Thursday, June 5, 2014

More on Prayer

Prayer is the soul of the Christian life. It is to our spirit what breath is to our body. Through prayer, joy, peace and purpose come flooding into our lives. It keeps us grounded when everything around us is changing rapidly and keeps us centered when everyone else is losing focus. When prayer becomes a daily habit, we see real change in ourselves. Our hearts and minds increasingly become attuned to God’s way of seeing and doing things. With that, we find it easier to love others and to make clearer decisions. Prayer is the foundation of a good and fulfilled life.

Today’s readings speak powerfully to us about the role of prayer in the life of Jesus, Mary and His disciples.

In the gospel, we get a glimpse into the intimate prayer which Jesus shares with His Heavenly Father. He is about to be arrested and put to death. It is the most distressed time of His life. With confidence He turns to God praying not only for Himself but for His disciples. Though He certainly would have prayed the psalms and other scriptural verses, for Jesus, prayer was more than reciting words He had memorized as a child. Rather, it meant speaking to God from His heart, sharing His feelings and fears with Him and, most especially, letting Him know that He trusted Him no matter what His will might be.

The first reading gives us a glimpse of the early prayer life of Mary and the disciples. The scene is the upper room where Jesus celebrated the Last Supper, where the disciples hid out during the crucifixion and where Jesus appeared to them after His resurrection. Now that Jesus has ascended into heaven, Mary and the disciples gather to pray and await the gift of the Holy Spirit. They gathered there in the same way that we gather here today - in a spirit of joyful expectation. God was about to speak to them, to show Himself to them. For them, prayer meant waiting for God to fulfill His promises.

Finally, today’s responsorial psalm speaks to the heart of what prayer is and can be. The psalmist cries out: “One thing I ask of the Lord...that I may gaze on the loveliness of the Lord.” This is the prayer of contemplation, of those who are so in love with God that they cannot take their eyes off Him. They sit in stillness and quiet out of sheer love for their Creator. Prayer is ultimately the way we show our love for God. By spending time in silence waiting for our Heavenly Father to speak to us we come to know Him better and love Him more deeply.

Who of us would not want a closer relationship with God? Who of us would not want to experience the joy and peace that comes from a loving friendship with our Heavenly Father? It is a gift He wants to share with all of us. It is a grace He wants all of us to enjoy. And the way to receive it is by spending time in prayer.

As Catholics, we have so many resources in our tradition to help us with our prayer life. Not only do we have the Mass and the rosary but also the teachings of the saints. Many great women and men such as Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint John of the Cross, Saint Ignatius of Loyola and Saint Therese of Lisieux have left us insightful writings on methods of communicating with God.

One of the great spiritual teachers of our faith is Saint Francis de Sales. His book, Introduction to the Devout Life, is an absolute must for anyone who wants to grow spiritually. It was written for people like us who may be beginners in prayer and may not know much theology. While it would be impossible for me to share all the wisdom of this book with you now, his teaching on how to begin and end our prayer time can be immensely helpful.

Saint Francis de Sales teaches us that we should begin our prayer time first by acknowledging God’s presence. It means making ourselves aware that our Heavenly Father is all around us, that we have His undivided attention and that He loves us. We take a deep breath, quiet our thoughts and focus ourselves on Him. We do not need to say any words. We simply need to allow God to embrace us, to take us into His arms and to hold us. This is a beautiful way for us to be reminded that prayer is mainly about intimacy with our Heavenly Father.

Then, Saint Francis teaches us that we should end our prayer time by gathering “a spiritual bouquet.” This is a beautiful image. Think of a young girl walking through a field picking every colorful flower that catches her eye and carrying it with her throughout the day to look at and to enjoy their fragrance. In just such a way, Saint Francis tells us that, as we are wrapping up our prayer time, we should look back at it and think of all the ways God may have touched us in prayer. It might be a verse from Scripture that consoled us or an especially powerful feeling of God’s presence. We are to hold those insights and feelings in our heart and call them to mind periodically throughout the day as a way of extending those graces and reminding ourselves of God’s goodness to us.

As Christians, we are all called to a life of prayer. Depending on the circumstances of our life and our personalities, prayer will take on a different form for each of us. However, there is not one of us who is not called to spend some time with God everyday. Taking Saint Francis de Sales’s advice to begin our prayer time acknowledging our Heavenly Father’s loving presence and ending that time by gathering a “spiritual bouquet” of feelings, insights and images we experienced can help us begin that journey and deepen it.

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