How You Can Make Your Prayer Life More Personal
Lent is a season of resolutions and the Church suggests three areas of growth: Prayer, Fasting, and Almsgiving. So how does one grow in prayer? Is it just a matter of doing it more? Can I do it better? What does praying better even mean?
“…he said to Simon, 'Put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.' … When they had done this, they caught a great number of fish and their nets were tearing. ” Luke 5:4 and 6
I would like to propose this Lent that we focus on praying more deeply. St. Teresa of Avila, a great saint and perhaps the Church’s greatest teacher on prayer, discusses two types of prayer. The first is vocal prayer which involves recitation of memorized prayers. These prayers are important. They direct our thoughts and minds in prescribed patterns. Often times they address universal needs. They can also be useful in forming communities and allowing us to pray in unity. Some examples of this type of prayer include the Our Father prayed during Mass, the rosary, and the Liturgy of the Hours prayed within religious communities. However, sometimes we may forget that more is needed for a fully formed spiritual life.
This is where St. Teresa discusses a second form of prayer which she calls meditation. Meditation can be defined as prayer in which we talk to Christ in our own words and without the use of memorized formulas, rosaries, or prayers. In short, this is a simple conversation between friends.
It is in this second type of prayer that we push away from the shore and move into deep waters. In doing so there can be a sense of danger. We don’t always know where we are going. We can feel tiny in comparison to the God with whom we speak. But it is also here in the deep that we can make the “great catch”. This is because it is in meditation that we place ourselves directly under the guidance of Christ through person to person contact and form the depth of our relationship with God.
With this in mind, here are some tips that we have gathered to help make your prayer life more personal:
Make Time for Prayer
Meditation definitely takes time. But it does not take so great a time as one may think. St. Teresa herself says, “Yet do not imagine I want you to make long meditations on our divine Savior or much reasoning or profound and subtle conceptions. If you cannot do more, keep your eyes fixed for some moments on your adorable spouse.” or again “Those who reason much in prayer and find in any subject abundance of thoughts and considerations would do well to attend to the advice I am about to give…Let them place themselves in the presence of Our Lord and converse with Him, heart to heart, without fatiguing the understanding, and tasting the happiness of being in His company.” (St. Teresa, Life, xiii. as quoted in In Conversation with Christ, Rohrbach, P.T., Tan, 1980)
Making time for prayer means making intentional decisions. We must provide ourselves space for conversation. St. Teresa compares prayer to the conversation between spouses. Often times at home, our conversation revolves around what the kids are doing, what happened at work, or what is for dinner. These are all important, but they are not sufficient to maintain our relationship. That is why we have a weekly date night where we can talk about deeper desires within our relationship and just be together gazing at one another and enjoying each other’s company.
Have a Plan for Prayer
It's important to have a plan, whether it be Lectio Divina, an outline for how you want to structure your time or guidelines from a saint. St. Teresa outlines five steps for meditation. They are preparation, selection of material, consideration, conversation, and conclusion. We will take a brief look at each of these steps below.
Fill Your Mind with Good Things (Preparation and Selection of Material)
“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Philippians 4:8
Preparation: It is hard to go straight from our busy day directly into deep prayer. Therefore, it is important to take actions to prepare ourselves for prayer. One way we can do this is to surround ourselves with items and objects which promote the thoughts we wish to pursue. In psychology, they call these objects “primes” and we should choose an environment with primes that lead us to God. This is the lesson that St. Paul sought to teach the Philippians. Primes may take the form of a crucifix, statue, or work of art. The goal of these primes is to help us prepare by placing our self in the presence of God.
Selection of Material: We can and also should use readings from the Bible and the saints to provide the fuel for contemplation. St. Teresa recommends a book or selection of scripture. We will then slowly read our selection and fill our mind for prayer.
Use Your Imagination
Consideration: Once you have read or studied your selected material, one now begins to think about the scene. We can ask ourselves questions such as “Who is Jesus addressing?”, “Why is he doing it?” or “What does this mean to me?” This is also a great time to employ your imagination. I like to try to picture Jesus face. Sometimes I imagine myself as a member of the crowd or even as the person Jesus is addressing. I also try to observe the emotions my imagination causes to well up within me. Am I afraid of his words? Do they make me sad? Angry? Do I want to ignore them? This can be a great way to identify things I am struggling with or trying to hide from the Lord or even myself.
Voice Expressions of Intimacy
Conversation: Now having considered the words of Lord and my own fears and emotions, I am prepared to make myself vulnerable. I can express my hopes and desires because I have invested the time and effort to know the one I love. Finally, this all leads to expressions of thanks and love.
In many ways, these first four steps are remarkably similar to the dialogue I experience with my wife each day. Usually, I come home from work and I need a little while to let go of the cares of my day and make myself fully present to my family (preparation). Then we eat dinner together (selection of material). We talk about the day, do our chores and get the kids to bed (consideration). Then we go to bed. Usually, we lay and talk having our deepest conversation and expressions of intimacy (conversation).
Look for God’s Action in Each Day and Make a Resolution
Conclusion: This is a great time to look for God’s action in my life throughout the day. I talk to him about what I have seen and experienced and what role He may have played. It is also a great time to make a resolution to act on what Jesus has revealed to us in our conversation. A resolution is a concrete action that we can perform throughout the day. These resolutions are very important because these actions will cause us to change over time. They enliven in us our conversation with Christ and make it manifest throughout the day.
I hope these simple tips help you deepen your conversation with Christ this Lent. To learn more about St. Teresa’s of Avila’s advice on prayer I recommend the book In Conversation with Christ by Peter Thomas Rohrbach from which the basis of this reflection was drawn.