From his youth it was his custom to go to the synagogue in Nazareth on the Sabbath where he would unroll a scroll and read Scripture (Luke 4:16,17). After his baptism in the Jordan, Jesus went out into the desert where he spent 40 days and 40 nights in prayer (Matthew 4:1-11).
But how did Jesus spend those long, silent hours in solitude? How did Jesus pray? The Gospel account does not specify exactly, but an answer can be safely inferred. Every time the devil tempted him, Jesus rebuffed the temptation with a Scripture quote, all three from the book of Deuteronomy (8:3; 6:16; and 6:13). These verses were fresh in Jesus’ mind, on the tip of his tongue. From the way that Jesus applied these texts so readily, it is apparent that he spent considerable time reading and studying them, meditating and praying with them. He devoured and digested Scripture so eagerly that it became part of the fabric of his being (see Ezekiel 3:1-4). Jesus is the Word (John 1:1), he prayed with the Word, and he embodied the Word.
Imitate the master
If Jesus prayed with Scripture, so should we. One of the best ways to cultivate a close relationship with Jesus is to listen to him as he speaks, and he speaks through the Gospels. Jesus expects us to know and observe his word:
“Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock” (Matthew 7:24). Some of the strongest and most durable building blocks of our spiritual foundation are laid with time spent in prayer with Scripture.
The basic tool
A copy of the Bible is the essential prerequisite. The New American Bible is the approved Catholic translation for liturgical use in the United States, and it is highly recommended for personal use. There should be at least one copy in every home.
It is necessary to set aside time for prayer, not just any time, but prime time, quality time when a person is alert, well-rested and best able to concentrate. Early birds are rarely at their best at bedtime, and similarly night owls are rarely at their best when they get up in the morning. Everyone’s prime time is different. Reserve a time that is good for you and hold to it. God deserves our best moments, not our most tired and drowsy ones.
It is best to find a quiet place free of distractions. It might be the living room, the study or the bedroom at home. Close the door. Turn off the TV, radio or iPod. It could also be outside on the deck or at a picnic table in the park, at church during eucharistic adoration, or in the car on a long, solitary drive listening to the Bible on CD or tape.
Good texts for starters
If our prayer is intended to strengthen our relationship with Jesus, the place to begin is with his Gospels. The Gospel of Mark is an excellent starting point. It was the first Gospel written, and it is the shortest, most concise, fastest moving and easiest to understand. A chapter a day keeps sin away. Then continue with the other Gospels, and then the other books of the New Testament. Other methods are to pray with the readings assigned for Mass that day (visit http://www.usccb.org/nab/index.shtml), or with the readings in the breviary, or at the beginning of the Bible with Genesis, or to select a favorite Scripture passage and branch out from there.
Ways to pray
Center yourself: Be quiet and get focused. Begin with a little prayer to the Holy Spirit to enlighten the mind and soften the heart.
Read the text: a single verse, a few verses, or a longer passage. Pause.
Meditate: Mull over what you have read. Ponder the message. Listen. Absorb. Be inspired. Take guidance. Repeat a word or phrase. Memorize a verse. If your mind wanders, as it often will, re-center and re-read. Ask yourself, “What is God saying to me? What truths does God want to convey to me? What is God’s will for me?”
Whether the session lasts a few minutes or an hour, when finished offer a prayer of thanks. God’s Word is great; it “is able to save your souls”(James 1:21).
Pray with children
If there are youngsters at home, be sure to have a children’s Bible. Parents, older siblings and grandparents can read Bible stories out loud to small children, or as children learn to read, adults and children can take turns.
Then have the child engage the text. Invite small children to draw a picture about what they heard, or invite older children to retell the story in their own words. Ask them to pick out a word, verse or character that they like and have them explain why. Explore what the story says about the nature of God or what they have learned and how it might help them at home or at school.
It is an excellent practice to use the Scripture text to come up with a prayer said out loud in one’s own words. It is never too early to pray with the Bible.
Father Van Sloun is pastor of St. Stephen in Anoka.