I spent Saturday and Sunday listening to Father Datius Kanjiramukil, O.C.D. talk about techniques for personal prayer. This post, with quotes from some of my own reading, was inspired in part by some of the things he said. However, it is not a summary of his instruction and does not necessarily reflect his thinking. It contains my own thoughts influenced, in part, by his talks. For each point, I found something from one of the great classic writers, and something related to it from the Scripture. I added my own explanation afterward from what I had in mind.
The written prayers included here range from prayers in Scripture to the prayers of the saints that we may incorporate into our own prayer, liturgical prayer including morning and evening prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours, and simpler things like prayers on holy cards and prayers in simple books and even those found on various websites. What they have in common is that they all differ from the form of personal prayer in which we speak to God from our own hearts in our own words, and they all differ from that contemplative prayer in which we listen quietly to God, in His presence.
Here are those tips:
1. Written prayers can inspire personal meditation and prayer.
"If books, the lives of the saints, spiritual intercourse, bring us no peace it means that we are not surrendering ourselves to the duty of the present moment, and that we are stuffing our minds out of mere greed. . . .
"Divine action often brings to mystical books a meaning their authors never had. For God uses the words and actions of others to reveal truths which they never intended. This is the way God tells us his truths, and souls committed to him must take advantage of it. Every means of divine action is always more effective and surpasses human virtue in excellence."
- Jean-Pierre DeCaussade, The Sacrament of the Present Moment
"And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God." [Col. 3:15-16 RSV]
Scripture should inspire and guide our prayers. Beyond that, the words, songs and prayers of the saints and other Christians can teach and admonish us and encourage us in our worship and thankfulness. At times, God uses other people's words, as well as the Word of God in Scripture, to speak to us about our own lives in ways that the human writers could not have anticipated. We should not look to them only for what we can learn from them, but also for what God is doing in our lives through them. The written prayers that we find in Scripture, in the writings of the saints, in books, on prayer cards, and elsewhere can be a starting point for opening our hearts to God and for listening to God in personal prayer.
2. Written prayers can be a continuation of personal prayer.
"I have quitted all forms of prayer and devotion and set prayers but those to which my state obliges me. And I make it my business only to persevere in His holy presence, wherein I keep myself by a simple attention, and a general fond regard to God, which I may call an actual presence of God; or, to speak better, an habitual, silent, and secret conversation of the soul with God, which often causes me joys and raptures inwardly, and sometimes also outwardly, so great that I am forced to use means to moderate them and prevent their appearance to others. . . .
"As for my set hours of prayer, they are only a continuation of the same exercise. Sometimes I consider myself there as a stone before a carver, whereof he is to make a statue; presenting myself thus before God, I desire Him to form His perfect image in my soul, and make me entirely like Himself."
- Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, Second Letter, The Practice of the Presence of God
"And Cornelius said, "Four days ago, about this hour, I was keeping the ninth hour of prayer in my house; and behold, a man stood before me in bright apparel, saying, 'Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your alms have been remembered before God. Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon who is called Peter; he is lodging in the house of Simon, a tanner, by the seaside.' So I sent to you at once, and you have been kind enough to come. Now therefore we are all here present in the sight of God, to hear all that you have been commanded by the Lord." [Acts 10:30-33]
Praying morning and evening prayer, or other prayers from the liturgy of the hours, can be a part of personal prayer by placing ourselves in God's presence while reading. It can be the beginning of personal prayer, when our schedules allow time for continued prayer afterward. It can help to take our minds off of the many things going on in our lives and helping us to focus on one thing in prayer in conformity with a prayerful attitude. When someone is deep in prayer at the time for set written prayers, the set prayers such as evening prayer need not be viewed as an interruption. Instead, the set prayers can be a continuation of the same personal prayer as we let God continue to work in our lives through them.
3. Praying the written prayers of the liturgy can help in conforming our minds to the mind of Christ.
"[T]he layperson who practises contemplative prayer day by day can maintain a liturgical attitude and a spirit of genuine transcendence, in the very midst of the world. He will find this all the easier, the more aware he is of the close relationship between contemplation and liturgy. He may not be able to attend daily Mass. But he can make this particular part of the Christian liturgy come alive in his contemplation, according to the mind of the Church and as a genuine and integral element of it: he can share a spiritual communion with Christ, the Word of God. For spiritual communion is by no means merely an act of longing for the reception of the Lord under sacramental signs; much deeper, and more properly, it is the act of prayer of a living and understanding faith, by which it enters into living communication and communion with Christ, the eternal and living Truth. . . . it is a genuine encounter, in the word, with the whole Christ, insofar as contact with the word in the Church's liturgy gives access to the sacramental mystery (echoing the disciples' original communion with the Lord)."
- Hans Urs von Balthasar, Prayer
"Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect." [Romans 12:2 RSV]
It is important to be praying to the True God, and important that our hearts and minds become conformed to His will in unity with the Church. The prayers of the liturgy include doctrinal truth, showing us who God is and who we are in relationship to God. They can set our hearts and minds on the right path toward prayer in conformity with who we truly are as we look to God. Liturgy, including the Hours and Mass, cannot be all of our prayer, but it can give us the proper attitude for prayer while we live in a world that would otherwise move us toward a different, less proper attitude toward ourselves, God and those around us. By letting the written prayers of the liturgy conform our attitude to that of Christ and the Church, our personal prayer and contemplation can become more conformed to God's will for what our prayer should be.
4. Reading prayers written by others is not really praying unless we pray them from our own hearts.
"If a person does not think Whom he is addressing, and what he is asking for, and who it is that is asking and of Whom he is asking it, I do not consider that he is praying at all even though he be constantly moving his lips. True, it is sometimes possible to pray without paying heed to these things, but that is only because they have been thought about previously; if a man is in the habit of speaking to God's Majesty as he would speak to his slave, and never wonders if he is expressing himself properly, but merely utters the words that come to his lips because he has learned them by heart through constant repetition, I do not call that prayer at all -- and God grant no Christian may ever speak to Him so!"
- St. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle
"And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him." [Matt. 6:7-8]
It is important to think about the meaning of each thing prayed, within our own hearts and applied to our own lives, rather than just repeating words from familiarity, as empty phrases. The words of the liturgy have meaning not just in saying the same words, but in meaning what we say when we say them.
5. Pray as yourself, and not as the person who wrote the prayer.
"You simply have to begin wherever you find yourself. Make any acts you want to make and feel you ought to make; but do not force yourself into feelings of any kind. . . .
"Yes, you can't go back, -- but you are going on, if you learn to accept exactly the prayer God gives you here and now. It is quite right to wish for higher union with God, and to envy those who have attained it; -- but here and now, I must wish for exactly the state God wishes me to be in, whether it means distractions, or discouragements, or sleepiness, or merely emptiness. Nothing matters but God's Will; and we do not want simply God's Will, if we are really dissatisfied with what we get from Him."
- Abbot John Chapman, Spiritual Letters
"And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you." [Matt. 6:5-6]
When it seems that a prayer was written by someone whose prayer life or spiritual life was better than ours, or a prayer was written by a saint, it is important still to pray as ourselves, with all our own warts and blemishes. Even praying words written by a saint, we need to take our own selves to God in prayer, accepting our inadequacies as God's will, and seeking His grace to become the people He wants us to be, rather than pretending to be the people we wish we were. Rather than becoming discouraged by our inadequacies, we need to accept them as God's will for us today, praying from our own hearts as we are today.
6. When praying or singing with others, keep in mind that each person prays a little bit differently.
"The attitude of prayer is the same for all, but there are many kinds of prayer and many different prayers. Some talk and deal with God as with a friend and master, lifting their praises and their requests to Him not for themselves but for others. Some look for greater spiritual treasures and glory and for greater assurance in their prayers. Some beg to be freed entirely from their adversary. Some look for rank and others for relief from all their debts. Some seek freedom from gaol or for charges against them to be dropped."
- St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent
"To say that the soul receives God means rather that it opens itself and gives itself freely to him to bring about a union that is possible only between spiritual persons. It is a union of love: God is love, and the participation in divine being which is granted in this union must be a participation in divine love [ein Mitlieben].
"God is the plenitude of love. Created spirits, however, are incapable of receiving into themselves and of sharing to the fullest extent the total plenitude of divine love. Their share in divine love is rather determined by the measure of their being, and this implies not only a 'so much' [Soviel], but also a 'thus' [So]. In other words, love always bears the stamp of personal individuality. And this explains in turn why God may have chosen to create for himself a special abode in each human soul, so that the plenitude of divine love might find in the manifold of differently constituted souls a wider range for its self-communication."
- St. Edith Stein, Finite and Eternal Being
"So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any incentive of love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men." [Phil. 2:1-7 RSV]
In praying liturgical prayers together with other people, we should keep in mind that others pray differently from us and that there are many ways to pray just as there are many pray-ers. What is best for one may not be best for another. Another person's gestures in prayer or ways of saying the words of the prayer may differ from ours. While the differences may be distracting, it is important to exercise humility, counting others better than ourselves rather than thinking that our own way is better. "Love always bears the stamp of personal individuality": each person's expression of love for God is a little bit different from each other person's expression. Each one of us in some manner is an expression of the fullness of God's love for us.
7. Praying the written prayers of saints who prayed, and studying their lives, can help us to learn to pray.
"Some souls also imagine that they cannot dwell upon the Passion, in which case they will be able still less to meditate upon the most sacred Virgin and the lives of the saints, the remembrance of whom brings us such great profit and encouragement. I cannot conceive what they are thinking of; for, though angelic spirits, freed from everything corporeal, may remain permanently enkindled in love, this is not possible for those of us who live in this mortal body. We need to cultivate, and think upon, and seek the companionship of those who, though living on earth like ourselves, have accomplished such great deeds for God; the last thing we should do is to withdraw of set purpose from our greatest help and blessing, which is the most sacred Humanity of Our Lord Jesus Christ."
- St. Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle
"And in the morning, a great while before day, he rose and went out to a lonely place, and there he prayed." [Mark 1:35 RSV]
Being human, we need human role models and examples to help us learn to pray. The greatest of these is Jesus, and His prayers given to us in Scripture. However, although we know that He spent time away in deserted places praying, sometimes for long hours, we know only a little of what He prayed. It is good to have the prayers of the saints who have been His friends through the centuries of the Church, to learn from how they prayed, and to imitate the examples of those people who, before us, learned to pray well.
8. Knowing God and doing His will are more important than both reading and contemplation.
"Humility is a grace in the soul and with a name known only to those who have had experience of it. It is indescribable wealth, a name and a gift from God. 'Learn from Me,' He said; that is, not from an angel, not from a man, not from a book, but 'from Me,' that is, from My dwelling within you, from My illumination and action within you, for 'I am gentle and meek of heart ' (Matt. 11:29) in thought and in spirit, and your souls will find rest from conflicts and relief from evil thoughts."
- St. John Climacus, The Ladder of Divine Ascent
"So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God." [I Cor. 10:31 RSV]
Knowing God well through prayer and obedience, in whatever state of life He gives us, is more important than both the extent of our theological reading and the depth of our contemplation.
9. Do not judge a prayer based only on the intellectual level of the one who wrote it.
"Charity and not eloquence is to be sought in Holy Scripture, and it should be read in the same spirit with which it was first made. We ought also to seek in Holy Scripture spiritual profit rather than elegance of style, and to read simple and devout books as gladly as books of high learning and wisdom. Do not let the authority of the author irk you, whether he be of great learning or little, but let the love of every pure truth stir you to read. Ask not: Who said this; but heed well what is said. Men pass lightly away, but the truth of God endures forever."
Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ
"Let no one deceive himself. If any one among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, "He catches the wise in their craftiness," and again, "The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile." [I Cor. 3:18-20 RSV]
Rather than be critical of what someone else is reading that may be less sophisticated than what you would like to read, consider that someone less sophisticated may be equally loving toward God. Instead of being critical of a prayer that someone else uses regularly because it is simple, consider that the person who uses it may be drawn equally close to God in prayer as people who are drawn to something more sophisticated. What reflects the heart of a more intellectually sophisticated person may not reflect another person's heart. Similarly, we should not too quickly reject a book or devotional practice for lack of sophistication. We, and that other person, may find spiritual profit in simplicity.
10. Care less about how many pages you read than about reading what you read reflectively.
"Those who possess the spirit of true prayer will have the Book of Life, that is, the life of Jesus Christ, God and man, set before them, and everything they could want, they will find there. Thus they will be filled with its blessed teaching -- which does not puff anyone up -- and will find there every doctrine they and others need. Hence if you wish to be superenlightened and taught, read the Book of Life. If you do not simply skim through it but rather let it penetrate you while reading it, you will be taught everything needed for yourself and for others, no matter what your state of life. Also, if you read it carefully and not casually, you will be so inflamed by divine fire that you will accept every tribulation as the greatest consolation. . . . Divine wisdom likewise teaches that when possible the hours should be said with the mind in a state of quiet and, as is fitting, with the body attentive and in a recollected state."
- Bl. Angela of Foligno, The Book of the Blessed Angela (Instructions)
"So Philip ran to him, and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?" And he said, "How can I, unless some one guides me?" And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. Now the passage of the scripture which he was reading was this: "As a sheep led to the slaughter or a lamb before its shearer is dumb, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken up from the earth." And the eunuch said to Philip, "About whom, pray, does the prophet say this, about himself or about some one else?" Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this scripture he told him the good news of Jesus." [Acts 8:30-35]
At the time when the Scriptures were written, the normal way of reading was to read aloud. Thus, Philip (in Acts 8:30-35) heard the Ethiopian Eunuch reading the prophet Isaiah. Scripture was written with the expectation that it would be read aloud, thus with the expectation that it would be read slowly and reflectively. The same is true of much spiritual writing through the centuries. In recent decades, an emphasis on speed reading has led people to think more highly of themselves if they read quickly. It has also led to the expectation that a person should be able to absorb as much from what they are reading if they read it very quickly as they would if they read it slowly and meditate over it. In that mentality, many books nowadays are written with the expectation that they will be speed read. They are written in such a way that someone can take pride in having read very quickly while still absorbing the material. When approaching devotional material, it is essential to read it from the older way of thinking about the written word, especially when reading Scripture. Those writings were not meant to be speed read. If you spend a day on one verse or one chapter, there is nothing wrong with that.