By its very nature, ministry means encountering a lot of different people. In the fifteen years that I’ve been privileged to work for the Church, I’ve been blessed to make many friends – some of whom have stood beside me on some of the best days of my life, and many who’ve been with me on my worst days. Some of these friends have been with me through many seasons of my life while others have been in my life for just a single season. What they all have in common is that from whatever place our friendship began – faith, music, geography, hockey, etc. – over time and shared experience, we were able to learn things about the other, share life together, and ultimately to grow closer to one another. The same thing is true for what we are trying to do through prayer:
“Every Christian life story is also a story of prayer, one long attempt to achieve ever greater union with God.” -YouCat 510
In prayer, we grow closer to God. The difference is that God doesn’t show up only for a season, and doesn’t take an interest in us just because we have something in common. God yearns for intimacy with us. It has been said that when Jesus cried out “I thirst” from the cross (John 19:28), he wasn’t thirsting for water or juice or milk, but rather for souls – our souls. For this reason, the Missionaries of Charity (Mother Teresa’s sisters) post two words beside the crucifixes in their chapels: I thirst. This is there to remind them of their vow to try and satiate Christ’s thirst through prayer and the service which flows from that prayer. For those who enter the religious life, prayer is not only written into their rule – they are expected to pray for X hours each day – it is also scheduled into their day in the same way a lunch break might be scheduled into your work day. For those of us who do not have a religious vocation, we need to carve moments of prayer out of our busy lives, and there are a couple good places to start:
“From the earliest times Christians have prayed at least in the morning, at meals, and in the evening. Someone who does not pray regularly will soon not pray at all.” -YouCat 499
If something is important enough to us, we will make time for it. It is amazing (and a little maddening for my wife) how much time I can find throughout hockey season to watch, listen to, follow on Twitter, and otherwise keep myself up to date with all the happenings of the Edmonton Oilers hockey team. The last time they made the playoffs back in 2006, I watched at least part of 22 of the 24 Oilers playoff games that year in spite of the fact I was working through the busiest seasons of youth ministry, bought a house, painted it, and moved into it (not to mention that I had a wife who was six months pregnant). It mattered enough to me that I made room for it in my life. The same should be true with prayer if our desire to be closer to God really is important to us… we will begin to carve these moments into our day because He matters.
YouCat identifies three ways that we pray, almost as a progressive school of prayer. Each of these ways builds upon the previous one. The first way is vocal prayer: when we pray, “we should express what is in our hearts and offer it to God as complaint, petition, praise, and thanks“ (YouCat 501). A vocal prayer is one that is spoken aloud, spoken in the silence of our hearts, written down, and even sung. For this reason we have a treasury of wrote prayers like the ‘Our Father,’ the ‘Hail Mary,’ and the Rosary, as well as a great treasury of music – things like chant, taize, and praise and worship which are meant to give us words begin our conversation with God. One thing that I came to understand while I was learning to lead worship, was that the purpose of praying with music is that the music ought to lead to silence.
It is in silence that we discover the second way of prayer, meditation: “In meditation, a Christian seeks silence so as to experience intimacy with God and to find peace in his presence. He hopes for the sensible experience of his presence, which is an undeserved gift of grace; he does not expect it, however, as the product of a particular technique of meditation” (YouCat 504). We begin by speaking to God, then we listen for Him… and at times, He will speak. He may speak in the silence of our hearts, or audibly, or in some other unexpected way – but the point for us is to be available should He decide to speak. When I think of St. Jospeh, one of the things I admire the most about Him is his ability to listen to God’s promptings – he did what God wanted him to do (took Mary as his wife) and went where God wanted him to go (fleeing to Egypt and then returning when it was safe.) This was only possible because Joseph developed a discipline of prayer: he, too, was opened to God, and allowed God’s promptings to direct His life.
It’s in that state of listening that we might reach the third way of prayer, contemplation. Contemplative Prayer “is love, silence, listening, and being in the presence of God” (YouCat 503). This third way of prayer is a gift from God, and is joy at being in His presence. It’s very much like the experience of a couple in love who get lost in one another’s eyes, or of an infant child looking in awe at his or her mother. One pilgrim explained to St. John Vianney that for him prayer was quite simple: “I look at him, and he looks at me.” This is a beautiful description of contemplative prayer.
To walk this way of prayer, from vocal prayer, to meditation, to contemplative prayer is not only a journey, it is a battle. This battle takes on the traditional enemies of humanity – ourselves, the world, and the Devil: “Often someone who wants to pray must first conquer his lack of will power… the spirit of the times sees no point in praying, and our full calendars leave no room for it. Then there is the battle against the tempter, who will try to keep a person from devoting himself to God” (YouCat 505). Prayer asks something of us – it makes us uncomfortable. We might feel like we have something more important to do – but, like flossing, we need to put in the effort for our own sake. The world’s going to think we’re crazy… but that’s supposed to come with the territory of being a Christian. Jesus said that “In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world” (John 16:33). Yes, there is a very real enemy out there who is trying to stop us from getting closer to God, but we overcome all these enemies by opening ourselves in prayer and allowing God to change us. This is the goal of all of our prayer:
“Prayer does not seek superficial success but rather the will of God and intimacy with him. God’s apparent silence is itself an invitation to take a step farther – in total devotion, boundless faith, endless expectation. Anyone who prays must allow God the freedom to speak whenever he wants, to grant whatever he wants, and to give himself however he wants.” -YouCat 507