The Heart of a Priest’s Prayer
Why the practice of a daily Holy Hour will become the most important aspect of your priestly life
Like many others in the 1970s, I listened to Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s talks to priests. I had met him before entering the seminary in 1972 when he came to my hometown, Binghamton, New York, to speak at a Rosary rally. Once in the seminary and having become more familiar with him, I found his talks fascinating and willingly received his message to priests.
As is well-known, his principal proposal to priests was the daily Holy Hour: one hour of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament each day with the help of Scripture and a commentary. Together with his eloquence and wider message, I absorbed this invitation. On some deep level, I knew this was important.
In our novitiate, a Holy Hour was built into the day. This was the first time I had spent a daily hour before the Blessed Sacrament. We prayed the Rosary, shared a time of silent prayer, recited evening prayer and concluded with Benediction. That year, we also studied the counsels on prayer of Venerable Pio Bruno Lanteri, founder of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary. Venerable Bruno, long dedicated to the formation and spiritual direction of priests, called us as priests to a daily hour of meditation. Priesthood was still in the future, but already the hour of prayer was present to me as a choice to be made.
In my years of theology study, I made initial efforts in this direction. Before morning prayer, I would dedicate some time, generally less than an hour, to meditation. I used the daily Gospel and a commentary I liked. It consisted of two paragraphs, one more exegetical, the other more pastoral. At times, I allowed academics to invade the prayer. When, for example, we were studying Greek, I used the Greek text of the New Testament — less for devotion than for the added exercise in the language. Still, through tiredness, unwise choices and the common struggles of prayer, a practice had begun.
As ordination to priesthood drew near, the question became real and present: Should I commit to the daily hour or not? Would I, or would I not? With Archbishop Sheen in the background, reinforced by Venerable Bruno, something in me wanted to take this step. But something else hesitated. It felt like it was a significant choice, not one to be made lightly.
Venerable Bruno Lanteri and the Oblates of the Virgin Mary
Venerable Pio Bruno Lanteri (1759-1830), the founder of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary, was a priest in the Piedmont-Sardinia region of northwestern Italy. Heavily influenced by Jesuit Father Nikolas Joseph Albert von Diessbach, Lanteri adopted the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola and preached at parish missions, offered spiritual direction, heard confessions and circulated Catholic books. For 30 years, he collaborated with Christian Friendships and Priestly Friendships, which were founded by Father Von Diessbach and consisted of groups of laypeople and priests who committed themselves to a serious spiritual life. In 1814, Father Lanteri was approached by three priests seeking guidance to form a fraternity dedicated to preaching retreats and reviving the Church in the wake of the French Revolution. Father Lanteri entrusted the group to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and in 1826 the Oblates of Mary was approved as an order by Pope Leo XII. The order quickly expanded throughout Italy, France and Austria, and then established missions in Brazil and Argentina and more recently in Nigeria and the Philippines. The U.S. province was founded in 1976.
I sought advice. One priest told me that it would simply not be possible. As a priest, he said, I would be too busy, and I could not sustain this practice. The conversation left me troubled. I approached one of my professors, Father Charles Bernard, SJ, a man of wisdom and profound learning, with the same question. I will always be grateful for his reply. How, he said, could anyone say in advance that a priest will be too busy to pray for an hour? The daily hour might indeed be possible, and I should not approach ordination convinced that it could not be. I felt my heart lift, as though a door had reopened.
I decided that I would try to give an hour to meditation each day. There was no strain in this decision. I was convinced of its value, and I wanted to try it. Now, 40 years later, I believe that was the most important decision I made about living my priesthood. Imperfectly, but with good will, I have tried to maintain that practice over these years.
Not Without Struggles!
The first, key issue has always been to find the time. A counsel of Venerable Bruno has been of help to me. Try, he says, to pray the hour first thing in the morning. If for pastoral reasons you cannot, make a half-hour upon rising and a second as soon as possible. If you cannot pray even that half-hour upon rising, then do what you do with a missed meal: the first chance you get, you make up for what you missed at its normal time.
I have found, like many, the hour is easiest if I do it first thing in the morning. My mind and heart are most fresh and most available at this time; they have not yet been absorbed by the activity of the day to follow. I find the hour generally most fruitful at this time. As the years pass, I find it easier to rise and pray at this time. It seems that advancing age has its benefits.
I made the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises just before diaconate. That experience, more than any talk or conference, conveyed to me the Church’s rich tradition on prayer. I finished the retreat, saying to myself, “Someone has finally taught me how to pray.” I warmly recommend this experience to any priest.
One thing the retreat director said has always stayed with me. He asked: “Do you want to have a life of prayer? Do you want to sustain a faithful life of prayer over the years?” He answered, “In great part, this will come down to one thing: get to bed on time, so that you can rise and pray as the next day begins.” The years have taught me that he is right. I have tried, again not perfectly, but I have tried to follow this advice. It does make all the difference.
Frequent travel has been part of my life for many years. For 10 years, I was provincial of our U.S. province, and for the past 20 have been giving retreats. Sometimes the only way I can make the hour is on the train heading to the airport, in the airport, on the plane, or even in the car during long drives on the highway. Obviously, this is not the ideal setting for the hour. It is, I believe, the best I can do on such days. If possible, I schedule travel so that I have the hour before I leave. This is not always possible, however, nor do I always have the physical strength to follow Archbishop Sheen’s advice and rise an hour earlier — the travel itself often calls for early rising. Reading helps me concentrate in such settings, and sometimes a meditative app. I know that, with its limits, this prayer blesses the day. It also maintains the continuity of prayer, and that is very important.
Some days it is hard to say the hour — days when I am tired, sometimes significantly; days when the prayer is dry; or days when I experience what St. Ignatius of Loyola calls spiritual desolation — when we feel little desire or energy for prayer, do not feel God’s closeness and feel as though nothing will result from the prayer. “Hard,” even “very hard,” is not an exaggeration on such days.
On such days, the advice of the Desert Fathers often comes to mind: “Can you keep your body in your cell? Can you stay there and not leave?” Sometimes, that is the best I can do: just stay before the Blessed Sacrament for an hour; simply not leave. On tired days, I may fall asleep. On other days, to “get through” the hour I may read whatever helps me stay there. Sometimes the spiritual content of the reading is at best remote. One time, for example, J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” a book I like and that is built on the author’s Catholic faith, helped me through some difficult days of prayer. Other times, I have watched documentaries or films on Formed.org. I am not proud of myself for this! I usually end by apologizing, a little shamefacedly, to the Lord. But I have stayed for the hour. The next day may be better.
Sometimes, when I am awake at night and know that I will not easily fall asleep, I rise and make the hour, pacing quietly in the chapel, in the presence of the Lord. I prefer an unbroken night’s sleep! But on such occasions, I know from experience, that the hour will bring me peace. Because it does, I will then more readily fall asleep.
Time and energy are not the only aspects of the hour. There are deeper issues as well.
I believe that, as human beings, we both want and resist intimacy. Because intimacy is so … intimate: It is beautiful, desirable, fulfilling and joyful, but it can also be daunting. The hour is a call to intimacy. I welcome the relationship it fosters and which, on some days, especially, I feel is warm, close and inviting.
At times, however, something in me can find it easier to avoid intimacy. If I give in to this, I do so by filling the hour with reading. I know that reading has its place in the hour. When I use reading well — Scripture or another spiritually rich source — it serves as a starting point and helps me enter intimacy. But I can also use reading to avoid intimacy. When I do, I know the difference even as I read and feel it as the hour ends. I have been in the presence of the Other, but I have shied away from the encounter. This has been an ongoing issue in spiritual direction: the call to employ reading to help enter the relationship, and not to distract from it.
Above All, Gratitude
Father Charles Bernard, SJ, who I mentioned earlier, one day in class told us something I have always remembered. He said that a priest can focus his life in one of two ways: He can base it primarily on his ministry or primarily on his relationship with God. In the first case, disappointment will inevitably follow. His ministry may not always be rewarding and may even, at times, cause him pain. In the second case, his priesthood will progress solidly, because that relationship, that place where he is loved, will never disappoint.
To my mind, the hour is a key piece in fostering that relationship. It is not the only piece nor even, theologically speaking, the highest — that is the Mass. But again, to my mind, the hour is the key practical piece, because how we pray the Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours and all the rest changes depending on its presence or absence.
Am I universalizing a personal experience? I guess that most priests, perhaps all, who pray the hour would agree. Certainly, Venerable Fulton Sheen would agree.
Earlier in my priesthood, I prayed the hour in the privacy of my room. I liked the quiet, undisturbed space this ensured. For many years now, I have preferred to pray it before the Blessed Sacrament. In my current residence, we have a small oratory with the Blessed Sacrament. I purchased a small monstrance that fits inside the tabernacle. Each day, I open the tabernacle and pray before the exposed Blessed Sacrament. I find that exposition of the Blessed Sacrament helps me sense the Lord’s presence with me.
Counsel of St. Ignatius
A simple — simple in expression but profound in meaning — counsel of St. Ignatius helps me experience the hour as a relationship, as two persons, the human and the divine, in communion. As we begin an hour of prayer, St. Ignatius invites us to see the gaze of love for us in God’s eyes. “For the space of an Our Father,” he writes, “with my understanding raised on high, I will consider how God our Lord looks upon me” (“Spiritual Exercises,” No. 75).
I find this way of beginning prayer greatly helpful. It changes the hour from meditative reflection on a sacred text (a person with a book) to a time of communion with Jesus (a person with a Person). When I see the love with which Jesus looks upon those who approach him, my prayer begins in the richest of all ways. For years, I have done this with a verse from Mark’s Gospel, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him” (Mk 10:21). Sometimes, the prayer stays there, and I feel no hurry to move on.
I do not enter the hour, at least generally, seeking answers to specific questions. But often these come. As a writer, I always have small pieces of paper with me to jot down ideas as they occur. Frequently, I leave the hour with several such notes on current writing projects. As a rule, I do not look for these insights: they simply come as a gift of grace. Often, my best writing is given to me in this way, and I am grateful.
The same is true of discernments about ministry: Should I pursue this initiative or that? Should I say yes to this proposal or not? Is it time to take this new step in ministry or not? To write this book or not? Often I do not know. Many times, before the Blessed Sacrament, clarity comes. I love the peace this brings: the questioning, the wondering, the uncertainty, is over, and I can move forward with the next step. Spiritual direction is always part of any significant decision of this kind.
Most deeply, the hour provides the “spark” I need for my priestly ministry. By “spark” I mean that undefinable gift of grace by which I know that I am ready, on a heart level, for the task at hand. Billy Graham, when asked by an interviewer what he found most difficult in his ministry, answered, “Being ‘prayed up’ all the time” — that is, being ready through prayer to speak from the heart, in the Spirit. That is what I mean by “spark.”
I am often asked to speak about topics on which I have written — discernment, prayer and others. I may present on discernment repeatedly in short periods of time. The material is familiar. I have researched it, written books on it, and presented it times beyond counting. Now it is time to present it once again, perhaps for the third or fourth time in close succession. I still need to prepare each time. The issue, however, is less to refresh my understanding of the material than the grace of the “spark,” the warmth of heart, the love for the material and the people, that will make the presentation a work of grace and touch lives. No effort of my own can awaken this spark. Only God’s grace can. The hour is key to this.
Review the Hour
From St. Ignatius, I learned a practice that I continue to this day. He invites us to review the hour of prayer as we conclude it. By Spirit-guided insight, he perceived that two practices in combination foster clear discernment: prayer, the most basic practice, and review of the prayer, to see more clearly where God is leading through it and how the enemy may be attempting to discourage. Most often, this review is done in writing.
I keep a journal, and I dedicate the last two or three minutes of the hour to this review. I do the same with the examen prayer in the evening. As Ignatius intends, the review and writing help me understand the spiritual experience more clearly. As I write, I note things that I will need to raise in spiritual direction. I prepare for that meeting by reviewing what I have noted since the last meeting. Because this helps me focus on the real needs, the direction benefits and is more fruitful.
I see clearly that I need the hour every day. To use St. Ignatius’ metaphor, when I engage in physical exercise regularly, I miss that exercise when I do not have it. I find that the same is true of the hour: I know something is missing if a day passes without it. In its quiet way, amid tiredness, distractions and imperfect prayer, the hour nourishes me for the day. I have more peace. I am more aware of God. I smile more readily. I respond to people with greater warmth and patience.
The hour, like prayer itself, changes over time. It simplifies and opens new paths of prayer. I am grateful for the spiritual direction that helps me find my way in this.
With my limitations and the inadequacies of my prayer, I make the hour because it brings joy and peace into my priestly life. Earlier, I mentioned times of spiritual desolation. There are also times of spiritual consolation, when God feels close, when I feel loved, when I find energy and desire for spiritual things and for the hour itself. At such times, I look at the Blessed Sacrament and say, “I am happy here.” I hope that happiness will accompany me through the years of my priesthood yet to come.
What Lies Ahead?
If you already pray the hour, you know what I have shared here and do not need more. May God’s blessing continue!
If you do not, will you not consider it? Might this not be possible?
You say: “That sounds good, but I simply don’t have an hour. I have three parishes, a school, hospitals, financial struggles, a capital campaign, a role in the chancery and other demands on my time. I never stop from morning till evening. How can I add an hour to such days?”
Let’s grant that this is so. But can you find a half-hour? If not, 15 minutes? This is my recommendation: choose what seems possible, and begin. If you take one step with the Spirit, the Spirit will show you the next. Choose. Begin. You will not be disappointed. You will love what will happen in your priesthood, and your people will as well.
FATHER TIMOTHY GALLAGHER, OMV, was ordained in 1979 as a member of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary, a religious community dedicated to retreats and spiritual formation according to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. He currently holds the St. Ignatius Chair for Spiritual Formation at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver.
Recommendations by Father Gallagher
“Meditation and Contemplation: An Ignatian Guide to Prayer with Scripture” (Crossroad, 2008)
“The Examen Prayer: Ignatian Wisdom for Our Lives Today” (Crossroad, 2006)
“An Ignatian Introduction to Prayer: Spiritual Reflections According to the Spiritual Exercises” (Crossroad, 2008)
“Praying the Liturgy of the Hours: A Personal Journey” (Crossroad, 2014)
Discerninghearts.com and Discerning Hearts App
Meditation and Contemplation:
The Examen Prayer
“Finding God in All Things: The Teaching of St. Ignatius on Prayer”
Visit his website at frtimothygallagher.org.