Christ is coming.
Next week, in fact, Christians around the world will celebrate the Nativity of the Lord and his humble birth in Bethlehem.
The Church designates the four weeks preceding Christmas as the season of Advent, a time to prepare a place for the savior. According to local priests, it’s never too late to make it a prayerful time.
How to make Advent prayerful
Father Greg Cleveland, an Oblate of the Virgin Mary who directs the Lanteri Center for Ignatian Spirituality, said one way is to unite with Jesus’ mother Mary, especially as she carried her son in her womb.
“As Christians we carry Christ in our hearts and simply recall his presence with loving awareness,” he said. “We can ponder the mysteries of Jesus and Mary, just as Mary ‘pondered all these things in her heart’” (Lk 2:19).
One way faithful can anticipate Christmas is to ask, “How can I stir my heart to grow in that longing, in that desire for God?”
Father Brady Wagner, parochial vicar of the St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center in Boulder, said this question is a good starting point.
“In order to awaken the deeper desires of the heart, greater silence and stillness through fasting from media can be very helpful,” he suggested. “And in the space of that silence to reflect on the promises that God has made, as St. Augustine says, placing himself in our debt, not because of anything we have given to him, but simply because he has made the promise.”
Through this kind of meditation on Christ’s fulfilled promises, faithful “can be more aware and ready to receive him as he comes to me daily in hidden ways as well as when he comes in glory,” Father Wagner said.
Prayer that focuses on Christ’s birth
St. Ignatius recommended prayer that uses the imagination.
“He goes so far as to become a participant in the mystery, imagining one’s self to be a little boy or girl serving the Holy Family in the cave at Bethlehem,” Father Cleveland explained. “Interact with Mary and Joseph. Hold the Christ child. Be in awe and rejoice at the arrival of the shepherds and wise men.”
Father Wagner also recommended using the imagination to reflect on the mysteries of Christ’s life.
“To pray imaginatively with the joyful mysteries of the rosary can be powerful, seeing what Mary was doing, how she prays, how she works, how she meditates on the Scriptures, how she speaks and interacts with others, which prepared a ready heart to receive the word from the Angel Gabriel and freely respond,” Father Wagner said. “And to enjoy an intimate conversation with her so she can teach us how to ready our hearts as well.”
Vocal vs. mental prayer
“(Vocal and mental prayers) are not so much different as complementary forms of prayer that should go together,” Father Cleveland said. “Vocal prayer begins with speaking the words of praise or petition, while aligning our thoughts with our words. Mental prayer begins with thinking about God and the truths of our faith with the goal of greater understanding and conviction.”
Mental prayer, he added, leads to vocal expression of love and petition to God.
The rosary is a way to engage both forms of prayer, Father Wagner said.
Previous popes have spoken of vocal and mental prayer as the “body and soul” of the rosary—the vocal prayers being the body of the rosary and the meditation on the face of Jesus with Mary, on the mysteries of Christ’s life, as being the soul, he explained.
Make time for private prayer
Father Wagner said, “Jesus encourages us, ‘when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you’” (Mt 6:6).
Father Cleveland said, “Just as we need time both in community and in solitude, so we need both communal and private prayer.”
Although it is important to pray liturgically and communally, “there is a depth of the heart where God desires to encounter us,” Father Wagner said.
When faithful participate in private prayer and communal prayer, the benefits are mutually reciprocal, he added.
“Praying with others and especially liturgically teaches me how to pray, but also praying fruitfully with others assumes that I pray individually and know how to pray,” he explained.