Prayer: A Personal Response to God’s Presence

(A resource from Fr. Richard Mangini)

By Father Armand Nigro, SJ

1975

The conviction I want to share with you now is that PRAYER IS A PERSONAL RESPONSE TO GOD’S PRESENCE.  Let me explain this:

Either we are more important than God or God is more important than we are.  The answer is obvious.  He is more important than we are.  Further, if what God wants and does is more important than what we want and do, then more of our attention should be focused on what God is and does.  Again, what God wants to say to us is more important for us than anything we may have to say to Him, and God does want to speak and communicate Himself to us.  When prayer is too self-centered, with the focus on I, Me or My (even if it is centered upon our holy and noble desires) we are going to be in difficulty.

Prayer is a personal response to God’s presence.  It is more something that God does to us, rather than anything we do.  This means that God first makes Himself present to us.  Prayer is our awareness of and then response to God.  St. John reminds us that genuine love means, first of all, not that we love God (which may or may not be true), but that God first loves us.  His love for us is more important than our love for Him.  He wants and appreciates and is grateful for our love; but since His love for you is more important than your love for Him, His love deserves more of our attention.

It seems to me that there are three steps to genuine prayer that we should keep in mind.  

Step 1: Acknowledge God’s presence

First: If prayer is a personal response to God’s presence, then, the beginning of prayer is to be aware of that presence, simply to acknowledge it, to be able to admit: “Yes, God my Father, You do love life into me.  Yes, You love life and being into the things around me and into all the things that crowd about the gateways of my senses.  You love talents and these longings into me, etc.”

I want to make a distinction.  I know that the terms “meditation” and “prayer” are used interchangeably and that they are used differently by different authors.  By religious “meditation,” I mean thinking about God or what God does or about anything good, holy or pious; but this is not prayer.  When I am thinking about you, you are the focal point of my thoughts, but this is not communication with you.  Prayer is a person-to-person communication with God.  If I am thinking about God or the life of Christ and what He has done, that is holy, meritorious, good, to a certain degree, helpful for prayer, but it is not essentially prayer.

Prayer begins when He becomes You.  When I say to myself, “God loves life into me,” that is meditation; when I say “Yes, God my Father, You love life into me,” that is prayer.  Do you see the difference?  When there is a You–I relationship with the Father, Son and Spirit, I call this response genuine prayer.  If there is a consideration of what He is and does, but not a You–I relationship, it may be helpful and holy, but it is not essentially prayer.

The basis or first step in prayer is for me to wake up and face reality, to realize that He is present to me.  He loves breath and being and a share of His own divine life and all my capacities into me. To be able to say “Yes, God my Father, You do love all this into me.  Yes, Jesus my Brother, You do.  Yes, God my Holy Spirit, You do.”  — That is to pray.  If in the few minutes that we have during the times of private prayer, we do nothing else but merely make ourselves aware of the God who already makes himself present to us, that experience in itself is profound prayer; it is fruitful prayer; it is even the beginning of mystical prayer.  This is a genuine opening up to God who communicates Himself to us if we only give Him the opportunity.

There is a difference between persons and things.  God is present to things; God saturates them with His presence because He loves life and being into them.  But there is no acknowledgment on the part of non-personal things; they are incapable of prayer.  But you and I, because we are persons, can acknowledge that presence; and that is the first step in prayer.

Step 2: “I Thank You, God”

The second step, it seems to me, is that once we realize what God is to us and what He does for us, and how much He loves us, the only decent, polite, obvious and spontaneous response is not only to say, “Yes, You do,” but also “Thank you for what You do.  God my Father, thank you for loving life, being and a share of your own nature into me.  Thank you, Jesus, God the Son, my brother.  Thank you, God the Holy Spirit, for living on in me.”  Gratitude is an obvious spontaneous outflow of being aware of what God is doing for us.

As an analogy, if a person is very good to me and unselfish and financially supports me, but I do not know him or realize this, I cannot respond to his goodness and love.  But if I find out that my support is coming from him, that many good things that make my life much better are coming from him, it is one thing when I begin to realize this and acknowledge, “Yes, you do” and something more when I say to him, “Thank you.”

Do you notice the focus on this response to presence?  It is essential that in this gratitude there be an awareness of this presence, too.  No one opens the door into a dark room in which he sees nothing and then begins to talk into the room just in case there might be somebody there.  Rather, we are first conscious of someone, we look into someone’s eyes; we are assured that if we talk into this microphone, there is a radio audience waiting on our words; or if we look into that camera there is a TV audience present; or if we put it on tape, somebody will listen to this.  We speak and respond only to some kind of personal presence.

Prayer is like that.  Sometimes in our good and holy desire to communicate with God we “junk-up” our prayer.  We begin immediately to make acts of faith, hope or love, of contrition or sorrow; we ask for things or just say something, because after all we can’t just sit there and let nothing happen; so, we do something, we say something!  I call this “junking-up” our prayer; because if we do that before we are really conscious of God’s being present to us, it’s like opening up a dark room and talking because there might be somebody there who might possibly be listening.  It is important that we take time peacefully and quietly (even if we have only a few minutes to pray) first to make ourselves aware of the loving, creative, sustaining, divinizing presence of God, because prayer is a personal response to God’s presence.

Step 3: Loving response

The first step then, is to acknowledge God’s presence; the second is to thank Him.  The third is a loving response.  A person responds to love freely given by saying, “I love you, too.”  When we say this to God, it implies that we are aware that He first loves us.  To say, “God my Father, Christ my Brother, God my Holy Spirit, I love You, too” is our response at its best.

With regard to asking God for favors, I hope we don’t misunderstand it as imperfect prayer.  When we beg God for sunny weather, or pray that our bursitis will go away, or pray for something more holy or important, such as international peace and justice, we pay a great compliment to God.  This is an expression of “becoming as little children,” which Jesus recommended and honored.  A child who comes to his parents and asks for things is paying them a big compliment.  What is the child saying but, “You are good and can fill my needs.  Please, may I have a candy bar?”

When we approach God with this sense of our absolute, total dependence and need, we are conscious of being precious and important, of being nothing without Him because all that we have is loved into us by God.  In this consciousness, we are profoundly acknowledging what He is and what we are.  Did not Jesus Himself say: “When you pray, face God and say ‘Abba, (Hebrew baby talk for Papa or Daddy), give us this day our daily bread, forgive us our offenses, lead us not into temptation, deliver us from evil.’”  Notice how much of the “Our Father” is a petition.  Our Lord teaches us to pray this way.  If the prayer of petition is made correctly, it says, “God, you are everything: Creator, Sustainer, Divinizer, Forgiver, Merciful Lord of the Universe, Provident God of all, and I belong completely to You.”  When we pray for any favor we mean, of course, “Thy Will be done.”  We are not trying to blackmail or fool God into giving us something by groveling in His presence.  No, we presuppose “Thy will be done” – but we still would like to have a sunny day tomorrow, etc.

Why do we not allow God to communicate Himself to us in prayer?

To return to an earlier point: What God does is more important than what we do, and God longs to communicate Himself to us.  The tragedy is that so few of us permit God to communicate Himself to us in prayer.  One reason for this failure is faulty teaching or education in prayer.  A second is a lack of trust or faith that He really wants to and is going to communicate Himself personally and uniquely to us.  Since we feel uncertain about this, we do most or all of the talking or meditating, or we fill in the time with spiritual reading or something “profitable,” but we are reluctant to empty ourselves and abandon ourselves to His presence and movement so that in silence, He can communicate Himself to us the way He prefers.

A third reason is that we are afraid of failing, afraid of trying this kind of prayer and finding out that it doesn’t work for us.  It will always work if we remove obstacles and give God a chance, because God longs to communicate Himself to each of us personally.  He wants to make our prayer more and more mystical, and this is not in any dangerous, quietistic, way-out, extraordinary sense.  God wants us to be normal, ordinary, everyday healthy mystics.  By mystic, I mean the sort of person who opens up to God’s presence, who lets God fill his consciousness with His personal presence.  The older we grow in our prayer life, the more aware, sensitive, attuned, docile, responsive to God’s presence we become because all genuine prayer is a personal response to that presence.

We have developed or been given two different kinds of capacities or facilities with which to respond or act socially or otherwise.  One set of habits we call virtues.  These are active capacities; they enable us to do things and through our activity, we perfect these habits.  They are acquired by activity.  Sometimes, the beginnings of them are infused, but at least they can be perfected and made stronger by exercise and they render our virtuous activity easier.  They are the “can do” of our operating capacities, and are very important.  But there are also capacities loved into us by God which enables us to be receptive.  A radio station not only has a transmitter but it also has a receiver; they are both important.  These receptive capacities become more and more important in our prayer life.  They are called gifts of the Holy Spirit.  They make us aware and receptive, attuned, sensitive, responsive, docile to God’s communicating presence and He wants us to pray more and more that way.

All growth in prayer, then, is rooted in our conviction that God is present to us; that His presence is personal, loving and provident, uniquely saturating us; that God is and wants more and more to be our Father and that, like every good Father, God wants to speak and communicate with us.  He keeps trying to speak to us through all the experiences of our life through His Church, through His living word in Holy Scripture, through His Eternal Word, Jesus Christ, in whose Holy Spirit we are invited to be sons and daughters.  God, I repeat, longs to communicate Himself to us and He invites us to listen and to receive; but He will not force this on us.

An Approach to Prayer: The Five “P’s”

Now, may I make some practical suggestions?  I said that some of us are afraid to give God a chance because we fear it may not work.  But it will work (that’s a guarantee) if we give Him a chance.  In practice, what can we do in order to enable God to communicate Himself more fully and freely to us?

Try to be faithful to at least 40 minutes to an hour daily of being alone with God.  Try to make room for this at a regular time each day.  God wants time to be alone with each of us and communicate with us; and what God wants from us, God deserves.  I suggest these five “P’s” of prayer:

  1. PASSAGE from Holy Scripture (pick one)

Before beginning your prayer period, choose a short passage of 5 to 10 verses from the Bible.  This is very important.  Never omit this before your prayer period, either the evening before or in the first few minutes before you begin to pray.  Select a passage you want to listen to especially to taste and savor and relish.  It may be a favorite Psalm or Parable or Miracle Story or section of one of our Lord’s Sermons.  It should fit your mood and your need.  Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you to the passage He prefers for you.  Put a marker in the page and keep it ready.  You may or may not come back to it before your prayer period ends.

  1. PLACE

Find a private spot where you can be alone with God.  This is important.  Sometimes, it is good to be in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament; but if people are in the chapel with you and you feel like stretching out your arms, if you feel like throwing back your head or looking up, if you feel like sighing or complaining or crying or dancing or singing, you will not do it.  But you can do this when you are alone; you should feel free to do this.  Otherwise, you are inhibiting yourself.  You must not be inhibited when you respond to God’s presence so pick a quiet place where you are alone and can uninhibitedly speak and react to God’s presence without drawing attention from others.

  1. POSTURE

At the beginning of private prayer, take the time to settle yourself peacefully.  You do not pray as an angel or disembodied spirit or as an intellect, but you pray as a man or a woman.  Men and women have bodies and bodily posture is important in prayer.  Do you pray better when kneeling? Then kneel.  Do you feel more receptive and open to God’s presence when sitting?  Our founder, St. Ignatius, was a mystic who seemed to prefer lying down during his prayer and he recommends that we try it, too.

Experiment with various postures till you find one most conducive to responding to God’s presence.  This may vary from day to day and within the same prayer period.  Try, for example, lying on the bed or sitting in a comfortable chair with feet propped on a stool and arms resting on armrest or on your lap with palms up; or sitting in a hardback chair with palms facing up or down on your lap, with head comfortably back or sitting at a table or desk with arms resting on it, or kneeling with arms resting on a support or outstretched, etc.  Different postures fit our different moods and needs.

  1. PRESENCE of God: Respond to God’s Presence

Peacefully remind yourself how present He is to you.  Feel, e.g., the cloth of your clothes or the desk in front of you or your pulse and admit to God, “Yes, You love life and feeling into me and texture into it.  You love sight and color into it.  You love hearing into me and sound into it.  You love life into me; You are in me.  Thank you for living in me, for loving goodness and sonship/daughterhood into me.” This takes a little time, but it should always be done and never rushed.  You should not hurry that part of your prayer, even if it takes up the whole time.  You may feel like saying, “Thank You.  I love You, too.”  In these moments, God’s special communication may come with that deep personal sense of His presence.  Sometimes, He makes His presence felt (experienced) by us, and when He does, let it continue; let this experience hold or carry you just as water holds up a floating body.  Stay with it until it fades.  Do not move away from it or change or rush the experience or over-react with too many or unnecessary words.  Perhaps a simple repetition of “My Lord and My God,” or “Abba, Father” will do.  If it fades, continue the reminders that you have of His presence.

  1. PRAY the Passage from Scripture 

Return to it, read it aloud, listen to it.  There may be no time left to read the Scripture passage you selected.  If so, fine, but when you try to respond to God’s presence in a grateful, loving and adoring way, if nothing seems to happen, if you feel dry and desolate, do not be discouraged or judge this as a sign of failure.  Rather, the dryness may be God inviting you to listen to Him as He speaks to you in Holy Scripture.  Always have the Scriptures available when you are at prayer; never be without them.  If you hunger to hear the Word of God, or when nothing seems to happen after trying patiently and peacefully to respond to God’s presence; when you feel He is not communicating Himself, or if you feel restless and distracted, turn to the place you selected in Scripture and let Him communicate Himself to you.  Listen while He talks because Scripture is the living Word of the living God.  It is living now because God is alive now and He hasn’t changed His mind in what He said through the inspired writers.  It is more important to listen this way to God than to speak.  Remember, God is as present in His inspired word in the Bible as He is in the Blessed Sacrament.  The two unique presences are different, but both are real presences.

Very slowly with attention, whisper or read aloud (not silently) God’s words.  Pause between the phrases so that the echo and meaning of the words can sink into you slowly like soft rain into thirsty soil.  You may want to keep repeating a word or phrase.  If you finish the selected passage before your prayer period ends, go back and slowly repeat it over and over, just as we repeat the chorus of a song.

Why whisper or speak aloud the words of Scripture?  Because this engages our attention more fully through eyes, ears, and voice.  Often, when I read something in silence, my eyes focus on the words while my imagination and attention wander far away.  To listen to God’s word spoken is a special sacramental experience.

Praying with Scripture this way is an experience of listening to God.  Do not try to make applications or search for profound meanings or implications or conclusions or resolutions.  Be content to listen simply, attentively and openly, as a child who climbs into its Papa’s lap and listens to a story.

When the time is up, thank God for speaking to you.  Realize that Father, Son, and Spirit live on in you as you move away to continue the rest of your day.

These are my suggestions for permitting God to communicate Himself to us.  Even if we have lived long years of half-distracted, half-tepid, half-hearted attempts at praying, it is never too late.  Try it.  Taste and see for yourself.  I promise that, if you give Him the opportunity and remain faithful to it, within a very short time, God will make a real mystic out of you – a normal, healthy, ordinary, every-day sort of mystic, graced with the kind of prayer that God longs to communicate to us.

Further Comments on Prayer

I want to clarify the word mystic.  By mystic, I mean any conscious union of God with humans, initiated and sustained by God.  It is an experience which we cannot make, earn, or be responsible for.  You cannot initiate or sustain it yourself.  Sometimes, even when we do not put very much effort into prayer, God seems very present.  He fills us with His consolation.  It’s a wonderful experience.  We feel loving and more loved ourselves.  The next day, we may put in more effort than before but nothing happens; ashes seem to fill our heart.  There is no taste for prayer, even though we hunger for it.  God seems a thousand miles away.  It may not be that we do anything wrong; rather, God is teaching us.  He is teaching that we cannot make, earn, deserve, or force this sort of experience.  It is freely given– a mystical experience.

There are many words to describe this experience: consolation, peace and joy and a feeling of greater faith and hope of being loved, of being more loving.  It is initiated by God.  He is anxious to communicate in this way.  Then, why doesn’t He do it more often if He is so anxious?  One reason is that God cannot abide with or reward error or falsehood.  Before He can console and communicate Himself to us, we have to remove obstacles and make it possible for Him to come into our lives.  He will not force His friendship on us.  One of the pre-requisites is that we be convinced, not merely intellectually but deep down in our inner selves, that this is something we cannot make, steal, earn, deserve.  This is totally and freely given.  We can only dispose ourselves to receive it.  We can prepare ourselves for it and be deeply grateful when it comes.  When it comes, we can humbly say, “Why me? I don’t deserve this, but I am grateful for it.”  That is a mystical experience, and it is not always as ecstatic as it might sound.  Most often, it is very quiet, peaceful, a simple, inward assurance that God is with me and I am loved by Him.  It is really not very definable at all.  Dryness and lack of consolation in prayer may also be due to our own laziness or infidelity or lack of proper preparation (the 5 “P’s”, for example) for contemplative prayer.  God may also be purifying us, drawing us closer to Himself by taking us through a desert experience, freeing us from complacency and disordered attachments.

Mysticism par excellence is the Incarnation, that union of the human and Divine, initiated by the Divine in Jesus the Man-God.  All other mysticism is but a participation, more or less, in the reality of the incarnation.  It is a sharing in it, and that is what God wants.  HE became a man in order to share His divinity with us.

The kind of person God wants you to be, the kind of grace and prayer He is offering to you and desires so much to give you, is to enable you to be a profoundly prayerful person, a genuine contemplative all day long, no less in manual work or in suffering than during relaxed times of quiet prayer or at the Sacrifice of the Mass.  Private prayer is essential to this.  Our efforts in private prayer do not earn grace; that is, if I’ve set aside time for it, that isn’t going to guarantee it automatically.  We don’t put in a nickel’s worth of human effort and get back a nickel’s worth of mystical experience.  But we should faithfully give time every day to private prayer, and this in turn enables us to find God in all other things.  It makes our liturgical and community prayer better.  It makes our work and social involvements more of an experience with God.  Our work, in turn, which is an experience with God, feeds our desire for prayerful union with God and enables us to pray better when we do have ten or fifteen minutes or half an hour of private prayer to spend with Him alone.  The two feed on and nourish each other.

All of us can be prayerful in this way.  God wants us to be and is longing to make us prayerful.  If we respond to Him, each of us will become prayerful in a very unique way.  Each of us is unique, our response is unique; God’s love and presence to us is also unique.

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