Actually, I don’t know much about personal prayer or liturgical prayer or otherwise, but I know someone who does or rather Someone who does. The Holy Spirit! When we think we know how to pray, it’s our project, which is probably very nice but the Holy Spirit is able to make connections when our personal web connection is down, as it so often is.
St. Paul says, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us through wordless groans” (Rom 8:26-27). Just asking the Spirit to come is prayer itself and maybe it’s a good idea to stay there for a while.
Every one of us prays, as Pope Francis acknowledges: “The Lord and His people speak to one another in a thousand ways directly…” (Evangelii Gaudium, 143). Every one of us is a special project of the Holy Spirit.
However the Spirit doesn’t overpower us but helps us respond as we choose. How can we cooperate with the Spirit? An American actor/film director once said, “Just showing up is 90%.” We could say that “showing up” is trying to pray. Cardinal Basil Hume, O.S.B., recalls the words of his former abbot, “To try to pray is to pray” (Searching for God, 155).
At times, prayer isn’t the first thing on our agendas. Frequently, our genuine responsibilities, a number of which are done in Christ’s name, overwhelm any time for quiet we might give to prayer. It may well be that our responsibilities wouldn’t overwhelm us so much if we braced ourselves with prayer.
While some of us can speak eloquently about prayer, in practice, we prefer to be “busy about many things.” Just sitting quietly seems like a complete waste of time – better to read a book or do something constructive.
What are we supposed to be doing when we pray anyway? The Holy Spirit has better suggestions than I have but the starting point is to realize that Jesus is trying to break through but we keep Him on hold. The Book of Revelation says: “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear My voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me” (Rev 3:20).
Many of us have the idea that prayer is some sort of accomplishment, something we either do well or we don’t do well, like playing an instrument or playing a sport. At least, we expect good thoughts and good feelings and definetly good concentration. Sometimes, none of these happen. Rather than feeling good we feel hopelessly inadequate and useless.
André Louf O.C.S.O., emphasizes that prayer is the work of grace: “… in the course of praying we are constantly working with grace or, rather, grace is working with us. To pray is to learn to tune in to grace” (Tuning Into Grace, 129).
St. Teresa of Avila said “For mental prayer in my opinion is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us” (The Book of her Life, 8, 5). Taking time to be in the presence of a friend! We can’t imagine that Jesus wants to spend time with an unspiritual person, as myself.
Traditionally, there have been some ways of prayer that people have found helpful. Monks and nuns, since the time of St. Benedict (d. 547), have set aside periods of the day for lectio divina, “holy reading,” of the Scriptures. The method is very simple: you read a passage of Scripture very slowly and pause and repeat the words or phrases that strike you, repeating the words until you’ve exhausted them. The nuns and monks described this as “rumination,” the way a cow chews over the regurgitated grass it quickly bit off and swallowed.
For the monastics, there were four steps: reading (lectio), reading the passage slowly; meditation (meditatio), considering the meaning of the passage; prayer (oratio) speaking to God however you are moved; contemplation (contemplatio), just being touched by what you have read, thought and prayed about, similar to the way a person gets drawn into a video.
We could say that this is the default method of prayer because, in fact, we are interacting with God’s Word, as Saint Ambrose said: “We speak to Him when we pray; we listen to Him when we read the divine words” (De Officiis ministrorum I, 20, 88; cf. Dei Verbum, 25).
Some people meditate with spiritual books. Similar to Lectio Divina, the reading may move us to reflect and then move on to prayer.
St. Ignatius of Loyola (d. 1556) taught a method of prayer that many people have liked. This is to take a scene from the life of Christ in the Gospels and to enter into it by visualizing it. We picture what is happening, what is being said, what the people in the scene are thinking and especially what Jesus is thinking, doing and saying. We even place ourselves in the event. Using the imagination brings the event alive. We close with a colloquy, in which we personally speak to Jesus: “Speak with Him…The colloquy is made properly by speaking as one friend speaks to another …” (The Spiritual Exercises). One advantage of this method is that it brings Jesus of the Gospels alive and allows us to enter into His experiences.
In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, such as in Greece and in Russia, monks, nuns and many lay people repeat a simple formula, “Lord Jesus Christ Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” As one begins to pray, one says the words but then quietly. The intention is to be constantly uniting ourselves with Jesus in our hearts.
An Eastern monk recommends simply saying the name of Jesus: “We mean the devout and frequent repetition of the Name itself, of the word ‘Jesus’ without additions. The Holy Name is the prayer” (“On the Invocation of the Name of Jesus,” 1). Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware writes that the Jesus Prayer is “an invocation addressed directly to the person of Jesus Christ… [by which we] feel and know the Lord’s immediate presence in a direct personal encounter…” (The Study of Spirituality, 183).
Many Christians, in the Western Church, as well, adapt this approach to pray with a word or a phrase, for instance, “Abba” or “Jesus” or whatever title or prayer expression one chooses. The Trappists at the monastery at Spencer, outside of Boston, encourage this practice in a simple method they describe as “Centering Prayer.”
Saint Teresa of Avila said: “”The important thing is not to think much but to love much; and so do that which stirs you to love” (The Way of Perfection, IV. 1, 7). Many people simply repeat words of love. At times, these short prayers can be petitions for others, asking for mercy or giving thanks.
Yves Congar, O.P., explains: “For some people it will be a meditation full of ideas, for others it will be purely affective prayer. Personally I go rather for the affective type because I find that mental prayer means essentially uniting myself with the will of God” (Called to Life, 6).
Some people can pray, as S. John of the Cross did, “attentively loving God and refraining from the desire to feel or see anything” (The Ascent of Mount Carmel, II, 14, 13).
The quiet of prayer can be invaded by memories of events and interactions, both recent and in the past. Some people can successfully cut these thoughts as they start. Others incorporate these memories into their prayer, giving the disturbing memories to Christ and asking for healing at a deeper level.
At times, temptations and memories of sin afflict people when they pray. This is a very special time for prayer because we remember that Jesus said: “I came not to call the righteous but sinners …” (Lk 5:32). We can really claim as our own the blood that Jesus shed for us. St. Catherine said that the blood represents God’s love. In a way, the more we pray the more frequently we realize our weakness and open ourselves to the abundant mercy we receive in the encounter with Jesus.
In a similar way, when we realize that we simply do not want to pray, we can ask for Jesus’ love that welcomes us even with our resistance to Him. St. Teresa of Avila taught that accepting God’s will even in our experience of prayer is the best form of prayer (The Interior Castle, 1, 8).
Praying with our experiences can also be a form of prayer. At times, our “spiritual” life can be disconnected from the rest of our life. Some people keep a journal to recall the events of each day and to pray for insight and healing. It is like dialysis in that we run everything through Christ. Br. Joseph Schmidt has a good book on this: Praying our Experiences.
Our prayer can be simply thanksgiving, thanking God for many blessings, especially our parents and families and the many people who have helped us and thanking God for all the created things that surround us as signs of His goodness.
One sure way, when we absolutely cannot pray, is to pray for those who have offended or hurt us, not just in general but by name, and ask God to bless them,. This type of prayer is recommended by Jesus: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). This prayer also has a way of getting our energies going.
Finally, the English Benedictine Abbot John Chapman advised: “Pray as you can and don’t pray as you can’t” (Spiritual Letters, 25). There is a way for everyone.
The Spirit doesn’t just give us bright ideas. The Spirit moves us toward Persons. The Spirit moves us to the Father: “God sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying ‘Abba, Father’” (Gal 4:4). The Spirit moves us to recognize Jesus as our Lord: “No one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3).
Denis Vincent Wiseman, O.P.