Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Teaching Parishioners to Pray

by Deacon James Keating, Ph.D.


Deacon James Keating suggests steps that a pastor can take to help parishioners grow in their prayer lives.

Larger Work

Homiletic & Pastoral Review

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, June/July 2010

Pope John Paul II exhorted the Church's pastors to make their parish communities places of deep prayer: "Your first duty as pastors is not projects and organizations but to lead your people to a deep intimacy with the Trinity."1 Affective and spiritual receptivity leads to discernment, which leads to mission, which leads to the holocaust of the selfish ego and the ever-deepening intimacy between one's self-offering to God and God's reception of this offering as his own gift to the one who prays.2 At the depths of the mystery of prayer is this profound truth taught by St. Peter Eymard: "What must I do? I must give myself to Jesus Christ and serve him by the giving, the holocaust of self... 'I want not what is yours but you' [says the Lora"3 This is the "secret" of prayer: to receive God.4

In the following essay, I would like to review what some of the principles noted above entail.

Receptivity leads to discernment. To receive God is crucial to all believers. We do this receiving by actually giving to God in Christ all our thoughts, feelings and desires. I will discuss this further below. For now the key point to remember is that we are called to receive God by opening our hearts to him and relating everything within our hearts to his great love for us. This process of receiving and relating purifies the mind and heart over time. As a result of this purification, we can better discern what our feelings mean—whether they are simply passing moods or deeper movements that carry truth from God.

Discernment leads to mission. When we receive the love of God and relate all of our feelings and thoughts to his love, we grow more sensitive in discerning his call and the mission he wants to give us. Once we accept our mission, this way of fidelity becomes our way of holiness, our way of having God purify ourselves. As our intimacy with God deepens by living out our mission, we in turn want to give him more and more of ourselves. He delights in receiving this gift, which opens us to his joy and grace.

Prayer is a way of being available to God so that our intimacy with him deepens and our capacity to know his movements within us becomes more and more second nature. Such intimacy carries our mission, and within this mission we make ourselves even more available to him, thus securing our friendship in and through our becoming a gift to God and others.

Now, how exactly should a pastor teach such prayer to his people in order to create the parish into a school of prayer?

The location of the teaching: The church

Since priests have little time to do individual spiritual direction, they must teach their people how to pray from the ambo, or perhaps during a regularly scheduled adult faith formation class on prayer. The first location will not afford a priest the time he needs to fully explore the ways of prayer, and the second will not give him anywhere near full exposure to all of the people, since so few attend adult faith formation classes. As one option, I would urge, then, an emphasis on teaching prayer from the ambo. I suggest dedicating the last Sunday of the month as a catechetical Sunday and teaching a series on prayer for three months at every Mass. A second option—and a better one, perhaps, as it preserves the integrity of the homily—is to invite the people together in the church before the celebration of the Eucharist for catechesis on prayer on the last Sunday of the month. This catechesis could last about fifteen to twenty minutes, depending upon the regular Sunday Mass schedule.

The substance of the teaching: Life and mystery

One's life: The soul of each person. When a pastor teaches prayer, he invites the parishioners to pay attention to and acknowledge the affective movements of their hearts (their thoughts, desires and feelings). He is called to help them to slow down within. Many people are so busy, moving from one commitment to the next in daily life with little rest in between, that they become alienated from their own hearts. Such alienation makes them unaware of what their own desires are, and what their own emotional reactions are to daily events. Thus, they become confused about why they are reacting to certain people, events and memories in the way they do. Invite them to slow down and receive their own interior affections ("I am sad, angry, grateful, worried, afraid..."). Becoming aware of one's interior affections and how these relate to or originate in the daily circumstances of life is not yet prayer. Without such self-possession, however, prayer can easily degenerate into a person simply saying words to God, as if God is a distant object to worship but not a person who influences us by his love. God's grace is, of course, involved in raising our awareness of interior affective movements, but there is more to prayer than simply sharing one's feelings with God.

Nevertheless, a pastor should focus on affective movements first in order to give parishioners an opportunity to become conscious of what is happening in their hearts. Once they are aware of their interior feelings, what do they do with these affections? How do they relate to prayer?

God's life: The mystery of Christ. Once we can recognize our affective movements, it becomes possible to relate them to the mystery of Christ. Of course, this mystery must be known and acknowledged as well. One cannot relate the content of one's own heart to an unknown person. So, evangelization and catechesis support the deepening of and reason for prayer. When we teach parishioners the Mystery of Christ, we are teaching them how to approach and receive God as revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Christ. This mystery is carried in the sacramental life and in prayerfully contemplating the Word of God. Through these realities the mystery takes up residence in parishioners' hearts. Securing these realities within the hearts of the people requires a deep desire to do God's will. More emphasis is needed in pastoral formation on developing this desire. Doing God's will should be deeply desired—a reality longed for and then savored—because in living his will we become free; we become happy. God's will is our joy because it flows from a divine heart that is ordered only toward sacred goodness. God only wills our well-being.

The heart is the place of encounter and the place where we receive truth (CCC §2563). Obviously both the encounter and the truth that one encounters have to be discerned as authentic. Not everything in the heart is pure or from God. Discernment is the prayerful process of distinguishing which affective movements carry the presence of God and therefore can be welcomed, and which ones may simply terminate in the self, or even in evil spirits. We are always to follow those affections that strengthen faith, hope and love. A simple series of teaching on who Christ is and what he gave to us by way of his life, death and resurrection will orient parishioners to what their hearts should be contemplating. The more they contemplate Christ and authentic teaching about him, the more they will be able to discern the origin and end of their interior affective movements.

By way of illustration, perhaps a pastor can share with his parishioners the Gospel story of Christ's crucifixion. He can then invite them to imagine this scene and converse with Christ about how they are moved by Christ's love, his courage. Christ does not simply want their adoration, however; he wants them—so instruct the people on sharing their own sufferings with Christ. (Using other meditations one can also share joy with Christ, for example, through the Resurrection accounts.) This sharing of our own hearts is what he most desires from us in prayer. This way of sharing feelings with Christ is efficaciously accomplished within the mystery of Christ as carried in the sacramental life and in one's own prayerful contemplation the Word of God. By way of these realities (namely, the sacraments and the Word of God) entered in faith, love and hope, Christ takes up residence in our hearts.5

The practical points of the teaching

From within a context of teaching parishioners how to meditate upon their interior life, helping them notice their affective movements, and encouraging them to relate these thoughts, feelings, and desires to the love Christ is pouring out to them through the sacraments, we can now begin to teach prayer.

It is not part of a Catholic prayer tradition to try to empty our minds and receive some kind of blank slate as a platform for prayer. Thoughts, feelings and desires are not the enemy of prayer. Christ loves each person individually, and he reaches them through the thoughts, feelings and desires that inhabit their hearts. One ought not to try to artificially erase thoughts, feelings and desires in an effort to "magically" receive Christ in "pure emptiness."6 This is futile and obstructs growth in spiritual intimacy with him. Imagine if a man were to begin a conversation with his spouse, but before he did so he had to compel his interior life to be silent or even to disappear. What facilitates this man's intimacy with his spouse is not blank slate meeting blank slate, but a full, detailed sharing of fears, grief, doubts, joys, and yes, even the minutiae of daily living. This is how persons fall in love and stay in love: by remaining open and vulnerable to their own interior life and then sharing it with another who is disposed to receive it and share in kind. Thinking, feeling and desiring are not distractions when we pray; they are the very substance of who we are, and God wants to hear all about us!

One of the reasons we give up on prayer is because we make it a stern and artificial time of solemn formalism. Approaching God in this way leaves one untouched, unhealed and without the intimacy the human soul craves and God desires. If parishioners believe that they bring joy to Jesus, it will be more obvious to them what the content of their prayer shall be. God says to the one who is his joy, "Tell me all about it!" He doesn't say, "What do you want now? Keep it short, please." It may seem hard to believe, in light of our experience with fellow humans, but God never grows weary of us.

Teach the parishioners to share all their relevant thoughts and feelings with Christ. These thoughts and feelings should be articulated in a clear way, not vaguely. In this way the true and specific content of a person's life becomes related to the true and particular love, mercy and healing that God wishes to share with each one of us. He enters persons at the point of their particularity; the specific nature of their inner life is the portal through which he enters the heart and with which he communes. The more specific one can be in prayer about one's thoughts and feelings, the deeper and more secure will be the resulting personal communion with Christ.

Relate all our relevant thoughts and feelings to Christ's mysteries: his life, death and resurrection. This personal relating is particularly potent to do during the celebration of the Eucharist, but is to be done within our private, personal prayer as well. Instruct parishioners to imagine Christ receiving these thoughts and feelings, perhaps aided by a Scripture story or image, or some other helpful spiritual image (a saint, sacred art).

Afterward, invite the parishioner to receive from Christ his response to such sharing. What affective movements (thoughts, feelings and desires) are stirred within the heart from Christ as a response to such sharing? Encourage the people to receive these affective movements consciously and to "stay with them" until they have dissipated. Call them to retain within their memory the consolation of these affective movements, and when helpful, encourage them to return to them in memory. Help them to remember that once a person has received a grace from God as a response to prayer, that grace is never removed. There is always more of the grace to receive if one returns to the experience in memory. Encourage the parishioners to remember their prayer experiences in order to receive the grace. It is the reception of grace that is vital, not the emotions or lack thereof that accompany a recalled experience. The power of memory is in its ability to enable us to enter the grace again; returning in memory is not simply remembering something that happened before. One is not being nostalgic for a past prayer experience. In effect, to recall prayer is in itself an interior place of grace where the Holy Spirit draws us. The event itself has marked my interiority. I can go now to the place within me that received the grace, and the grace is still being given. It is beyond time and place; it is the Holy Spirit who is praying within (Romans 8).

To close our prayer, we are to respond to God's intimacy by thanking him and committing oneself to return again to his heart in prayer, to execute some change in moral behavior, or to reach out to others in their spiritual or material needs as a response to receiving this divine love.

This type of prayer is simple to learn, but it takes time and endurance to integrate into one's being. The goal is to grow in awareness of one's own interiority, to become more conscious of one's own thoughts and feelings, to have all of these related to God's love in Christ, and to receive intimacy with Christ as the fruit of such sharing. Over time, then, Christ dwells more deeply in such a person. This person then begins to make decisions out of the place of intimacy he shares with Christ, and thus starts thinking with the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16) and choosing what is good by virtue of the influence of Christ's own heart. To make such decisions out of intimacy with Christ and to possess such a source (the communion between one's heart and the heart of Christ in a sacramental context) for choosing the good is the goal of prayer. In such people the parish will become a school of prayer, a community that chooses to dwell in the presence of Christ.7

End notes

1 Pope John Paul II, Address to the Austrian Bishops. For more on this, see my article, "The Parish as a School of Prayer," Emmanuel (July/ August 2008): 305-18.

2 There is a complementary method of prayer, equally simple, found in the writings of Jean Jacques Olier. We offer ourselves to God in light of our sins and ask for forgiveness; we adore Jesus before our eyes; we open our heart to him in communion interiorly; and finally we beg him to accomplish his will in our actions this day (Alive For God In Christ, Proceedings [Buffalo: St John Eudes Center, 1995], 109-111).

3 Andre Guitton, Eymard: Apostle of the Eucharist (Ponteranica, Bergamo: Editrice Centro Eucaristico, 1996), 227.

4 See also Jean Corborn, The Wellspring of Worship (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 37: "The most fruitful activity of the human person is to be able to receive God."

5 Other ways of instruction might be to teach the people what to do with silence immediately before a scheduled Eucharistic adoration, or return them again to the real purpose of the Rosary by teaching them how to meditate upon the Gospels while reciting each decade.

6 Here I am emphasizing the bad habit of some to will an empty mind before God. There is, of course, a gift that one can receive from God to be in union with him and have no corresponding images accompanying this intimacy. This union is not "quietism." "Although images and sense perceptions are eliminated and the...faculties... reduced to silence, the full of light and operating with an intense activity" (Dom Butler, Western Mysticism [New York: Dover, 2003], 106). Again, this type of prayer is a gift, not some state we will or achieve through the work of dismissing "distractions."

7 For further reading on these topics see Fr. John Horn, S.J., Heart Speaks to Heart (Omaha, NE: IPF Publications, 2010).

Deacon James Keating, Ph.D. is director of theological formation in the Institute for Priestly Formation at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. He is the author or editor of eleven books on the moral and spiritual life, the latest being A Deacon's Retreat (Paulist, 2010).

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