“In prayer you become one with the source of our true light – Jesus Himself.” Pope Saint John Paul II
I never had much of an intentional prayer life outside of the rosary until this year, when I discovered Ignatian spirituality and contemplative prayer. This form of imaginative prayer has been a rich experience for me and become a daily source of comfort: an hour every morning, in total silence, just me and God.
Because of the deepness of this experience – the closer relationship with Jesus, a better understanding of myself, and a greater sense of peace, to name a few things – it is difficult for me to imagine life before I had this prayerful component a part of my every day. Looking back on the fruit of this experience, it made me wonder – what happens when we don’t pray?
Prayer is a Conversation with God
It is so important to start with this fact. I remember hearing this long ago and thinking, “Okay, but it’s still really just talking into a void and hoping something works out the way you want.” But it really is a conversation with God, the One who created you and knows your heart better than you know it yourself. To say there is value in talking to the Creator of the universe and the greatest lover of your soul is an understatement. More importantly, I believe that God is waiting to hear from us, to speak to us, and that only in making ourselves available through prayer can we truly have a relationship with Him. After all, how could you ever have a relationship with your spouse, child, or coworker if all you ever did was talk at them? Or not at all?
How God Views His Children
One of the wonderful truths that has resonated with me during my time in contemplative prayer is the idea that God wants so much for us. I do not mean that in a corny way, but in a truthful way – it is impossible for us to plan for ourselves a greater life than the one God wants to give us.
Recently I meditated on Psalm 43, which is full of God’s declarations of love for His children: “I have called you by name, you are mine;” “I give Egypt as your ransom, Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you. Because you are precious in my eyes, and honored, and I love you.” (43:1-4) These are not simply words in the Old Testament; they are the reality of how God views you and me today. This is a God who wants your whole heart, and you can give it to Him in prayer.
Gifts from God
The gifts of prayer are not necessarily material, though there is the power of interventionist prayer, for example, which cures cancer or averts a wreck. What I am speaking of is the act of personal, quiet, persistent prayer which is an act of coming before God with one’s whole self in order to discern God’s will. The Holy Spirit will never overcome our personality or override what will make us happy; the greatest happiness is in living in accordance to God’s will. Prayer, then, becomes less about asking for things, and more simply about seeking God and His kingdom.
It is as if there is a great room full of presents, all wrapped up and unopened, perhaps watched over by our guardian angels. These are the gifts God wants to give us, if we would only meet Him and ask in prayer: self-knowledge, generosity of spirit, overcoming fears, boundless creativity. When we do not meet with God in prayerful conversation, we risk passing up on what He wants to share with us, and ultimately, the life He wants to create with us.
Prayer Changes Us
I see, too, that entering into a prayerful relationship with God makes other forms of prayer – like those that are spontaneous or desperate – become more second-nature. If I am devoting a half hour to prayer each morning, it follows that when something goes wrong in my day, my natural reaction will be to pray over it, rather than worry.
Similarly, developing a deep prayer life can show us how connected we are to God as an active part of His creation. Prayer can help us have a role in God’s creation. There are many causes and needs to pray for, if we pay attention. That is the power of prayer, that we can change the world. Think about natural disasters, wars, illness, and all the tragedies of life that affect humanity. By speaking with God about these things, we truly are able to change, or at least affect, the outcome. For example: recently many Americans prayed a 54-day novena for our country, which ended on October 6. On that same day, President Trump announced a revision to the HHS mandate, the component of the Affordable Care Act which required private employers to cover contraception for their employees’ healthcare, a violation of freedom of conscience. I truly believe that the faithful prayer of a nation caused this outcome, and many others, that have averted disaster or at least lessened its burden. If we do not pray, then we forfeit the opportunity to help all the people and causes which need our help.
Where Do I Begin?
In the Ignatian tradition, prayer is considered an exercise, as in “the spiritual exercises,” and is therefore something which takes practice. For our modern minds, where a 5 minute YouTube video is too long, this can take some getting used to initially.
In his great book on contemplative prayer, Armchair Mystic, Mark E. Thibodeaux, SJ says there are four stages of prayer. The first is “talking at God,” followed by “talking to God,” “listening to God,” and “being with God.” So you see, moving through the depth of prayer is like growing from a babbling toddler to a receptive and wise adult.
No matter which specific prayer you choose – the Our Father, the Rosary, the Examen at the end of the day, a novena or a full-on Ignatian retreat – stick with it and do not judge yourself as you begin your prayer practice. As Saint Theresa of Calcutta said, “We are not called to be successful, but faithful.” God is overjoyed simply that we show up to spend time with Him. Remember that if your first several times practicing at prayer are marked by a wandering mind, a twitchy leg, and the distracting sound of the neighbor’s yappy dog, many saints have gone before you on that path (and with far greater desolation and spiritual temptation than the chihuahua next door). You are in good company.
Understand, too, that God hears all prayers, and answers each one, though not necessarily where and how we would like. Prayer, then, is also an exercise in learning to accept God’s will for our lives. Truly, the simplest and yet the greatest prayer is to ask God for acceptance of His will, for the grace to be a willing instrument of His peace where He has need, and to learn to love others as He has loved us. If we can sincerely pray for these things, with a willing heart, we open ourselves to an abundance of God’s blessings and deeper, authentic relationship with Him. That is the true gift of the spiritual life enriched by prayer.