The best way I can express how I pray today is to quote Pope John Paul II from Crossing the Threshold of Hope: “The pope prays as the Holy Spirit permits him to pray.”
I find that the Holy Spirit opens and closes doors to prayer. It is the Holy Spirit who anoints in power certain directions in prayer, and it is the Holy Spirit who blocks other avenues. Although I must start prayer, prayer once started is not my own. As my prayer changes, so does my life. The Holy Spirit reshapes my life through prayer. I don’t always cooperate, but when I do, I also see the results in a life change.
I am reminded of the refrain: “Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me.” This is in line with the statement in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “We pray the way we live, and we live the way we pray” (see no. 2725). If we want to change the way we live, we change the way we pray. This is what the Holy Spirit does in us if we yield to Him.
A new sense of prayer comes from the experience of being baptized in the Holy Spirit, which initially leads to a new involvement in praise, an increased desire to pray, and a willingness to pray in the Spirit rather than predominantly in mental prayer.
In my life, this new development meant an increase of prayers of praise followed by quiet prayer of rest in God’s presence. It also meant dwelling more on the words of Scripture and yielding to the power of those words to touch my spirit and change me. In time, I saw an overall approach develop that became a pattern I could teach.
My prayer continued to change within this broad outline, as the Holy Spirit anointed some directions and closed off others with a sense of blockage or being walled off from the Lord. Frequently, the areas where I needed to repent, change direction, or give new commitments were the only ones with a sense of anointing or power. After I would respond, change would happen, and then new areas would become anointed. Sometimes this process took many months before there was movement to a new area.
I experienced this process moving me to fervent consecration of life. For a few months, all the power in my prayer and the overwhelming time and effort in my prayer was concentrated on heartfelt consecration of my life. I used the Morning Offering; the De Montfort Consecration to Jesus through Mary; the Consecration to the Sacred Heart of Jesus; the daily renewal of my vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience; and other prayers of consecration and entrustment.
In a similar way, I experienced months of concentration on intercession, where I prayed extensively in tongues after each petition. Some days I could pray for one hour using the petitions that were listed in the morning prayer of the Divine Office.
There were other times when a simple quiet presence or regard toward the Lord would occupy me for an hour at a time. I also recall times when every line of Scripture seemed to come alive and grab my inner being.
It wasn’t all action, however. There was a period of more than a year when dryness and desolation totally dominated. I experienced being broken and humbled before God much as a person would feel if left hanging from a tree, dangling while the weather buffeted him. Prayer moved from an exciting encounter with the living, risen Lord to a reaching in the dark to a far distant and seemingly absent Lord.
While manuals on the spiritual life deal with these various phenomena of prayer, it was the words of Pope John Paul II that gave me the best insights. In Crossing the Threshold of Hope, he gives the context of his own prayer in terms of Romans 8, verses 18 to 31, which are particularly relevant.
18 expresses the hope that should be in us despite present sufferings: “I
consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with
the glory to be revealed for us.” He particularly refers to “groaning.” Verses
22 and 23 read, “We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even
until now; and not only that, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of
the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the
redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved.”
Referring more directly to his personal prayer, the pope directs the reader to verses 26 and 27: “In the same way, the Spirit too comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings. And the one who searches hearts knows the intention of the Spirit, because it intercedes for the holy ones according to God’s will.”
It is this mixture of sorrow around us and hope within us that leads to the groaning in the Spirit for the full redemption of our lives and our communities, indeed the whole world. The hope that keeps groaning and won’t give up is the hope poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit and the hope expressed in the last verses of Romans 8: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (38–39).
I am certain that prayer is the most important activity in my life. I believe that whatever is worthwhile and lasting in my life’s activity was first conceived in some way in prayer and then given existence in action. It is the necessary foundation of all my apostolic activity. I cannot love rightly, serve faithfully, or make decisions with wisdom unless these flow from prayer. For these reasons, I always use a journal, writing something from each prayer time. I always read the previous day’s entry during the next day’s prayer. I also make it a daily practice to pray over my schedule for that day. This enables me to come closer to God’s perspective and His priorities regarding all that I will be facing that day.
There is so much more I could write. I pray daily the Prayer before a Crucifix, the Rosary, and the Divine Mercy Chaplet. I open every meeting that I chair with the prayer Come, Holy Spirit. I believe that the Holy Spirit indeed comes and fills our hearts and enkindles the fire of His love when we invite Him into our lives and gatherings. I treasure the daily Mass, which I am privileged to celebrate, and the daily Divine Office. I find that the readings in this daily liturgy always have some special application for my life.
I thank God regularly for the baptism in the Spirit, and I endeavor to use the charismatic gifts, particularly the gift of tongues, on a daily basis. I schedule myself to go to one special charismatic praise gathering each week. I was encouraged by my experience of being next to Pope John Paul II at his morning Mass; and as he stopped at the intervals for personal prayer in the Mass and groaned in the Spirit, I was able to join in the groaning with prayer in tongues and discover that our prayers were most compatible, following the same rhythm.
This is how I pray today. It is God’s gift operating as the Holy Spirit permits and changing as God ordains in His merciful love.
This article is an excerpt from Fr. Scanlan’s What Does God Want? A Practical Guide to Making Decisions. It is available from Sophia Institute Press.