Dermot Mansfield SJ advocates “listening to the voice of God” twice every day so that we can really be in touch with his presence within and around me. The five stages of an “examen” of our consciousness can help to ensure this.
There is no one ideal way of prayer. We are all uniquely different people; in our temperament, ways of seeing things, relating to others. Each of our life stories is utterly unique. You and I have an individual gift of prayer, through the mystery of God deep within, dwelling in your heart and mine. It follows that there are as many ways of prayer as there are people.
Chorus of God’s people
One aspect I find very helpful myself is this: my prayer, I know, is never just my own. It is part of the great chorus of all God’s people, ceaselessly rising up day and night, in all the corners of the world. As well, prayer involves not just the living, but also those who have gone before us into God.
To remember this is an encouragement and a consolation. I can be too tired or ill, and unable to pray in any satisfactory way. But then I think of that chorus – that great melody – and I am uplifted by it. It is the music of God, and of Mary and of all God’s people, within and around me. I am part of it, even though wearied and feeling useless just now. For I live within the communion of saints, and am part of the endless interchange of love within the household of God.
Called by name
Having said that, however, I want to bring my final prayer thoughts very much ‘down to earth’. We are blessed with. the life we have on this earth. We are created by God, called by name, to live the years that are ours, to live them with humanity and faith, in relation to others and with all creation.
Each day of our life is a gift. Each day I live and breathe, God comes to me. Each day God is present to me, calling me, guiding me. In dark days and bright days, I can face life’s challenges with courage and thankfulness, because I am gifted by the God who calls me ‘to live for the praise of his glory’ (Eph.1: 12).
So every day, I can notice how God comes to me, is present to me. Every day I live has a special meaning. No day is without purpose, even if I feel bleak and useless. But I need a reflective heart – a discerning heart – in order to attend to the meaning and purpose of the day.
Listen to his voice
St. Ignatius wanted his followers to be reflective, discerning people, who would be open each day to the promptings of God. Every morning, the Psalm at the beginning of the Divine Office – which is the Church’s official prayer – has the phrase, ‘O that today you would listen to his voice! Harden not your hearts’ (Ps.90:7-8).
Twice a day, St. Ignatius suggests, I need to stop, in order to pray and reflect for a little while, to see what has been happening within me and around me. The first time could be around midday or lunch hour, and the second one, naturally, at the end of the day. My time of prayerful reflection could take many forms, and each of us needs to find what suits us best. But let me offer the simplest of formats based on what St. Ignatius himself outlines in his book of the Spiritual Exercises.
In this prayer, there are five aspects which flow into one another, but which can be taken one by one as follows. Firstly, I enter into my heart, and into God’s presence. I stay there for a moment, asking for light and wisdom to see clearly.
Secondly, I look at the hours which have passed by already, and review them. What has happened for me? Who did I meet? How was I in myself? In good form, or irritable, able to attend to others and notice things, or maybe somewhat closed in on myself? Perhaps someone’s word or gesture upset me, although I was unaware of it at the time? Did a smile or the beauty of the sky touch my heart?
Thirdly, a prayer of sorrow wells up in me, for I realize how, here and there, I was less than generous, and negative in myself. Fourthly, and most important of all, I give thanks for the giftedness of my life, and for the blessings these recent hours have contained. And, fifthly, I end by asking God’s grace and help for the time ahead.
Maybe I’ll manage a reflective prayer such as this just once a day, perhaps in the evening when I can become still and ponder the day’s meaning. In a sense, I only have this day, now when I breathe and am conscious and aware. All of my life flows together in this one day. And – to say it again – the living God comes to me, and gifts me this very day. So, to ponder on my life and see its meaning today is a great gift.
The grandeur of God
Gradually, through some such daily prayer at this, we become more aware and discerning persons. Because we are sensitive to the small daily things of life, we are enabled to become more conscious of the bigger picture. Our heart and our mind’s horizon begin to expand. St. Ignatius wished us to be able to see ‘God in all things’, and so we see how, in the words of another poet, the Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘the world is charged with the grandeur of God’.
So try to be reflective each day. I say this, because I’m painfully aware myself of how I can let days go by without proper reflection. ‘Stop! Look! Listen!’ says the sign at unguarded level crossings. Failure to do so can prove very costly indeed. So I think I should say that to myself every day: Stop! Look! Listen! That is the. essence of what I’m trying to say about a reflective moment of prayer each day.
In the end, prayer flows into life. Our life and our prayer intermingle. Prayer leads us out into life’s challenges, calling us into truthfulness, courtesy, humility, forgiveness. Life in turn, through its ups and downs, and our successes and failures, leads us back to God, and to prayer.
Matter of the heart
Prayer is a matter of the heart, my needy, desiring heart. It is there because God’s presence is within and around me. It is there because the words and deeds and plight of others awaken my heart. I am awakened to the gift of myself, to how I am ‘called by name’. And therefore, ‘Though I should walk in the valley of darkness’ (Ps.23:4), I can walk with thankfulness and without fear of evil, because knowing God walks with me. Such is the gift of prayer; to know these things, and treasure them in our hearts.
This article first appeared in The Messenger (February 2007), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.