His words grabbed my attention like an alarm clock rousing me from sleep. It’s not as if the priest was saying anything I hadn’t heard before, but now, it was like I was hearing it for the first time. I was praying backward.
Our private prayer is meant to mirror the public prayer of the Church—the liturgy. In the first part of the Mass, our prayer is devoted to listening to God’s Word: the Liturgy of the Word. In the second half of the Mass, we participate in the most beautiful prayer of thanksgiving: the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Sandwiched cozily in between listening to Scripture and giving thanks, we lift up our petitions to God, what we call the Prayers of the Faithful. But here’s the thing about our petitions: they make up a mere fraction of the entirety of the liturgy. Almost all of the Mass, we are listening to God and giving thanks and praise to God, and for just a few brief moments, we are telling Him what we need.
Again, our private prayer is meant to mirror this public prayer of the Church. In our personal prayer lives, we should spend a great deal of time listening to God’s Word, reading and reflecting on Scripture, God’s Divine love letter to us, where He can speak to our hearts and form us into more faithful disciples. By staying close to the Bible in prayer, Jesus, the vine, strengthens us, his branches, giving us the spiritual nourishment we need for our relationship with Him to thrive (see John 15).
We should also spend a significant portion of our personal prayer time giving thanks. After all, we have much to be thankful for. When we read the psalms, we are flooded with messages of thanksgiving to God:
Know that the Lord is good! It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people and the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him, bless his name! –Psalm 100:2-3
Praise the Lord! O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his mercy endures forever! –Psalm 106:1
Praise the Lord! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart… –Psalm 111:1
If you are like me though, your prayer often doesn’t sound anything like this. Instead, it becomes a litany of requests. Petitions take the driver seat, and we shove the practices of listening to God’s Word and offering thanksgiving into the trunk—and that’s if we even bring the Bible and our words of gratitude to our personal prayer time at all.
If we only knew how valuable our spiritual lives could become if we stopped praying backward, if we modeled our personal prayer according to the prayer of the Church—spending the majority of our time listening to God speak to us in His Word and giving Him thanks, and then spending a much lesser amount of time bringing the petitions to Him that He already knows are on our hearts.
Petitions are indeed very good (after all, St. Teresa of Avila said that we pay God a compliment by asking great things of Him), but they are never meant to dominate our prayer. If we are talking the whole time we are praying, how can God get a word in edgewise?
It is time to do a little reconfiguring of our prayer time:
First, make Scripture your favorite companion during prayer. You will be amazed at how much you will take from your prayer time when you are allowing God to speak to you through His Holy Word. Jesus loves when we contemplate on His letter to us, because He loves giving us little nudges that help us draw closer to Him—whether it’s reminding us to be more like Mary and a little less like Martha in our adoration or trying to convince us that “if our trust is great, then his generosity will be without limit” (these were Jesus’ words to Saint Faustina, but we see the evidence of this lesson all throughout the Scripture; for example, in the story of the Roman centurion). By listening to God’s Word in prayer, we receive strength, nourishment, and guidance.
Second, become a true disciple of the Eucharist—give thanks. When I went to adoration the other day with this in mind, my prayer felt a lot more like incense and a lot less like California smog rising to heaven. Being thankful doesn’t change God; it changes us. It makes us disciples that want to sing rather than whine. By giving thanks in prayer, we receive joy, peace, and comfort.
Saint John Vianney said, “Prayer is the inner bath of love into which the soul plunges itself.”
Go ahead, plunge.
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