Prayer is easier than most think, experts say, and Lent is a time to re-examine one’s routine
This is the final article in a three-part series on the three basic pillars of Lent: almsgiving, fasting and prayer. In honor of the Year of Consecrated Life, each feature includes members of religious communities who are deeply living out these spiritual practices all year long.
Elbert Watkins knocked on the back door of a house on the corner of Fremont and 16th in north Minneapolis.
He found a warm welcome from its residents, the Visitation Sisters known by neighborhood residents, such as Watkins, as the “nuns in the hood.”
Like dozens of people every month, Watkins was there to get help with practical needs. The sisters routinely give away bus tokens, groceries and Cub Foods gift cards to help struggling people stay afloat.
But, in this case, the sisters sensed that Watkins needed more than charity; what Watkins really needed on that winter day was prayer. He is battling throat cancer, and it has attacked his vocal cords. He only speaks in a barely audible whisper.
“One must not think that a person who is suffering is not praying. He is offering up his sufferings to God, and many a time he is praying much more truly than one who goes away by himself and meditates his head off, and, if he has squeezed out a few tears, thinks that is prayer.”
St. Teresa of Avila
All he needed to do was nod when Sister Katherine Mullen asked him in the kitchen if he wanted prayer. Without removing her apron, she put aside the task of preparing lunch and put her hand on Watkins’ shoulder, bowed her head and asked God to help him.
Moments later, Sister Mary Frances Reis came through the door and, without waiting to remove her coat, joined in the prayer.
Before Watkins left, the sisters invited him into their modest chapel for noon prayer. After about 15 minutes of psalms, hymns and sharing, the sisters stood up and invited Watkins to the front for the closing prayer. They circled him, laid hands on him, and petitioned God for healing.
Watkins was visibly moved, though unable to vocalize his gratitude.
That wasn’t a roadblock for the sisters. They merely did what they always do — carry a deep relationship with God from the privacy of their hearts into the lives of everyone they meet.
A natural part of life
The sisters’ half-hour with Watkins demonstrated a perfect link between the practice of prayer and another Lenten discipline, almsgiving. For the sisters, the two go hand in hand.
But, the sisters said, it all starts with prayer.
“I think prayer is a way of moving through your day,” said Sister Suzanne Homeyer. “Prayer is something that’s a natural part of life for me.”
Although mystics, Church fathers and spiritual directors have written volumes on prayer, the sisters’ definition is something even a child could grasp.
“Prayer is simply being open to God and letting ourselves speak heart to heart [with him],” Sister Karen Mohan said.
Sister Mary Frances added: “Prayer is a loving conversation with God. Often times, when I pray with people, I like to say, ‘Most loving God, it is in you that we live, and move and have our being.’”
For people who worry whether or not they’re really praying, or wondering if they’re doing it right, one long-time expert has some words of encouragement.
“We pray in many ways without even knowing it,” said Franciscan Father Jim Van Dorn, associate director of the Franciscan Retreats and Spirituality Center in Prior Lake. “If I want God, that’s prayer.”
“Prayer is the place of refuge for every worry, a foundation for cheerfulness, a source of constant happiness, a protection against sadness.”
St. John Chrysostom
When Father Van Dorn talks about his most profound moments of prayer, he recalls things like the time he saw the northern lights, or the time he looked out the retreat center window and found himself face-to-face with a deer looking in on the other side. He is grateful that the wooded acres surrounding the center offer a regular opportunity to find God in nature.
“Nature is one of the easiest ways” to encounter God in prayer, Father Van Dorn said. “Just go out there and enjoy what God has made. It’s all around you. Take it in. It will speak to you in its own way. Listen to it.”
Prayer experts, including Father Van Dorn, say that human beings are wired to desire a relationship with God; they are designed to pray. So, even if some people think they don’t know how — or even if they’re not sure they want to — their basic nature can help them.
Prayer “is written across our hearts,” said Elizabeth Kelly, an adjunct professor in Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas and a certified spiritual director. “I’ve always had a desire for prayer. I certainly have dry periods of prayer, but it’s always been something that I didn’t think about doing as a duty. I need it, like water, like air. I need it. I need that intimate connection with God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
Silence ‘a language of God’
Local experts say a regular prayer discipline is crucial for a person’s spiritual life, and should be practiced year round. Lent is an appropriate season for people to reexamine their prayer habits, and start or deepen a prayer routine. Some people do that by dedicating days to prayer on a retreat in places such as Pacem in Terris, a retreat center near St. Francis with small, individual hermitages. In taking time away from the busyness of life, people get the chance to do exactly what Jesus did for 40 days in the desert — go off to a quiet place to pray.
“The part that’s often missing in people’s lives — which was a major piece of Jesus’ prayer — is he would go alone,” said Father Timothy Nolan, who lives at Pacem in Terris and spends his retirement years helping people experience God on their silent retreats. “That’s one of the beauties of Pacem in Terris. It provides a marvelous opportunity for people to take extended time in a simple little prayer cabin we call a hermitage, in solitude all by themselves in utter silence. Silence is a language of God.”
Some people find it challenging to incorporate prayer into their daily routines, but Kelly suggests doing just that. She prays while grocery shopping, swimming laps at the pool and sitting at a stoplight. It’s an extension of her childhood, when her parents did the same thing — out loud and with their children.
“Prayer is an aspiration of the heart, it is a simple glance directed to heaven, it is a cry of gratitude and love in the midst of trail as well as joy; finally, it is something great, supernatural, which expands my soul and unites me to Jesus.”
St.Therese of Lisieux
“My parents prayed together morning, noon and night and have for as long as I can remember,” Kelly said. “We’d all pile into the car, all seven of us, and immediately we’d start praying.”
She has a favorite prayer, the Rosary of the Holy Wounds, which she prays often and aloud. Formal prayers like this can be a good way to start, she said, recommending prayers Jesus taught, such as the Our Father or just one of its lines.
The second part of prayer is listening, Kelly said, and that’s often where people struggle. But again, it’s not as hard as some may think, and it’s a myth to believe that God speaks to some and not to others, she said.
“God isn’t trying to hide himself,” Kelly said. “He’s not trying to hide his will from us. He wants us to know it. He wants us to discern it, he wants us to enter into conversation [with him].
“If people say, ‘I’m just not hearing God’s voice,’ my first question is: How are your listening skills? Are you listening? How do you listen?”
Role of a heavenly father
Perhaps, the best way for someone to begin a life of prayer is to believe that God wants each person to come to him. Kelly suggested the image of a father wanting to speak with his child. Most children, especially young ones, dash up to their dad and spill their thoughts and feelings. They don’t worry about how their father will critique their words.
Neither will God pick apart what people say after they’re done praying, she said. What he’s most interested in, Kelly and others said, is people’s presence and time.
“Prayer is a gift, it really is. It’s falling in love with this Creator,” Father Van Dorn said. “You’ve got to look at prayer as a relationship. The words are an expression of the relationship. So, as you do with a relationship with your friend, your spouse, as you interact with them, that’s what you do with God.”
Photos by Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit