Praying with Our Past: Lights and Thanksgiving

As we pray with our past, we may see with new eyes:

2) We may begin to see a pattern in certain events of our lives, or recognize how blessed we have been—a recognition we may not have had at the time. We may remember moments that we had dismissed where God touched us deeply.

As a sister, I make an annual retreat every year. People tell me that they admire sisters for making silent retreats—but making retreat is no hardship. Usually, my retreat is one my favorite weeks of the year because I get to spend quality time with my Beloved! Still, if I come to the retreat from a time that is busier or more distracted than usual, sometimes it can take me a couple of days to settle into the deep silence.

One particular year, I remember struggling a bit more than usual to get into the silence and deeper prayer of the retreat. As usual, I prayed with a passage of the Bible, and later in the day went to speak with the retreat director. I talked about what happened during my prayer time, and then moved on to how I was struggling to get into the retreat. After a few minutes, the director stopped me. “Tell more more about your prayer time with that passage,” he encouraged me. “It seems to me that God was speaking to you very powerfully there.”

Startled, I was quiet for a few minutes, then I recalled my prayer and spoke about it. As I spoke, I realized he was right. Several days later, I thanked him for helping me to pay attention to this profound moment where God spoke to me—a moment that I had overlooked because I was distracted by something else! That moment of prayer became the key to my entire retreat.

Praying with our past can be a powerful experience of God’s saving love:

  • We better realize how faithful and intimate God is in our life
  • We grow in trust
  • We come to understand our relationship with God better: how God seems to work in our lives
  • We grow in being able to recognize how God is working in our lives right now

When we pray with our past, we can always conclude our prayer with an act of thanksgiving for how God has revealed his faithful love in our lives.

To Pray With
Luke 24:13-35

After Jesus’ death, the two disciples who left Jerusalem to go to Emmaus needed to share their sorrow and confusion with Jesus. As they unknowingly shared and retold their story to the Risen Jesus, Jesus opened their hearts to the mystery of grace at work in their lives to the point that they were able to understand their time with Jesus in a new way, and eventually recognize Jesus with them in the breaking of the bread.

Follow the steps for Lectio Divina in praying with the beautiful story of Jesus’ Resurrection appearance to the disciples on the way to Emmaus. After your prayer, you may find the following reflection questions helpful:

1. Imagine that you are one of the disciples walking on the road to Emmaus, and you are joined by a mysterious, trustworthy Stranger. Share with him your most recent experience of being angry, betrayed, discouraged, grieving, or lost. How does it feel to tell Jesus how you feel? Does Jesus say something to you?

2. Have you ever had an experience of prayer that set you on fire? How have you allowed that fire to burn, grow, and set your life alight?    

3. The disciples didn’t recognize Jesus on the road. When have you been surprised by God? Where might God be standing in your life right now, or walking alongside you, but unrecognized?

How Our Weaknesses Shape Our Discernment: the Importance of Knowing One’s Self

“The Mirror” by William Merritt Chase, c. 1900

What makes a novel or movie fascinating for me is when the protagonist is flawed and must overcome inner obstacles to achieve his goal, or to choose (and find) her happiness. If all the characters—especially the main ones—are practically perfect, then we have trouble being interested in the story or the characters, because they’re not real. (Even the practically perfect Mary Poppins has a fault—or at least a weakness—in how she deals with her affection for the children and for Bert.) Perfect characters don’t just make the story less interesting. We are unable to relate to these flat characters, or to their lives, because they aren’t struggling with anything. They’re not like us.

We all struggle with ourselves—our faults, a flaw, or even a simple tendency that, in our situation, causes pain or distress. If we truly come to know ourselves, we acknowledge that we struggle with much more than the occasional fault. We all have a tendency to sin, and the more honest we are with ourselves, the better we know our sinfulness and flaws. (One of the benefits of spiritual direction is gradually coming to a clearer self-knowledge.) St. Augustine encourages us to pray for self-knowledge, and it’s something we can do daily before we make our examen.

People have different levels of awareness of their faults and sinfulness, but almost all of us have “blind spots” when it comes to how we see ourselves. A strength or talent we take pride in may actually be an irritant or flaw to others. For some of us, pride blinds us to our flaws and we have trouble acknowledging our sinfulness, except in things that we don’t consider that important. For others among us, all we can see is our faults and sinfulness. And many of us swing back and forth between the two perspectives—we have days we feel we can conquer the world, and other days where to love that irritating person for the love of Christ feels way more heroic than we can manage.

Neither perspective is really helpful. If you are someone who, like me, shifts back and forth, then you have one advantage: you know that you have still not come to the truth of who you are. For me, the key word in my understanding of who I am is one word: and.

Who are we? We are flawed and saved. We are called to eternal glory through the gift of our Baptism, and we are limited and sinful human beings. We are sinners and redeemed. We are cherished and we are called to conversion.

When we are discerning an important decision, it is crucial that we remember who we really are: precious and weak, sinful and called to holiness. At some point, God will probably call us to go beyond ourselves, beyond our own strength, sustaining us with the gift of his grace. But God also perfects our human nature, the gifts of our specific personality inherent in us. Our weaknesses shape our call just as much as our gifts, so it’s important in our discernments that we know who we are, in all the greatness of our call and all the weakness that we suffer.

For some helpful real-life examples, we can read more about the saints. In comparing two saints, we will often discover that the questions that they wrestled with were very different. A sensitive monk who grapples with scrupulosity and becomes a great confessor (like the great saint, Padre Pio) will have very different discernments during his life than a practical peasant woman who grows up on a farm and founds a religious congregation dedicated to bringing the love of God to others through the corporal works of mercy (like the great St. Frances Xavier Cabrini). Both are great saints known for their love for God and selfless service of others, but their love was expressed in completely different ways.

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To Journal About

  • How do I see myself? Do I use “and” or “but” when I describe myself?
  • At this point in my life, what is my greatest fault?
  • At this point in my life, what is my greatest gift?

You may wish to conclude your journaling time with a prayer to the Holy Spirit for the grace to see yourself through God’s eyes.

God Wants a Relationship with Us

To understand God’s call for us, we need to also understand how God sees us; we have to understand our “backstory” (to put it in storytelling terms) or where we come from.

How does God see us? Most simply put, we have been loved into being:

There is one truth for believers that, no matter how much our wounded nature might try, cannot be twisted. This truth is that God chose to create each of us. There is something so unique and wonderful about us that God wants to share his life with us. God wants us in the world.  See Yourself Through God’s Eyes

Not only is this true, but it has an amazing corollary: in creating us, God is expressing a desire to have a relationship with us. Because of Jesus, we know that this relationship with the God is adoption as God’s child, and our relationship with Jesus is friend.

Image 7How precious is the worth and dignity of every person on earth! The core of our identity is that we are created in the image of God, invited to become a child of God through Baptism so that we can share in Jesus’ divine Sonship. Created in God’s image, we have the ability to know and to love. Unfortunately, the freedom that gives us the ability to love also gives us the ability to choose to turn away from love.

When we choose not to love, we aren’t living according to the greatness of our identity. Although we are beloved, we are also flawed and sinful. Yet, even God’s response to our sinfulness proves his love for us! God sends his Son Jesus to save us from ourselves, from the power of sin, from the power of evil. Every time that we repent of our sins and ask forgiveness, we are invited to return to the depth and beauty of greater communion with God.

Our “backstory” helps us as begin or deepen our attitude of discernment, because God’s call to us is congruous with this reality that we are precious in God’s eyes. Since our very identity is founded on our relationship with God, it makes sense then that God is the Co-Protagonist in our life. God wants to partner with us, to draw us always closer to himself (in deeper communion with him) throughout our lives.

To Pray With

Psalm 139 is wonderful to pray with and ponder our identity in God’s eyes—God’s beloved ones. Pray with it over the next few days, and allow the awe and gratitude of this psalm to fill you.

Dancing with God

In a book or film, the protagonist is the central character in the story—the story is the protagonist’s story. Without the protagonist, there is no story, just a set of circumstances. This is also true of the story of our lives. We are the protagonists of our own lives. It is our story. But it’s also God’s story. God brought us into being, provides for us, and guides us as closely as we’ll allow. So God, too, is the protagonist of our story or rather, God and I are the co-protagonists of our story, which is the story of my life.

385px-Ballroom.svgIf we truly believe this—that the Holy Spirit is our Co-Author and Co-Protagonist—then how do we describe our role as the human co-protagonist? We know we aren’t simply passive spectators to our own lives. The Church unequivocally reminds us that we each have free will and the dignity of exercising that freedom. The question is how do we exercise our freedom, to make a choice, to step forward in faith, while letting God lead?

Letting God take the lead and our making a free choice are not mutually exclusive; in fact, just the opposite is true because ideally, they happen together! God invites, and we respond with faith and loving action. Our full, wholehearted response is absolutely essential to fulfilling our purpose, vocation, and mission in life.

For me, perhaps the best image of discernment as a way of life—even better than the image of co-authoring!—is that of a couple dancing together. Certainly one dancer usually takes the lead, but the other partner must choose to dance, take each of her own steps, occasionally choose her steps more independently when they are not hand in hand, and follow her partner’s lead when they are moving together. True dancing partners—even when across the room from each other—are always aware of each other, always seeking to harmonize or synchronize their movements. If not, there’s no dancing.

Growing in our relationship with God means that our partnership, this “dance” of our lives, enables us to understand always more the intentions and desires of God. Just like partners who have danced together for years can anticipate their partner’s next move, so when we live in communion with God, we start to understand God’s invitations and we can respond more easily and quickly—almost before God extends his hand in invitation.

Each step we take—whether we are intentionally following God’s lead or simply moving forward with our lives by doing the best we can—is a step we take freely. God respects our free will, works with our missteps, and wants us to grow in freedom. Just as partners who have danced together for years feel greater freedom—they trust so much in their partner’s support that they can take riskier moves—so the greater our spirit of discernment and union with God, the greater our freedom in living our deepest identity.

God Dreams with Us – Part 2

01A choice 1In discerning God’s will, neither scruples nor a careless “whatever goes” attitude is helpful. God is close and wants to reveal himself to each of us. Discerning God’s story for us involves a lot of listening, but that’s because we are usually spiritually hard of hearing. God not only wants to communicate his love and his plan for us, he wants to work out that plan with our full participation, which includes our making choices. Our full participation doesn’t, however, mean that we can see the whole picture: seeing the full story is a surprise that awaits us in heaven. (Read Newman’s “I am created to do something or to be something for which no one else is created” for Blessed John Henry Newman’s take on this.) Instead, God’s story for us unfolds step by step, giving us what we need to know to do his will, to live his dream for us.

There are many times when I’ve been grateful for how God has led me through a particular circumstance, and afterwards I see how it was really important for me to go through. But I’m really glad I didn’t know all of what was involved ahead of time, because I know I would have worried so much about it that my fear would probably have made me resist God’s plan for me. I might not have truly believed that God’s grace would be there for me to help me.

God gives us the grace to live the present moment, not the future. For me, worrying ahead of time can lead to fear and resistance to God’s grace. And then the gifts and the growth that could come from that experience would be lost.

Most likely, we will not fully understand all of God’s plan for us while we’re here on earth. The best choice and the most important attitude we have is to seek God’s will. As we figure out what that means, and as our heart is purified to ignore other distractions and truly seek God’s will, God can work with our faltering steps.

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Prayer Corner: Pray with Your Dreams

Have you ever prayed about your dreams? Take a few moments and journal:

  • What were your childhood dreams? What did you picture yourself doing when you were younger? How did you see yourself living your life?
  • What are your dreams now?

Bring this list of dreams to prayer and share them with God. Take a few moments to offer each dream individually to God. 

After your prayer, how do you feel about your dreams for your life?