Praying with Our Past: Shadows & Mercy

“Salvation history” is how God is at work in the lives of the People of God. Each of us has our own personal salvation history. From time to time, we need to genuinely bring our history to God because our past is such an important part of who we we have become. Praying with our history is not about remembering our past for its own sake, but so that we can discover God’s faithful presence throughout our lives.

When we reflect on our personal history, two things are likely to happen: we experience resistance, and/or we begin to see patterns in our life.

1) We may experience resistance. Perhaps we fear we will be overwhelmed by the pain, suffering, or sinfulness of our lives. It may be too difficult to think about certain times in our lives. If we find great resistance, offer that resistance to the Lord. We need to be gentle with ourselves—we can do this a little at a time, or perhaps simply leave aside the most difficult part of our personal history until we feel ready to bring it to prayer.

Our favorite Old Testament story can be helpful at this point. Very often, the best stories from the Old Testament are about a time of failure, weakness, or infidelity on the part of God’s people. And yet in this darkness, God reveals over and over again his faithful love for his people.

When we have the courage to face the pain or darkness of our past, we receive the grace to experience God’s love, mercy, and forgiveness. Along with many spiritual writers, Father Rupnik agrees that the experience of God’s mercy is the foundational spiritual experience. It is God’s love that shapes us into his people, that places us in his story of salvation. When we recognize that we are truly unworthy, we can discover that God loves us as we are!

Looking back on our life’s journey can help us to see our past more clearly, but the goal isn’t to get lost—or stuck—in our past. Instead, we seek to discover and cherish the ways God has worked in our lives, our own sacred memories. Praying with our past—even the difficult moments—we can allow our  foundational experiences with God to take root in us, nurture our spiritual lives, and build our relationship with God.

When we are praying with difficult experiences in our past, it’s helpful to remember:

* Be gentle with ourselves. If something is too painful to remember, we can wait until we’re ready, until it’s the right time. We can also choose to pray with it with the help of someone we trust, whether a friend, mentor, or counselor.

* God doesn’t will evil for us or for anyone. If we were sinned against, or chose to sin against others—these were not and are not God’s direct will for us. But, just as God turned the most evil and tragic event in all of human history (the crucifixion of his only Son) into the means of the Redemption of all humanity, so God can take any circumstance of our lives—no matter how bad—and bring good out of it. When we pray with painful events from our past, we do so in the hope of discovering (or re-discovering) God’s faithful love. If we cannot see his love, we can make an act of trust in his love, and then pray for the grace to see how God has loved us.

* Focus not on the suffering but on God’s presence. We survived it—how? How we have healed or grown from it? How have we learned from it? Is God inviting us to heal further? Might God be inviting me to use that painful circumstance to remember that God is also mysteriously present in the pain or difficulty that we’re undergoing right now?

To Pray With

  • Pray with Psalm 139.
  • After you have prayed with Psalm 139, write your own version of the psalm. How would you describe how God has been with you and saved you in your life? (For an unusual example, read Francis Thompson’s famous poem, “The Hound of Heaven.”) What image would you use to describe how God acts in your life?

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