Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to retire from the papacy and "go up the mountain" to pray is a reminder to the faithful of just how essential prayer is to modern life. And Pope Francis prayed at St. Mary Major on his first full day as pontiff. He has shown his dedication to prayer and encouraged us to pray as well.
According to the Catholic contemplative tradition, the most fruitful kind of prayer is that which receives abundantly from God in silence. Being in the presence of God means total surrender and openness to the One who is the source of all that we have and are.
Prayer Is Difficult
Prayer takes struggle, effort, time, humility and courage. In her autobiography, St. Teresa of Avila described how — for years — she struggled when she went to the chapel to pray: "I was more anxious that the hour I had determined to spend in prayer be over than I was to remain there. … I had to muster up all my courage … in order to force myself; and in the end, the Lord helped me." Her experience resonates with anyone who has struggled to meditate and pray for any length of time and reminds us that as long as we are willing to take up the cross of prayer, Jesus is there to help us along the way.
Blessed Mother Teresa, who spent the better part of her life experiencing her own woundedness and separateness from God, can teach us a great deal about silent prayer. She provided for a daily hour of Eucharistic adoration in the rule for her sisters. She bluntly told them: "There is no life of prayer without silence."
Silence requires being alone with God, Blessed Mother Teresa said, "not with our books, thoughts and memories, but completely stripped of everything, to dwell lovingly in his presence — silent, empty, expectant and motionless." Perhaps her feelings of abandonment led her to a deep awareness of the power of silent prayer. She would simply sit quietly before the Eucharistic Lord, listening and waiting for his response, unable to feel his presence other than through her deep interior suffering, which she united to his cross. "When we have nothing to give," she said, "let us give him that nothingness."
Catholic Ways to Pray
The ultimate prayer, of course, is the Eucharistic sacrifice. We can pray silently before, during and after Mass. The tradition of offering a prayer of thanksgiving afterwards is certainly a not-to-be-missed opportunity to quietly dwell in the loving embrace of Jesus, whose body we have just received.
Some Catholics practice the "Jesus" prayer, which involves quietly repeating the name of Jesus over and over in one’s mind. One may also use the words, "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me, a sinner," or "Jesus, I adore you" or "Jesus, save me." The essential quality to this prayer is that it be Christ-focused. Repeating this phrase slowly, allowing for periods of silence in between, can be a beautiful and simple way of prayer, especially in the Eucharistic presence of Jesus. Distracting thoughts are ignored by simply saying the words again or looking at the Host.
Lectio divina, or divine reading, is a great Benedictine spiritual tradition. Broken down into several steps, this practice involves reading a short Scripture passage, such as the Gospel of the day. Reading the passage very slowly, word by word, helps to quiet the mind and focus one’s thoughts. While reading the passage slowly a second time, one listens for a word or phrase that captures one’s attention. Then, one quietly asks God to reveal what this word means for him or her personally. Remaining in silence to hear his answer, repeat the word or phrase, especially when distracting thoughts enter.
The Ignatian practice called the Examen helps to place our emotional life in the light of God’s presence. St. Ignatius of Loyola recommended the Examen as an essential prayer, especially for those who have little time for prayer. The principle behind the practice is that God can speak to us through our emotions. The Examen begins by putting ourselves in God’s presence and asking for his light. Offering a prayer of thanksgiving is the next step. Then, we think about and remember our emotions of the day. The purpose is to recall the emotion, not analyze it or the event that triggered it. We choose one emotion to feel again in God’s presence, offer up to God that specific feeling or feelings, and then listen in silence. The last step is to ask God what to do with what we have learned.
Even vocal prayers like the Rosary are designed to lead to meditative silence on the life of Jesus. Still, it can be said hastily and without reflection. Praying each Hail Mary and Our Father slowly and with intention, while actively thinking about Christ’s life, is the way to delve more deeply into this ancient prayer. Again, praying the Rosary in the presence of Jesus at adoration can help nurture that silent awareness.
To begin, we must take that first step in prayer toward our heavenly Father, trusting that he will rush to meet us with a loving embrace. Persevering in the life of prayer, we may eventually grasp what Blessed Mother Teresa meant when she said: "Prayer enlarges the heart until it is capable of containing God’s gift of himself."
Janneke Pieters is a graduate of The Catholic University of America
and has a master’s degree in theology from Christendom’s Notre Dame Graduate School.
She writes from New Orleans.