Catholics urged to deepen prayer life this Lent
February 18, 2021
For many Catholics, prayer consists of formulaic, verbal prayers such as the Our Father, Hail Mary and many others, or personal prayers of petition, praise, intercession and thanksgiving.
But Lent provides a perfect opportunity to explore a deeper level of prayer – meditation – to help cultivate a more intimate relationship with Jesus Christ.
“Prayer itself is a relationship,” said Jesuit Father Andy Alexander, director of the Collaborative Ministry Office at Creighton University in Omaha.
That relationship with Jesus, he explained, is “transformative.” “It will heal us and renew us, and it will make it more likely that we’ll become like him.”
So Father Alexander suggests people ask themselves if their prayer is leading them, not only closer to Jesus, but to also being more like him.
And the Church teaches that one of the best ways to learn from Jesus, so as to imitate him and share more in his divine life, is by meditating on Scripture.
MEDITATION A QUEST
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Meditation is above all a quest. The mind seeks to understand the why and how of the Christian life, in order to adhere and respond to what the Lord is asking” through the help of Scripture or other spiritual readings (no. 2705).
“Meditation engages thought, imagination, emotion, and desire. This mobilization of faculties is necessary in order to deepen our conviction of faith, prompt the conversion of our heart, and strengthen our will to follow Christ” (no. 2708).
Pope Benedict XVI emphasized the importance of meditating on Scripture in a 2005 address to an international congress, “Sacred Scripture in the Life of the Church” (no. 25), referring to the Second Vatican Council’s document “Dei Verbum.”
“The diligent reading of Sacred Scripture accompanied by prayer brings about that intimate dialogue in which the person reading hears God who is speaking, and in praying, responds to him with trusting openness of heart,” he said.
In his 2010 apostolic exhortation “Verbum Domini” (no. 87), Pope Benedict described a particular way of praying with Scripture called lectio divina (Latin for “divine reading”), developed by St. Benedict.
“It opens with the reading (lectio) of a text, which leads to a desire to understand its true content: what does the biblical text say in itself? Without this, there is always a risk that the text will become a pretext for never moving beyond our own ideas.
“Next comes meditation (meditatio), which asks: what does the biblical text say to us? Here, each person, individually but also as a member of the community, must let himself or herself be moved and challenged.
“Following this comes prayer (oratio), which asks the question: what do we say to the Lord in response to his word? Prayer, as petition, intercession, thanksgiving and praise, is the primary way by which the word transforms us.
“Finally, lectio divina concludes with contemplation (contemplatio), during which we take up, as a gift from God, his own way of seeing and judging reality, and ask ourselves what conversion of mind, heart and life is the Lord asking of us.”
The pope emeritus has said that if lectio divina were more widely practiced, it would lead to a new springtime in the faith.
Another form of meditation comes from the Carmelite tradition, as taught by St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross.
“Carmelite meditation is particularly about moving the heart to a greater love of God,” said Connie Rossini, Catholic Voice columnist and author of several books on prayer.
She describes Carmelite meditation in simple terms: “Focus on the fact that God is present in your heart and take a few moments to set aside all your thoughts about the day and focus on God.
“Then, slowly and prayerfully read a short passage of Scripture,” she said. “As you are reading, if you come across anything that strikes you as interesting … a new insight or something inspiring, pause in your reading there to ponder that thought for a while.
“Stay with that thought and ask yourself, how does this apply to my life? Is there a lesson here for me that the Holy Spirit is trying to teach me? Let that lead you into talking to God about it … maybe asking for the grace that you need to make a change.”
“That conversation, for the Carmelites, is really where the focus of the whole meditation is,” Rossini said.
Many people end their meditation session with a vocal prayer such as the Our Father or Hail Mary, she said.
SOURCES FOR MEDITATION
Father Alexander said that meditating on the daily Mass readings, which can be found in seasonal missalettes and Lenten devotional booklets (and in the Catholic Voice) are a good place to start exploring meditation this Lent.
“The readings the Church uses for Lent were designed for the original RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) candidates, so the readings for Lent are like a mini catechism,” he said. “It’s like an introduction to Christianity … so it’s a great season of renewal.”
Father Alexander also recommends other resources for meditation, such as the writings of popes, which are always rich in Scripture, or one of the many online resources such as his office’s website, onlineministries.creighton.edu/CollaborativeMinistry/online, where people can find numerous readings and Scriptural reflections during Lent, and throughout the year.
As a Jesuit, he encourages using a form of meditation developed by his order’s founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola, taken from his “Spiritual Exercises.”
“Ignatius talks about the first step as arriving in the presence of the Lord … and the second one is asking for the grace I desire,” Father Alexander said. “It’s a way of getting beyond my needs to listing my desires.”
“Sometimes the deeper asking is to say, let me be open to your grace … let me read this Scripture passage and have my ears opened, and my heart opened.”
Then, when reading the Scripture passage, one uses the imagination to become part of the scene, he said. “Enter it as a character in the scene and experience it using your imagination. What does it feel like? What are you sensing?”
“It isn’t just reading a story. It’s experiencing it as a friend wants me to experience it,” he said.
Finally, one concludes by conversing with God about the insights and inspirations received during meditation.
“Talk to the Lord, friend-to-friend,” Father Alexander said. “That’s where the intimacy happens.”
Whatever form of meditation one uses, Rossini offers several tips for getting started.
She recommends finding a specific time and a quiet place to meditate each day. Early in the morning before becoming preoccupied with the demands and events of the day is best, if possible.
If distractions creep in during meditation, recognize that they are normal and return to the Scripture text to refocus, she said. “Everybody struggles with distractions – even the saints.”
She also suggests examining the amount of sensory stimulation, such as digital media, present in one’s life. “I always advise people to take some time between when you get off social media, and do some other kinds of transition activities” before meditating.
And she cautions that there can be periods of dryness when prayer seems to be unproductive, but urges people to persevere in prayer.
“We’ll have times where it just seems like there’s nothing going on. A key thing to remember is that God’s action in your prayer time is actually more important than you know,” Rossini said.
“You just do the best you can and trust that God, the Holy Spirit, is still working through that meditation, even though you might not immediately see the fruit of it.”
“We want the heart to be moved, to fall more in love with Jesus, so that our motivations change (and) we begin to put God and his will for us first,” Rossini said.
“Through our meditation, we receive the knowledge, then the desire, and ultimately the grace to change in the way that God wants us to change so that our lives are more pleasing to him.”
For more coverage on delving into Scripture this Lent, visit this link.
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To learn more about methods of meditative prayer, check out the following resources:
- “Into the Deep: Finding Peace Through Prayer,” by Dan Burke, Beacon Publishing, 2016 (Lectio divina)
- “Meditation and Contemplation: An Ignatian Guide to Praying with Scripture,” by Father Timothy Gallagher, The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2008, (Ignatian meditation)
- “A Q & A Guide to Mental Prayer,” by Connie Rossini, Four Waters Press, 2019 (Carmelite mental prayer)