‘The Lord Broke into My Life Today’
A personal reflection on how to enrich and deepen one’s prayer life
It is now more than 10 years since I was the spiritual assistant for the San Damiano Secular Franciscan Fraternity located in Dardenne, Missouri, west of St. Louis. At the time, it was under the guidance of Jan Parker, who is now the national minister for the entire Order of Secular Franciscans in the United States. I still vividly recall arriving at the site for the meeting, joining the fraternity in reciting evening prayer from the Breviary and hearing Jan reassure the membership, who were new to participating in the Church’s Liturgy of the Hours, “Don’t worry, there is no wrong way to pray.”
She is right. Even as we had individuals throughout the 20 minutes needing to be helped over and over, again and again to find their places and get used to praying in choir; we praised God that evening with the sincere desire to worship and honor him.
An extreme expression of Our Lord’s patience in these types of situations comes in the form of what is most likely an apocryphal story that I heard concerning a member of our religious community who was publicly chastised for not taking time for prayer. His response to his accuser was quick and purposely loud enough for all to hear: “I do pray. I mean, I at least take the time in my busy schedule to send a bunch of words up to God. And unlike some others whom I will charitably leave unnamed, I have the deepest faith in his power to unite them into powerful sentences of perfect prayer for me!”
His retort may have been a tad caustic and even presumptuous, but not necessarily totally incorrect. Therefore, based on the possibility that the Lord can indeed change water into wine and death into resurrected life, I need to tweak my assertion: “There is no wrong way to pray, but there are richer and deeper ways.”
Therefore, we should encourage individuals to desire, and seek the more — that is, to deepen one’s prayer life beyond what one has become accustomed to or settled for in relationship to the demands of ministry or life’s daily responsibilities. The challenge is to recall that the wellspring for prayer is deep, and never runs dry, even when we have times that feel to be empty or devoid of movement in any direction.
Interactions about Prayer
Every year, in each of our formation programs, we include either presentations or workshops on the themes of prayer, meditation and contemplation. I would like to share the fruits of two such interactions of sharing between myself and our postulants — those in their first year of initial formation — who, in my opinion, are great pray-ers. I offer our reflections as a template for your consideration and prayerful meditation.
In both instances, we began the time by each of us taking time to answer three questions: How do I pray? What would I define as the goal of my prayer? How do I know the time has been fruitful?
Remember, there is no wrong way to pray, and, therefore, their responses are as valid as mine. However, as their formator, I did seek to assist them in discovering how they might enrich their experiences by posing questions for further clarification and understanding. They soon felt comfortable assisting their mentor in the same process.
Three years ago, I was joined by two postulants. In response to the three questions, Jose, age 18 at the time, said: “First, I close my eyes to avoid distractions. I then talk to Jesus asking him to guide me by telling him what I need and then placing it all in his hands. My goal is to be able to live each day with a deep sense of hope. I know that my prayer has been fruitful in two ways: I get results to what I need, and I feel a sense of peace within.”
Some of my follow-up questions: How long is your list of needs and how much time do you spend during your time of prayer focused on the list? Are you able to separate actual needs from wants? How much of prayer for you is about getting results?
Jessie, age 21 at the time, followed Jose with his reflections: “I seek silence — for noise, to me, is a distraction. I choose a text to consider such as one of the daily readings for Mass. To stay focused, I will look at one of the religious images in the chapel such as the crucifix while I am thinking about the Scripture passage I just read. I then clear my mind to allow the Holy Spirit to be more active. My goal is to feel secure knowing that I will have a place in heaven someday. I know that my prayer has been fruitful in two ways: First, if a question concerning my life wells up inside of me that I wasn’t expecting but realize, at that moment, I need to consider it more deeply, and, secondly, if I feel that the Lord broke into my life today.”
Some of my follow-up questions: How much time is spent during your prayer on spiritual reading before you put it down and allow the Spirit to be more active? Would you be willing to tell us more about the feeling of security and the importance of having a place in heaven that shapes and guides your prayer and meditation?
I, age 63 at the time, then shared my thoughts on the subject: “I first pray for the grace to pray. Then, by name, I pray for everyone in my fraternity, followed by prayers for others that are on my radar. This action is intended to free me from having them become a distraction during my conversation with God: I know they are all in his pocket, under his care. They have him; they don’t need me at this time. I then read a little from Scripture or a spiritual book trying to be aware of any phrase that speaks to me. When feeling pulled to distractions, I seek to discern if the thought is, in fact, a call from God to further consider or indeed an empty diversion that I need to call myself away from. If truly distracted, I seek to call myself back to prayer by gazing (a popular phrase in the prayer directives of St. Clare of Assisi) at the tabernacle, the crucifix or one of the portraits of the saints in the chapel. My goal is to be as present to God as he is to me and to commend myself for wasting quality time with God. In terms of the fruits of prayer, I have discovered that I rarely receive verification during the actual time in prayer. Ninety-five percent of the time it is only afterward that I intuit or sense through a comment made to me, a conversation or an unexpected encounter the fullness of the Lord’s presence in my life that day. I am convinced that if I didn’t take time earlier in prayer and meditation, I would have missed the encounter. I honestly don’t expect much when I pray, but the fruits of my prayer are only possible because I took the time to pray.”
Some of their follow-up questions directed to me by the postulants were: How much time in your meditation do you find yourself being distracted? Would you be willing to tell us more about your goal of wasting quality time with God and how you know it isn’t just a waste of your time? Since you are convinced that God speaks to you the majority of the time outside of your meditation periods, how often do you think you miss his Spirit’s presence during meditation?”
God Is Present
This year, our formation program is blessed by five postulants ranging in ages from 20 to 29. The same template (both structure and questions) was presented to them for their prayerful consideration. The overwhelming characteristic, with respect to the entire experience, was that their prayer was strongly locked into their personalities. My only caution to all has been to seek a sense of balance in order to be open to the myriad ways God is present in prayer.
Sometimes the strong nature of our temperaments and personalities cause us to be myopic in our approach and, therefore, our expectations. This attitude could be detrimental, not only to our spiritual life, but could pose a threat to the health of our hearts, minds and souls.
I was told many years ago a story that I now share as true without proper verification. St. Teresa of Jesus would, at times, interrupt St. John of the Cross’ dark night of the soul to inform him that it was time to “come outside into the sun and enjoy taking a walk if just for a little while.” To the best of my knowledge, the five postulants are each approaching their prayer in a thoughtful and balanced manner.
Tyler, who is very outgoing, actually defined prayer as if one was participating in a hike. He prepares for the spiritual journey through journaling and the reading of Scripture. This is followed by taking time to read the signs as to which path the Lord might be calling him to take that day followed by seeking to know the demands of the challenge (possible shades of St. Paul as he prepares for spiritual battle). Finally, as with any trip, he believes it is best to invite along a trusted companion — in this case, Jesus, Mary or one of the saints.
Chad is passionately heart-centered and has a strong background in caring for those with disabilities. He spoke of the “desire to allow the Holy Spirit to lead me into an ever-deepening relationship of love for Jesus with the goal of becoming purified from self-love.”
How does he know it worked? “I become more tender and have an even greater desire to be of service to the kingdom of God,” he said. “When real-life crisis situations tear at my heart, I seek to find God in conversations with those whom I trust. I speak with those I know to be both supportive and objective.”
As for the other three, Antonio discovers God in the wonders of creation and starts his day before sunrise, stepping outside to rest in the dawning light of God’s quiet peace. He balances this by making the decision to ask others how their morning is going.
Derek seeks to open up his interior life to unite himself totally with God’s will, and at the same time realizes that the fruits of his prayer lead to a deeper sense of communion with others.
Finally, Jay has the tendency to proceed first from the head, trusting in the gift of intellect that God has given him. He also immerses himself in the sound traditions and teachings of the Church to guide his meditation. Jay balances this more scholarly approach with a strong devotion to the Blessed Mother and the recitation of the Rosary, which connects the head with the heart.
The exercise was truly grace-filled and fruitful for all. The time in prayerful conversation reaffirmed our awareness that, in different ways, we are beginners when it comes to prayer and meditation — and the well of this spiritual journey will always run deeper. We also agreed that for our personal prayer and meditation to be effective and, therefore, life-giving, 20 minutes would be the bare minimum we need to set aside. Anything less just doesn’t seem to go deep enough or bear as much fruit. Taking less time for daily personal prayer and meditation wouldn’t be wrong. It simply wouldn’t be as enriching of an encounter with God’s grace for each of us.
FATHER FRANK GRINKO, OFM, Cap., is the postulancy formation director at the Capuchin Province of Mid-America in Denver, Colorado, and a member of the Provincial Council.
God’s Gift of Prayer
The Catechism of the Catholic Church relates prayer to God’s gift: “‘Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God.’ But when we pray, do we speak from the height of our pride and will, or ‘out of the depths’ of a humble and contrite heart? He who humbles himself will be exalted; humility is the foundation of prayer, only when we humbly acknowledge that ‘we do not know how to pray as we ought,’ are we ready to receive freely the gift of prayer. ‘Man is a beggar before God.’
“‘If you knew the gift of God!’ The wonder of prayer is revealed beside the well where we come seeking water: there, Christ comes to meet every human being. It is he who first seeks us and asks us for a drink. Jesus thirsts; his asking arises from the depths of God’s desire for us. Whether we realize it or not, prayer is the encounter of God’s thirst with ours. God thirsts that we may thirst for him.
“‘You would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.’ Paradoxically our prayer of petition is a response to the plea of the living God: ‘They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewn out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water!’ Prayer is the response of faith to the free promise of salvation and also a response of love to the thirst of the only Son of God.” — Nos. 2559-61