Firstly, to turn distractions into prayer
Since the time I began as a Novice with the Franciscan Order, I have tried to take some time daily to pray and be alone with God. But it hasn’t always been easy to embrace, especially in those early years. I remember being instructed to sit in the chapel, to be quiet and “meditate” in silence. But I found I had no real notion of what meditation actually was. I would sit there and think: “Okay, I’m going to meditate now and think about Jesus. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus…wait I’m hungry. Did I skip lunch? I should go get some food.”
Silence, I was told, is an essential part of the Franciscan vocation. “Ok, I can believe that, Father Novice Director, but how can I grow to appreciate it? How can I allow silence to be the life-giving, fruitful time of nourishment you say it can be and not just an exercise in self-discipline or slow torture designed to make me lose my mind?”
By God’s grace I managed to pretty much stick with my daily holy hour over the years, even when it was difficult, and somehow things evolved. The Holy Spirit taught me three things about prayer that I would like to share with you today.
Number One – Turns distractions into prayer. Early on I noticed that whenever I sat down and tried to still my mind for silent prayer, the first things that came up were my most recent conversations and interactions with people. For years, I would try to push these distracting images away and not think about them before finally admitting to myself one day that this was a losing battle. Instead of viewing such thoughts as distractions to be fought off, I learned to welcome them and, one by one, acknowledge them and give them to God. Even being hungry need not be a distraction. It can be turned into a prayer in which we are reminded of our incompleteness and the need for God who gives us daily bread.
If you are like me, at some point in the last twenty-four hours, you most likely said or did something stupid. There are often tiny regrets we carry with us all day long that can feel like a collection of splinters, not harmful enough to keep us from the task at hand but certainly annoying enough to keep us from doing it with any peace. When we sit down for prayer, these tiny regrets are often the first things to come to mind. I have learned to be okay with that. I can replay the events of the recent past over in my mind, look honestly at what they can teach me, and then give them to God. I recall the people I interacted with, the stories I heard calling for prayer, the words I spoke that could have been better chosen; and give it all to the one who can actually do something with it. I pray, “Jesus teach me from what happened and then take it away.”
I have always been inspired by Saint Pope John XXIII who was great at turning his problems over to God. We are told that before he would go to bed each night, he would pray something like this: “Well Lord, I did my best to lead the Church today and there are still many problems. I’m giving it back to you. I’m tired and it’s your Church anyway. I’m going to sleep.”
Pope John XXIII learned the secret of giving it all back to the one to whom it truly belongs and the peace that comes when we do manage to give to God what is God’s. When we hold on too tightly to regrets, victories, concerns, and even joys, we can begin to think the world revolves around what we say and do. Putting it all in God’s much larger hands will lead to the peace that allowed the pope, and will eventually lead us, to have a good night’s sleep or to move on to other moments of prayer.
Number Two – Take prayer with you on the go. In 1 Thessalonians 5:17, Saint Paul challenges his audience with the words, “never cease praying.” Such a command might seem like a call reserved only for monks, something completely unrealistic for anyone outside a monastery, but it need not be an unattainable goal if we allow the Cross to be planted within our hearts. I believe there are two basic categories of prayer. The first is “concentrated prayer,” any period of time set apart to speak with, think about, read about, and listen to God. This is necessary and beautiful but it is not all there is. There is also what I call “on-the-go prayer,” or being in a spirit of prayer: praising, thanking, pondering, and thinking of the Lord and his Cross even while we are occupied with other activities. Praying like this, as we move throughout our day, is a way to live in continual awareness of God’s presence and would certainly influence all that we do or say. Both “concentrated prayer” and “on-the-go prayer” are important as each tends to overflow into the other, revealing the closeness of the Lord in slightly different ways.
Saint Francis of Assisi, whose life’s goal was to come to truly know the heart of Jesus Christ, embraced both these forms of prayer. His biographer, Thomas of Celano gives an example of each when he says of Francis:
Walking, sitting, eating, drinking, he was focused on prayer. But also he would spend the night alone praying in abandoned churches and deserted places where, with the protection of Divine grace, he overcame his soul’s many fears and anxieties.
And speaking of our soul’s anxieties leads to the third thing I learned about prayer. Number Three – Look for the signs. When should we pray? Well, just as our bodies give us signs when we need food, water, or sleep, so too our souls will give us signs when we need prayer. One of these signs is how we are looking at the people around us. When we find ourselves looking side to side too much, that is, when we are comparing ourselves to our brothers and sisters or maybe looking at them as inconveniences instead of blessings, it is time to look instead to Christ. When we are jealous, judging, or lustful, looking at those around us in unhealthy ways, we should interpret that as our souls thirsting for something greater. It is as if they are crying out to us to stop looking horizontally and start looking vertically.
Our souls will tell us when they need to be fed, when we need to look to Jesus Christ, raised up on the Cross for us, and ponder who he is and all he has done. Whether through “concentrated prayer” or “on-the-go prayer,” looking at the Cross and reflecting on Christ crucified will put everything else in proper perspective and help us to live the compassionate love that we are called to embrace.
Imagine your heart is a beautiful, hand-carved and finely detailed crystal chalice constructed by the Master Craftsman. Imagine that the Craftsman did nothing by chance. He knew what he wanted the chalice to look like on the outside and the inside. He knew just how much the chalice should hold, how big the empty space of the chalice should be. Now imagine that the Craftsman leaves it up to you to fill the chalice. The empty space within your heart longs for something to fill it. Your heart fights the emptiness, craving “something” to take up the space and it will not let you rest until you decide what that “something” will be.
Of course, the only worthwhile “something” that can truly bring us happiness is the Lord Jesus Christ. The chalice of our heart was made for his love, to be filled with his good and precious blood. Our lives were made to find their meaning in his. When we pray, we are going to Jesus with our emptiness as it was always meant to be, and allowing him to fill us instead of filling ourselves with worldly things. Then we can face whatever awaits us in the world with the strength and joy of God in us. Making this a continual practice, imbuing each day with prayer, will not only keep us filled to the rim, it will bring us to the point of overflowing with the love and goodness of the Lord. Then we will quite naturally seek to be poured out, to share him and bring him to others in the simple interactions of daily life.
Those who have not learned to heed the signs their souls give them and do not turn to the Lord Jesus in prayer may find themselves demanding too much from others. They face the world as an empty chalice, seeking consciously or unconsciously to be filled by people or things. But nothing in the world can adequately fill our chalices. Jesus is the only one who can fill our emptiness. He is given by the Father to any who seek him, desire to be filled by him, and trust him to fill their emptiness with his very self.
So, those are the three important things I learned about prayer over the years. Firstly, to turn distractions into prayer. Talk to Jesus about the important things in your life, especially the most recent ones that are on your mind anyway. He will help you make sense of them, take away the worry, and give you peace. Secondly, take prayer with you on the go. Think about Jesus like Saint Francis did, even as we go about our daily tasks. She interior part of us should always be praising Jesus and thanking him even while we are walking, sitting, eating, or drinking. And thirdly, look for the signs. When you are upset or hurt, when people in your life seem like burdens instead of blessings, it’s time to carve out some quality time to be with Jesus. He puts all things in proper perspective. Let him fill the chalice of your heart with his love. Through prayer, he will fill your heart to the point where it overflows and his love reaches others through you.
May God give you peace!