Today we are reminded that we must respond to God with the need to ask for forgiveness, as did the prodigal son (Lent 4, C Cycle). There are so many ways to foster the spirit of Lent within us; and as we know, it is never too late to begin. We all need to look for ways to come back to the Father like the prodigal. A song I know says: “Lead me back to my home, I have wandered far away. I’ve been gone for far too long. Will you welcome me today?” As always, in God’s infinite mercy and love, we are welcomed back home. All we have to do, really, is just show up. The challenge is for us to act with this same mercy—a mercy beyond justice─that leads to love and forgiveness.
Prayer is how we speak to God, asking for what we or others need. How to pray and petition God? Most of us find it hard to pray even if we are fascinated with prayer or want to pray or need to pray. Many of us have discovered that consistent prayer is hard; sometimes we haven’t the words, or we are self-conscious. We may find it hard to pray because we are disappointed and angry with God. Life can be brutal and leave us broken, confused, withered and disoriented with God. We may find it hard to pray because sometimes it seems that prayer is a waste of time. We pray, but then nothing obvious changes. We feel that we have more important work to do than just sitting around and praying, feeling like this may be a huge waste of time that could be a better expended if we could be out doing something, solving or saving something. Prayer may feel like one-way communication. We pour our hearts out to God but we never seem to hear anything back from Him. (Who wants to make phone calls to someone who never responds to anything we've said? ...especially if we have poured our hearts out to them while saying it?) So, what is it about this prayer time that Jesus regularly had with the Father that we want to incorporate into our life? What can we do in prayer that allows us to be truly open to the Father's leading us in our life choices and our life's mission?
There are two things to notice immediately about how Jesus prayed. Jesus planned and protected his prayer time. It wasn't something he did while he had a free moment or two, Jesus intentionally made time to pray. Jesus also chose to pray in a place where he could talk with His Father away from other people. If we are going to touch the lives of people like Jesus did, we need to have some planned and protected and private prayer time each day. During Jesus' prayer time, He was convinced, guided, reminded, or re-routed in His mission to do his God’s will to share the Good News with the world.
Can we come to expect God to speak to our hearts when we pray? Can we expect a response from God when we pray? There’s a story about a poor boy who had no shoes. A neighbor saw him praying and made fun of him: “You pray so much. If God really existed he would tell someone to buy you a pair of shoes.” “I’m sure God does tell them,” replied the boy, “but they don’t listen.”
I believe that we can and should expect God to respond. We know the Holy Spirit works in our lives. While God's response may not come with audible words, we certainly should expect Him to respond. This response could be a strong purpose in our hearts or the motivation to step out and do something for the Lord. This response might be a Bible passage coming to mind or the words of a Christian friend or a spiritual song. This response might not be immediate but may come to us as we dedicate time each day to prayer. We may have to wait, paying attention to who and what God brings into our lives. It may be that what is said by someone sticks in our hearts or minds, or what we hear from spiritual friends sticks, or what we remember from Bible passages we read, or what opportunities are placed before us, or what thoughts the Spirit stimulates within us. Our prayer time should focus on God's purpose for us rather than what we want from God—although all prayer is valuable in that it opens us to the movement of the Spirit in our lives. As we center our hearts and minds on the Father's will for us, we must trust that He will lead us to His purpose, His mission, for us.
Praying the psalms and reading the Bible can help center our prayer lives. Rather than rushing through these readings, we let our heart rest on each key thought. We give the Spirit time to move us, to convince us, and to guide and lead us. This union with the Father over the Scriptures, while inviting the Spirit to lead our hearts, opens us to the will of the Father. This kind of prayer requires effort and focus. This kind of prayer is more than coming with a list of things we want God to do for us. Instead, we come to have our hearts tuned to join God in His work of redeeming a broken world. This prayer-work changes us. We choose to enter into this focused time of prayer ready to make an effort, ready to listen, and ready to wait on God. We pray ready to be forgiven of sin, ready to recalibrate our life to the Father's, ready to respond to the Spirit's leading, and ready to follow Jesus into ministry with a focused and renewed sense of mission. Prayer re-aligns our heart and our life to God so that we can enter into the work He is already doing. Then we will find our life resonating with His mission for us. Keep praying!
David J. Conrad explains the significance of consecration and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Pope Francis will be consecrating the countries of Russia & Ukraine to Mary's Immaculate Heart on Friday, March 25, 2022 at Noon EST.
Also, click on this link for the prayer of consecration to be used by Pope Francis at St. Peter's in Rome.
The first two weeks of the Lenten season my articles have been about personal prayer practice. Today I want to talk about our communal prayer—praying together. It seems to me that during the Lenten season the church is attended by more people—maybe some of us having remembered that Lent is a good season or reason to return to the Church and our faith… Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D.) wrote that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. Maybe that is what brings back people at this time…they seek to reconnect with God, faith and their tradition.
Prayer is the longing of the human heart for God. It is a yearning and desire for relationship with God, and it is God’s attention to our desire: God-in-communion with us. We long for God because we are created by God, and this longing is the source of our hope in God. Prayer is an awakening to the fact that the fulfillment, the culmination of my life lies in God alone. And so, we gather together and pray together in communion, each of us with our personal separateness—but all of us wanting the same basic thing: to belong to God, to return to God.
In mass, which is the source and summit of our communal prayer, we have the opportunity to connect with God and each other, too—if we can get out of the Spirit’s way. It takes practice to be focused and alert to God’s presence during the mass—it is so easy to be distracted—you’ve probably heard or thought all of these things (I am sure) at one time or another: listen to that crying baby, why doesn’t the parent do something about the noise? Some (blank) left their cell phone on. I have to stop at the store on the way home and pick up this for that. I don’t like this hymn. I’m hungry, or thirsty or tired or bored. I should go to the bathroom… I know these things have wandered through my mind at times, and I am sure I am not the only one… Authentic prayer though, is opening to God’s gracious presence with all that we are, and with what Scripture summarizes as our whole heart, soul, body and mind. Therefore, prayer is more a way of being than an isolated act of doing.
Can you imagine a room filled with people all together and in the same moment alert to God’s presence among us? I think of the synergy of a moment like that! Synergy is the “interaction or cooperation of two or more organizations, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects.” In other words, there is a power that can be created that adds up to more than the individual pieces present. I like to think of us at mass that way: singing, speaking, praying, moving together as one—in communion with God and each other.
In prayer it is possible to experience that quality of relationship with God together or apart—and it’s the place of ultimate freedom where we can be our true selves. God delights in His creation and loves each of us with a personal love, and all of us in communal love. Prayer is God’s desire to breathe in us, to be the spirit of our lives, to draw us into the fullness of life. When we pray together, we breathe in God together—focusing our awareness in the moment of here and now, joined to the angels in heaven in one exultant chorus—just listen carefully to the Eucharistic Prayer! In praying together we may recognize God’s presence within us and within those around us.
Lent gives us a wonderful occasion to step back and evaluate our place, to spend time in prayer and worship apart or together. Now may be the acceptable time for us to begin this conversion process—or to continue it. Prayer, like anything and everything else, needs practice. Lent is an opportune time to cultivate the ability to pay attention to our souls, apart or together. Here is another true saying: God works through all things for good. I offer here another breath prayer practice for Lent: “God, Father, kind and merciful, help me pay attention to You in this place with those other souls around me.”
Keep praying! Keep breathing! Keep singing!
Just a note: An inspiring song about the church praying together and changing the world….
The Season of Lent is a gift for us from our Church—it is our opportunity to deepen our spiritual life and our faith journey. Few would deny that prayer is an essential discipline when it comes to considering our spiritual life. Those who know me, and those who work in my ministry, know that I am all about discipline and practice (in music, anyway…) but I do believe that everything we do is about discipline and practice—so why not prayer, too?
But what is prayer, and how does one actually practice it? In simple terms: prayer is communication with God that is carried on through words, thoughts, images and actions. Authentic prayer is opening to God’s gracious presence with all that we are, and with what Scripture summarizes as our whole heart, soul, and mind. Therefore, prayer is more a way of being than an isolated act of doing. How one prays is another question, and there is a wise saying that “prayer is the school from which no one graduates.” Prayer arises from our deepest hope: the hope for the abundance of life that comes when we abide in our deepest home, our widest consciousness. Prayer is our bridge to Home.
While prayer may be a profound mystery and often can feel like hard work, I'd like to suggest that our prayer lives can be enriched (and unburdened) by comparing it to breathing. As a singer, the practice of proper breathing is a regular part of my music practice regimen. The analogy of prayer to breathing has been suggested for centuries by our brothers in the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches in a prayer exercise known simply as the “Breath Prayer.” It derives this name because the words for breath and Spirit are very similar in the biblical languages. More importantly, the practice of this kind of prayer enables us in a very real—though perhaps mystical—way to experience what St. Paul had in mind when he says the Spirit prays in us (Romans 8:26-27).
The oldest and most practiced breath prayer combines Jesus’ teaching about prayer in Luke 18 with the earliest confession of the church: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The thought behind the “Jesus Prayer” is that as one recites this prayer, the very depth of our being is penetrated, and authentic Christ-like transformation takes place. Here are a few practical suggestions that some have found helpful in easing into this type of prayer:
Begin by asking for help from the Holy Spirit, remembering that it is only by the work of the Spirit that we can proclaim, “Jesus is Lord.” Next, become aware of your breathing for several deep breaths in and out. You might want to quietly give thanks to God for the breath of life, even though you are mostly unaware of this life-giving gift. Silently say the first part of the prayer as you breathe in: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God.” Do this several times, imagining that you are breathing in the love, joy, and peace of the Lord Jesus. After this, become aware of your breathing out and as you do so, silently say, “Have mercy on me, a sinner.” Imagine all the impurities, fears, sins that you are putting in the way of God's holy presence—and that breathing them out helps to expunge them from your being. (For those who are visually oriented, some suggest that this type of prayer can be enhanced by gazing at a picture of Christ that ‘speaks’ to you.)
The great thing about the Breath Prayer is that you can do it anywhere, anytime, and in any posture. (BTW, where did we get off thinking that the only posture for prayer was bowed heads and closed eyes?) As we practice this important exercise, not only will our hearts be refreshed and our spiritual eyes opened, we may find that St. Paul's admonition to “pray at all times in the Spirit” is not impossible but rather a life-giving joy! What a great start to this year’s Lenten Journey! Keep praying! Keep breathing! Have a happy Lent!
JUST a NOTE: By now you may have noticed the changes in our worship space and in the liturgy: no greenery, the liturgical color is the purple of penitence: there are no alleluias, hallelujahs or Gloria. We sing “Praise to you, Lord Jesus, King of endless glory; Savior of the World, Savior of the World” for our Gospel Acclamation. Our Memorial Acclamation has changed from “When we eat this bread…” to “Save us Savior of the World…” At the Fraction Rite, and for the Lamb of God we will chant the English equivalent to the “Agnus Dei.”
The purpose of liturgical changes by season is to help us be more committed and engaged in what we are doing/saying/singing/praying during the great prayer of the mass—this is another gift of the Church! These changes are so that we may always be conscious, focused, alert and aware as we pray together—never complacent, bored, daydreaming, apathetic or inattentive. A good challenge for Lent may be to give yourself over completely to our communal prayer—and while at home as you practice personal prayer, too. May God grant us the grace of open spirits and minds—and changed hearts! Quarite primum regnum Dei: Seek first the kingdom of God!
David J. Conrad, M.A. Theology. Our Director of Faith Formation.