THOMAS Merton once said, “There are a thousand ways to the Way.” But there are some foundational principles when it comes to the structure of our prayer-time that can help us advance more quickly toward communion with God, especially in our weakness and struggles with distraction.
When we approach God in our time of solitude with Him, it might be tempting to begin by unloading our own agenda. But we would never do so if we were to enter the throne room of a king or the office of a prime minister. Rather, we would first greet them and acknowledge their presence. So too, with God, there is a biblical protocol that helps us to place our hearts in right relationship with the Lord.
The very first thing we should do when we begin to pray is to acknowledge God’s presence. In Catholic tradition, this takes on various formulae. The most common expression, of course, is the Sign of the Cross. It’s a beautiful way to begin prayer, even when you’re alone, because, not only does it acknowledge the Holy Trinity, but it traces on our body the baptismal symbol of our faith that has saved us. (By the way, Satan hates the Sign of the Cross. A Lutheran woman once shared with me how, during an exorcism, a possessed person suddenly bolted out of her chair and lunged at her friend. She was so startled, and for lack of knowing what else to do, she traced the Sign of the Cross in the air in front of her. The possessed person literally flew backwards through the air. So yes, there is power in the Cross of Jesus.)
After the Sign of the Cross, you could say this common prayer, “God come to my assistance, Lord make haste to help me.” Beginning in this way acknowledges your need for Him, inviting the Spirit into your weakness.
…the Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought… (Rom 8:26)
Or you could pray this invocation, “Come Holy Spirit…help me to pray, with all my heart, all my mind, and all my strength.” And then you could end your introductory prayer with the “Glory be”:
Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end, Amen.
What you are doing from the very start is placing yourself in God’s presence. It is like reigniting the pilot light of your heart. You are acknowledging that “God is God—and I am not.” It is the place of humility and truth. For Jesus said,
God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth. (John 4:24)
To worship Him in spirit means to pray from the heart; to worship Him in truth means to pray in reality. And thus, after acknowledging who He is, you should then briefly acknowledge who you are—a sinner.
…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. —Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2559
Take a moment, call to mind any sins, and ask God’s forgiveness, trusting totally in His mercy. This should be brief, but sincere; honest, and contrite.
If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing. (1 John 1:9)
…and then my brothers and sisters, leave your sins behind without thinking of them again—like St. Faustina:
… although it seems to me that You do not hear me, I put my trust in the ocean of Your mercy, and I know that my hope will not be deceived. —Divine Mercy in My Soul, Diary, n. 69
This first movement of prayer of acknowledging God and acknowledging my sin is an act of faith. So then, following a basic structure, it’s time for prayer to move into the act of hope. And hope is cultivated by giving thanks and praise to God for who He is, and for all His blessings.
I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving and call on the name of the Lord. (Psalm 116:17)
So again, in your own words, you can briefly thank the Lord for being present to you and for the blessings in your life. It is this attitude of the heart, of thanksgiving, that begins to turn up the “propane” of the Holy Spirit, allowing God’s grace to begin filling your heart—whether you are aware of these graces or not. King David wrote in Psalm 100:
Enter his gates with thanksgiving, his courts with praise. (Ps 100:4)
There, we have a little biblical protocol. In Catholic prayers such as the Liturgy of the Hours, Christian Prayer, the Magnificat, or other structured prayer, it is common to pray the Psalms, which means “Praises”. Thanksgiving opens to us the “gates” of God’s presence, while praise draws us deeper into the courts of His Heart. The Psalms are absolutely timeless because David wrote them from the heart. I often find myself praying them from my own heart, as if they were my own words.
…the psalms continue to teach us how to pray. —Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2587
In this time of meditation, you might also read a page from one of the Gospels, Paul’s letters, the wisdom of the Saints, the teachings of the Church Fathers, or a section of the Catechism. At any rate, whatever you are led to meditate on, it is best to do it methodically. So perhaps, for one month, you will read a chapter, or part of a chapter of the Gospel of John. But you are not really reading so much as listening. So even if all you read is a paragraph, if it begins to speak to your heart, stop at that moment, and listen to the Lord. Enter into His presence.
And, when the Word begins to speak to you, this can also be a moment of an act of love—of entering then, past the gates, through the courts, into the Holy of holies. It could simply be just sitting there in silence. Sometimes, I find myself quietly whispering little phrases like, “Thank you Jesus… I love you Jesus… thank you Lord…” Words such as these are like little bursts of propane that shoot the flames of love ever deeper into one’s spirit.
< p align=”LEFT”>For me, prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and love, embracing both trial and joy. —St. Thérèse de Lisieux, Manuscrits autobiographiques, C 25r
Then, as the Holy Spirit moves you, it is good to conclude your prayer by offering intentions to God. Sometimes we may be led to believe that we shouldn’t pray for our own needs; that this is somehow self-centered. However, Christ says to you and I directly: “ask, and you will receive.” He taught us to pray for “our daily bread.” St. Paul says, “Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God.” Phil 4:6 And St. Peter says,
Cast all your worries upon him because he cares for you. (1 Pet 5:7)
What you can do, however, is put the needs of others first, before your own. So perhaps your intercessory pray could go something like this:
Lord, I pray for my spouse, children, and grandchildren (or whomever your loved ones are). Protect them from all evil, harm, disease and disaster and lead them to eternal life. I pray for all those who have asked for my prayers, for their petitions, and for their loved ones. I pray for my spiritual director, parish priest, bishop, and the Holy Father, that you will help them to be good and wise shepherds, safeguarded by your love. I pray for the souls in Purgatory that you will bring them into the fullness of your Kingdom this day. I pray for sinners who are furthest from your Heart, and especially those who are dying this day, that through Your mercy, you will save them from the fires of Hell. I pray the conversion of our government leaders, and your comfort and help for the sick and suffering… and so forth.
And then, you can conclude your prayer with the Our Father, and if you wish, invoking the names of some of your favourite Saints to add their prayers to yours.
I have also, under my spiritual director’s promptings, taken to writing down in a journal the “words” that I hear in prayer. I have found this sometimes to be a profound way to really tune into the voice of the Lord.
In closing, the key is to give yourself a basic structure of prayer, but also enough freedom to move with the Holy Spirit, who blows where He wills. cf. John 3:8 Some written or memorized prayers, like the Rosary, can be a wonderful aide, especially when your mind is tired. But also, God wants you to speak to Him from the heart. Remember above all, prayer is a conversation between friends, between the Beloved and the beloved.
…where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. (2 Cor 3:17)
SUMMARY AND SCRIPTURE
Prayer is the balance between structure and spontaneity—like a burner that is rigid, yet producing ever new flames. Both are necessary to help us soar in the Spirit toward the Father.
Rising very early before dawn, he left and went off to a deserted place, where he prayed… he who says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked. (Mark 1:35; 1 John 2;6)
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