For many of us, lessons in how to pray begin before we even know how to read. Often still unsure of our right from our left, we awkwardly learn how to make the Sign of the Cross, our first prayer, and take baby steps from there through the basics — kneeling with a parent at our bedside each night asking for blessings on our loved ones and pets, memorizing the Our Father and Hail Mary and making our first attempts at saying the Rosary, branching out to the act of contrition and other standards in the Catholic prayer repertoire.
Unfortunately, our instruction in prayer often doesn’t go beyond those earliest lessons in the active style of vocal prayer we’re most used to. And while it is good and necessary and even critical to our faith life to continue those kinds of traditional prayers, we are called to wade a little deeper into the spiritual waters, to stop talking now and then and listen to that still, small voice of the Spirit, to throw off all our crutches and bask in the presence of God. But how do we make that leap from the prayers of our youth to the prayers of meditation and contemplation?
Prayer as an oasis
The first thing we need to do is realize that quiet prayer — prayer focused more in our hearts than in our heads — is not meant only for monasteries and retreat houses. Even in chaotic homes filled with noisy children and daily stresses, deepening private prayer is possible. In fact, some would say it’s even more necessary in chaos than in calm.
“Don’t think of prayer as one more thing you have to do. It’s a chance to step back, to step outside the rat race, and get God’s perspective on things,” said Celia Wolf-Devine, author of “The Heart Transformed: Prayer of Desire” (Alba House, $16.95). “Prayer can be a rest, an oasis.”
Wolf-Devine recommends beginning and ending each day with prayer, and when she says that, she doesn’t mean that you have to slip out of bed and immediately onto your knees for the next 30 minutes. It can be as simple as opening your eyes and saying, “Praise to you, Lord, Jesus Christ,” in an effort to set the tone for the day ahead. It’s one small step toward infusing your entire day with an awareness of God’s presence.
Of course, that one simple line when the alarm goes off is just the beginning. At some point in the day it’s a good idea to set aside time for prayer. If you can do it in the morning, before you get caught up in the details of your day, there’s a better chance you won’t forget about it or decide to skip it in lieu of work or exercise or housecleaning.
Wolf-Devine suggests getting a cup of tea or coffee in the morning and sitting down with some Scripture. Follow that with a prayer to the Holy Spirit for guidance and a “surrender” prayer in order to really put yourself into God’s hands.
“You have to leave time for quiet reflection, some time to have a conversation with God, or at least be quiet and listen,” she told Our Sunday Visitor, adding that if you’re not a morning person, then opt to go to bed a half-hour early and make that your prayer time. “But be faithful to it, even when you’re traveling. Even if it’s just a few minutes, it’s an important discipline.”
Why is it such an important discipline? If we go to Mass every Sunday, maybe even every day, and say grace before meals and the Rosary and prayers for various feasts and seasons, why is it so necessary to make quiet time too?
We can look back to holy men and women throughout our faith history and see in their lives the impact and importance of regular silent prayer, from the Desert Fathers, who retreated into total silence and severe asceticism in order to make deeper spiritual connections, to St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross and the mysticism of surrender to God in contemplative prayer, to St. Thérèse of Lisieux, who turned even the most ordinary events of her days into opportunities for prayer.
The bottom line is that prayer should be the undercurrent of our spiritual lives, a constant presence that we rely on, look forward to and bask in. One of the three pillars of Lent along with almsgiving and fasting, prayer is a requirement if we want to take the words of our faith and put them into real action.
“You cannot dedicate yourself to the poor and needy unless you have your own strength in God. … The world cannot be converted until we convert our own hearts,” said Third Order Regular Franciscan Father William Linhares, director of PriestField Pastoral Center in Kearneysville, W.Va. He says that although regular prayer time each day is critical to a faith life, it is also important to remove ourselves from the world now and then, through a retreat or time out from our normal routine in order to deepen our relationship with God.
“St. Francis frequently would withdraw from the world to be revitalized in order to go back into it. For him it was always a struggle between that worldly presence and withdrawing,” Father Linhares explained, noting that people who come to PriestField tell him that they can feel God’s presence there, and that the experience allows them to reconnect with God and, in doing so, reconnect with those they are called to serve.
At the center
Of course, if you’ve ever committed yourself to regular silent prayer, you already know one key fact: Our mouths may be silent but our minds are moving a mile a minute. When you first attempt silent prayer, what you are likely to find is a cacophony of voices battling for your attention and trying to pull you away from your center.
In his book “Open Mind, Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel” (Continuum, $16.95), Cistercian Father Thomas Keating, a founder of the centering-prayer movement, writes that it is only through the habitual practice of silent or centering prayer that we can begin to build a wall around ourselves and block out unnecessary noises and thoughts.
“In the beginning, you are bound to be bombarded by thoughts without end,” he writes. “Most of us, before we begin the method of centering prayer or some other process of quieting the mind, are not even aware of how many thoughts we actually have. But when we start to quiet down, we begin to realize the amazing amount of nonsense stored in our heads.”
And it’s true. Sit down for even 10 minutes of total silence with the goal of connecting more deeply with God, and you are likely to think about everything from what you’re making for dinner that night to that time in elementary school when you were beat up on the playground. The mind doesn’t like being quiet, so prayer takes practice.
“Prayer is work. It changes things,” said Wolf-Devine, who added that simply having a desire to connect more deeply with God is a sign that he is already working in us. She recommends learning to “use dead time” for prayer — when you are driving in the car, waiting in line at the grocery store, sitting in the dentist’s office. Or, if it’s on your way, stop by your local church for a quick visit on the way home from work. If all else fails, simply repeat the name of Jesus in your head quietly throughout the day.
“It pleases God so much if we trust him and surrender to him. The more we surrender, the more he can really change us,” she said. “He works in our hearts in ways we don’t know.”
Mary DeTurris-Poust writes from New York.
Deepening Prayer (sidebar)
Liturgy of the Hours (Divine Office) uses prayer to set the rhythm of the day and night through recitation of Psalms, hymns, Scripture passages and spiritual readings. Even if you can say only morning and evening prayer, considered the “hinges” of the day, you connect yourself to the larger Church and ground your day in God.
Lectio divina means, literally, “sacred reading” and refers to a method of going deeper into Scripture or other spiritual reading as a way of prayer. Typically it includes four steps: reading a passage, meditating on it, praying or responding to God, and then contemplating or listening for God’s response back to you.
Meditation helps us better understand our faith and our lives as Christians. It can focus on Scripture, spiritual readings or sacred icons, and must always be focused on moving toward Jesus “with the Holy Spirit.”
Centering prayer is a method of silent prayer that lays the groundwork for even deeper contemplative prayer.
Contemplation is a deep inner prayer that goes beyond thoughts, words or emotions. The focus is always on a closer union with Jesus Christ in the Trinity.