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Lenten Prayers: Stay on Hold for God

Every Lent the Church invites [us] to the three traditional practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.–Fr. Michael Denk, Our Sunday Visitor,
4 January, 2013

Lent is like a long ‘retreat’ during which we can turn back into ourselves and listen to the voice of God, in order to defeat the temptations of the Evil One. It is a period of spiritual ‘combat’ which we must experience alongside Jesus, not with pride and presumption, but using the arms of faith: prayer, listening to the word of God and penance. — Pope Benedict XVI

Lenten Prayer

During Lent we are to engage in three activities: prayer, alms-giving and fasting. Some 23 years ago during my first Lent (as a catechumen), I thought, “well, this is easy: I know how to pray, the fasting isn’t as strict as Jewish fasting, and I’ll just give more than usual to our Church and our other charities.”

The fasting and alms-giving were ok, but I had it all wrong about prayer. My prayer then was bartering with God: I gave up things and practices–candy, biting my fingernails, watching some favorite TV shows (Frasier, Seinfeld)–in other words sacrificing, not a goat, but stuff I enjoyed,  hoping that this would please God.    In turn, I asked God to intervene in my life and that of my family, to straighten out errant children and to smooth my way in life, to make me better and more receptive to the faith, or as Psalm 143 would have it:

“Teach me to do thy will; for thou art my God: thy spirit is good; lead me into the land of uprightness.
Quicken me, O Lord, for thy name’s sake: for thy righteousness’ sake bring my soul out of trouble.”
—Psalm 143 (KJV)

As the years passed and I learned more about our Catholic faith, I realized that prayer was more than asking God for stuff; it had to be a two-way conversation. We must listen for God’s voice, “the still, small voice” that Elijah heard in the cave at Horeb.

How to Listen

What does listening for God’s voice require of us? Here are my thoughts, distilled from my own prayer experience and from what I have been taught and have read in the nine stages of prayer of St. Theresa of Avila.

First, we do not give God a shopping list of what we want Him to do. God gives us what we need, but not always what we want.

Second, when we enter into a conversation with God, we keep in mind that this is to be a two-way enterprise; we are to speak AND to listen; moreover, we are to be patient when put on hold for His response, even though there is no bumper music or hold message while we wait for His voice.

What St. Teresa of Avila Has to Say

I should add that “listening” is only one part of what we need to do to engage with our Lord in prayer, albeit a very important part. Let’s now see what St. Teresa of Avila has to say; her advice is still relevant even after almost 500 years.

St. Teresa is an authority on prayer; she is known as the “Doctor of Prayer”, the title given to her by Pope Paul VI. In her books, “The Life”, “The Way of Perfection” and “The Interior Castle”, she sets forth grades of prayer ranging from vocal prayer (what we start off with as initiates in the discipline) to the ultimate, mystical union with God. I’ll focus on two of these stages: both relate to being receptive to the presence of our Lord when we pray. For a more extended discussion, see this article by Jordan Auman, OP

The Prayer of Active Recollection

The “lower” of these two prayer stages is that of “active recollection,” which is the highest stage of active prayer. St. Theresa discusses this way of prayer in Chapters 28 and 29 of “The Way of Perfection.” Rather than giving an extended exposition (see the first link, above), I’ll give quotes that best explain this prayer.

“It is called the Prayer of Recollection because in it the soul collects, or gathers together , all her powers, and enters into her own interior with God.”—St. Teresa of Avila, “The Way of Perfection”, Ch. 28

In the Prayer of Active Recollection we are supposed to look within ourselves to encounter Christ, the Lord, our God. The Trinity is within us, and if we focus we can encounter our Trinitarian God in ourselves:

“…but, at the same time, I was admonished that though I had the Divinity within my soul, yet I myself was much more contained in Him than He in me. Thus, whilst I beheld, as it were, hidden within me the Three Divine Person, I saw that They, at the same time, communicated themselves to all created things, without ceasing for an instant to abide in me.” loc. cit.

St. Teresa gives detailed instructions in Section III, Chapter 28 (linked above) on how to enter into the Prayer of Active Recollection, which I’ll not repeat here. However, I will remark that they call to mind Fr. Bernard Groeschel’s directive on achieving meditative prayer: to imagine within ourselves a temple, with a Trinitarian triangle at the entrance: intellect, memory and will, representing our mind and soul as the Trinitarian God.

The Prayer of Recollection can be achieved by our own will, for, as St. Teresa says,

“for you must understand this this is not altogether a supernatural thing, but is quite within our own power, and we can do it whenever we choose; I mean, of course, with God’s help…” loc. cit.

The Prayer of Quiet

“Now, daughters, I still want to describe this Prayer of Quiet to you…It is in this kind of prayer, as I have said, that the Lord seems to me to begin to show us that He is hearing our petition: He begins to give us His Kingdom on earth so that we may truly praise Him and hallow His name and strive to make others do so likewise. ..This is a supernatural state, and, however hard we try, we cannot reach it for ourselves; [emphasis added] for it is a state in which the soul enters into peace, or rather in which the Lord gives it peace through His presence,” St. Teresa of Avila, “The Way of Perfection”, Chapter 31.

The Prayer of Quiet is the first of the contemplative stages of prayer described by St. Teresa. The soul is at peace and filled with joy and even though the intellect and memory might wander, they realize that there is only one thing on which to focus: loving God.

I should add that I have experienced this only once in my prayer life. After reading “The Way of Perfection,” I realized it might come again only by God’s grace, by letting myself go, to look at Him in my inner self. So this will be my goal during Lent: to pray silently; to look within myself for His presence; to be patient while God is on hold and I am waiting to hear His still, small voice.