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?

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?