing of tension. It is done within a spiritual context. We have to be careful not to frown on those methods just because they were originally not spiritual. If such an exercise brings us closer to Jesus in prayer, it is sacred.
Do you have a prayer that you most like to pray during Lent?
One of my favorite prayers during Lent is: “Lord, help me to see myself as you see me.” When we ask God that, he would first point out our goodness, and then he would lovingly remind us of our weaknesses and sin. In Lent, we face our weakness and sin. We can ask God to give us the mind and heart of Jesus in order that we not only grow in love of God but also in a love for others. In so doing, we experience a change of heart – true conversion.
Everyone experiences dry moments of prayer at some time. Any suggestions?
Many spiritual writers have remarked about having dark moments in prayer. One who comes to mind in recent times is St. Teresa of Calcutta, who knew of God’s love for her but had a difficult time feeling his love at times. She talked about going to God with feelings of hopelessness and darkness. She was experiencing his distance more than his love. She knew his love intellectually, but not emotionally and spiritually. Her writings tell us of a woman of faith who did not despair but who kept thirsting for God. In God’s time, that thirst is satisfied.
What would you suggest to people who might be having a hard time praying or feel a dryness in their spiritual life?
Ask God to bring you beyond the dryness and to trust him. In his time, he will. St. Ignatius of Loyola says that even when we do not strongly “desire God” to ask God for that desire. I think it’s very helpful to engage a certified spiritual director and ask for guidance. We have many spiritual directors at the Archdiocesan Spirituality Center who are trained to walk with people in their relationship with God. We also have groups called “Lord, Teach Me to Pray” in many parishes that can help people go through the darkness and into the light. As I said before, prayer for me is simply being with God. Sometimes it helps to have another person offer us advice on keeping it that simple.