Prayer has never been more popular these days.
Prayer has its own institute, its own day, its own Facebook page and its own TV channel. Prayer is taught in divinity schools and kindergarten religion class. Prayer is big business, returning 303 million web sites with a single search many touting countless books, CDs and DVDs.
Yet, 3,300 unborn children still die daily in U.S. abortion clinics, and 40 million Americans go to bed hungry. The FBI reports a person is murdered every 36 minutes. Half of all marriages still end in divorce. Fifty-two out of 1,000 teenage girls are unwed mothers.
Clearly, the necessity of prayer still abounds, but authentic prayer defies narrow definition. Equally problematic is pointing to one “right” way of praying.
During this Lenten season and Year of Faith, Arkansas Catholic asks local parishioners about their prayer habits and discusses new ways to enrich one’s prayer life.
Improving one’s praying, said Abbot Jerome Kodell, OSB, of Subiaco Abbey, isn’t so much about the prayer as the “pray-er.”
“People tend to complicate prayer,” said Abbot Kodell, who has written and spoken extensively on prayer and Scripture. “A lot of it has to do with so many prayers that ask for something. When we don’t get what we ask for, we get frustrated that God isn’t hearing us.”
Abbot Kodell said praying authentically is to desire, above all, to put oneself in the presence of God with the goal of a better and more fully realized relationship. Approached in this way, compared to presenting a “grocery list” of requests, prayer never disappoints.
“When the intention is to simply be present with God, then prayer is very easy,” he said. “In fact, your prayer is always answered because just by praying, you are living in his presence.
“Someone once asked Mother Teresa what she prayed about and she replied, ‘I just listen.’ Then they asked what God said and she replied, ‘He just listens.’”
Such subtle interplay is a hard sell in a culture that demands quick results. However, it is the difference between the flush of infatuation and the nuanced ripening of mature love, said Sister Bernadette Dixon, OCD, of the Carmelite Monastery in Little Rock.
“A life of faith is a love story,” she said. “Prayer is the relationship, not the words.”
For the Carmelites, the highest expression of this love affair is offering up the petitions of others. Every day, requests arrive by letter, e-mail and phone call, petitions which the sisters offer during prayer services throughout the day. Praying for another member of God’s family emulates the omnipotent reservoir of love Christ has for every one of us.
“In the mystical body I belong to everybody and they to me,” she said. “No one is a stranger. If a toe is hurting the whole body is sympathetic. When I offer a petition for another, I get closer to God. The closer we get to God, the holier we become and the better it is for everybody.”
Jonathan Shell, a member of Blessed Sacrament Church in Jonesboro, also subscribes to the interconnectedness of humanity through prayer. He forges that circle with every rosary he creates, hundreds by his count over the past four years, which he gives to youth groups or anyone who looks like they could use it.
“For me, praying the rosary is like embracing your mother,” said Shell, 24. “I always have a rosary with me and when I pray it, I feel like I’m holding her hand. It’s very comforting.”
Giving something away that strikes such a profound spiritual chord is a ministry, he said, rooted in the belief that an increase in devotion to this, the most Catholic of prayers, has the capacity to change lives.
“If someone has not said a rosary in a while, I would invite them to,” he said. “You don’t have to pray the whole thing, just say one decade on a five-minute break and then another decade later. By the end of the day, you will have said the whole thing.”
Twice a day, George Sanders, who is scheduled to be ordained a priest this year, prays the Litany of the Hours. It’s not the only time of day he talks to God, for, as he says, “Our lives should be filled with song and rejoicing.” Still, morning and evening prayers hold particular significance.
“The Litany of the Hours is the whole Church in prayer,” he said. “It’s the connection of common thoughts and desires of the lay and priestly religious all coming together as the basis of the Church.”
The Liturgy calls for prayer at seven different intervals during the day, including morning, three periods during the day, evening and night as well as the Office of Reading, which can be prayed anytime. Deacons are required to pray two of the Liturgy of the Hours a day and priests five of the seven hours.
While the Liturgy of the Hours can be intimidating to beginners, Sanders said online resources, smartphone apps and other technology have made it easier to keep everything straight. While many see it as something reserved for the ordained, the prayer is open to all.
“There’s a great dynamism that comes with praying the Liturgy of the Hours in community. The interplay of voices gives it a great connectedness and energy,” Sanders said. “It’s not a substantial investment of time, but it forces one to carve time out of their day to pray.”
Time is only one consideration of authentic prayer. The ability to immerse oneself into a connection with the divine is another. Contemplative orders provide us with some of the techniques that help make this possible, including the Lectio Divina and centering prayer.
“Lectio Divina is Latin for ‘holy reading,’ but I think it’s more accurately considered ‘holy seeing,’” Abbot Kodell said. “Reading is intellectual, and through Lectio Divina we seek to take in the word that is bigger than the text. It’s using the eyes of faith to see God’s presence.”
In Lectio Divina, Scripture acts as a bridge to deeper internal reflection and connectedness with God. A brief reading of one’s choice initiates a quiet session that follows generally into reflection on God’s word, responding to his presence in a prayerful state and rest, which is the art of letting go of all thoughts — holy or secular — and simply existing in a state of readiness to receive the voice of God.
Centering prayer is about maintaining what is the “rest” phase of Lectio Divina: the total letting go of one’s self in order to embrace God as tangibly as if he were sitting in the next chair. Anne Thomisee, director of religious education at Our Lady of the Holy Souls Church in Little Rock, has been practicing centering prayer for 30 years.
“At the heart of it is openness,” she said. “It’s putting yourself in God’s hands knowing he will lead you where he wants you.”
While the benefits are many, centering prayer is challenging, she said, especially to filter out the many sensory distractions of a hyper-stimulated world. People get frustrated when they get impatient, trying to wedge God into their schedules instead of making time to meet him on his.
“One of the things that always gets in the way is our human ego,” said Thomisee, whose daily prayer sessions last about an hour and 15 minutes. “Centering prayer forces us to give up our self and to look at God. We have to give up our agendas, in favor of openness and listening. That’s hard work.”
There are many resources for Lectio Divina and centering prayer, but practitioners say a given technique will not work for everybody. This is because at the heart of contemplative prayer is the concept of spiritual intimacy, that unique conversation between a person and God.
“That’s the only thing that matters anyway,” Abbot Kodell said. “If you’re really serious to know God, be open. God is eager to know you.”
This year, Our Lady of Fatima Church in Benton will mark the 13th anniversary of its perpetual adoration chapel. Parishioners have filled every hour of those 13 years, not counting when Mass is celebrated. Some adorers have held the same one-hour time slot the entire time. But even those who are new to the prayer ministry feel the awesomeness of Christ’s presence.
“It’s like I tell people, you can’t walk around in the rain and not get wet,” said parishioner Taffy Council, a lay member of the Missionaries of the Most Holy Eucharist. “You can’t be in the presence of Jesus and not be changed, either.”
Adorers read Scripture, recite prayers or just sit quietly, as if keeping an old friend company while reflecting on the love that has passed between them. Council said the silence is at once instructive, comforting and overwhelming.
“Scripture takes on a deeper significance. It is ‘real time’ word of God,” Council said. “The grace from adoration helps me be more aware of his way, not mine as I go through my days.
“The difference between the early days and now, for me, is Jesus is still the same, I am the one who is different.”
Where adorers find renewal in the stillness of the chapel, charismatic worshipers’ hearts spark with the graces of the Holy Spirit. The Catholic Charismatic Renewal began in the late 1960s and has steadily gained in popularity.
Services are lively with vibrant music and spontaneous affirmation that contrasts sharply with the solemnity of a typical Mass. This doesn’t mean a charismatic worshiper is not Catholic, one who seeks to discern God’s will and place it front and center in their lives.
“Charismatic Catholics want to make vital the role of the Holy Spirit in their lives,” said Dr. Dennis Holt, a member of St. Paul Church in Pocahontas. “We want to avail ourselves to the truth, that is God’s voice. It’s not a sitting and asking to hear God’s voice, but through contemplative and meditative prayer, we strive to listen to what he has to say.”
Prayer is the portal through which God makes his will known to each individual worshiper. When that message comes, it often brings charismata (gifts) of prophecy, healing, speaking in tongues and interpretation of tongues.
Holt, who has been involved with the charismatic movement for 30 years, said hearing the word of God is just the start of the believer’s challenge. Following through on the instructions is where the work begins.
“The challenge we all face is the worldy versus the Godly,” he said. “It’s easy to say ‘I believe.’ Well, OK, act on what you believe. Then it becomes a struggle of the flesh. But Jesus was in this world, he was not of it and we are not of ourselves but of God.”
Mary Mauppin has always held a soft spot for daily Mass. Four mornings a week, the St. Edward Church parishioner splits her weekdays between her home church and the nearby Cathedral of St. Andrew in Little Rock.
“I do not take the time to get on my knees during the week, I just don’t,” she said. “But I do pray a lot, while I’m dusting or whatever I’m doing. Daily Mass, though, puts me on my knees.”
Msgr. Lawrence Frederick, rector of Catholic High School in Little Rock, has led daily Mass there and at nearby Mount St. Mary Academy two mornings a week for decades. He said the impact of a daily Mass, while different from that of Sunday Mass, is no less profound.
“Daily Mass provides that extra special little umph to get us through our day,’ he said. “Daily Mass is a speedbump in our week. It’s a way to slow everybody down, stop and take a breath and think about their relationship with God.”
Msgr. Frederick said daily Mass is also a reminder of how accessible God is and that the more God gets into the everyday, the better we know him, provided we give him that chance. Mauppin agreed, saying the intimacy of daily Mass was what brought her through personal tragedy.
“Three weeks ago I lost my son to terminal illness,” she said. “He was bedridden for a long time and we’d watch daily Mass on EWTN. That became our Mass, our chapel, even. It wasn’t a TV screen, it was our personal time with God.
“So many of us go to Mass out of duty and not because we think of it as a special time,” she said. “I would not have had the strength to get through that experience without the prayers and graces I received there.”
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