Brian Chalker once wrote that “People come into your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime.” Chalker is reminding us that certain people we encounter will only be with us for a moment, some will become friends with us for a limited period, while still others can become life-long long friends. When I think of those who’ve become friends, our relationship usually started because we had something in common or we were asked to work together on some project. However that friendship began, over time and shared experience, we were able to learn things about the other, share life together, and ultimately to grow into a much closer friendship. Our friendship progressed over time.
Prayer works the same way. It is a decision to learn about God, to share our lives with Him, and to grow into a deep friendship with Him: “every Christian life story is also a story of prayer, one long attempt to achieve ever greater union with God” (YouCat 510). Much like human friendships, our relationship with God progresses over time. The difference is that God doesn’t show up only for a season and doesn’t take an interest in us just because we have something in common. God yearns for intimacy with us. It has been said that when Jesus cried out “I thirst” from the cross (John 19:28), he wasn’t thirsting for water or juice or milk, but rather for souls – our souls. For this reason, the Missionaries of Charity (Mother Teresa’s sisters) post two words beside the crucifixes in their chapels: I thirst. This is there to remind them of their vow to try and satiate Christ’s thirst through prayer and the service which flows from that prayer.
For those who enter the religious life, prayer is not only written into their rule – they are expected to pray for X hours each day – it is also scheduled into their day in the same way a lunch break might be scheduled into your workday. For those of us who do not have a religious vocation, we need to carve moments of prayer out of our busy lives, and there are a couple good places to start:
“From the earliest times Christians have prayed at least in the morning, at meals, and in the evening. Someone who does not pray regularly will soon not pray at all.” -YouCat 499
YouCat describes three different ways to pray: vocal prayer, meditation, and contemplation. Each of these ways builds upon the previous one as we grow towards friendship and intimacy with God. The first way is vocal prayer: when we pray, “we should express what is in our hearts and offer it to God as complaint, petition, praise, and thanks“ (YouCat 501). A vocal prayer is one that is spoken aloud, spoken in the silence of our hearts, written down, and even sung. For this reason, we have a treasury of wrote prayers like the ‘Our Father,’ the ‘Hail Mary,’ and the Rosary, as well as a great treasury of music – things like chant, taize, and praise and worship. I often find that music gives us words to begin our conversation with God. One thing that I came to understand while I was learning praise and worship is that the music ought to lead to silence.
It is in silence that we discover the second way of prayer, meditation: “In meditation, a Christian seeks silence so as to experience intimacy with God and to find peace in his presence. He hopes for the sensible experience of his presence, which is an undeserved gift of grace; he does not expect it, however, as the product of a particular technique of meditation” (YouCat 504). We begin by speaking to God, then we listen for Him. At times, He will speak. He may speak in the silence of our hearts, or audibly, or in some other unexpected way – but the point for us is to be available should He decide to speak. When I think of St. Joseph, one of the things I admire the most about Him is his ability to listen to God’s promptings. Joseph did what God wanted him to do (took Mary as his wife) and went where God wanted him to go (fleeing to Egypt and then returning when it was safe.) This was only possible because Joseph developed a discipline of prayer; he, too, was opened to God, and allowed God’s promptings to direct His life.
It’s in that state of listening that we might reach the third way of prayer: contemplation. Contemplative Prayer “is love, silence, listening, and being in the presence of God” (YouCat 503). This third way of prayer is a gift from God and is joy at being in His presence. It’s very much like the experience of a couple in love who get lost in one another’s eyes, or of an infant child looking in awe at his or her mother. One pilgrim explained to St. John Vianney that for him prayer was quite simple: “I look at him, and he looks at me.” This is a beautiful description of contemplative prayer.
To walk this way of prayer, from vocal prayer, to meditation, to contemplative prayer is not only a lifelong journey, but also a battle. This battle takes on the traditional enemies of humanity – ourselves, the world, and the Devil: “Often someone who wants to pray must first conquer his lack of will power… the spirit of the times sees no point in praying, and our full calendars leave no room for it. Then there is the battle against the tempter, who will try to keep a person from devoting himself to God” (YouCat 505). Prayer asks something of us – it makes us uncomfortable. But we need to embrace that discomfort, remembering that Jesus said, “In the world you will have trouble, but take courage, I have conquered the world” (John 16:33). Yes, there is a very real enemy out there who is trying to stop us from getting closer to God, but as we progress through the different ways of prayer, we can have confidence we will find in Him a lifelong friend:
“Prayer does not seek superficial success but rather the will of God and intimacy with him. God’s apparent silence is itself an invitation to take a step farther – in total devotion, boundless faith, endless expectation. Anyone who prays must allow God the freedom to speak whenever he wants, to grant whatever he wants, and to give himself however he wants.” -YouCat 507
-Mike Landry is Catholic Youth Camps director for the Archdiocese of Edmonton. He is also chaplain for Evergreen Catholic Schools, serving 10 schools west of Edmonton. Mike and his wife Jennifer live in Stony Plain with their five children.