By Msgr. Francis X. Meehan
Our Eucharist is offered on Sunday. The question for this column is about how we pray from Monday to Saturday. A recent Sunday Gospel recounts the story of the blind man, Bartimaeus. His prayer is so simple: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.” It has become a model prayer for what has become known as the “Jesus Prayer.” “Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on us – poor sinners!”
On this question of prayer, it is good to be very concrete: Where do you pray? How much time? What time of the day? What is your bodily posture like -kneeling, sitting, driving? How casual; how un-casual? Do you use the Scriptures, the rosary, prayer-cards saved over the years?
I have been blessed – both as a parish priest and now at St. Charles Seminary – to hear so many tell their stories: moms and dads, sisters, priests, singles, seminarians. None of us is spared the struggles involved in our learning to pray.
The very first point is about how to carve out a concrete piece of time. Spontaneity can only take us so far. How does one bring discipline to the daily-ness of prayer? Some working moms and dads are incredibly creative. Yes, the car is a place! So are the 10 to 15 minutes stolen from lunchtimes at work. So is a night prayer before an image of Jesus at home. Some even make a holy hour – a very special grace.
And how to handle the hard times: “I used to have good feelings in prayer, but God does not send me flowers anymore.” What to do when prayer becomes dry, when darkness sets in, when God seems far, un-answering, distant?
And then the question: How verbal should I be? How silent? Bartimaeus was verbal, even if simple. The woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment – she seemed more silent – just a touch. Both, though, are assertive, trusting. There is the boldness of friendship!
Our great teachers and mystics teach us differing ways: Ignatius says reflect, apply, imagine yourself right there with the blind man, with the woman. St. Benedict teaches us a simple “lectio” – a reading from Scripture, a line, a phrase. Then there is Centering Prayer where few words are spoken. The latter stems from what is known as the “apophatic” tradition – apophatic meaning “no words” or “no images of mind.”
Yet no hard spanisions should be made between these ways of praying. All leave room for the silence, for the moment of God-larger-than-us, the moment of being taken into a mystery of Presence, the slow healing deep within – beyond imagination, beyond muscular will power, beyond psychological introspection.
I have learned something through the years: Most Catholics, most Christians, do not find prayer easy. Many say, “I have been too busy, torn by the hectic pace of my week.” Many of us have to admit our struggle with laziness and with too much television.
Thank God for Bartimaeus! He knows the need for mercy. Yet he rises in confidence. So do we! The Holy Spirit does breathe on us. The Virgin Mary, who taught her Son, teaches us as well! The saints and mystics nudge us on – with wisdom and courage. There is mercy to be had; there is also joy, hope and love. In the end, be consoled by St. Paul’s great teaching: When we do not know how to pray, “the Holy Spirit of God prays within us with unutterable groanings!”
Msgr. Meehan is a former teacher and pastor who now helps in spiritual direction for students at St. Charles Seminary.