Prayer HeightsBy Fr. Francis Ongkingco
Cebu Daily News
It’s always amusing and relaxing to overhear children talk about the different challenges they meet as they grow up. This is especially common among boys who compete in height, speed and strength. They brag about the tallest trees or mountains they have climbed, the famous people they’ve met, the fiercest animal they have seen at the zoo or their best shots or strategies in sports or video games.
As they grow older the comparison becomes broader and more complicated. For example, they talk about grades, number of medals won, the places they have visited, the exotic food they’ve tried, the organizations they’ve joined, their statistical knowledge about certain fields of knowledge and of course the number of friends (girlfriends?) in FaceBook.
Later on it will be how many titles they have acquired, companies they have worked in, projects accomplished and so on. Of course, like everyone else they will eventually be more concerned about health. Thus, they compare calories, medications, health trends and many other healthy lifestyle matters.
It’s easy to speak of progress in things that could be quantified or qualified by our senses. It is quite another when measuring our spiritual growth. How do we know our prayer has reached fruitful heights or as the young have it, at what level of prayer am I? Sizing up, so to speak, our prayer and other spiritual exercises is not evident indeed.
The traditional ascetical or spiritual treatises would often group people into three levels of progress: beginners, proficient and perfect. But the spiritual life isn’t a video game to win and move up through levels. Before God’s infinite love, we are all just beginners. We must always remember that holiness and the means for it are principally God’s work, His grace. Whatever else we may do simply manifests our openness to His grace and personal conversion.
“St. Teresa and St. John of the Cross, lament, (…) not so much that people do not pray more, but that they do not make more advancement in prayer. They tell us very plainly that prayer is a science as well as a practice; that if we will only go the right way about it, we shall learn astonishingly both what prayer itself is and what wonderful things it has to reveal; and that there is no one, man or woman, educated or uneducated, religious or secular, who cannot come to at least some knowledge, much more than most of us usually achieve.” (A. Goodier, Spiritual Excellence)
If prayer is a science then one can grow in the knowledge and exercise of it and eventually reach heights of greater intimacy with the Blessed Trinity. But how is this concretized in our life? Isn’t this something beyond the ‘ordinary’ Christian’s capacity to achieve within the busy confines of his daily duties? Not really.
Like everything we wish to possess or achieve in life must begin with wanting it. Many people give excuses for not being able to pray or not having time to pray. Sometimes, if they’re sincere with themselves, it may be due to their not wanting to pray. Thus, fostering the desire to pray is a good starting point.
Our desire must now be manifested by finding a concrete place, time and a topic to pray about. These help to materialize our faith because we go out of our way to set a real appointment with Jesus as we would do with a friend or a business colleague.
After desire comes discipline. This is vital to our prayer’s growth. Discipline is achieved by setting a specific time to do prayer and a duration for our conversation with God. This will help us avoid giving in to either extending or cutting short our prayer given our emotional highs or lows.
The topic for our conversation varies. Often it might be absorbing some points from a book to facilitate our dialogue with God. This material could very well be the Gospel or a spiritual book adequate for our spiritual circumstances and calling. In general, St. Josemaría would say, that the theme of our prayer ought to be our life: our daily and vital experiences of joy, work, success and sickness, etc.
If we persevere daily in these concrete and simple prayer points, we will gradually develop a natural inclination for finding ourselves longing to rest in God’s presence and love. We don’t have to worry about measuring how much or how often, but how much love we put into it. As someone once said, the spiritual life must be a child’s KISS for Jesus because we Keep It Spiritually Simple.
We can begin in the simple manner that St. Josemaría suggests: “First one brief aspiration, then another, and another… till our fervor seems insufficient, because words are too poor…: then this gives way to intimacy with God, looking at God without needing rest or feeling tired. We begin to live as captives, as prisoners. And while we carry out as perfectly as we can (with all our mistakes and limitations) the tasks allotted to us by our situation and duties, our soul longs to escape. It is drawn towards God like iron drawn by a magnet. One begins to love Jesus, in a more effective way, with the sweet and gentle surprise of his encounter.” (Friends of God, #296)