DISCERNMENT ARTICLES

How to pray

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In a previous Newsletter, we talked about what prayer is (and is not). This article focuses more specifically on how to pray.

To begin, here are some important points to consider:

  • Rely on God. We can’t develop a relationship with God by ourselves. We must rely on His grace and take His lead.
  • Find a quiet time and place. Whether this is at your home or a Church, morning or evening depends on what makes sense for your life. However, the important thing is to be determined to find a time and place which are suitable and make it happen.
  • Know the goal. The point of prayer is communion with God, His gift of contemplative union with us. All other things – methods of prayer, etc – are secondary to that goal. We should be careful to not let them get in the way.
  • Find a spiritual director. If you can, find a good spiritual director who is competent to assist you to pray better. The masters of prayer have all said this is highly important!

The Method and the Goal

Remember that the goal of prayer is developing a profound relationship with God. The great mystics call this the contemplative union, which is described as a sense of the nearness of God within the soul. It is crucial to recognize that the contemplative union is a gift from God. As such, it is not something we acquire by our efforts.

When we pray, we are creating a starting point, an opening in our hearts where God may enter and live. Our efforts in prayer, then, can be seen as a beginning, and as such should be understood as the means, not the end, to contemplative union with God. But our effort is essential! Without it, there will be no opening for God to come in and unite Himself to one’s soul.

The mystics teach us that the “method” of prayer is meditation — filling one’s mind and heart by pondering on God’s revelation of Himself, starting a conversation with Him.

Be careful to keep in mind that the method (meditation) should not get in the way of the goal (contemplation). When you sense that your conversation is giving way to a more wordless contemplation, or sensing the nearness of God, the priority should be given to this gift of contemplation. A simple way of putting it is this: meditation is our work to open ourselves up to God; contemplation is God’s response when we work to open up to Him.

Prayer begins with our work, then: meditation. There are myriad ways of meditation; we will distill two broad styles of meditative prayer here.

Vocal Prayer

The first and most obvious meditative prayer is vocal prayer. Because we are human, we converse and express ourselves with words. Vocal prayer, therefore, is an appropriate and natural way to begin conversing with God.

Meditative vocal prayer can be done with traditional formulaic prayer, such as the Our Father, Hail Mary, the Way of the Cross — whatever you prefer — or even more spontaneous prayer. As the prayer is recited, the idea is to really focus on the meaning of the prayer while being open to starting a conversation with God as you are moved to do so.

It is important to remember that our Lord taught us to not “babble as the pagans”. The importance of meditative vocal prayer lies not in quantity, but rather quality of prayer. Fr. Thomas Dubay tells us, “it is better to offer a few prayers with depth of attention and fervor than many repeated with little care or in a rushing way.” In his Introduction to the Devout Life, St. Francis de Sales advises that, while offering vocal prayers, when you are drawn toward wordless meditation or contemplation, it is good rest and let your mind draw closer to God. This is because God desires communion with Him rather than a quota of prayers.

Reading

Meditative reading is another common means of meditation recommended by the mystics. There is a wealth of holy writing which can help begin a conversation with God. Unlike other spiritual reading, however, the goal of meditative reading is not to assimilate content. Rather, it is to foster meditation – filling the mind with God, and starting a conversation with him. The type of books used as a starting point for meditation should be conducive to beginning this conversation.

Whatever you choose will be particular to you, but here are some recommendations. Of course, Sacred Scripture is perfectly ideal. Meditating on the life of Christ, the psalms, etc, is the perfect starting point for conversing with God. Other examples may be lives of the saints, or works written by the saints.

Again, just as with vocal prayer, keep in mind that the goal is not the reading; that is the means to the end. As God moves you to converse with Him, put the reading aside until you need more material for further meditation.

Success and Failure

It can be easy to become discouraged if you aren’t seeing what you expect to be the fruits of your prayer. But the fruits may not be readily apparent, and you may not see them. Just because you haven’t reached a perpetual state of contemplative union with God after a week of fervent prayer does not mean you have failed. What it means is that we need to do a lot of work – in our spiritual and moral lives — to become free from sin, acquire virtue, and attune ourselves to recognizing and listening to God!

Like learning to read, at the beginning there will be little hints of the goal. A child first learns a few simple words, though he is eager to read a whole book. Just so, one who begins to pray meditatively may receive bits of the gift of contemplation. God wants us to be aware of what is to come, to encourage us. But we have to continue working diligently if we want to become more closely united to God.

This instruction is only the tip of the iceberg: anyone serious about deepening his prayer life should read more (a great beginner’s book is Prayer Primer by Fr. Thomas Dubay) and try to find a competent spiritual director. And you may always talk to me if you would like any assistance finding a spiritual director or sound advice!