by Fred Schaeffer, SFO
A most important consideration we must tackle, if we want to form a special inner relationship with Jesus, is to sin no more. It was Saint Bonaventure, I believe, who said "If you love God, you do not sin. If you still sin, you do not love Him enough." People tell me it is so difficult not to sin. No it's not so difficult. You've got to be strong and say NO, I will sin no more because I love God. Given it will take some time to accomplish that but you can do it. Once you come to the point where you are able to deflect the temptations that are being thrown at you, it'll get easier.
The battle of the will, how to handle temptation, which way to go, that can prove to be a "Dark Night of the Soul" (St. John of the Cross). You see, in true love there is pain...the pain that results from giving your soul to God. That's not easy by any means. In order to give our soul to God we must totally abandon ourself to Him. We must accept that. God is in control. We are not. I may be a big shot here on earth, but where it comes to my relationship with God, I am his servant. And you know what, pretty soon your relationship with those in your family and work circle will soften and you will treat others in a more Christian way. You see, the best way to evangelize Jesus Christ is to emulate Him! As this relationship with Jesus progresses you will again be able to see the good in people rather than the negative side, you will praise God more frequently, adore Him in a personal way as you receive Him in Holy Communion in the Catholic church and begin to realize that there is more to just walking from your pew to the presbyter or Eucharistic minister, receive Jesus, and return to your seat than meets the eye. You have received Jesus in Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity... you have received the greatest manifestation of His love possible, and He allows you to come to Him each and every day. As He offers Himself to you in this manner, you know you have been redeemed, and your journey to a life with Him, either here on earth or in heaven continues to develop.
I would like to touch upon private devotion before the tabernacle. Apart from attending Holy Mass and perhaps Holy Hour and Benediction, some time should be spent before the tabernacle. This is a tremendous help in maintaining a strong interior prayer life. After you enter church or chapel, and bless yourself with Holy Water, and take a seat or kneel, begin by making an act of faith. You can use the Act of Faith found in a prayer book but it is nice to express this act of faith you are making in your own words or thoughts. Turn also to Our Blessed Mother. Each time we kneel down before the Tabernacle we could recite “Oh Sacrament most Holy, O Sacrament Divine, all praise and all thanksgiving, be every moment Thine.” This can be our act of faith.
“Call too,” Bishop Gross writes, “upon the angels watching here around the altar in deepest awe, to help you to pray well before the tabernacle.” Think of Mary Magdalen when she bathed the feet of Jesus with her tears. Try to put yourself in prayer, in her place. Such devotion makes up for our own failings, lapses from grace, for all the failings and shortcomings, un-resisted temptations, distractions, lukewarmness, coldness, and indifference with which perhaps some people assist at Mass or receive Holy Communion.
After we have given Jesus our faith, our love and our sorrow for the sins we have committed (throughout our lives), only then begin making petitions. Pray for our Church, especially today where there are various crises being reported, that God may protect our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, our bishops, priests and religious. Then bring forward your own interests, prayers for your spouse, your family members, friends, and anyone else who has asked you to pray for them. When you visit Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament (and He is just as present when exposed in the monstrance as when He quietly resides in the tabernacle), use the most intimate and natural form of speech with Him: ‘Dear Lord, you desire me to love you, because you are Love itself. You especially called me to your love. Love itself is a gift from you. Your love wells out of your divine Being. I love you as much as I humanly am capable of. I thank you for all you have done for me in my life, and on this day. I adore you, Oh Lord Jesus, because by Your Cross, our Cross, you have redeemed the world. You have redeemed me. Allow me then, to offer my crosses, my pain and daily toil to you in reparation for (name your intention here), and for those for whom I have just prayed.’
Actually, the best way to pray to Jesus is by using, so called, “conversational prayer.” It is an easy way to pray to Jesus, or to Mary, to the Holy Trinity… and certainly in forming an interior prayer life it is most useful. I use it all the time. And if this form of prayer is not suitable, think of yourself when you were a child and talk to God in the manner you then talked to your Mom and Dad.
When you experience suffering, crosses too heavy to bear, lay them at the foot of His Cross. Lay them, in prayer, before the tabernacle, before our Father in Heaven, Himself. Ask Jesus to assist you, to intercede for you with His, who is, Our Father. Jesus is a wonderful counselor and intercessor.
The progress made in realizing a spiritual life and particularly an interior life of prayer leading ultimately to an intimate union with Christ takes many years for some and a lifetime for others. But without a spiritual life which we refer to as an interior life, union with God just isn’t possible. What often keeps one away from this intimate relationship is theself. Complete detachment is needed, total custody of the senses and that is not so simple. All people have emotions of one sort or another and when emotions are fed by the senses it is difficult to concentrate on no one but Jesus.
Bishop Gross, from whose book I’ve been quoting in this reflection, writes, “Try connecting up everything you undertake to do with the work and labors of our Lord on earth, or with those of His holy Mother.” When reading on, it becomes clear that the bishop means that we associate our work with Jesus and Mary. In our interior relationship with them, imagine them doing what you are doing now. If my superior tells me to vacuum the carpet I can meditate on Jesus and Mary for in their days there were floors to sweep. Computers, however, weren’t invented yet, nor typewriters. Pen and paper, who knows? But the point is that if you keep Jesus and Mary in your thoughts you are never separated from God and thus you will become a new person. A solid friendship will form between you and Jesus. Jesus is always reaching out to us.
People who are constantly doing good things or who communicate often with Jesus and Mary become holy people. It is an easy step to continue this communication with Jesus and Mary during visits to the Blessed Sacrament. Discuss every detail of your daily existence (no matter how dull, perhaps) with Jesus and Mary. Ask the Saints to pray for you that you may attain an interior life of prayer. Of course, you’ll digress but you’ll always come back to Jesus and to Our Mother. On the medallion the brothers wear on their chests are the words “All for Jesus and Mary” and also “Thy Kingdom Come.” When the practice of being in the presence of God becomes habitual, “the mere longing for union with God becomes an ideal love.” The Bishop also writes, “only through strenuous spiritual effort will you be transformed into a truly interior soul.” This state is more easily gained by contemplative religious because fewer distractions and more time before the tabernacle than for someone working in a doctor’s office or in a factory where there are many distractions. Of course, when you keep an inner relationship going with Jesus and Mary you become an exemplary religious or lay person in thought, word and deed.
The good bishop also teaches us, “Good intentions, which individually might take a long time to perfect, such as, the custody of the tongue, humility, and self-abnegation — are realized simultaneous … by holy discipline and good habits, as far as these things are possible to the imperfect beings we are.” But this life of intimate prayer is something beautiful. So work into that direction asking God to help you perfect it.
“Be ye therefore perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt. 5:48) Ponder these words. What do you think Jesus meant? Bishop Joseph Gross told the contemplative nuns where he was visiting, “If you are earnest about the purpose of your life, there must be no stopping anywhere. The upright and holy soul, the soul which is striving after perfection, must ever go onto greater heights of justice, sanctity and excellence.”
We know that Jesus makes all things possible for us. We know that He is always there to boost us to greater heights of holiness, or, if we are falling, to catch us before the abyss. Jesus does so because His love for us is total—He wishes only the best for us. The best is that we spend all eternity with Him in Heaven, forever adoring Him and His Heavenly Mother. He wishes for us to see Him as He is. In order to reach that ultimate destination we must strive to be perfect. And when we’re nearly there we’ve got to try even harder! To better ourselves we need a solid foundation. This foundation is our ascent to prayer. Prayer is a conversation with God. Interior prayer is a constant conversation with God over and above what we’re doing at a given moment (Yes, you can do two things at once, as long as one of these is interior.)
People sometimes get into a heap of trouble when they make illogical assumptions about God. God’s love for us is unique and it is total, but God does not need our love in order to make Himself happier. Almighty God is eternal Joy and nothing further can contribute to His Joy, or deprive Him of anything at all. Bishop Gross writes: “Thou art my God. I confess Thy omnipotence, Sanctity, Infinity. I am nothing; derived from nothing but drawn out of nothingness solely through Thy goodness and power.”
The first condition of a foundation of prayer is “the acknowledgement of the immensity of Almighty God,” and of one’s own total dependence on Him. In the Creation story, that is, before Adam and Eve sinned—God had created them to do one thing only, “to contemplate His goodness.” But man sinned. Adam and Eve’s sin was not that of eating an apple but it was disobedience—they didn’t acknowledge God’s command. When we, men and women of the 21st Century, violate our relationship with God, we fundamentally tell God we know best. Well, we do not! Coming to this realization through prayer, we, in the stillness of our soul, can change the world—peace can only come about when we believe and respect our relationship with God. To attain that peace we must ask. Jesus said: “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek and you shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you.” (Mt. 7:8) Now, sometimes we get the grace to seek, knock and thus find God through the prayer of others. And, as I wrote in a preceding section, their prayer may have been uttered centuries before. Someone could have prayed in the 10th Century, “Lord God, please grant the request of a struggling soul.” The result of that prayer could apply to anyone today. In God’s time there is no time. God IS – He exists in the NOW—He transcends time. We should have only one desire: to love God and our neighbor (i.e. everyone else) as we love ourselves.
To realize great joy here on earth spend an hour before the Blessed Sacrament. It melts stony hearts. I could, however, write for hours on methods of prayer but we all have our own way of talking to God. The whole secret of prayer is to express our love for God. Some who have reached what we call the “heights of prayer” experience “the dark night of the soul.” It is a process of purification and if you’ve been chosen to experience purification in your lifetime you must be a very holy person. Purification for most of us is a long time in Purgatory or great physical suffering here on earth. As challenges present themselves in your lives, use them as a means of offering them up for reparation and thank God for the opportunity to be part of the solution to the problems of the times.
People have said “prayer is no use,” and it’s all because they do not understand the life of prayer correctly. Bishop Gross writes, “What sort of prayer is it that will be heard? Every sincere confident persevering prayer is of benefit to us; it helps us. Possibly we do not receive that for which we pray and in just the way we want it. Neither do children always obtain what they ask for. Almighty God deals with us as parents do with their children—deny them what would not be good for them to have. We are often children in our requests, and set our hearts upon things which will not forward our holiness at all.”
In Chapter 14 of his book, “Tantum Ergo Sacramentum,” Bishop Gross writes: “Every prayer we have said, every hour we have spent in converse with Almighty God will contribute to our eternal bliss in Heaven.” The first thing required to ascend to interior prayer, “is to fill your mind with joy that you have the privilege of knowing and loving our Divine Lord. This spirit must underlie all your devotion.” It isn’t necessary to be anxious about prayer. Our chief concern is to adore God in all His greatness, goodness and majesty, then perhaps later pray for our own small matters. The Bishop writes, “The best and highest motive of prayer is to do honor to Almighty God. It is this He looks for in us: nothing else matters.”
“Holiness is nourished on prayer,” he continues, “the devout soul requires prayer in order to live, as the lungs require air. The breathing cannot tolerate any interference; in the same way the soul cannot afford to have its life of prayer interrupted.” The way we pray is irrelevant. You can use prayers from a prayer book, or you can use your own words; you can make interior acts of love or some other way. “Every movement of the spirit, heart, or mind, can well be prayer, indeed it must be so, inasmuch as every one of these acts refers to God, not to yourself or your desires, and has little relationship with any mood or taste of the moment.”
One thing prayer can do is detach us from ourselves. Prayer should be a real conversation with God. It should first be a period of professing faith and adoring Jesus, then asking forgiveness of our sins and other shortcomings. Then confer with Him maybe about the difficulties of life and how you might overcome these. Maybe here also review the beatitudes and tell Jesus if you’ve been able to put some of these into practice. Don’t rattle off these things but really do honor to God.
After that gently bring up some intentions. It is not necessary to mention names and/or conditions—ask God to help those you’ve promised to pray for. He knows who they are and what they need. The Bishop writes: “An even spirit, tranquil, calm, and glad, is absolutely indispensable for [interior] prayer.” Don’t only pray when there is a need. Pray all the time to do honor to God. While at prayer in church keep your eyes on the tabernacle or the Blessed Sacrament in the monstrance. Tell God everything you would tell Him if He stood before you in His humanity.