Growing a Deeper Prayer Life
Prayer is easily ruined when we make it a work project. Instead of treating prayer as a duty, let us allow God to give us the desire to pray. We will pray because we are drawn to pray and because we want to pray, not because we believe we have to pray. Our deep desires to pray are a gift from God. He will give us the desire to come to Him with heartfelt prayers. He will lead the way if we will be open to follow.
Most of our prayers will be simple straight forward prayers – prayers asking God for help and prayers thanking Him for blessings and prayers of petition for others and prayers for forgiveness. But since there are other ways that we can open ourselves up to God in prayer, - ways that we don’t normally practice and ways that are sometimes taught in prayer retreats - we might want to give several of these prayer practices a try. We will name of few of these ways to come to God.
The first prayer practice we will mention is “Lectio Divina,” which is Latin for “divine reading”. Lectio Divina is a way of prayerfully meditating on a few Scripture verses in order to hear God’s personal word to you. This prayer practice was developed by early Christians in the third century and became widespread when St. Benedict made it central to monastic spirituality. Christians have practiced Lectio Divina for nearly eighteen hundred years.
Lectio Divina is a prayer of expectation. We come in faith expecting to hear God’s voice. We dare to believe that God still communicates and that Scriptures can become God’s living Word for us. Then we come to God and read a few scriptures with the desire not just to hear the words of the scriptures but also to encounter the Word behind the words. We want to see Jesus. We want to have communion with God.
If God has a word for us we want to listen in faith for this living Word. Lectio Divina treats the Scriptures as the living Word – always alive and active and new and fresh. We listen passively in silence as the few verses of Scripture are read and we gently wait for a gift that God has for us in those Scripture verses. We read the short passage of Scripture over slowly and reverentially. Instead of studying the Scriptures or analyzing what we are reading, we seek a deeper more personal spiritual meaning as we mull over God’s Word. We take time and settle ourselves in God’s presence in stillness and silence and we ask God to prepare us to receive His Word for us.
You can pick a quiet place that will support attentive openness to God. Perhaps you could light a candle if that would help you be still and receptive before God. Practice enjoying the Scripture verses for ten to twenty minutes. Most people find that this way of praying the Word works best when they use a short Psalm or a passage from a longer Psalm or perhaps a few verses from the Gospels –Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. . Paul’s Epistles also work well. But there are no rules. And then lastly we listen for a word from God. If a verse touches our hearts or we quietly feel it moving us that can be what God has for us. Often God speaks to our hearts in a still small voice. Nothing dramatic.
The second prayer practice that we will mention here is practicing the presence of God with us. Most of us go through life oblivious to the God who is with us as we journey through each day. God is present to us and this presence can be known and can be part of our experience. We can cultivate the awareness that God is with us everywhere we go.
Ignatius of Loyola, the 16th century founder of the Jesuit order of the Catholic Church, encouraged his followers to take time each day for prayerful attentiveness as to how God had been present to them and how they had responded to God’s presence. This prayer practice was called the “examen”. There are three steps to the “examen.”
1.) First you find a quiet place and you affirm that you are in the presence of God. You ask God for the grace of seeing yourself and others and the world as through spiritual eyes.
2.) Secondly you allow your attention to roam over your present day. Trust that the Spirit will bring to mind any significant event to which you should take care of. Give thanks to God as you notice the blessings of the day and also notice the times when you failed to see the face of Jesus in someone you met or encountered. Notice the people that you failed to respond to in love. Ask for forgiveness and thank God for His grace in your day.
3.) Close by asking again for grace to be open and responsive to God’s presence. Our spiritual life will be no deeper than our capacity to pay attention to God’s presence in our life.
If we do not want to practice St. Ignatius of Loyola’s “examen” we can still cultivate prayerful attentiveness to God. We can do this by making time in each day for pauses to be still before God in trust and openness. And we can watch for traces of God’s hand in our daily life. Count the new blessings He gives us each day and thank Him for them. We can make a habit of reviewing our day to see how God has blessed and kept it. And we can ask for forgiveness for our sins each day too. We can watch for traces of God in other people. And lastly we can consider taking occasional spiritual retreats as a means of growing deeper in our prayer life.
One more prayer practice we will mention here is the “Jesus Prayer”, prized in the Eastern Orthodox Church. The Jesus Prayer is the oldest Christian contemplative prayer tradition around. This is the Jesus Prayer – “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have mercy upon me, a sinner.” Down through the centuries many have prayed this prayer – repeating it over and over throughout their day.
Those who use this prayer often say that after repeating it for a while the prayer begins to emerge from a deeper place within their being. The meaning has gone from the mind to the heart and from the consciousness to the unconscious. The Jesus Prayer can be described as a mantra prayer, which means that it is a prayer based on the repetition of a few words. Mantras are prayers with the intent to bring us closer to God.
I believe that praise is a part of prayer. We used to belong to a church that sang praises to God for thirty minutes every time we came together for a worship service. It was a blessed time and we could feel the heavy presence of the Spirit of God in our midst in a special way. Scripture says that God inhabits the praises of his people. (Psalm 22:3) I miss those praise times now that we have moved and are no longer members of that church. Of course we can praise God either in words or in song when we are by ourselves.
We will continue our study of prayer in our next blog. And I will close with this thought. One time a few years ago when I wasn’t praying very often and was feeling discouraged with life, I grumbled to God saying that I felt like He had moved far away from me. Very soon after that James 4:8 popped into my mind. James 4:8 says: “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.” That verse encouraged me and I began coming to God in prayer more and I began feeling His blessed presence more once again. I believe that Scripture tells us that God loves us and is always waiting there for us. He is always wanting to be close to us but it is up to us how close we want to be to Him.
Many of the ideas of this blog were taken from David G. Benner’s book, “Opening to God”.