Sunday, July 8, 2012

Strategies for Prayer -- A Series of Helps

A Word of Introduction

“Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1).

Thereupon the Lord Jesus gave His disciples – and all the Church – the model prayer known as the “Our Father,” or “The Lord’s Prayer” (Matthew 6 contains the fuller version). And for most of my Christian life, I spent about as much time in prayer is it takes to say those few verses. Yet, I knew intuitively there was more to prayer than my experience to that point.

Prayer, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2725) tells us, is both a gift of grace and a determined response on our part. It always presupposes effort. The great figures of prayer . . . all teach us this: prayer is a battle. Against whom? Against ourselves and against the wiles of the tempter who does all he can to turn man away from prayer, away from union with God. . . . . The "spiritual battle" of the Christian's new life is inseparable from the battle of prayer. (The Catechism teaches some very valuable lessons about prayer. I urge you to look through paragraphs 2725-2745. It shouldn’t take more than a few minutes).

I’d always known prayer was a battle. And that it required effort. Sometimes a lot of effort. But I was mostly unaware of the various tools – let’s call them weapons – available to the Christian, weapons ensuring victory in the battle. Weapons to transform effort to ease.

This, and in the next eleven essays, I will share my prayer strategies that help keep me focused when my mind starts to drift, and energized when boredom begins to settle in. My strategies are not new. Christians throughout history have successfully used tools like these in their own prayer battles. But they were new for me. Some may be new for you.

Strategy One: The Prayer List.

During the last forty years I have used ‘to-do’ lists for just about everything. Everything, that is, except prayer. I don’t know why it took so long for me to figure out I needed a list to help me remember to pray for people or particular needs. But not long after I began the list, it had grown to the point of being unwieldy. I needed to make it more manageable. And I thought of a calendar.

I divided my list into nine columns. I labeled the first, “Daily” and the succeeding seven Monday, Tuesday, and so forth. I labeled the ninth column “Others.”

In the Daily column I write the names of people I commit myself to pray for every day – for example, family members, pastors and others. Into the columns labeled by the days of the week I place people, such as friends and their families, various politicians and those in Church leadership, people I work with, and students in my classes. Sometimes I put specific people into more than one weekday column so I remember to pray for them more often during the week. In the last column (column nine) I add people as they come to my attention during the week, either when the Holy Spirit drops their name into my heart, or the person asks me for prayer. Those names often get added to either my daily list, or a weekday list, depending on the need.

In review, each day I pray through my “Daily” column, a weekday column, and the “Other” column. Depending on the needs of those for whom I pray, I spend 15 to 30 minutes remembering them before the Lord. At that point, I either conclude my prayer time with the Lord, or I add one of the other strategies cited in later essays to continue my prayer time.

Strategy Two -- Acrostics

In addressing the battle of prayer, the Church offers another bit of advice: Finally, our battle has to confront what we experience as failure in prayer: discouragement during periods of dryness . . . disappointment over not being heard according to our own will; wounded pride . . . . The conclusion is always the same: what good does it do to pray? To overcome these obstacles, we must battle to gain humility, trust, and perseverance (Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 2728).

I do not typically employ only one strategy during my time with the Lord. I often mix and match two or three. Strategy One dealt with prayer lists. Strategy Two uses acrostics to keep me centered on prayer. In this essay I talk about one of the acrostics I call: CROSS.

C— I meditate on the Crucifix on the wall in front of me and I let my imagination wander to what Christ’s Crucifixion might have been like for Him. What did the cross accomplish for me? How did my sins cause His agony and death? My thoughts often take me to Gethsemane, the courtyard where He was whipped, the road to Golgotha, the soldiers hammering the spikes into His flesh. Sometimes I can even hear Him cry out in pain.

R— Then I meditate on the Resurrection. What might it have been like for the women to arrive at the tomb, only to find it empty? How does that empty tomb validate God’s promise of redemption, salvation, forgiveness and the offer of eternal life? What promise does His resurrection hold for me when I die? What might it be like when I am resurrected on that last day, and I stand before Him who died and rose again for . . . for me?

O— After the Crucifixion and Resurrection, I meditate on the “Our Father” (the Lord’s Prayer—Matthew 6). Instead of simply reciting the prayer, I pause at each verse, sometimes each word. For example, what does “Our Father” really mean in context with the whole Church? Who are my Christian brothers and sisters? Sometimes my thoughts take me across the world to places such as Sudan, Saudi Arabia and Iran where Christians are, at that very moment, persecuted, tortured, imprisoned for no other reason than their faith in Christ. My prayer continues to “Hallowed be thy name.” Have I forgotten the holiness of God? Do I misuse His name by how I act toward others? Do I live in such as way as to give unbelievers reason to sneer at His name? And so I move through the rest of the prayer in similar fashion. As you might imagine, meditating word by word and sentence by sentence through this prayer can take quite some time.

S— the first S is for Supplication. At this point, I begin my prayer for others . . . family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, politicians, students in my classes – whomever the Holy Spirit brings to mind and who might not yet be on my prayer list.

S— the second S is for Sacrifice. Now I offer myself as a living sacrifice to God. Using a prayer of St. Ignatius of Loyola, I ask Him to take my memory, my freedom, will, understanding, health, wealth, talents -- everything I have and cherish -- and to use them for His Kingdom.

Like prayer lists, acrostic prayers like this one help me maintain focus on the battle. Perhaps this strategy will also be useful to you. I’ll talk about the other strategies I use in later essays below.

Strategy Three -- Alphabet Prayer 

Another strategy I use from time to time is what I call the spontaneous alphabet prayer, because the 26 letters of the English alphabet form its basis. For example, using the sequential letters ‑ A, B, C, D and so on, my ‘made up’ prayer might sound like this:

A: All heaven declares Your glory. And so, O Lord, I proclaim it as well. There is none like you ‑ in holiness, righteousness and compassion. With all the saints around your throne, I bow in worship and adoration.

B: Before time, you are God. And after time, you are God. And in time, in my time, you are God. Where can I go that you are not? Day and night, east and west, to the furthest horizon or the lowest ocean depths, you are there. And that comforts me.

C: Come, Holy Spirit, I need you. Woo me back to Calvary where the Savior suffered and died for me. Capture my heart, mind, soul and spirit. Protect me from turning aside to worthless treasures. Keep the eyes of my heart focused on Jesus, the author of life and the source of faith.

While I pray I don't pay attention to grammar, nor do I worry if I repeat myself. God is not grading my prayers according to the rules of English. Like a parent loves to hear his toddler speak, our heavenly Father is pleased to hear us speak to Him.

Each prayer does not always begin with the letter for that section. However, at least one word in each section will begin with the appropriate letter. For example:
D: Father, Don't ever cast me from thy presence. Don't take thy Holy Spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of Thy salvation and renew a steadfast spirit within me.

E: You have given me Eternal life because you enabled me to believe that Jesus bore my sins in His most holy Body, that He became sin for us, that we ‑ in Him ‑‑ might become Your righteousness.

And so I continue through the rest of the alphabet.

The letter X poses a minor problem because not many English words begin with it. But this problem is easily circumvented. For "X" I use the letter's sound ("ex")" as the basis for the prominent word in that section. For example, "O Lord, how EXcellent is thy name in all the earth." Sometimes I modify a Scripture, such as the first verse in Psalm 127, which reads, "Unless the Lord builds the house they labor in vain who build it." I adjust the prayer, "EXcept the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it." Or Psalm 139, verse 23: "Search me, O God, and know my heart," I modify to, "EXamine my heart, O God."

Z is more difficult, but still workable. For example, "Lord, as your servant Zaccheus climbed the tree to catch a glimpse of you, make me willing to go out on a limb, risk the disapproval of others, risk reputation and fortune, just so I might see you."

Because so many words begin with (or sound like) the various alphabet letters, my prayer changes nearly every time I use the format. Let me give you another few examples of A through E:

"Lord, you command me to Abide in You and to let your words abide in me. Help me to abide. Help me in my unbelief and weariness to keep my heart focused on you. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God. Lord, bring peace to my heart so I might work for peace in our world. Comfort me, Lord Jesus. Unless you are my comforter and counselor I cannot know the peace that passes understanding. Help me Die to myself and live more fully devoted to You who are from Everlasting to everlasting . . . .

Praying through the alphabet is a useful tool to help me "pray without ceasing." I've used the alphabet pattern during my twenty‑five minute commute to and from work. I've prayed the letters during my morning time with Jesus. Sometimes I am unable to get through all 26 letters because I have to give my attention to daily chores, but finishing the alphabet is not the point. Drawing closer to Christ, is. And I am discovering through each letter, each word and each syllable, I draw closer to the One who died so we might live.

Strategy Four -- Scripted (canned) Prayer 

Scripted prayer. I used to think that was an oxymoron, that scripted or "canned" prayers, like those in prayer books, are less meaningful (read: less spiritual) than spontaneous ones.

How foolish of me. Men and women of God have prayed scripted prayers – such as the Psalms – for millennia. But what of those offered to God by spiritual giants such as St. Augustine, St. Francis of Assisi, John Wesley and A. W. Tozer? For example, when offered from the heart, doesn't Tozer's prayer carry a sweet savor to the Father? I think so:

Lord, I have heard a good word inviting me to look away to You and
be satisfied. My heart longs to respond, but sin has clouded my vision till I see You but dimly. Be pleased to cleanse me in Your own precious blood, and make me inwardly pure, so that I may with unveiled eyes gaze upon You all the days of my earthly pilgrimage.

Or this one by
John Wesley:

I am no longer my own, but Yours. Put me to what You will, rank me
with whom You will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for You or laid aside for You, exalted for You or brought low for You; let me be full, let me be empty; let me have all things, let me have nothing; I freely and heartily yield all things to Your pleasure and disposal.

Or St. Augustine:

Narrow is the mansion of my soul; [please] enlarge it, that You may
enter in. It is ruinous; [please] repair it. It has that within which must offend Your eyes; I confess and know it. But who shall cleanse it? Or to whom should I cry, [except to] Thee? Lord, cleanse me from my secret faults, and spare Thy servant from the power of the enemy.

Or St. Francis:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let
me sow love, Where there is injury, pardon Where there is doubt, faith, Where there is despair, hope, Where there is darkness, light, Where there is sadness, joy. O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, not so much to be understood as to understand, not so much to be loved, as to love; for it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned, it is in dying that we awake to eternal life.

But I discovered it doesn’t take a ‘spiritual giant’ to create beautiful prayers. Anyone who loves Jesus can write a beautiful and meaningful prayer. Here is an example. It’s part of a prayer written by my friend, Cyndi. I love the way she refers to our Father in heaven as her ‘Papa.’ It reminds me of Jesus’ and St. Paul’s use of the Aramaic term for ‘daddy’ – Abba (Mark 14:36; Romans 8:15, Galatians 4:6):

To You, Papa, do I lift my voice. . . . My Redeemer, You rescued me from myself. You have cast my sins as far as the East is from the West. You delight in me and your plans for me are good.

Nothing can stand against You or separate me from your love. My heart is inclined to fear and shame. The voice of my enemy assails me with accusations. But You, Papa, are my safe refuge. My strong protector and faithful advocate. When my soul longs for comfort, You wrap your love around me and hold me close . . . Your love is my security. My hope and strength are in You.

When I am blinded by tears and I lose my way. You are my light and my salvation. . . You remain constant though the storms of life threaten and winds of doubt persist. . . Please use this broken, fearful and willing heart for your glory. Glory and honor be to You, O God.

And finally – there really isn’t a ‘finally’ when it comes to the kinds of prayers we or others can write – here is part of a prayer written by Jeanne St. John Taylor, an internet acquaintance of mine. You can find many of her prayers on her blog (click here):

O God of the Ineffable Name, the Great I AM, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, You are a God who hides himself -- for our protection since human flesh is not capable of looking on your face and surviving. But because you want us to know you, you continuously reveal yourself in Creation. The changing colors of the clouds, the thunder of waterfalls and the multitude of stars have shouted your name since the beginning of time.

We hear you in the whisper of breeze in the trees. Sense your presence in the sweet incense of cherry blossoms. We long for you even if we don’t know what we’re longing for . . . .

Come fill us with the flow of you love, Holy Spirit. . . . Show us how to quiet our hearts and trust you to handle things we can’t handle. Pry our fingers loose from control of our own lives and those around us. Teach us to empty ourselves of self-effort and open ourselves to you so you can heal us in mysterious ways we don’t understand. Give us your peace that passes beyond understanding. Remind us that when we don’t have words to express our deep ache, your Spirit prays for us with groanings too deep for words – and you hear. And answer . . . .

Like prayer lists, acrostics, or alphabet prayers, scripted and self-authored prayers can become the means of a deepening relationship with Jesus. Such prayer strategies can help us focus on our communication with Him.

Strategy Five -- Music

My purpose in posting this series of prayer strategies is to help readers win the battle that is often set against our attempts at consistent prayer. About the battle, the Catechism of the Catholic Church gives us valuable guidance. You can read some of what it teaches in paragraphs 2725 to 2745. I cited 2725 in an earlier post. Here is one more:

The habitual difficulty in prayer is distraction. . . . . To set about hunting down distractions would be to fall into their trap, when all that is necessary is to turn back to our heart: for a distraction reveals to us what we are attached to, and this humble awareness before the Lord should awaken our preferential love for him and lead us resolutely to offer him our heart to be purified. Therein lies the battle, the choice of which master to serve.

I rarely use only one method of prayer during my time with the Lord. While “lists” form the foundation, I often build on that foundation with music. On that subject, the Catechism quotes St. Augustine: How I wept, deeply moved by your hymns, songs, and the voices that echoed through your Church! What emotion I experienced in them! Those sounds flowed into my ears distilling the truth in my heart. A feeling of devotion surged within me, and tears streamed down my face - tears that did me good. And, Augustine added: He who sings prays twice. (CCC 1156, 1157)

As I begin my time of prayer, I listen to two or three worship songs through headphones, preferring lyrics in the second person rather than the third (e.g. ‘You’ instead of ‘He’). While I listen I pray the words back to God. Here are a few songs, along with portions of their lyrics, I use in my prayers (I included in this post the links to YouTube videos only because I am unable to embed the songs alone. I do not watch videos during my prayer time because they would be a distraction).

O Sacred Head, Now Wounded (click here)

O sacred Head, now wounded, with grief and shame weighed down. Now scornfully surrounded with thorns Thine only crown: how pale thou art with anguish, with sore abuse and scorn! How does that visage languish which once was bright as morn!

What thou, my Lord, has suffered was all for sinners' gain; mine, mine was the transgression, but Thine the deadly pain. Lo, here I fall, my Savior! 'Tis I deserve thy place; look on me with thy favor, vouchsafe to me thy grace.

Here is another: Worthy is the Lamb, by Hillsong (click here)

Thank you for the cross, Lord. Thank you for the price You paid.
Bearing all my sin and shame, In love You came, and gave amazing grace.

Thank you for this love, Lord. Thank you for the nail pierced hands.
Washed me in Your cleansing flow, now all I know, Your forgiveness and embrace.

Worthy is the Lamb, seated on the throne. Crown You now with many crowns,
You reign victorious. High and lifted up, Jesus Son of God, the Darling of Heaven crucified, worthy is the Lamb. Worthy is the Lamb.

Here is another by Hillsong: At The Cross (click here)

Oh Lord, You've searched me, You know my way. Even when I fail You, I know You love me. Your holy presence, surrounding me. In every season, I know You love me. I know You love me.

At the cross I bow my knee where Your blood was shed for me, there's no greater love than this. You have overcome the grave, Your glory fills the highest place, what can separate me now?

You go before me. You shield my way. Your hand upholds me. I know You love me. And when the Earth fades, falls from my eyes, and You stand before me, I know You love me. I know You love me

Here are the lines from one by Donna Cori Gibson
Jesus, You are Mercy  (click here)

You are love, you are life
Your are truth, abiding light
But your mercy is greater than them all
Only hope in despair
Rest for hearts, peace in fear
And the remedy for the children of the fall.
Jesus, you are mercy
Embracing all the works of your hands.
Jesus, Divine Mercy
Still the same since the world began
Incomprehensible, inexhaustible
The only hope for all sinful man.

Gushing fount that justifies
Endowing us with immortal life,
From the heart of the Father and found in you.
With us at the hour of death,
Source of joy better than the heavens
I trust in you. Jesus, I trust in you

Divine Mercy,
Which flows from you open side
Divine Mercy
With us every moment of life
Divine Mercy
Unfathomed in the Sacred Host
Delight and ecstasy of holy souls

And one by Michael W. Smith: This is My Desire (click here)

This is my desire to honor you, Lord with all my heart
I worship you. All I have within me, I give you praise.
All that I adore is in you

Lord I give you my heart, I give you my soul, I live for you alone.
Every breath that I take, every moment I’m awake,
Lord have your way in me.

It has only been within the last several years that I discovered how wonderful prayer can be when prayed through music. And I have begun to understand a little of what St. Augustine meant when he wrote: Those sounds flowed into my ears distilling the truth in my heart. A feeling of devotion surged within me, and tears streamed down my face - tears that did me good.

Yes, it is good to give God thanks and praise. Music – for me – enhances that joy

Strategy Six -- Chaptlet of Divine Mercy 

Another of my prayer strategies – one that has quickly become my favorite – is the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. The prayer uses the traditional Rosary beads, but the pattern of prayer is quite different. (For readers unfamiliar with the Rosary, these links here and here will help explain its history and use).

The Chaplet starts with the “Our Father,” moves to the “Hail Mary,”* and then to the Apostle’s Creed. Here the Chaplet departs substantially from the Rosary. Follow this link to the Chaplet beads.

The prayer on the bead that separates each series of ten beads begins with: “Eternal Father, I offer You to body and blood, soul and divinity of your dearly beloved Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, in atonement for our sins and those of the whole world.” On each of the ten traditional “Hail Mary” beads, petitioners pray: “For the sake of His sorrowful passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world.” Finally, at the end of the five ‘decades” (series of ten beads), the following is prayed three times: “Holy God, Holy, Mighty One, Holy and Immortal One, have mercy on us.”

The Chaplet can be prayed with our without music, but I use the musical rendition because the combination of the words and melody tugs at my emotions. For an example of the Chaplet set to music, C
lick here (this is Donna Cori Gibson’s YouTube version of the Chaplet. Start part one of the video at around 2:15. You can find part two here. I do not watch the video during my prayer time because it would distract me. Instead, I downloaded Gibson’s song from iTunes).

Although the music readily engages me, my personality is such that continual repetition becomes monotonous. Consequently, my mind drifts after the third or fourth “For the sake of His sorrowful passion . . ..” I also have difficulty wrapping my mind around “ . . . and on the whole world.” The concept is too vast for me to not only pray with passion, but with purpose. Therefore, I modify the prayer this way:

Bead 1: For the sake of His sorrowful passion, have mercy on Nancy (my wife), and on our whole family.
Bead 2: For the sake of His sorrowful passion, have mercy on Kerry (our daughter), and on our whole family.
Bead 3: For the sake of His sorrowful passion, have mercy on Zion (our eldest son), and on our whole family.
Bead 4: For the sake of His sorrowful passion, have mercy on Nathan (our youngest son), and on our whole family.
Beads 5-10: I call the names of other family members on my side of the family.

On the second series of beads I call the names of those on Nancy’s side of the family. On series three through five, I call the names of my students, friends, members of our parish, and so forth. Praying for individuals in my personal ‘world’ helps me pray with passion and purpose because I know and care about the people for whom I’m praying. I like being able to put faces with names.

The Chaplet of Divine Mercy includes elements of several strategies I often use in my private morning time with my Lord: lists, music, and scripted prayers. And best of all, it's all about Jesus. From beginning to end, it's focus is on my Lord, Savior and Friend.

I enjoy this strategy so much that it has become my most used method of prayer during my evening time with the Lord. I encourage readers to try this method. You don’t need Rosary beads to pray the chaplet. You can just as easily use your ten fingers.

* For those unfamiliar with the Hail Mary, Catholics say: Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen. (Readers might recognize two portions of Scripture in the Hail Mary – Luke 1:28 and 1:42).

Strategy Seven -- Imaginative Prayer

Another prayer strategy I use is ‘imaginative prayer.’ I thought I had invented imaginative prayer. Just goes to show how little I knew -- and know -- of prayer.

My use of the Rosary as a prayer tool initiated me to the practice. For readers unfamiliar with the Rosary, I posted links to information in my last Strategy to help explain its history and its use. You can follow these links here and here.

I do not use the Rosary as traditionally prayed, but modify it to better meet my prayer and worship needs. When I ask someone to pray for me, I usually tell them what I need prayer for. And so, I modify my petition on the ‘Hail Mary’ beads this way: Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, mother of God, please pray for (name of a person, or a situation). Amen. (For readers familiar with the Gospel of Luke, you might have recognized two portions of Scripture in the Hail Mary – Luke 1:28 and 1:42).

The Rosary also includes the recitation on the Apostles’ Creed, the ‘Our Father’ (the Lord’s Prayer) and the Glory Be’. By the time I’m through these sections of the Rosary, 20-30 minutes might have passed because I take time to reflect on specific words or phrases in those prayers. This is in addition to the half hour or so I spend reading Scripture and worshiping Jesus through music CDs. But I don’t like to leave the Rosary without meditating on at least one of the Mysteries. For readers unfamiliar with the Mysteries, please follow this link.

It was during my meditation of the Mysteries that I stumbled on what I thought was my invention of ‘imaginative prayer.” I later discovered people have practiced imaginative prayer for centuries. St. Ignatius of Loyola wrote of that prayer method in the 15th century. When I searched the internet for other explanations of the practice I found many sites. Here is one link (click here).

As I meditate on one of the Mysteries of the Rosary, I focus on that particular time in Jesus’ life. For example, one of the Mysteries has to do with His flogging. I imagine I am there, in the courtyard. I try to smell the dust swirling in the wind, to hear the mob’s shouts behind me, to watch His mother crumble with grief as the soldier’s whip slices Jesus’ back. Click this link to read my essay resulting from such an imaginative moment. Another Mystery – the Resurrection – resulted in this essay.

Scripture is replete with stories and vignettes that easily lend themselves to imaginative prayer – yet another strategy to engage us more deeply into the art and practice of communion with God.

Strategy Eight -- Lectio Divina

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraph 2728) continues its teaching regarding prayer this way: Finally, our battle has to confront what we experience as failure in prayer: discouragement during periods of dryness . . . The conclusion is always the same: what good does it do to pray? To overcome these obstacles, we must battle to gain humility, trust, and perseverance.

Dryness. Discouragement. Distractions. I have experienced many reasons and made many excuses to avoid time with God in prayer. My earlier posts highlighted several strategies I have used to keep focused on prayer. Lectio Divina is another. Actually, I’ve practiced lectio divina for decades – without knowing it had a name.

Lectio Divina is an ancient form of prayer often associated with the monastic tradition. It’s description is more detailed than what I am about to tell you (you can find more information by clicking this link), but essentially I practice lectio divina each time I read the Scriptures and ask myself two questions: What is the writer trying to convey to his readers, and what might the Holy Spirit be trying to convey to me in the passage? While I mull the questions over and over in my mind, sometimes nothing comes to me. At other times I gain new insight into my walk of faith. And, if a particular verse in text catches my attention, I memorize it and speak it back to God as a form of prayer.

The Scriptures are an integral part of any Christian’s faith walk with Christ. Indeed, it is so important to our spiritual lives, the Catechism tells the Catholic faithful: T
he Church "forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful. . . to learn the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ, by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures. Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ (paragraph 133).

Lectio Divina is very special to my time with the Lord because He so often speaks with me through the Biblical text.
I don’t know how I could mature in my faith and in my relationship with Christ without constant nourishment on His Word. Thus, it is no surprise the Church teaches: And such is the force and power of the Word of God that it can serve the Church as her support and vigor, and the children of the Church as strength for their faith, food for the soul, and a pure and lasting fount of spiritual life." Hence "access to Sacred Scripture ought to be open wide to the Christian faithful" (Catechism paragraph 131).

Two essays I’ve posted to this blog in months past are examples of reflections born out of Lectio Divina: Sometimes It Causes Me to Tremble & Sunday is Coming.

Strategy Nine --  The Environment of Prayer

I am sometimes easily distracted during my time with Jesus, so I developed a strategy to mitigate the frequency and length of those distractions. My technique deals with the environment of prayer, which I think is just as important as the style of those prayers.

1. The Lord Jesus said, “When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret” (Matthew 6:6). I use a spare room as my “prayer closet,” where I can close the door and keep myself as free from potential distractions as possible. It’s furnished sparsely with only a couch, footrest, small table and a lamp. Across from the couch I placed a crucifix, which becomes the typical focal point of my prayers.

2. Although I spend time with the Lord both morning and evening, my most quality time is in the morning, before I’ve looked at my email or spent time on the computer. Looking to Jesus the first thing after I get out of bed helps keep my mind uncluttered and free from the distractions waiting for me when I move into the day’s business.

3. Part of my time in prayer includes reading and meditating on Scripture. I keep three versions of the Bible (NAB, NASB and NKJV) beside me, as well as a concordance* and lexicon.**  During my meditation I might think of an idea or Scripture I read in another place in the Bible. The concordance helps me find it when I can remember only a portion of it. Also, while reading I might become curious how a particular verse is translated in another version, or how the original Greek or Hebrew is used in other places in Scripture. That’s where the other versions and the lexicon are useful.

4. I keep a notepad and pen at my side. It is more the norm than the rarity that while in prayer an idea pops into my head about some task I need to do later that day, or a Scripture I want to memorize, catches my attention. I take a few seconds to jot the ‘to do’ items on the pad, so I won’t forget them. Having written them down, I can then return to my meeting with Jesus. I also keep with me the CDs, Rosary, prayer lists, alphabet prayers, and other tools I’ve mentioned in earlier posts – all of which help keep my heart focused on prayer.

I try to order everything in my prayer ‘environment’ to keep distractions at a minimum, and my strategies have proved largely successful in decreasing the frequency and length those distractions.

Perhaps my ideas will be useful for you, as well.

* A concordance is a list of key words and their immediate contexts. Many Bibles include a concordance (usually in the back, after the maps).
** A lexicon – in this case, a Bible lexicon – lists all the Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic words used in the Bible, along with their definitions and uses elsewhere in Scripture.

Strategy Ten -- Confession 

Each of the preceding strategies have helped me maintain focus during my times of prayer. However, two strategies I’ve not yet mentioned form for me the foundation of intimate prayer with God. Actually, I consider them more as prerequisites for effective prayer instead of simple strategies. They are confession and forgiveness. The two are as inseparable as faith and works (see St James 2:17). One is useless without the other. And without either, I don’t believe my prayers – despite my ‘strategies’ – get higher than the ceiling.

Today’s strategy addresses confession. Next time I’ll talk about forgiveness.

The writers of Scripture link prayer and confession so often that even with a cursory reading of the Old and New Testaments, it is impossible to miss to connection. For example: He who conceals his sins prospers not, but he who confesses and forsakes them obtains mercy (Proverbs 28:13).

I called to the Lord with my mouth; praise was upon my tongue. [But] had I cherished evil in my heart, the Lord would not have heard (Psalm 66:17-18).

As long as I kept silent [about my sin], my bones wasted away; I groaned all the day . . . Then I declared my sin to you; my guilt I did not hide. I said, "I confess my faults to the Lord," and you took away the guilt of my sin (Psalm 32:3-5).

Likewise, you husbands should live with your wives in understanding, showing honor to the weaker female sex, since we are joint heirs of the gift of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered (1 Peter 3:7).

Following the Biblical writers, the Church in her teaching on the effect sin (mortal or venial) have on our relationship with God, quotes St. Augustine:

hile he is in the flesh, man cannot help but have at least some light sins. But do not despise these sins which we call "light": if you take them for light when you weigh them, tremble when you count them. A number of light objects makes a great mass; a number of drops fills a river; a number of grains makes a heap. What then is our hope? Above all, confession (Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1863).

The Church further warns: . . . There are no limits to the mercy of God, but anyone who deliberately refuses to accept his mercy by repenting, rejects the forgiveness of his sins and the salvation offered by the Holy Spirit. Such hardness of heart can lead to final impenitence and eternal loss (Catechism, 1864).

Imaginative prayer, Lectio divina, the Rosary, prayer lists, and all the other strategies I use to grow in my relationship with Christ – I have found them all utterly useless if I am aware of my sin – even venial sin – and I delay my repentance. Thus, the examination of conscience, along with confession, forms the basis of this prayer strategy.

The Church explains such examination as made in the light of the Word of God. The passages best suited to this can be found in the Ten Commandments, the moral catechesis of the Gospels and the apostolic Letters, such as the Sermon on the Mount and the apostolic teachings” (Catechism 1454).

When I meet each day with the Holy Spirit, I ask Him to reveal to me things I did wrong that day (or in the very recent past) – the unnecessarily harsh words I spoke to others, lusts I entertained in my thoughts, resentment, an unforgiving spirit . . . . And when He unveils those sins to my mind, I immediately repent, using words similar to the Church’s Act of Contrition:

O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of heaven, and the pains of hell; but most of all because they offend Thee, my God, Who are all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life. Amen.

As the Church teaches, “Among the penitent's acts, contrition occupies first place. Contrition is "sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again" (Catechism 1451). When the Holy Spirit reveals to my mind my mortal sins, I bring them to the confessional to receive the Sacrament of Penance.

St. Paul tells us, “God is not mocked” (Galatians 6:7). Without honest confession and repentance, I believe my prayers are in danger of falling on His deaf ears. Which, by the way, is why I so often pray:

“Lord, I am not as willing to change my lifestyle as I ought to be. But, Lord, whatever You have to do to purge me, to redirect me, to make me holy, Lord, I am willing to be made willing for you to do that.

Strategy Eleven -- Forgiveness 

The Church teaches on the parable of the merciless servant: [Jesus said] "So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart." It is there, in fact, "in the depths of the heart," that everything is bound and loosed. It is not in our power not to feel or to forget an offense; but the heart that offers itself to the Holy Spirit turns injury into compassion and purifies the memory in transforming the hurt into intercession. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2843. Bold is my emphasis).

In the last essay I wrote about confession as a prayer strategy. Today I’ll address forgiveness, and how this “strategy” opens or closes the gates of heaven to our prayers.

The Lord Jesus made it clear in many places that God’s forgiveness of us is inextricably linked to our forgiveness of others. Perhaps the clearest example of this principle is found in the verses just after the “Our Father” in which Jesus warns, “If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions (Matthew 6:14-15).

Forgiveness is a choice. It is an act of the will, independent of our ‘feelings’ of forgiveness.
It’s the choice Jesus made when He prayed for the Father to forgive those who mocked and crucified Him – even though they had not asked for forgiveness. It’s the same choice St. Stephen made when, as he was dying at the hands of the mob stoning him, he asked the Father to not hold that sin against them – even though they had not asked for forgiveness.

Everyone who has read my books knows I killed my baby more than 40 years ago in an abortion clinic. Four years later, when I discovered Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, I offered Him my life, repented of my sins, and entered the waters of baptism. For the next 44 years I was (and remain) absolutely certain God forgave not only that terrible crime, but all of my other despicable offenses against Him as well.

However, in early October 2011, while watching a DVD at a men’s meeting devoted to the subject of abortion, I had a terrible epiphany. As if for the very first time my eyes opened to the bottomless depth of my abortion sin. A sword of shame ripped into my gut. Blood gushed from the wound and my bowels lay eviscerated on the floor. Guilt – horrifying, unrelenting guilt – flooded over me like a tsunami, first sucking away my breath, only to return relentlessly churning and tossing ravaged, grievous memories through my heart.

I couldn’t watch any longer. I grabbed my coat and rushed from the building. It was all I could do to get into my car before uncontrollable sobs wracked my body.
“What are you doing to me!” I shouted at heaven, confused, angry, horrified. “What was that all about? I don’t deserve to live!”

I could not fathom why God, who’d forgiven me four decades earlier, who’d buried my crimes in the sea of Christ’s blood – why had He brought me to my knees like this?
It was not until hours later, after struggling to process what God had done to me, that I understood. That is to say, I think I understood. I had never before known such grief for my sin. But neither had I known for what and for how much He had forgiven me.

And then the Holy Spirit connected the proverbial dots.

Like the slave in Jesus’ parable cited in the Catechism paragraph above, who do I think I am to keep a grudge against another? What gives me the right to hold an unforgiving spirit toward family, friend – or even enemy? I owed God a debt that I could never repay. But He paid my debt in full. Every penny.

And He paid it with His blood.
Do I really think I can live close to Christ if I am unwilling to live as Christ? Do I really think I can hope for His forgiveness if I remain unwilling to forgive others – even those who don’t ask for forgiveness?

I learned on that day in October that of all the prayer strategies I could ever practice, if confession and forgiveness are not at their core, I might as well stop jabbering at God. I learned that forgiveness is a choice. And that by exercising the right choice, I permit the Holy Spirit to supernaturally turn injury into compassion and hurt into honest intercession.

Lord Jesus, please. Conform my choices more and more to yours.

Strategy Twelve -- Perseverance 

The prayer of Abraham and Jacob is presented as a battle of faith marked by trust in God's faithfulness and by certitude in the victory promised to perseverance (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2592).

In the battle of prayer we . . . must respond with humility, trust, and perseverance to these temptations which cast doubt on the usefulness . . . of prayer (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2753).

I’ve lost count how often I’ve nearly given up hope that some of my prayers would ever be answered. And I admit it’s difficult to keep asking the same thing year after year after year, when it seems my prayers get no higher than the ceiling.

Then one morning during a particularly disquieting lack-of-faith time in prayer, the Lord reminded me of the “Our Father” Jesus taught His disciples.
Pray this way,” He said. “ . . . Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” And I mused on those words awhile. For two thousand years Christians all over the world have prayed the “Our Father.” Many, every day. Two thousand years. That’s close to a bazillion prayers over time. Nonetheless, God’s kingdom is still not come to earth, nor is His will perfectly done on earth – especially the salvation of humanity (2 Peter 3:9) – as it is in heaven.

So why did Jesus command us to pray for things that would not see fulfillment in nearly 2000 years? Perhaps – and I’m only guessing here – perhaps it was to teach us something about perseverance. Like He illustrates in this parable in Luke 11:
Suppose one of you has a friend, and goes to him at midnight and says to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves; for a friend of mine has come to me from a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and from inside he answers and says, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been shut and my children and I are in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his persistence he will get up and give him as much as he needs.

And then Jesus added:

So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and he who seeks, finds; and to him who knocks, it will be opened.

I think it important to note the Greek verbs here for ‘ask’, ‘seek’ and ‘knock’ can also be translated, “keep asking,” “keep seeking,” “keep knocking” – which makes better sense considering the context of the passage.

Persist. Persevere. Don’t give up. Keep asking. Keep seeking.

Why? I guess because, well – because God says to.

I don’t understand why sick people don’t get better, why children go astray, why families shatter, why finances fail, why . . . why . . . why. I don’t understand why heaven sometimes seems like brass, or why Christians sometimes die without ever seeing their most fervent prayers answered.

But I do know this:

God is God, and I am not. His ways are higher than my ways, His thoughts higher than my thoughts. And when tempted to question His love because of delays to my prayers – or flat out, “No” – I like to stare at the crucifix on the wall across from my couch and remind myself it was on such a cross that God demonstrated His profound love for me, and that I need to get control of my doubts – and just trust Him. Trust Him. Even as the prophet Habakkuk trusted Him:

For though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit appears on the vine, though the yield of the olive fails and the terraces produce no nourishment, though the flocks disappear from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord and exult in my saving God (Habakkuk 3:17-18).

Lord, I believe. Help me in my unbelief.

I hope these twelve strategies -- all of them or even some of them -- will add greater depth to your prayer life. Surely, eye has not seen, nor has ear heard, nor has it entered into the heart of any one, the things God has prepared for those who pray.


  1. Wow--This is very good (and I like the Cliff Notes helps for remembering these approaches).

  2. Thanks, Faith. Glad this is helpful.