Patricia A. Merlo, M.P.M.

Forms of Prayer

 

Prayer of the Heart

Prayer of the Heart is a way to pray with the Bible, rather than to simply read or study it. It is a form of prayer that can help us, as it has helped many saints before us, make that long journey—the 18 inches from  the head to the heart.

How does this happen?

“Moving from the head to the heart” means bringing our whole self into our prayer: our thoughts and insights, our feelings and deepest desires, our memories and images.  (This is the biblical sense of the word “heart.”)

When we pray with our heart, we encounter Jesus, the living Word of God, in a way that connects what appear to be two very different stories, but are, in fact, two stories that are deeply intertwined: our personal stories and the 2,000 year old gospel stories of Jesus of Nazareth.
 

The beauty and power of Prayer of the Heart is that it gives God “permission” to work in us and opens our eyes to see more clearly how God is continually calling each of us into a deeper relationship of mutual love.

Guidelines

  • Ask for the grace you wish to receive. For example, you might ask for “the grace to know and love Jesus more intimately” or for “the grace to be open to the Holy Spirit”.
  • Select a short gospel passage where Jesus is interacting with others. 
         Slowly read it 2 or 3 times, as you might read and ponder a love letter.
  • Remain as passive as possible, and let the people in the story control the event. 
  • Look at what they are doing. What emotional reactions do you see? 
    • Listen to the sounds you hear. What are people saying?  What feelings are expressed in their words? What other sounds do you “hear”?
    • Is there a smell associated with the scene? 
    • Do you sense that someone wants to touch or comfort you?
    • Is there a food to consume? Or, can you savor the mood of the scene, and “taste and see that the Lord is good”? (Ps 34:9).
  • Immerse yourself in the scene. Use your imagination to “enter into” the Gospel events, allowing the concrete events of Jesus’ life to reveal the Father’s love and mercy to you. 
    • You might focus on Jesus. What is he doing? How does he look?  What might he be feeling? Is he speaking to one or to many people?  Is he touching someone? 
    • Or, you may feel drawn to participate in the event. 
      Ask yourself: “Who or where might I be in this story? A main character?  A disciple?  A curious or skeptical bystander?”  Perhaps, an animal, or inanimate object?
  • Repetition: Stay with the passage as long as any part of it resonates within you. 
  • Going Deeper: the gift of heart-seeing and heart-hearing  Ask the Holy Spirit to “fill in the gaps” in the Gospel stories—creating a bridge between the 1st and the 21st centuries -- so that you can discern God’s Presence in your everyday circumstances and relationships.
  • Reflection: The key question is: What happened in you during your prayer? Did a particular word, strong feeling, insight, question, image, memory, or desire stand out? Were you mostly distracted? Bored? Uncomfortable? Did you feel God’s Presence?
  • Journaling is an important part of your prayer that occurs at the end of, and not during your prayer.  It is not meant to be a record of your “holy” thoughts or a list of what you should/not do. It is a safe place to reflect briefly and honestly on whatever stood out in your prayer.
  • Close with a prayer of thanks, such as with the Lord’s Prayer

                                              Additional Remarks
     
  •  Everyone who prays with an attitude of receptivity can trust that God will open the eyes and ears of his/her heart.  In fact, Jesus already told us how much God wants to give us the “grace   to know God more intimately”: “If you, then, know how to give good gifts to your children,  how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask?” (Lk 11:13)
  • Don’t be concerned if you are “not creative” or “do not have a good imagination”. Although an active imagination helps to bring the gospel stories to life, the goal of this prayer is not to pretend that you live in first century Palestine. Your desire and receptivity to God’s grace (not your imagination) will uncover the “pearl of great price”  within the Word of God: a more intimate knowledge and love of Jesus. 
  • Find a quiet spot where you can spend a set amount of time in prayer every day.
  • Great spiritual writers tell us that boredom, distractions, and dryness are a part of everyone’s
     prayer. So, regardless of whether or not it feels like your prayer is “going well”, the single most important thing to do is: just show up for your prayer time,

FAQ, Doubts, and Objections

  1. I don’t have any imagination.”
    Think of a time when you found yourself waiting, perhaps you were standing in line at a store or waiting to see a doctor. Next, imagine that there is a person close by who has a crying baby AND a toddler who is demanding a candy bar.

    How might you react if you overhear the mother yell at the child, saying, “Stop being so bad!” How might you feel if you see her slap the child? Perhaps you experience either a “fight” or “flight” sensation?  Maybe you want to say something to the mother, or maybe you just want to get as far away from them as possible.

    If you could imagine that scene, you can be assured that you have an active imagination!  And, you can use your imagination to become more aware of how and where God is present and active in your everyday life.
     
  2. How do I know that I am not just making this up?
    Many people who begin to pray in this manner wonder: “Is this really prayer, or is it all in my head? Am I just making it all up?” Actually, the best answer comes in the form of another question: If God can speak to you through other people and through the circumstances of your life, why can’t God speak to you through your imagination and your heart?

    As a sort of litmus test, you can look at the fruits of your contemplation. If your prayer leads to greater faith, hope, or love, you can trust that it is under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. If you feel called to turn away from sinful patterns in your life by a God who loves you (and not by a voice that condemns you or makes you feel unworthy of love or forgiveness), then you can trust that it is the work of the Holy Spirit within you.

    As people continue to pray in this manner, they see that Prayer of the Heart is more than a mere play of the imagination. It provides a window through which they look at their lives in a new way—with greater compassion, trust, and respect for ourselves and for others. It provides the means for digging for the hidden treasure which the Gospels contain. It helps them to recognize the gifts and blessings they already have, and unveils the Lord’s Presence in the here and now of the ordinary events and relationships of everyday life.
     
  3. Isn’t contemplative prayer only for “holy people”
    Like other forms of contemplative prayer, Prayer of the Heart is a gift given by God. But, “paradoxical as it may seem, it would not even occur to a person—no, nor to an angel or a saint—to desire [this or other forms of ] contemplative prayer were it not already alive within him. . . . Contemplative prayer is God’s gift, wholly gratuitous. No one can earn it. And, it is the nature of this gift that the one who receives it also receives the aptitude for it.”
    (from The Cloud of Unknowing, Chapter 34)
     
  4. Is Prayer of the Heart a spiritual self-improvement plan?
    This is not a “self-help talk” carried on in our head where we tell ourselves what we should/should not be doing. Prayer of the Heart is not like a spiritual form of New Year’s resolutions. It is a way to open our whole self—the nitty-gritty details of our everyday lives and relationships—to the power and guidance of our Creator who loves us unconditionally and tenderly.
     
  5. I am not “worthy” of God's love and/or forgiveness.
    No kidding! None of us can earn or merit salvation. We were made “worthy” through the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. But God is not waiting for you to change before he will love you. God is already drawing you to himself.

    The fact that you have read this far is your positive RSVP to God, expressing your desire to say “Yes” to God’s invitation to a relationship of mutual love.
     
  6. I am not sure if I can trust God.”
    Most of us experience this unspoken but lingering doubt. And, if we were honest about it, our prayers often reflect our belief that we could do a better job of running the world. Furthermore, many of us are afraid that God might ask us to be a missionary in Africa, or something else that is outside of our comfort zone. But there is no need to worry. God's plan is not to make you miserable. In fact, God’s dream for each one of us is a relationship based on mutual love. God will only ask what is best for you and what reflects the truest desire of your heart.
     

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Lectio Divina

Widely practiced since the 6th century, Lectio Divina is a form of prayer that is well suited for everyone who wants to become more receptive to God. By engaging the mind, the will, and the heart, the four “steps” of Lectio reveal a basic truth about human life: God is present in every single event of our daily lives! This method of prayer approaches the Word of God -- not as lessons to study, nor as a problem to solve, nor as a set of rules to obey -- but as a Living Presence, as Someone who is continually revealing His Love to us.

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Centering Prayer

According to Thomas Keating “Centering prayer is a method of silent prayer that allows us to receive the gift of contemplative prayer, prayer in which we experience God’s presence within us...”

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Examen Prayer - The Easiest Prayer

“In essence, the prayer is a review of the day. It can be done either  once a day (usually before going to bed) or twice (usually at midday and evening). Traditionally, this prayer is broken up into five simple  steps:”...(more)

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Finding God in Nature

It has been said that nature is the first Bible.  Many people find that it easier to connect with God through nature than through formal church services. They may consider themselves more "spiritual" than "religious". Here are some suggestions that can help all of us to find God in nature.

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Gospel Contemplation

We begin this form of prayer by slowly reading a passage from the Gospel of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.  Through the imaginative use of the senses, we simply observe Jesus, watching as He interacts with those who were present in the scene with Him. Then, by identifying with one of the characters, we imagine what we might hear or see or feel, if we were present in "real time" in this Gospel story. 

This form of prayer helps us to become more aware of God's Presence in our daily lives. The Scriptures become the living Word of God as we find within our own hearts the same impulses and desires that animated Jesus's life and ministry. We learn to recognize the “still, small voice” of the Father inviting us to a deeper relationship of mutual love and trust.

Getting started

  1. Find a quiet spot where you can spend a set amount of time in prayer every day.
     
  2. Keep paper and a pen nearby so that you can jot down distractions and put them “on hold” until after your prayer time.
     
  3. Spend a few minutes becoming aware of the Lord’s presence.
     
  4. Ask for a particular grace.
    • St. Ignatius (who taught this form of prayer in the 16th century) recommended that we begin by asking for a particular grace. For example, we might ask “the grace to know and love Jesus more intimately.” (It is hard to imagine how God would ignore that prayer!
       

      Asking for the grace or action of the Holy Spirit is like giving God permission to speak to our heart—to our mind, body, soul, and spirit—about our real lives, to shine the light of the gospels on the circumstances and relationships that are a part of our everyday lives.
       

  5. Select a short gospel passage where Jesus is interacting with others.  Slowly read it twice to familiarize yourself with the details of the story.
     
  6. Allow your imagination to reconstruct the scene, letting the event play out in your mind. This form of prayer avoids analyzing or studying the passage. Instead, simply focus on Jesus. What is he doing? How does he look? Is he speaking to one or many persons? Is he touching someone?
     
  7. Look at the people in the scene. What they are doing? What emotional reactions do you see? Listen to the sounds you hear. What are people saying? What feelings are expressed in their words? What other sounds do you “hear”? Is there a smell associated with the scene? Perhaps, you can even “taste” or savor the mood of the scene in the manner of Psalm 34:9 which encourages us to “taste and see that the Lord is good.”
     
  8. You may feel a desire to be present or interact in the scene. Ask yourself: “Who or where might I be in this story?” Are you one of the main characters? A disciple? Someone asking for something? A curious or skeptical bystander? Perhaps an animal or inanimate object in the scene?
     
  9. Pay close attention to how you feel as you immerse yourself in the story (your inner sensations) and to any insights or thoughts that occur. This time of reflection is the most important part of your prayer—this is when you can speak “heart to heart” with Jesus, when the Word of God can touch and transform you.
     
  10. Stay with the passage as long as some of the words resonate within you. Open your heart, asking God for the grace to be receptive to a deeper interior knowledge and love of Jesus.
     
  11. Trust that the Holy Spirit will “open the eyes and ears of the heart” for anyone who approaches prayer with a sincere attitude of receptivity. In fact, God’s answer to a prayer “for the grace to know God more intimately” is already given in the Gospel of Luke: “If you, then, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask?” (Lk. 11:13)
     
  12. Do not be concerned if you are “not creative” or “do not have a good imagination.”
    • Although an active imagination helps to “bring the gospel stories to life”, the goal of this prayer is not to pretend that you are in first-century Palestine. Your desire and receptivity to God’s grace (not your imagination) uncover the hidden treasure within the gospel stories: a more intimate knowledge and love of Jesus.

      People access their imaginations in different ways. Some immerse themselves in a scene via feelings and inner sensations; others use visual imagination to “see” the scene, almost like in a movie; others use auditory imagination to “hear” conversations to bring a scene to life.

 Additional resources:

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Prayer For Inner Healing

Praying for Inner Healing is a way of praying for healing of past experiences.

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The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola

Traditionally offered as a 30 day retreat, the Exercises can be made as a “Retreat in Daily Life”.  Click here for more information.

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(Page Last Updated 5/13/2016)