Listen That You May Live
by Sr. Ann Shields
So many workshops, conferences and retreats today on prayer speak of various forms of prayer and the need to find the form of prayer that helps you, that meets your needs. Such a statement may be very reflective of the idolatry of self so prevalent in our culture. Everything today that is advertised, offered, sold, appeals to the assured personal benefits “you” will receive.
But prayer is, first of all, the means by which we enter into the presence of God to offer Him the praise, worship, adoration and thanksgiving he deserves. It is a time to meditate on his word that we may be conformed to his teaching, growing in obedience to his word; that our wills may be more ‘docile’ to the voice and action of his Holy Spirit. It is a time to bring him our needs, asking for his strength and wisdom and guidance. It is a time to listen and wait upon him: “As the eyes of a servant are on the hand of his master, as the eyes of a maid are on the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the Lord our God until he have mercy upon us” (Ps. 123:2).
So, the first thing about prayer is about what we give to God—what we as a son or daughter owe our Father in heaven who gave each of us life in Jesus Christ. We were dead in our sin; we could do nothing to change our fatal condition until the Father who so loved the world gave us His only Son that we might have life. Familiar words, yes. But sometimes it is so familiar that we lose the enormity of that gift, of what we have received “without price”. The Holy Spirit is given to us that we primarily might be able to worship God in spirit and truth. That we might be given that wisdom, counsel, fortitude and knowledge by which we reflect his image and become a sign of that image to the world.
“Shine in me and so be in me that all with whom I come in contact may know thy presence in my soul. Let them look up and see no longer me but only Jesus” (Cardinal Newman). That kind of prayer has no thought for self but simply that I be a temple of the Holy Spirit bringing his life in my daily thoughts, words and actions to those God gives me.
It is the work of the Holy Spirit to help me to be docile, that is, to be teachable. My part is to read God’s word daily, asking that my life be conformed to it. It is to read the catechism, the teaching of the Church, to inform my mind and my heart of God and the ways of God. In this way I develop a well formed conscience and a way of life that reflects the centrality of Jesus Christ in my life. It is a time to praise him and thank him and adore him for blessing me with the gifts of faith and hope and love; for the abilities to read and to understand.
Contemplate the face of Christ
It is time to ask the Lord that my will be more and more reflective of his. Adrienne von Speyr, in her book, Handmaid of the Lord, said of Mary that there was in her, “no hesitation, no calculation, no reserve.” Can we move more in that direction? Of course, if we are willing! So, praise and worship, thanksgiving and surrender are always our goals when we come to prayer. It is hard work to establish the foundation stones but IT IS WORTH IT!
Listen to John Paul II in section 32 of Novo Millennio Ineunte (NMI): “This training in holiness calls for a Christian life distinguished above all in the art of prayer…we know well that prayer cannot be taken for granted. We have to learn to pray, as it were learning this art ever anew from the lips of the Divine Master himself, like the first disciples:‘Lord, teach us to pray’ (Luke 11:1). Prayer develops that conversation with Christ which makes us his intimate friends: ‘Abide in me and I in you’ (John 15:4). This reciprocity is the very substance and soul of the Christian life and the condition of all true pastoral life. Wrought in us by the Holy Spirit, this reciprocity opens us, through Christ and in Christ to contemplation of the Father’s face. Learning this Trinitarian shape of Christian prayer and living it fully, above all in the liturgy, the source and summit of the Church’s life, but also in personal experience, is the secret of a truly vital Christianity, which has no reason to fear the future, because it returns continually to the sources and finds in them new life.”
“…Prayer can progress as a genuine dialogue of love, to the point of rendering the person wholly possessed by the Divine Beloved, vibrating at the Spirit’s touch, resting filially within the Father’s heart,” NMI, #33.
Listen to those words: everyone of us, baptized in Christ, can, by the power of the Holy Spirit, enter into an intimacy, a union with the Divine Lover; we can have a sensitivity to the Holy Spirit that causes us to vibrate, much like a good violin will “sing” at the touch of a breeze; we can rest with utter confidence near the heart of the Father as a son or daughter. That, brothers and sisters, is a portion of your inheritance, which can be yours now. Don’t get caught up in what the world offers, even if it has a Christian label. Don’t get caught up in the false dichotomy between contemplative and charismatic prayer. Both are necessary; both are available to you by the graces of Baptism and Confirmation.
Contemplate the suffering face of Christ
How do we get there? Obviously, it is all based on grace and our willingness to follow the Lord’s action as He leads each of our souls. But there are some practical steps which facilitate our openness to grace.
In addition to the prayerful reading of God’s word daily and the teaching of the Church through the Catechism, as I mentioned above, John Paul II urged us in his encyclical, Novo Millennio Ineunte, to read, to pray through the lives of the saints. See how they surrendered to God; see how they prayed; see how they served. Let that kind of spiritual reading inspire and encourage you. In the same document he speaks of the call to holiness: 31b and 32. “Such an ideal must not be misunderstood as though it involved some kind of extraordinary existence, possible only for a few uncommon heroes of holiness. The ways of holiness are many according to the vocation of each individual.” So, as you approach prayer, learn from the wisdom of others, yes, be inspired and encouraged, but let God form you in your relationship with him, as he wishes.
John Paul also asked us to take time as often as possible, some time each day, to contemplate the face of Christ—all of us. How do we do that? First, is the very difficult task of 21st century man and woman to quiet the heart, the mind, and the body. Ask the Holy Spirit to lead you. He is a most excellent teacher. Sometimes it takes me fifteen minutes to quiet my heart from distractions, burdens, plans, etc. But if I ask the Holy Spirit to help and just wait, the quiet of being in the presence of God begins to settle and brings peace to soul and body.
Then John Paul advised us to contemplate the suffering face of Christ. I use Isaiah 52 and 53—the suffering servant passages— to reflect on what Christ has done for me. I gaze upon him with wordless thanks. Day in and day out, such reflection and contemplation changes me. Sometimes it’s five minutes in a day, sometimes a half hour or an hour.
Then we are asked to contemplate the risen face of Christ. I reflect on the passages of the resurrection and again a quiet settles on me, giving birth to hope and confidence. (It is not my personality). It is simply obedience to what the Holy Father asked of us that produces grace and gives me what no technique can ever do. I’ve prayed that way in part for the last four years with no obvious fruit until recently, to my surprise, I noticed that I am beginning to see his face, so to speak, in the sometimes distressing disguises of others.
Where I would normally be impatient or irritable, or threatened, I find that I see with new eyes and treat people with greater respect and patience. I know that fruit is from those times of contemplating the face of Christ. But, even if I saw no fruit it would be right to persevere to honor and love him! Only after this time is given to God do I approach intercession. When we pray for others and their needs or our own, the first thing we need to deal with is to be able to pray in Jesus’ name. “Whatever you ask in my name I will do.” When I was much younger, I used to preface or conclude all my prayer for others by asking “in Jesus’ name,” as if the mere articulation of the name did the job!
Contemplate the risen face of Christ.
When we ask in someone’s name for anything we are expressing their desire or intention, not ours. An example I often use is this: When I was a child, my father would often send me to the corner grocery store to pick up a loaf of bread or extra milk, etc. I would tell them, “My dad asked me to get this and he will pay at the end of the week.” They believed me because, in truth, I was asking according to his will, his intent, not mine. I am sure if I asked for a dozen candy bars or a quart of ice cream I would have been quizzed: “Was that really what my father told me to do?”
To ask in Jesus’ name is to ask according to his purpose and plan. We can come to the Lord with all kinds of needs: relationship difficulties, financial and health concerns, addicted relatives and friends and all our myriad human concerns. God DOES want to hear those needs. But he tells us in Mt. 6, seek first the kingdom of God and all these things will be yours as well. So, to ask in Jesus’ name is to ask for what is first in God’s heart: That this person be converted, that this person repent of sin, that this person find true happiness in the hope of eternal life. God wants for all those we pray for, that they come to a deep personal relationship with him, that they know the freedom, peace and happiness of being his sons and daughters. Pray for those things first and daily. Then mention to God all the human and practical concerns. But put first in your prayer what is first in God’s heart.
Again, listen to these words of Cardinal Newman’s prayer-a prayer that Mother Teresa prayed daily and asked me to do the same: “Shine in me and so be in me that all with whom I come in contact may know thy presence in my soul. Let them look up and see no longer me but only Jesus.” Based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Sr. Ann Shields is the Superior of the Servants of God’s Love, a speaker and author, and an internationally known evangelist.
Reprinted with permission July/August/September 2005 Pentecost Today Volume 30 Number 3
Sr. Ann Shields, S.G.L. will be a guest speaker at Catholic Renewal Ministries’ 25th Cleveland Charistmatic Conference on July 20th and 21st . She is a noted international speaker and author. Her popular radio show Food for the Journey is heard daily throughout the world. She is the Superior of the Servants of God’s Love, a charismatic religious community, canonically established in the diocese of Lansing, Michigan and based in Ann Arbor.