With Lent just around the corner, it is time once again to give some thought to our Lenten disciplines. The purpose of the additional prayer, fasting and almsgiving during this upcoming liturgical season is meant to free us from worldly attachments, allowing us to grow deeper in union with Jesus Christ.
While these Lenten practices are penitential in nature because they help us turn away from sin and turn toward God’s love, they also offer great opportunity for ongoing spiritual growth. For example, we could use these 40 days not only to pray more but to develop a pattern of prayer that truly transforms our lives.
Handing on the Faith
Prayer is important because it draws us into the presence of God and brings us into a deeper communion with him.
Prayer is the way in which we live in a personal relationship with our Lord. Any person at any time in any place can enter into prayer and thus encounter our loving God. St. Therese of Lisieux describes prayer as a “simple look turned toward heaven” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2558).
Through prayer, we turn to the one who created us and who desires to dwell in the depth of our heart. We do this by expressing to God our love and gratitude, our joys and sorrows, our hopes and fears, our thanksgiving and repentance.
Prayer that uses words is known as “vocal prayer,” and it is a start. But prayer can go deeper than the expression of words. When we meditate on God’s words and actions with the help of the Bible, sacred images or spiritual writings, our own lives become inserted into the great mystery of God’s saving work.
An even deeper form of prayer is contemplative prayer, where we allow the Holy Spirit to turn our hearts over to the Lord. Through this form of prayer, we accept the love God offers and desire to return that love ever more greatly (cf. CCC 2712).
Growing in a life of prayer takes effort. While we can certainly speak to God at any time, it is also important that we structure our day to dedicate certain times to prayer.
We can use this Lent as an opportunity to incorporate some additional prayer time each day. This will help us move one step deeper in our prayer life.
With the busyness of life, the thought of adding more time for prayer may seem daunting, if not impossible. But the effort is more than worth it. Spending time with our Lord offers us tremendous rewards in many ways but most importantly through growing in a deeper, loving relationship with him.
An analogy may be helpful.
If a husband and wife desire to grow in their love for one another and to deepen their relationship, there would be no question that they would need to spend time talking, opening their hearts and being in the presence of one another. Just doing tasks for each other, such as mowing the lawn, fixing dinner or caring for their children, without ever talking to each other or spending time together would not help them grow in love, trust or intimacy.
Even the Catechism of the Catholic Church acknowledges that prayer requires effort, going so far as to call prayer a “battle.” This battle is against both ourselves and “the wiles of the tempter who does all he can to turn man away from prayer, away from union with God” (CCC 2725).
The battle may begin with a misunderstanding of the meaning of prayer. The Catechism notes that erroneous notions of prayer can leave a person discouraged. Some such examples include viewing prayer as “a simple psychological activity,” seeing prayer as “an effort of concentration to reach a mental void,” or reducing prayer to “ritual words and postures” (CCC 2726).
If we approach prayer in these ways, we end up praying to no one or praying to ourself. It is important to remember that prayer is a response to God’s invitation, who prompts us through the Holy Spirit.
Other difficulties that may arise as we strive to deepen our prayer life include discouragement during periods of dryness, sadness in recognizing our own sinfulness, disappointment in not having prayers answered according to our desires and frustrations with distractions during prayer. Approaching prayer with humility, trust and perseverance can be helpful in overcoming these obstacles.
If we truly want to advance in the spiritual life and grow closer to God, we must be attentive to building a solid foundation of prayer and to nourish that foundation each day. Prayer keeps us close to God, allowing him to be the inspiration and source of our works and efforts. Jesus reminds us, “Apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5).
Prayer is not “a flight from the world,” a “divorce from life” or something that takes time away from all the other things we have to do. Instead, prayer is what makes it possible for us live as a Christian within the world and at every moment of our life (cf. CCC 2726-27).
Prayer is also a necessary precursor to the work of evangelization. Prayer prepares our hearts to bring the joy of the Gospel to others. “When evangelizers rise from prayer, their hearts are more open; freed of self-absorption, they are desirous of doing good and sharing their lives with others” (Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 282).
Prayer also sustains us through the long haul. “Without prolonged moments of adoration, of prayerful encounter with the word, of sincere conversation with the Lord, our work easily becomes meaningless; we lose energy as a result of weariness and difficulties, and our fervor dies out” (EG, 262).
May this Lenten season be one that truly transforms our lives, based upon a newfound commitment to prayer.
Liz Hoefferle is director of religious education for the Diocese of Duluth.