Friday, July 26, 2013

The 5 P's of Prayer

Dear Theophilus, 

Like most people, I like having routine in my life. In fact, the older I get, the more I cling to routine to get through the day. As a Catholic school teacher, I see on a daily basis how necessary routine is for children to get through theirs. That’s why a short while ago I wrote about how we all need to have a prayer plan in place if we want our prayer life to be fruitful. If we don’t have a plan for our prayer life, a prayer routine, the wheels quickly fall off and we begin to see prayer as useless. 

In an attempt to deepen my contemplative prayer life, I came across one of my favourite prayer routines last summer reading Fr. Mitch Pacwa’s How to Listen When God is Speaking. Since reading Fr. Pacwa’s book and trying to incorporate many of his ideas into my own prayer life, I’ve done some research into the Ignatian Spirituality concept of the 5 P’sof Prayer. Although you will find a few variations that differ slightly, in a nutshell the 5 P’s are: 

Ø  Prepare
Ø  Place
Ø  Posture
Ø  Passage
Ø  Presence 

We need to prepare to pray. Although some prayer happens spontaneously; deep, spiritual contemplative prayer requires effort and preparation. This can seem daunting at first, but once you get into a prayer habit, preparing to pray will come as naturally as your spontaneous prayers. Begin by having a prayer purpose: thanksgiving for the simply things in your life, a special petition, for someone you love, in worship of God’s greatness … the list is infinite. Think of a passage in scripture that speaks to your purpose: a moment in Christ’s life (think of the Rosary Mysteries), a parable, something from the prophets; find that specific moment in scripture (our memory isn’t always true to the Word of God). Finally, have a time and place planned out for your prayer. Contemplative prayer is very different from spontaneous prayer, and where and when you prayer will have a direct effect on the fruitfulness of your prayer. 

Your place of prayer can be just as important as your prayer itself. God speaks to us in the silence, and if you find you are distracted from your prayer by your surroundings, then your entire contemplative prayer effort will be in vain. I’ve written before about finding the ideal place for prayer, but I think these ideas could bear repeating. Pick a quiet place, away from worldly distractions (television, computer, smartphone). Find a place that will elevate your thoughts towards God – in RediscoverCatholicism, Matthew Kelly writes about how church is the most ideal place to pray; they were designed and built for prayer. If you can’t make it to your church, however, I’m sure most of us can find a corner in our home or garden that is conducive to prayer. 

Although the Catholic Church teaches that there is no one ideal posture for prayer, it is important to find the proper position for your prayer. Most people relate kneeling with prayer, and although kneeling can help focus your mind on your prayer, it may not be the most suitable for longer periods of contemplative prayer. You want your posture (kneeling, sitting or prostrate) to be comfortable; yet not so comfortable that you begin to dose off (another distraction that can lead us away from prayer). I find that my posture needs to suit my prayer purpose to allow my prayers to be most effective: kneeling when in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, sitting comfortably when contemplating God’s will for my life and prostrate in those rare moments of extreme humility before the greatness of the Lord. 

Reading and meditation on a passage of scripture will help you to understand God’s will for you at this particular moment of your prayer life. If you are seeking specific guidance on a particular issue, find a verse from the Bible that speaks to that issue – use the Catechism to find the Church’s teaching on this issue, along with related Scripture verses, or simply google your prayer purpose and Bible verse. If you want to meditate more deeply on God’s will, I would suggest the daily Gospel reading – there is a reason why God has called the Universal Church to meditate on that particular reading today, leading you to unexpected and joyful revelations about His will in your life.

Finally, put yourself fully and completely into the presence of God. Prayer is the means by which we develop our personal relationship with Him. If we cannot be fully and completely present to God in prayer, when can we? Listen to what God is saying to you – it won’t be with a shout, but rather in a whisper of silence. Once you listen to what God is saying to you, you will wonder how you didn’t hear Him in the first place. This fifth P of presence flows naturally out of the other four, but is essential to bringing fruit to our prayer life.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Daily Examination of Conscience

Dear Theophilus, 

During the summer months I like to catch-up on my reading list (and blog posts), getting to the books that have been piling up on my bedside table since Christmas. Having more time in the morning to devote to reading helps, but I also like to choose one or two lighter titles to help move things along. One thing I try not to do is sacrifice quality for quantity. That’s why I was happy to come across The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Wine, Whisky and Song. 

As the title suggests, this book takes the reader on a journey through the relationship Catholicism has had throughout history with alcohol, weaving in the odd recipe and drinking song for good measure. What I wasn’t expecting when I picked up John Zmirak and Denise Matychowiak’s book was how true it stayed to the orthodoxy of Catholic teaching. Subtitled From Apocalypse to Zinfandel, there’s a whole lot that The Bad Catholic’s Guide covers, way more than just one blog post (perhaps that’s why it’s a book). As my post title suggests, I want to delve a little more deeply into one of the ideas I found there. 

A few times scattered throughout The Bad Castholic’s Guide Zmirak refers to the Dominican monastic order. He talks about their devotion to prayer, their work ethic and the marvelous wines and liquors these devout monks have gifted to us. The one aspect of Dominican life that intrigued me, however, was the daily examination of conscience. At the end of each day, Dominicans are called to reflect on their daily experience, how they glorified God and how they sinned against Him. 

The more I thought about it, the more I came to realize what a wonderful idea a daily examination of conscience is. Since reading Matthew Kelly’s Rediscover Catholicism and returning to a more frequent practice of the sacrament of Reconciliation (though never as frequent as I should), I’ve discovered how much more in tune I am with my own shortcomings, with my tendencies to sin, and I try to make a much more concerted effort to avoid what brings me to sin (you can read about my ongoing struggle here). If examining my conscience and getting to Confession every couple of months helps me to sin less, I figure that examining my conscience daily will help me even more in my quest to be perfect as my Holy Father is perfect. (cf Mt 5:48) 

When approaching the Sacrament of Confession, a thorough examination of conscience is needed (Youcat 232, CCC 1450-1460). To be done properly, the examination should be done in prayerful silence since we need to reflect on our thoughts and actions over a longer period of time. Your examination of conscience can never be exhaustive, but you must approach the confessions of your sins with a contrite heart and the resolve to sin no more. 

Although a daily examination of conscience looks at a shorter period of time, it needs to be just as thorough as though we were preparing to celebrate the sacrament. Each night, as I end my day I try to honestly answer these questions, asking God’s forgiveness for where I’ve fallen short: 

  • What have I done to glorify God?
  • What have I done to attack the glory of God?
  • What have I done that I know is a sin?
  • Did I have any thoughts that could have lead me to sin?
  • Have I done or said anything that is hurtful to others?
  • Have I seen someone in need and not stopped to help?
  • What have I done to witness to God’s will?
  • How have I helped others grow closer to Christ? 

The list is not exhaustive, and the order and answers change from day to day. What I do find, is that by going through this daily examination of conscience, I resolve to be a better person tomorrow; and when I wake in the morning, I pray to God for the grace and strength to be that better person.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Making a Plan for Prayer

Dear Theophilus, 

Prayer takes work. 

It’s true that even the youngest child can prattle off a prayer learned by heart, and many adults will mumble through the prayers at Mass while mentally going over their grocery list or thinking about what they’re going to order at Sunday brunch. But real prayer, truthful prayer, the kind of prayer that enriches your soul; that kind of prayer takes effort. 

In many ways, that’s the problem with prayer. It’s hard work, and to get anything out of it takes consistent effort on the part of the person praying.

Too often we’ll hear people say, “I don’t pray anymore because I got nothing out of it. It was just a bunch of words learned by rote, and I don’t know if God ever heard me, because He never answered.” For these people, prayer outside of the memorized Mass responses involves complaining: “God, why is this happening to me?” or asking: “God, please let me win the lottery.” For many people prayer is a one off event, when it’s convenient for them. They aren’t willing to enter into a dialogue with God, they would rather tell God what’s up and expect Him to jump. Then they act surprised when God remains silent, much the way they do when family and friends are demanding in the same way with them. 

And when God is silent, they refuse to keep the conversation going. 

The funny thing is, I’ve found that the deepest, most meaningful conversations I’ve had have been with people I’ve known for a long time. Our best conversations were never the first ones we had, but rather after numerous conversations where we learned to trust one another in both words and silence. Gaining that mutual trust took work, it took an effort to get to know one another intimately. The relationship took time, growing in baby steps. 

Prayer is like that; it takes time and effort, growing in baby steps. 

Once you have decided to enrich your prayer life and deepen your relationship with God, you will need a plan. Recognize that it will take time and effort, that you won’t hit the contemplative jackpot overnight. Here are a few points that can help you create a plan for you how you’re going to take those prayerful baby steps. 

Like any change you make in your life, if you want to change your prayer life, you will need to set goals for improving your prayer life. However, make sure the prayer goals you set are attainable. There is nothing more discouraging than wanting change, making the effort then falling short. Trying to add hours of contemplative prayer on obscure scripture passages is a sure fire to ensure you give up on prayer.

Instead, start by adding an amount of prayer that is feasible in your life; Matthew Kelly suggests 15 minutes a day, while Peter Kreeft would say to start out with 10 minutes of prayer a day. If you don’t already do it, adding prayer to your day could be as simple as saying grace before every meal. Once this new habit takes root, you’ll be surprised that you’re spending more time in prayer each day than you originally intended. Remember, even the greatest saints didn’t become a super contemplative overnight.
Make sure you have a routine to your prayer. If you set out to spend 10 minutes in prayer every day, but only do it when it’s convenient on any particular day, you’ll find yourself lying in bed, exhausted and upset that you didn’t get your prayer time in that day. Once you’ve skipped a day or two, it will conveniently grow to a week between prayers, then months. 

Pray at the same time and place each and every day, especially when you’re starting out. Look for opportunities to incorporate time for prayer into your current daily routine. I find the best time for me is first thing in the morning, saying the Rosary while I walk the dog. You may even find that you need to wake up 15 minutes earlier to add prayer to your daily routine. It’ll be tempting to his the snooze button the first few days, but once you’re in the habit, you’ll wonder why you hadn’t gotten into the habit sooner. 

Share your prayer plan with other who are also striving to deepen their relationship with God. You’d be surprised by how the challenges you face are the same challenges they find in their own prayer lives. Think of it as a prayer support group. Seek encouragement from others who have gone down the path before you. Everyone’s relationship with God is unique, but when you’re not sure where to start your prayer life, listening to what has worked for others will give you some ideas of where to begin. It’s also comforting to hear that those who we think have a deep spiritual life also struggle from time to time. Knowing you are not alone will give you the courage to continue praying. 

Once you’ve established a prayer routine and you are comfortable with your new prayer life, challenge yourself to deepen your relationship with God. Be careful, however, that a little bit of success doesn’t breed overconfidence. Jumping from saying the Rosary daily to praying the Liturgy of the Hours is only asking to stumble and you will find yourself right back where you started from, or even further away from a rewarding prayer life because of disillusionment.  

Add slowly to your prayer life. Pick and choose how you want your prayer life to grow. Start going to Mass once a week during the work week; read and reflect on the daily Gospel; spend time in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament – the options are endless, and only you and God know how your prayer relationship is intended to grow.
Once you have a prayer plan, stick to it, and you will be amazed by the blessings it bears.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Making Prayer Personal

Dear Theophilus, 

Our God is a living God. 

If we cannot or do not believe in the Resurrection, then our belief in Christ is not only in vain (cf 1 Cor 15:1-2), but outright heretical. For if Jesus did not rise from the dead then he is not the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. 

As Christians we are called to have an intimate relationship with God through Jesus Christ. But how can we build up this relationship so that it is vibrant, joyful and life-giving? 

The answer is quite simple, the key to having a vibrant relationship with God is the same as our relationships with others: good communication. Where our human communication can take on many forms (conversations, e-mail or text), we communicate with God through prayer. 

Prayer is turning the heart toward God. When a person prays, he enters into a living relationship with God. (Youcat 469; CCC 2558-2565) 

The notion of entering a relationship with God through prayer opens up a whole intimate and personal dimension. Just like there is a personal dimension in all of our human communications (yes, there’s even business letters have a level of personal investment), there is a personal element in how we communicate with God.  

We need to make prayer personal. 

I’m not stating that there needs to be a dramatic shift from a public prayer life to a predominantly private prayer life. Rather, what I am saying is that there is a need to develop a deep personal investment in our prayer life as a whole. There must be a balance found between both public and private prayer life, each feeding off of and into the other, and both stoking the deep, personal and intimate relationship that we have with God. 

The question arises then of how do we do this? How do we make prayer personal? Especially when it’s our private prayer that seems deeply intimate (our nighttime prayers and personal supplications before God), while our public prayer seems dry and remote (usually responding by rote at Mass). It won’t be easy and will take some effort, but like all things in this life, when we put in the effort to deepen our relationship with God, the rewards will be exponential. 

At this point I’d like to put forward the very non-scientific argument that the overwhelming majority of practicing Catholics (i.e.: those who attend Mass on a regular basis, beyond Easter, Christmas and family celebrations) only have a public prayer life. They attend Mass on Sunday and leave feeling they’ve met their end of the bargain in their relationship with God. My experience is that many of these people don’t have a very strong private prayer life, and thus feel that their relationship with God is lacking somewhat. Often these very same people will ask me how they can engage their children in the Mass, to which I reply with some rhetorical questions (I make sure they understand I don’t want or need to hear their answer, I just want them to reflect on the questions): What is their prayer life like at home? Do they incorporate prayer in their daily routine? Do they make a habit of frequenting the sacraments (Eucharist and Reconciliation)? 

As for those who don’t go to Mass regularly (or at all) many will argue that they don’t need to go to have a relationship with God; that they can communicate with God any time they see fit or need Him. Here I would argue that most of these people don’t even have this personal relationship with God that they claim to have, mostly because they see themselves as the centre of this relationship and not Christ. 

Again the question comes up: How do we make prayer personal? How can we get our public prayer to the next level and enrich our private prayer so as to deepen our relationship with God?

For myself, it started with going beyond the rote responses at Mass. It took a concerted effort to concentrate on what was being said and sung and seeing how it related to me in my life at that particular moment. It was done in baby steps. I didn’t take on the whole Mass all at once. I began with closing my eyes and focusing on the words of the Gospel. Once I had mastered concentrating on the Gospel, I added the readings. Soon I was able to make the connections between the Old Testament and New Testament readings. Over the years I’ve been doing this I’ve slowly added a new part of the Mass to concentrate on with the others, to the point where I spend most of the Mass contemplating on what is happening and being said. 

The Mass, a very public prayer, has also become a very personal prayer. 

Since I’ve been doing this, my private prayer life has also grown. With the natural ebb and flow of any personal relationship (with my relationship with God this is all due to my own failings), I have added new aspects to my prayer life. Some of these are traditional rote prayers: daily Rosary or prayers before every meal; while others are more fluid in nature: personal supplications or a daily examination of conscience. 

What I have found is that by making prayer personal, my relationship with God has grown deeper and strengthened my resolve in Christ.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Keeping the Commandments in Order

Dear Theophilus, 

The more I read and the more I sit back and watch the world go by, the more I come to realize that we’ve got our priorities backwards. By we I mean a generalization of those of us blessed enough to live in western society (Europe and North America); and by priorities I am referring to our Christian commandments. 

I know it’s never a wise thing to make sweeping generalizations, especially of such a large population base. There will always be exceptions to the rule. I also acknowledge the large gamut of experiences, opinions and actions of such a large group of people makes it impossible to shade them all with one colour, particularly when you get out to the fringes. Still, I think a little bit of self-reflection (myself included) would help bring things into greater focus when it comes to following the commandments in their proper order. 

When we think of God’s commandments, our minds usually jump to the image of Charleton Heston holding two stone tablets etched by the finger of God. As well, most of us can also recite from memory (in some form or another) the list from Exodus 20:1-17 

1.      You shall have no other gods before Me.
2.      You shall not worship idols.
3.      You shall not use the Lord’s name in vain.
4.      Keep the Sabbath holy.
5.      Honour your father and mother.
6.      You shall not murder.
7.      You shall not commit adultery.
8.      You shall not steal.
9.      You shall not bear false witness.
10.  You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife or goods.

As Christians, however, when we think of the commandments, we need to think of the commandments that Christ gave us. And for those who are like myself and have troubles with memorizing such a long list as was given to Moses, we’re all pretty happy that Jesus was able to summarize the Ten Commandments quite nicely in just two: 

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And the second is like it: you shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Mt 22:37-40) 

Here is where my generalizing of western society starts to kick in. 

It’s been my experience that when we look at the Old Testament commandments, we have numbers 5 to 10 down pat; and when we come to the New Testament commandments, we seem to skip over the first and overuse the second. We seem to have forgotten numbers 1 to 4, or, according to Christ, the greatest commandment: You shall love the Lord your God. 

Love your neighbour as yourself or Treat others as you would want to be treated. It’s a common refrain that helps keep us from falling into complete anarchy. As a parent I try to drill this into my son’s psyche. As a teacher, I try to guide my students to live by this principle. As a society we use this mantra to keep everyone on the right track. But without the first commandment, it’s an empty philosophy without foundation. 

Don’t get me wrong, a lot of good gets done in the world because of this commandment. As Christian’s, however, we need to follow this second commandment out of commitment to the first. As numerous Catholic authors (such as Matthew Kelly, Peter Kreeft and George Weigel) have pointed out: if we love our neighbour without loving God first, then we become nothing more than an NGO, a charitable organization, or a branch of the government dedicated to helping others. 

As Christians, it’s only logical that Christ’s first commandment will flow into the second. If we truly love God, then of course we will love our neighbour whom He made in His own image.

The challenge is this, dear Theophilus, not to simply do good because it is good (most of us do this already), but to find ways of deepening our love for the Lord so that goodness can flow from that love. By right-ordering God’s commandments, by putting God first, our strength and commitment to do good as a witness to God in the world will grow exponentially.