I was recently reflecting on my faith journey over the last few years. I converted to Catholicism in 2006 with my wife and two sons. I was raised in the Baptist church until I stopped attending as a 15 year old and had no relationship with God until I experienced a powerful personal conversion in late 2005 while attending my second Mass. My 23 years in the “spiritual wilderness” were challenging in that my life revolved around only work and then after I was married, family and work. God was always watching over me during these years, but I didn’t have a relationship with Him and I certainly didn’t pray to Him until after my conversion and surrender to His will.
Before I began my RCIA classes in the late summer of 2006, I studied the Catholic faith in earnest. I tend to intellectualize everything and my first thoughts were to learn everything I could about our faith. I quickly realized there was much more to our wonderful Faith than knowledge, history and tradition! I then began to focus on being the best Catholic I could be and started on my true faith journey, versus simply immersing myself in books. One of the biggest obstacles for me in those days was my lack of prayer life. I knew I needed to pray, but I couldn’t ever remember sincerely praying about anything. I was struggling with the typical male challenge of asking for help, especially asking God for help! Who was I to bother Him with my petty problems?
I went to one of our Deacons, shared my prayer challenges with him and asked for guidance. He looked at me with some amusement and said I was approaching prayer in the wrong way. “Don’t worry about asking for help just yet,” he said. Simply go to the Lord with thanks and be grateful for the blessings in my life. Eventually, I learned to ask God for help and guidance, but my prayer life started by offering thanks to Him. The light bulb went off and I finally got it! I now understood that my faith journey would never grow unless I had an active prayer life. This was the beginning of my prayer journey that has continued to unfold and grow with each passing day. I would like to share with you the stages of my prayer journey as a Catholic, lessons I have learned and insights into how I pray in hopes you will find my experiences to be helpful.
Stage One of my prayer life was learning to thank God and be grateful. Going to Him in prayer and reflecting on the blessings and burdens in my life every day is how I learned to appreciate and acknowledge the Lord’s role in my life. To this day I never start a prayer without thanking Him.
Stage Two for me was learning to ask for forgiveness. I go to reconciliation frequently, but it is still important for me to ask the Lord for his pardon and forgiveness when I commit a sin-which is more frequent than I care to admit! It has become a daily Examination of Conscience for me to reflect on where I have failed Him and ask for forgiveness and the grace to not commit that sin again.
Stage Three was asking for His help and guidance. This stage of prayer is also when I also learned to pray for others and their needs. I think men in general struggle with asking for help and I am no exception. My growing prayer life and deepening faith journey has given me the humility to realize that I don’t have all the answers and that Jesus absolutely wants to help me. Early on I would tentatively ask for help with the BIG stuff like getting my family into Heaven, blessing our Priests and Deacons, giving our government leaders wisdom and so on. Now, I am very comfortable asking for His help and guidance in every facet of my life. But, first I had to gain the humility to recognize that without our Lord I am nothing and I need His strength.
Stage Four in my prayer journey has been learning to completely unburden myself to the Lord. This has occurred only in the last year. I have always been inclined to carry my stress, frustrations, worries and fears like a secret weight around my neck. As I got better at asking the Lord for help, I began asking for His help to lighten these mental and emotional burdens. I am so grateful that I now can go to Him and absolutely give Him whatever is weighing me down, from work stress, to concern about my children’s future. Whatever it is, I share it with Jesus as he asked us to in Matthew 11:28-29, “Come to me, all you who are weary and find life burdensome, and I will refresh you. Take my yoke upon your shoulders and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart. Your souls will find rest, for my yoke is easy and my burden light.”
I am confident that there will be more and evolving stages of prayer growth for me if I am humble and focused on deepening my relationship with Christ. St. Teresa of Avila wrote frequently on the stages of prayer, especially in her book The Interior Castle. I hope to reach the contemplative and mystical prayer life she describes in her works and pray that Jesus will lead me there.
Some important lessons I have learned (and keep learning!) in my prayer life and would like to share include:
- Make time for prayer-Just Do It! If you don’t schedule prayer time and stick to it, it will not happen. Starting the day with prayer is often best and it builds slowly from there. Ask yourself if you would be willing to spend only 30 minutes a day with your loved ones. Hopefully the answer is a resounding NO! Ok, then why do we struggle to give the Lord at least 30 minutes a day in prayer? How you do it is not nearly as important as the act of doing it!
- Have the proper disposition before praying. It is important to have the right attitudes of humility and faith that God can and will help us before we start praying. Reading scripture or a book of meditations such as In Conversation with God or The Imitation of Christ every day before prayer will help prepare our heads and hearts to approach the Lord in a deeper and more meaningful way.
- Work through the “dry patches.” We all experience dryness in our prayers or have trouble focusing. We may feel that God is not listening. We may fall into the trap of asking God to validate what we want instead of submitting to His will. I am certain that you will experience this, but keep at it! Mother Teresa’s book revealed decades of dryness and despair in her prayer life and yet she persevered!
- Eucharistic Adoration is a gift. We are so fortunate to have perpetual Eucharistic Adoration in our parish. Going before the Blessed Sacrament and having quiet prayer time in the presence of Christ often energizes you and becomes a catalyst for dramatically growing your prayer life.
- Practice more listening and less talking in prayer. Adoration is the perfect place to listen to the Lord in complete silence. We are often so busy talking that we fail to hear Him which detracts from our quality prayer time.
- We can’t grow our Faith Journey without growing our Prayer Life! We simply will not grow our relationship with Christ unless we do so through prayer. According to the Catechism (2744): Prayer is the lifeblood of your faith. Without prayer, your faith will die.
Finally, I would like to share some insights on how I pray in hopes that it will inspire you and help you deepen your own prayer lives:
- I start every day by reading the bible or the Magnificat and the scripture for the mass that day. I then read In Conversation with God by Francis Fernandez and reflect on the meditation it contains and how it applies to my life. I follow with prayer and offer the day up to God.
- I have been a Eucharistic Guardian since January of 2007 and this is the best hour of my week. No matter what is happening in my life, I can come into the True presence of Christ and open up to Him in prayer. It is absolutely uplifting and energizing and a great way to start my day.
- I started praying the Rosary about a year ago and typically pray it on my way to work or while on the treadmill. I put praying the Rosary off for so long, but it is becoming a critical part of my prayer life and a true blessing. This goes hand in hand with my ever deepening love and appreciation for our Blessed Mother and asking for her intercession and prayers.
- The Daily Examen, developed by the Jesuits, is a critical part of my daily routine. Basically, we are asked to stop five times throughout the day for a few minutes of reflection and prayer. Each stopping point has a specific purpose such as the Prayer of Thanksgiving, Praying for Insight, Praying that you will find God in all things that day, Praying for your desires and what you seek from God and finally a Prayer about the Future and what you will resolve to do tomorrow. It is best to actually put these 5-minute blocks on your calendar throughout the day so you will be reminded.
- Pray at every meal-public and private. It is important for us be thankful and acknowledge Christ and ask for His blessing.
- My wife and I pray with our children every night. It is important for them to develop their own prayer lives, but they see our example and we also grow by sharing our prayer lives with them.
Brothers and sisters, I certainly don’t have all the answers and I am no expert on prayer. I simply want to share with you as someone who struggles with the same issues and obstacles, that my prayer life and my faith journey have grown together. I didn’t have any kind of prayer life just four years ago and now I couldn’t imagine living a life without one. To me prayer is anytime that I turn my attention to God and away from myself alone. It can be accomplished in a variety of ways and acts. Feeling worthy or inspired is not a great barometer for measuring our prayer life. Praying for….the desire for prayer is worthwhile and a good start.