Prayer: The Best New Year’s Resolution

Jared Staudt

In our lifetime, there has never been so much expectation for a new year, hoping that we can all turn a corner and leave a difficult year in the past. So much is out of our control, yet there is one thing that we can do to allow our lives to be shaped by the one who is truly in control. Our lives will be better this year if we give more time to God in prayer.  

But what is prayer really about? I found it startling, when reading the sociologist Christian Smith, that we focus more on ourselves during prayer than on God. Citing a survey of U.S. Catholics, Smith relates that “the most frequently reported subjects of prayer are personal well-being and family relationships … Again, worldly issues dominate the prayers of American Catholics, and more ‘spiritual’ concerns — with the exception of giving thanks to God  —recede far into the background” (Religion: What It Is, How It Works, and Why It Matters, Princeton University Press, 2017, 193). There is nothing wrong with praying for oneself and one’s family, although, if our prayers stop there, we’ll be missing the very heart of prayer: communion with the living God.  

The Carmelite Anders Cardinal Arborelius, the first cardinal from Scandinavia, can teach us how to pray in a more God-focused way through his guide, Carmelite Spirituality: The Way of Carmelite Prayer and Contemplation (EWTN, 2020). The focus of prayer is God — sitting before him in silence to receive the gift of himself that he wants to give us. Cardinal Arborelius teaches that “adoration,” in particular, “is so important in Christian life … Adoration is completely God-centered. It is the core of our prayer to praise God just because He is God, just because He is what He is — not because He has given us so many things or insights, but just because He is God. It is our main obligation as creatures to adore Him Who made us. Until we have learned to adore God in spirit and truth, life is bound to be very troublesome because we will be bound up in ourselves. Maybe the best way to learn the art of adoration is to see our own poverty, that we are nothing and God is everything but that He still loves us and gives us all His riches” (113). When we focus on ourselves and not God, we turn our attention away from the real gifts he wants to give us. We ask for crumbs when he wants us to feast on his divine life.   

The Cardinal points to the need for this adoration to become a way of life, guiding us not only every day but throughout each day. By refusing to be consumed by the daily grind of life, and focusing on God in prayer, we actually can approach the daily details more easily: “When we start to look upon our entire life as a pilgrimage, our attitude will change gradually. The small things of everyday life tend to become more important. Every little step we take becomes immensely valuable. We become aware that we are walking with Jesus to the Father with the wind of the Spirt drives onward, step by step. Every step brings us closer to God already, here and now” (7).  

The Trinitarian emphasis in this quote shapes a large part of the book, with chapters on the contemplation of the Holy Spirit, remaining in the Holy Trinity, believing in and becoming a child of the Father, belong and surrendering to Jesus, and following the Spirit. Prayer is Trinitarian because Jesus shares his own love for the Father with us, who is the Holy Spirit, the one who draws us into the life of God. The Holy Spirit conforms us to Christ, who leads us to the Father, in whom we can rest secure as his sons and daughters. “We never want to be without Jesus and His Word,” Cardinal Arborelius says, because “we don’t want to be on our own. We don’t want to be independent individuals but His brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of His Father. We love to depend on Him alone” (8).  

This brings us back to our initial problem — we miss what God wants to give us in prayer, or we don’t even pray at all. The Cardinal reminds us that what we need most is to spend time with God in prayer. “We are the temples of the Most Holy Trinity; our dignity couldn’t be greater. But, and this is a tragedy, most Christians couldn’t care less. God lives in them, and they are busy with all kinds of other things” (11). He calls us, following the great Carmelite tradition to prioritize prayer, even in simple ways, such as reminding ourselves with the rhyme, “now-Thou” to turn to the encounter with God each moment (58).  

It is not an exaggeration to say that if we renew our efforts of prayer, opening ourselves to the life of the Trinity within us, 2021 will be a better year! 

Featured image by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

COMING UP: Five tips for reading the Word of God

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Sunday, Jan. 24 marks “The Sunday of the Word of God,” instituted by Pope Francis last year and to be held every year on the third Sunday of Ordinary Time. This may strike us as odd, as we might think to ourselves, “but isn’t the Bible read at every Sunday Mass?” Certainly so. Not only that, but every daily celebration of the Mass proclaims the Word of God.

What’s different about “The Sunday of the Word of God,” however, is that it’s not just about hearing the Bible read on Sundays. As the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith notes, it “reminds us, pastors and faithful alike, of the importance and value of Sacred Scripture for the Christian life, as well as the relationship between the word of God and the liturgy: ‘As Christians, we are one people, making our pilgrim way through history, sustained by the Lord, present in our midst, who speaks to us and nourishes us. A day devoted to the Bible should not be seen as a yearly event but rather a year-long event, for we urgently need to grow in our knowledge and love of the Scriptures and of the Risen Lord, who continues to speak his word and to break bread in the community of believers. For this reason, we need to develop a closer relationship with Sacred Scripture; otherwise, our hearts will remain cold and our eyes shut, inflicted as we are by so many forms of blindness.’” This gives us a wonderful opportunity to pause and reflect on the Sacred Scriptures. 

There are two means by which God Divinely reveals truths to us: Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. As such, the Bible is not merely a human document, nor simply a collection of amazing stories that call us to do heroic things, or a collection of wise sayings. Rather, the Scriptures are “inspired.” St. Paul has a beautiful teaching about this in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 – “All scripture, inspired of God, is profitable to teach, to reprove, to correct, to instruct in justice, That the man of God may be perfect, furnished to every good work.” By “inspired” we mean that God is the principle author of the Bible.

Certainly there were different men who physically wrote the words on the papyrus. Yet these men were influenced by the grace of inspiration to write, not just their own words, but God’s. And so the Scriptures are a mysterious congruence of Divine and human authorship – the human writers capably made full use of language, literary forms, creativity, and writing style to communicate their message, yet they did so under the grace of Divine inspiration. This means that while they wrote in such a way that they had full freedom to write as they wanted, what they wrote was also, “to a tee,” exactly as God wanted written. God is the principle author of the Bible, the human author its secondary writer. Such inspiration is how, despite the various human authors, events, and historical and cultural contexts behind the 73 Biblical texts, we’re still left with only one story since they all have the same one primary author. 

Given that the Bible is the written word of God, I’d like to offer a few “tips” for reading the Bible, since it certainly cannot be read like any other text. 

1. Pray! We must pray before opening the Scriptures for enlightenment from God. We must pray after reading in thanksgiving to God. And we must pray throughout reading in order to encounter God in Scripture and apply it to our life. Of course, the tried and trusted practice of praying the Scriptures is Lectio DivinaThe Ladder of Monks by Guigo II is the ancient resource for Lectio Divina, while a helpful book to get you started is Dr. Tim Gray’s Praying Scripture for a Change: An Introduction to Lectio Divina

2. Remember that you are in no rush. The important point is encountering Christ in the Scriptures, not racing through them. Speed reading isn’t reading, after all, much less when applied to the Word of God. It’s not about getting through the Bible, but encountering Christ therein. That may be a few chapters at a time or may actually be only one verse that you pray with. Whatever the case, slow and steady wins the race, as Aesop reminds us. 

3. We have to read the Scriptures regularly, daily if possible. We read in Psalm 1, “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.” Meditating day and night. A good way to start would be to read one Psalm a night as a part of your nightly prayer. Ever better would be praying that one Psalm with your spouse, if married. 

4. Do not worry about starting on page one and reading from cover to cover. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and lost in the text. We all know about Adam and Eve, Noah and the Flood, Moses and the Plagues. But how many understand animal sacrifices in the Book of Leviticus or its purity laws? It’s very easy, starting from page one and flipping straight through, to lose sight of the story of salvation history. Start from page one if you’d like, but don’t feel like you can’t start with whatever book (especially the Gospels) that you find yourself drawn to. 

5. Come take classes with the Denver Catholic Biblical School! In chapter eight of the Book of Acts, we read of an Ethiopian Eunuch reading from the Prophet Isaiah. When the Deacon Philip asks him if he understands what he’s reading, the Eunuch responds, “How can I, unless some one guides me?” This is what we at the Biblical School are here for – to guide you in your encounter with Christ in the Sacred Scriptures. We’re in the middle of our Scripture classes already for this year, but we always start new classes in the fall every September. And in the meantime, we have plenty of things still coming for this year – a class on Catholic Social Teaching that begins on Jan. 27 a lecture series for Lent that starts on March 1, a conference on the Sacred Heart being offered on May 15 and Aug. 28, and a six-week class on St. Joseph in the summer starting in July. We have something for everybody – just reach out to us!