Prayer, according to St. Thérèse of Lisieux, is “an upward leap of the heart, an untroubled glance toward heaven, a cry of gratitude and love.”
It is also central in the life of the Catholic Church, whether it comes in the form of a solitary person praying the rosary or a crowd of hundreds celebrating the Eucharist.
Anyone who is raised Catholic learns the traditional prayers: the words of the Hail Mary, the Our Father, the Glory Be and the Apostle’s Creed. We learn special prayers for different saints, the Act of Contrition used during sacraments, and the many prayers recited during the Liturgy of the Hours and the Mass itself.
And we are taught from childhood that taking time to speak to God and listen for his words is crucial.
But in this era of multi-tasking, when a person’s attention is often drawn to many things at once, finding room for an effective prayer life can be a huge challenge.
But it is necessary in order to live a full life as a Catholic, according to men and women in the Diocese of Charleston who have spent much of their daily lives devoted to prayer.
And it is a challenge that can be met in a variety of ways, they say, all of which can lead to a fuller relationship with God and to Christ through both individual prayer and the communal prayer of the Eucharist.
“The Eucharist, according to the church, is the source and summit of all our prayer,” said Father Kevin Walsh, OCSO, vocations director at Mepkin Abbey in Moncks Corner, where Trappist monks spend their lives devoted to constant contemplative prayer and work.
Developing a Prayerful Mindset
A key element to effective prayer is learning to quiet the mind in preparation to talk with God. The word meditation is often used when talking about prayer, and this confuses many people because it often brings up images of Eastern, non-Christian forms of religious practice. That, however, has nothing to do with the way Catholics meditate.
Meditating in this sense means coming to a place where only God is present in our minds.
“It’s that quieting of the external and internal selves, to be freed from distractions, worries and upsetting feelings,” said Father Walsh. “It’s coming to quiet stillness before God, and allowing God’s activity and message to be perceived.”
Everyone will have a different way of preparing his or her mind for prayer. Father Walsh said some suggestions include choosing a special place to sit or kneel, and slowly reciting a simple prayer over and over again, such as the “Jesus prayer,” which states, “Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
It can be helpful to set aside a space at home dedicated only for prayer. Some people decorate these areas with religious icons and statues or a crucifix. Sometimes lighting prayer candles can also help achieve a prayerful atmosphere.
It is not always possible to have a special room, but that does not matter.
Sister Mary Connor, abbess of the contemplative Monastery of St. Clare in Greenville, described how her mother used to simply sit on the porch for prayer. Other people find their prayer space while driving alone in a car or walking outside.
The key, she said, is to be in a place where you can open yourself to God.
“Just sit in the presence of God, like you do with a friend when you can just sit and don’t really have to say anything,” Sister Mary said. “See what happens. I think sometimes people are almost afraid. They don’t realize that God delights in being with us. It’s important to learn how to just be quiet with God.”
Lectio divina means “sacred reading,” and it is a form of prayer practiced by many people in contemplative religious communities, including the monks at Mepkin Abbey. It involves repeated reading of a small portion of Scripture to discover what God would have us learn from it.
“We don’t read the way you would read a novel or a thick textbook. You’re not reading to get through it and to accomplish that,” Father Walsh said. “The purpose is not to advance and cover a lot of territory, but to read a passage and pause. From the passage, there could be a sentence, a word, a phrase or a concept that stands out for you.”
There are many ways to select the Scripture for lectio divina. Many people begin with the Gospels.
Sister Mary said another option is to focus on the daily Mass readings.
Father Walsh shared some basic guidelines for practicing lectio divina, written by Father Luke Dysinger, a Benedictine monk and prior of St. Andrew’s Abbey in California:
• Choose a text of the Scriptures that you wish to pray.
• Place yourself in a comfortable position and be silent.
• Read the text slowly and gently.
• Listen for a word or phrase that says, “I am for you today.”
• Memorize the word or phrase and repeat it.
• Speak to God and give to him what you have discovered through reading.
• Rest in the presence of God.
One of the church’s most ancient and beloved forms of prayer, the rosary is also one of the first prayers that Catholics learn as children. Many people pray it several times a day, but the key to keeping it effective is to make sure the series of Hail Mary and Our Father prayers do not become exercises in repetition.
“The rosary has to be truly meditated and not quickly rattled off,” said Father Stanley Smolenski, director of the Shrine of Our Lady of South Carolina — Our Lady of Joyful Hope in Kingstree. “There has to be that mental aspect, an intelligent recitation of the rosary.”
He said focusing on the meaning of the mysteries of the rosary can help a person pull more out of the prayer. The four sets of mysteries — joyful, sorrowful, glorious, and luminous — offer the chance to focus on different events in Jesus’ life while praying the decades of the rosary.
Father Smolenski said the mysteries can enhance not only the relationship with God through individual prayer, but can also help us become better prepared to receive the Eucharist.
“Because the Mass celebrates the same mysteries that the rosary does, praying it prepares us and tunes us in for what the liturgy is going to focus on,” he said. “Pope John Paul II said by meditation on these mysteries, we unleash the power of the mystery. Christ is the wisdom and power of God, and each mystery of his life unleashes that power and wisdom.”
The ancient tradition of eucharistic adoration has seen a resurgence in the church in recent years. Making an effort to spend time before the Blessed Sacrament can help busy people discover a real sense of the sacred.
Sister Mary said adoration is an important part of the regular prayer life of the Order of Poor Clares. It is also an important way for lay people to prepare themselves to be with Jesus in the celebration of the Eucharist, whether they attend Mass daily or weekly. Many people say specific prayers during adoration, while others sit and listen for what God is saying to them in the presence of Christ.
Sister Mary said there are many other ways to develop an effective daily prayer life. The Poor Clares pray the Liturgy of the Hours daily, and many people find praying the morning and evening prayers contained within the liturgy to be effective. She also suggested daily spiritual reading of Catholic devotions, which can be found in special books or online.
Some of her suggestions:
• Creighton University, a Jesuit university in Omaha, Neb., offers meditations on the daily Mass readings. Visit http://onlineministries.creighton.edu/CollaborativeMinistry/daily.html.
• St. Anthony Messenger offers daily online and audio meditations about the saint of the day: www.americancatholic.org/Features/SaintofDay/default.asp.
• For information on the contemplative life, visit www.mepkinabbey.org or www.poorclaresc.com.
• For information on the Shrine of Our Lady of South Carolina, visit www.ourladyofsouthcarolina.net.
• For daily readings, visit the U.S. Catholic Bishop’s site, www.usccb.org/nab/today.shtml. A daily video reflection in English and Spanish is also available at www.usccb.org/video/reflections.shtml.
• For guidance on the rosary, visit www.ewtn.com/Devotionals/prayers/rosary/how_to.htm.