Pathways of Prayer - part 1

This was in an e-newsletter that I get from Friar Jack, an American Franciscan monk who writes for, a very useful Franciscan-run Catholic resource site. I find it gives a very good explanation of what prayer is and the different forms it can take. Part 2 of the text will follow this:

Pathways of Prayer (Part I)

by Friar Jack Wintz, O.F.M.

You and I are sometimes like radios or TV sets that are not properly tuned in to a station or channel. The news announcers or entertainers are out there talking or singing away. The station is sending out live signals. But if we have not turned on our sets or failed to dial in the station correctly, there will be no communication!

This is often our problem with God. God is out there—as well as inside us—beaming forth love, goodness and inspiration. But it’s lost on us because we fail to pray, that is, we fail to tune in or open ourselves to God’s loving presence.

This "Sacred Woods" near Spoleto, Italy, was a favorite prayer site of St. Francis of Assisi.
(Photo by Jack Wintz, O.F.M.)

Actually, there are many prayer paths to God available to us today. In recent years, new approaches to prayer and contemplation have been developed. As a Franciscan friar and writer, I have collected over the years many ideas for enriching our prayer life. They come from books and articles, from interviews with spiritual advisers as well as from my own prayer experience. In the next two E-spirations, I will suggest several practical methods or pathways to prayer, through which the spirit leads us into living union with God. But first let me make a few introductory points:

Prayer: Recognizing what we already have
Whether we know it or not, we are already in the presence of God and united with God because God is everywhere. Prayer helps us bring to consciousness this precious bond we have with God and his saving love. As Thomas Merton points out: “In prayer we discover what we already have…. We already have everything, but we don’t know it and we don’t experience what we already possess…. The whole thing boils down to giving ourselves in prayer a chance to realize that we have what we seek. We don’t have to rush after it. It is there all the time and, if we give it time, it will make itself known to us.”

The problem is, we are not aware of the union with God we already possess. Father William Johnston, S.J., author of several books on prayer, insists that “many people experience God, but don’t recognize their own experience…. It’s like the two disciples going to Emmaus. They met Jesus on the road but they thought he was a stranger. Only afterward did they look back and say, ‘were not our hearts burning within us when we were talking with him?’ They had not recognized Jesus, but afterwards they did.”

Like grace, of course, God’s presence is a gift, and we cannot force ourselves into living communion with God by a sheer act of will. Human friendship is similar. We cannot force another man or woman to be our friend or lover. We can only offer our friendship to another and then humbly await the gift of his or her friendship. The essence of prayer consists in this humble waiting—in a childlike spirit of openness, expectation and listening. To pray means to make ourselves present and available to God so that we are truly ready to open the door when Jesus comes and knocks.

Finding your own pathways
Each of us is wise to find the styles of prayer that suit us. The Holy Spirit is the only true teacher of prayer, and without preconceived ideas we must let the spirit draw us to those ways of prayer that work best for us. If any of the following suggestions are helpful for you, wonderful. If any seem out of sync with your temperament or cause anxiety, steer clear of those. Any good spiritual director will warn you against methods of prayer that do not harmonize with your spiritual gifts. With this in mind, feel free to explore the following approaches to prayer. I trust that some of them—if adapted to your needs—can lead to a richer union with God.

* Familiar prayers.
The Our Father, the Come Holy Spirit, the Stations of the Cross, the rosary and the Peace Prayer of St. Francis are but a few samples of Catholicism’s rich tradition of prayer. And when slowly pondered, the sentiments and phrases of the Our Father or Come Holy Spirit, for example, have great potential as passageways into the presence of God.

We should not overlook the Eucharist as Christianity’s most perfect prayer and primary pathway leading us as a body of believers—and as individuals—into union with God.

* Prayers of praise.
Praise is a form of prayer that belongs near the top of anyone’s list. Joyful and free, it preserves us from the false notion that prayer is cheerless. Praise is the bubbling over of the spirit. Often the spirit’s first impulse within us is that of bursting into praise and thanksgiving. Surely, one of our deepest human instincts is adoration, and we do well to let the spirit flow freely through us in words of praise. The Our Father recognizes this in its first exclamation: “Hallowed be thy name!”

Praise and adoration take us from our self-preoccupation and lead us outward to God and to the creation that bears God’s imprint. This is the key to the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, according to Franciscan author Murray Bodo: “St. Francis praises God through Brother Sun and Sister Moon, Brother Wind and Sister Water and all creatures.” Like St. Francis, the spirit prompts us to celebrate our brotherhood and sisterhood with other creatures and praise God, not in isolation from creation, but through sunlight, rain, wind and flowers. Maybe it’s a good time for you and me to spend some time praising God in an outdoor park or garden or at the lake or sea.
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