Growing Closer to God
Once when I was traveling, a flight attendant shared with me her feeling that something was missing in her life, saying that she wished she had the sense of wholeness she knew when she was younger and attending Catholic school. It became clear as we talked that it had been a long time since she had significant contact with the practice of the faith. When she told me that she did not even remember how to pray, I told her I would help her.
It is not unusual for me or for any priest to have conversations with people about a desire to pray more or better or differently. It is even a discussion Jesus had with his disciples! To help others like this woman seeking more peace and joy in their lives, I recently wrote a book, Ways to Pray: Growing Closer to God. My hope is that with this little book, readers will learn how to better and more deeply enter into God’s intimate presence.
In the Gospel we read how Jesus was praying in a certain place when one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples” (Luke 11:1). It is an important question, and even an urgent one. Maybe the disciple felt sheepish about bothering the great Master about such a simple matter, but he got over his inhibitions because he needed to know how to pray.
We all do. We need to learn how to pray and to spend our lives at that task. It is the life-long education of learning to speak the language of heaven. The good news is that God is present and wants to be present in our lives. The Lord wants us apply ourselves to a closer relationship with him in prayer with diligence, passion, focus and endurance because he loves us and he knows that the greatest good is for us to be with him.
In response to the disciple who asked how to pray, Jesus gave us the Our Father, also known as the Lord’s Prayer. This model for all prayer contains the four general types of prayer – adoration, thanksgiving, petition and contrition.
For most of us, the kind of prayer that comes most easily is that of petition – asking something of God. Usually, we are reaching out for God’s help for ourselves or someone we love. Every Sunday, at Mass we ask divine assistance for the Church, for our local parish, for the healing of those who are sick and for eternal life for those who have died.
Pope Francis describes petition as one of three movements of prayer: “gazing on the Lord, hearing the Lord and asking the Lord.” No one would dispute the elements of his sequence: gazing, hearing and asking. Those are basic components in most of our everyday conversations and, as Saint Teresa of Ávila observed, prayer is nothing more than conversation with God. We observe good manners we look in the direction of the people with whom we are speaking, when we listen to them, and when we speak to those whose company we share.
But notice the sequence in the Pope’s instruction: “hearing” comes before “asking.” He tells us to begin by gazing in God’s direction, but the next step is not talking – it is hearing. It is listening to and receiving a word that is given. God has already taken the initiative. “God calls man first,” explains the Catechism. “In prayer, the faithful God’s initiative of love always comes first; our own first step is always a response” (CCC 2567).
In this pattern of prayer, our bonds with God will grow stronger just as ordinary relationships grow stronger through talking and listening. We make time for one another and we proceed to fill that time in a variety of meaningful ways. We exchange customary greetings. We exchange updates, concerns, ideas, hopes, wishes, plans, and fears. This is how we share life with one another. We take what is inside us – what is entirely interior – and we communicate it to another person. At the same time, we make the effort to hear, understand, and respond to the other person.
We know this process from everyday life. In prayer, God wants us to learn how the same dynamic, the same habits and custom, apply to our friendship with him. Through Catholic tradition, God has given you what you need to get started. Now all that remains is for you to pray, to respond to his call in the language of love, one day after another.