Over the past year, I have been asking myself what it means to pray. As I’ve alluded to in other Foundry blogs, praying hasn’t always been easy for me. I often find myself filled with guilt if I do not pray enough. When I do pray, I wonder if I am doing it the right way. However, the longer I pastor, the more convinced I become that I am not the only one who experiences prayer in a similar way (this is true of pastors and congregants alike!).
In recent months, I’ve spent some time studying how St. Ignatius of Loyola taught those in his pastoral care to pray, specifically, how he taught them to pray using Scripture. Learning to pray in this way has become a gift to me and has opened prayer up to me in a way that I’ve never experienced before. Here’s a bit of what I’ve learned about this approach; I hope it’s helpful to you, but if not, that’s okay, too.
1. Prepare your surroundings.
An important part of this sort of prayer is the preparation. Choose a room that is quiet and free from distractions. Your surroundings don’t need to be overtly spiritual or beautiful: simple and practical is fine. What matters most is that you’re able to sit comfortably and quietly and fully focus on God.
2. Choose a passage.
While your companion during prayer is the Holy Spirit, the window to prayer is Scripture. Choose a scripture—maybe a psalm, a selection from the prophets, a story of Jesus from the Gospels, or an epistle.
Before you begin, take a moment and imagine yourself in God’s presence. Prayer is a conversation in which we connect with our Heavenly Father. Pray for the grace to experience God over the next few moments and to notice where God is and where the Spirit is leading you.
3. Immerse yourself in the passage.
After you choose your passage, read through it two or three times. As you read, make sure to take your time. Resist the urge to hurry to the end and to determine the point of the passage. However, as you read, pay attention to what you are reading. What words or phrases jump out as meaningful? Is there an image that resonates with you more than others? Does a phrase bring up an old memory? It’s important that you allow yourself the freedom to notice.
If you choose a narrative text (such as a story from the Gospels), allow yourself to be immersed in the story. Use your imagination and your senses. What do you see? What is the landscape like? What is the weather like? Are people talking? What are they saying? What emotion do you see on their faces? Do you smell or taste anything?
4. Be aware of what’s happening within you.
Praying Scripture will begin to create movement within you. Maybe a memory emerges. Maybe you find yourself overcome with emotion. Maybe you feel something, but you’re not quite sure what that something is. This is an important moment. Don’t run from it.
We’re often taught to be suspicious of our feelings and to do what we can to stuff down or run from what’s happening within us. However, God isn’t interested in our sanitized emotions. In our prayer, God is inviting us to bring to him all of ourselves. As Father James Martin writes, “In our deepest longings we hear echoes of God’s longing for us. And the more we can follow these deep-down desires, those that God places within us for our happiness, the more joyful we will find ourselves.”
We must allow ourselves to sense and name what’s happening inside of us because it’s only then that we can truly allow God into our fullest selves.
So, what are you experiencing? What is bubbling up within you? Are your feelings chaotic? Calm? Do you feel full of peace and gentleness? Are you wrapped in a deep sense of love? Are you confronting deeply rooted shame and fear?
5. Name it.
No matter what emerges, whether emotions, memories, failures, or fears, you might find yourself tempted to try to change what you see. Resist this! Instead, take a moment to invite the Holy Spirit into your experience.
“God, I feel afraid.”
“God, I am so full of joy.”
“God, I am not sure I’m enough.”
“God, I am so sorry I missed the mark.”
“God, I see how you answered this prayer, and I am so thankful.”
“God, I’m really struggling to forgive.”
In this moment, God reminds us that what’s happening within us matters and is important to God.
6. Have a conversation with God.
Up to this point we’ve asked for God’s grace, taken time to read Scripture. allowed ourselves to enter into the text, and given ourselves space to see what the text stirs up within us. What a beautiful journey. However, before we finish, we are invited to do one final thing: we’re invited into a colloquy, or conversation, with God.
Father Kevin O’Brien describes a colloquy in this way: “A colloquy is an intimate conversation between you and God the Father, between you and Jesus… It often occurs at the end of a prayer period, but it can take place at any time. Let this conversation naturally develop in your prayer.”
Having a colloquy with God reminds us to create space for God to respond to what we’ve shared. Maybe God desires to speak a word of peace or love or belonging into us or to fill us with contentment. Maybe the Holy Spirit wants to remind us that we’re beloved. Maybe, in the midst of pain and suffering, God desires to sit in silent mourning with us. As we enter into this time of sacred conversation, we must be careful that we do not enter into it with expectations. Instead, we must be open to receive whatever gift God has for us—for it is in receiving this gift that we are transformed.