The occasional, often ill-considered thoughts of a Roman Catholic permanent deacon who is ever grateful to God for his existence. Despite the strangeness we encounter in this life, all the suffering we witness and endure, being is good, so good I am sometimes unable to contain my joy. Deo gratias!

Although I am an ordained deacon of the Catholic Church, the opinions expressed in this blog are my personal opinions. In offering these personal opinions I am not acting as a representative of the Church or any Church organization.

Monday, June 29, 2020

COVID-19 Bible Study Reflection #8: Prayer in the Psalms

Note: This reflection was originally written on June 20. I simply neglected to post it here on the blog. I trust you will find it of some value in your prayer life.

Once again, I offer another reflection, one I hope will help us – and I include myself as well – get through these challenging times. As always, we ask the Holy Spirit to be with us, to guide and inspire us. That’s important because without the Holy Spirit, we can do little indeed. 

Today we’re going to look at prayer, the Spirit of prayer, especially as it’s found in Sacred Scripture, remembering that it’s only through the Holy Spirit that we can “pray as we ought” [Rom 8:26].

I’ll begin by saying I’m not an expert on prayer. Indeed, my own prayer life, my own time with God, is sometimes pretty messy. I think of all the fits and starts, the spiritual dead-ends, the dryness, the challenges – and all of it so often focused more on myself than on God. How, then, can I talk with you about prayer when my own prayer life falls so short of the mark set by the saints? Well, I actually prayed about this and decided that maybe the Holy Spirit wanted me to share those problems with you too. Maybe He knows how these same things trouble your prayer life, and that you’re not alone. Fortunately, the Holy Spirit’s a lot smarter than you and me. And as Luke tells us, Our Lord Himself promised His disciples:
“…the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say” [Lk 12:12].
So, let’s just agree that the Holy Spirit is the source of any good resulting from this reflection, and that all the not-so-goods come only from me. With that we can press on and open ourselves to the movement of the Spirit.

Here we are, in the middle of Ordinary Time. Lent and Easter are behind us, and Advent and Christmas still far ahead of us, so perhaps this might be a good time to reflect on how we’re doing. The Church, of course, knows that Ordinary Time can sometimes seem...well, so very ordinary. And so, during this quieter liturgical time, it repeats many of the Lenten readings. It wants us to know that prayer and fasting and almsgiving aren’t just Lenten practices…no they’re Christian practices, and should be an active part of our ongoing, daily spiritual lives. The practices of Lent, for example, should result in permanent change; they should bring about our continued spiritual growth. 

Too many of us, though, tend to spend much of our lives drifting to and from God, as if our spirituality is a kind of seasonal thing, not realizing that God wants constant spiritual movement toward Him. Yes, He wants us to do extraordinary things even in Ordinary Time, and it’s all wrapped up in God’s call to love Him and each other. How did St. Paul put it?
"If I speak in human and angelic tongues, but do not have love, I am a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal" [1 Cor 13:1].
Wow! …So, our prayer and all we do mean little if they’re not grounded in love. Let me read something else Paul wrote, in his 2nd Letter to the Thessalonians:
“We are bound to give thanks to God always for you, brethren, as is fitting, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing”  [2 Thes 1:3].
Now, out of all the verses in the New Testament, why do you think I chose this one? It was the words: “…because your faith is growing abundantly.” It’s all about growth, isn’t it? It’s all about growth in faith, growth in prayer, and growth in love. In other words, it’s about growth in holiness. But how do we measure it?

In the Night Prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours there’s a point at which we are asked to make an examination of conscience, to review the day and our place in it. It’s a wonderful habit to develop and practice. Just take a few moments at the end of each day to call on the Holy Spirit, asking Him to remind us of how we journeyed through the day – what we have thought, and said, and done. It’s a prayer in which we place ourselves at the feet of Jesus and lay bare our soul in repentance and thanksgiving.
What did I do today to advance God’s Kingdom on earth?
Was I a willing ambassador for Christ in my interaction with others?
Did I see the presence of Jesus in all who crossed my path today? 
Did I submerge my own needs and wants and focus instead on helping them?
What I said and did today – did it lead people to salvation or turn them away?
How will I do things differently tomorrow?
Honest answers to these and other questions help us focus on our spiritual growth. The direction we’re heading becomes either painfully or gratefully obvious. We can then ask the Holy Spirit to show us the best path to spiritual growth and let Him lead us. 

Maybe this would be a good time to pause for a moment, turn to the Holy Spirit, and reflect on our personal growth in holiness. Like St. Paul, let’s set high expectations for our growth in holiness, and continually thank God for the grace He mercifully provides.
Holy Spirit, clear my mind of everything but Your love for me and my love for You. And in that love place before me that which You call me to do, that which will help me grow in holiness.
A few years ago, in a course for catechists and Catholic school teachers, I asked the participants write down an answer to this question: “When, outside of Mass, do you most often pray?” 

The most common answer? When I ask for God’s help in times of trouble or in solving some problem; in other words, Prayers of Petition.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with asking God for something, so long as it’s not something bad for us. But if that represents the full extent of our prayer life, we really don’t have much of a prayer life at all. 
Jesus and the Apostles Singing a Psalm
So, let’s look at prayer in many of its forms by turning to the Bible. Interestingly, virtually every form of prayer can be found in the Bible’s own book of prayer, the book we call the Book of Psalms. In each of the following I have offered only a single example of each type of prayer, in most instances just a single verse. But the Book of Psalms is filled with prayers and I recommend reading and praying with this wonderful book daily. 

Prayers of Petition – God works wonders for those He loves:
“Know that the LORD works wonders for his faithful one; the LORD hears when I call out to him” [Ps 4:4].
Prayers of Adoration, Praise, Blessing – We bless and praise God, not just once in a while, but always:
“I will bless the LORD at all times; his praise shall be always in my mouth” [Ps 34:2].
Prayers of Thanksgiving – We offer God an endless proclamation of Thanksgiving for all that we have, even our very being:
“Give thanks to the LORD for he is good, his mercy endures forever!” [Ps 107:1]
Prayers of Longing and Yearning – We yearn for God just as the deer yearns for the running waters of a stream:
“As the deer longs for streams of water, so my soul longs for you, O God.  My soul thirsts for God, the living God. When can I enter and see the face of God?” [Ps 42:2-3] 
Prayerful Suffering – We express our sorrows, our pains in the light of God’s will, and unload our burdens on Him:
“Listen, God, to my prayer; do not hide from my pleading; hear me and give answer. I rock with grief; I groan… My heart pounds within me; death’s terrors fall upon me. Fear and trembling overwhelm me; shuddering sweeps over me” [Ps 55:2-3,5-6].
Prayers of Repentance – In a spirit of conversion we renounce our sin, express sorrow, and return to the Father, the only one who can heal us:
“Have mercy on me, God, in accord with your merciful love; in your abundant compassion blot out my transgressions. Thoroughly wash away my guilt; and from my sin cleanse me. For I know my transgressions; my sin is always before me” [Ps 51:3-5].
Prayers of Marvel and Wonder – Ps 104:1-35 – We marvel at the glories of God’s creation and celebrate with joy all that He has done:
"Bless the LORD, my soul! LORD, my God, you are great indeed! You are clothed with majesty and splendor, robed in light as with a cloak. You spread out the heavens like a tent; setting the beams of your chambers upon the waters. You make the clouds your chariot; traveling on the wings of the wind. You make the winds your messengers; flaming fire, your ministers" [Ps 104:1-4]. 
Meditative Prayer – The very first two verses of the Book of Psalms are designed to lead us to meditative prayer:
“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night.” [Ps 1:1-2]
In the same way, Luke offers us the example of our Blessed Mother: 
“…Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart” [Lk 2:19]
Contemplative Prayer – Loving contemplative immersion – Christ-centered contemplative prayer is a divine gift, a gift of growth in mental prayer, given when we are ready, not before. Through loving contemplative prayer, we “Taste and see that the LORD is good” [Ps 34:9]. In other words, we experience for ourselves the very goodness of God.

Both St. Peter and St. Paul tell us that when we pray so deeply, words are not only unnecessary but unable to describe what takes place. Here's how St. Paul described it to the Romans:
“…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” [Rom 8:26].
Prayers of Delight and Joy – We delight in the Lord, in His goodness and His works, and take joy in His love for us:
“I will praise you, LORD, with all my heart; I will declare all your wondrous deeds. I will delight and rejoice in you; I will sing hymns to your name, Most High” [Ps 9:2-3].
Prayer in Song (Hymns) – Most of the psalms were written as poetic hymns; they were the songs of a people to their Beloved. This is why the Church has given music such a key role in her liturgy, particularly when it comes to the Psalms:
“Give thanks to the LORD, invoke his name; make known among the peoples his deeds! Sing praise to him, play music; proclaim all his wondrous deeds! Glory in his holy name; let hearts that seek the LORD rejoice!” [Ps 105:1-3]
Indeed, the last thing Jesus and the apostles did at the Last Supper before going to the Garden was sing:
“And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives” [Mt 25:30].
Jesus and the Apostles had just completed the Passover Meal, which traditionally was concluded with the singing of Thanksgiving Psalms; e.g., Ps 114-118. 

Prayer of Amen – The prayerful affirmation of God’s will in all things. Here we say
“Yes!” to God and for all that He does – just as Mary said “Yes” to the archangel Gabriel and Jesus said “Yes” to the Father in the Garden. St. Paul’s famous instruction to the Romans is, in a sense, a trusting “Amen!” to our God:
“We know that all things work for good for those who love God,* who are called according to his purpose” [Rom 8:28].
Consider, too, the Great Amen we sing at Mass in response to the Final Doxology prayed by the priest: 
"Through him, and with him, and in him, O God, almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honor is yours, for ever and ever…AMEN"
The word “doxology” literally means to speak of glory, to openly praise God’s glory. And so, we shout, “Amen!”, as an affirmation of our complete Faith in God’s goodness.

Liturgical prayer is the prayer of the Church – the Mass, other sacramental prayer, the Liturgy of the Hours, and other liturgical rites. It is the Church’s prayerful communal worship, the ecclesial prayer that the Lord Himself established. And not surprisingly our liturgies are filled with prayers from the Book of Psalms. 

That’s quite a list of prayer forms, isn’t it? And so, don’t hesitate to turn to the Psalms in prayer when you need some inspiration and guidance from the Holy Spirit. Keep in mind that He inspired David and all the other authors of these sacred hymns – living proof that He understands our needs even better than we understand them ourselves. 

Perhaps I’ll expand on the subject of prayer in our next reflection.

God’s peace.

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