Q&A: Deepen your prayer habits this Lent

Renowned writer Father Jacques Philippe shares wisdom on the intent of prayer

Roxanne King

Best-selling author Father Jacques Philippe is a native of France whose books have become classics of contemporary Catholic spirituality. A Beatitudes Community priest, Father Philippe is a sought-after retreat master who has been featured on EWTN. Praising the priest’s most recent offering, Thirsting for Prayer (Scepter, 2014), author and EWTN President Dan Burke said, “[It] is among the best of his work and may be the last book you will need to purchase on the topic of prayer.” During a recent stop in Denver, Father Philippe spoke to the Denver Catholic about prayer and offered advice to help people enter into a fruitful Lenten season. His remarks have been edited for space.

Denver Catholic: How should one pray?

(Photo provided)

Father Philippe:  Everybody has to find their own way to pray. But first, and very important, is faithfulness — day after day, year after year. Be faithful taking time for the Lord. Little by little God teaches us how to pray and how to have a deeper relationship with him. Prayer is not a technique we can master; prayer is a grace we receive. It is better to be faithful with poor prayer than to infrequently make a big production of prayer.

DC: What else is important for prayer?

FP: The desire to meet God, to love him, to have a relationship with him. Have a thirst for God, for truth, for light.

Prayer is a relationship with the Lord. God is offering to us his presence, his unconditional and infinite love. We welcome this by our attitude. Foundational is faith: I believe in God and I believe God loves me. Prayer is not to think a lot or feel a lot: that’s good, but prayer fundamentally is an act of faith.

Prayer is also an act of humility and hope. When I pray I manifest that I need God: I need his help and grace. So, prayer is an act of faith, hope and love. Jesus said, repeating the Old Testament (Dt 6:5): “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mk 12:30).

Also important is gratitude. You are not the initiator of this loving relationship: God first loved you. Prayer is not doing a lot of things, but mostly welcoming God’s presence and love. Take time to welcome his presence in faith. We don’t always feel his presence. We don’t understand everything in our life. But if we pray with faith, hope and love, even if it’s not perfect, even if it is poor and we don’t have great mystical experiences, it is OK!

DC: What are some ways to pray?

FP: A good start may be to meditate on the word of God or to read something spiritual to enter into an attitude of openness to God. Read, listen to what God is saying there, meditate on it and transform this into prayer. Other ways are to pray the Jesus Prayer (Lord Jesus, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner) or the rosary, to adore God in the Blessed Sacrament, to speak freely with God or to silently welcome him. These are some ways, there are many more. What is essential is not the technique but the attitude of one’s heart and taking time to pray.

DC: How do you like to pray?

FP: (laugh) I like many different types of prayer. It depends on the situation. Sometimes meditating on Scripture, sometimes adoration or using the Jesus Prayer or the rosary.

Prayer is not only a human activity but it is also an action of God’s grace through the Holy Spirit. With good will and faithfulness, little by little the Holy Spirit inspires and guides how you should pray — in silence, adoration, intercession.

DC: How can one persevere in prayer when lacking zeal for it?

FP: Understand that prayer is answering God’s call. I pray because I search for God, but above all because God is asking this of me. Jesus said, “pray always and do not lose heart” (Lk 18:1). The desire to pray is a call from God, who wants us to be close to him. He knows why prayer is important for us more than we know. When I don’t have the zeal, it helps to know that God is calling me and I have to be faithful to this call. He wants me to have a life filled with his presence and grace. It is important for me and for those living with me. The fruits of our prayer are the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness (Gal 5:22). Prayer isn’t always fantastic. It may be simple and poor. No matter. If I am faithful, even in my poverty, God is communicating something to me, teaching me and working in the depths of my heart.

DC: The other two Lenten disciplines are fasting and almsgiving. How do those practices help us?

FP:  Fasting can be very positive: It means to put God first in my life by removing things that can keep me from God. To hunger for God rather than for human, worldly satisfaction is the symbolic meaning of fasting. I restrain my human appetites to turn to God, my deepest desire, and to put him at the center of my life. Traditionally, we fast from food, but we can also fast from other things — social media, cell phones and other realities that tend to be a distraction — to make time for silence and to be in God’s presence.

Almsgiving, charity, opens us to the needs of others. It’s an invitation to love: to share and not live a selfish, egoistic life. The more I am open to my neighbor, the more I will be open to God. Lent invites us to unite prayer, fasting and almsgiving to live in a deeper way our human vocation according to God’s will, which Jesus said is to love God and to love one’s neighbor (Mk 12: 30-31). We can’t separate the two.

Ask the Holy Spirit to inspire your prayer, your fasting, your almsgiving. Lent is a time of spiritual struggle we accept that we may be closer to God and not be taken by the spirit of the world and a superficial life.

DC: Is there anything you would like to add?

FP: We should fast from worrying too much! The purpose of Lent is to trust more in God: to rely on him, his grace and his mercy, and to find our deepest security and peace in him. One of the most important fruits of Lent is to know and experience God as Father. On Ash Wednesday in Matthew’s Gospel (6:1-6, 16-18) we will hear Jesus speaking about prayer, fasting and almsgiving. On prayer, he says: “When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.” (He speaks similarly about fasting and almsgiving.) The goal of Lent is to have deeper contact with God as Father: He is to be our hope, our strength, our peace. Don’t worry about so many things or have anxiety about this and that. To rely on the love of the Father is to be a son of God.

For more information visit frjacquesphilippe.com

COMING UP: Five Hispanic-American saints perhaps you didn’t know

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The American continent has had its share of saints in the last five centuries. People will find St. Juan Diego, St. Rose of Lima or St. Martin de Porres among the saints who enjoy greater popular devotion. Yet September, named Hispanic Heritage Month, invites a deeper reflection on the lives of lesser-known saints who have deeply impacted different Latin-American countries through their Catholic faith and work, and whose example has the power to impact people anywhere around the world. Here are just a few perhaps you didn’t know.

St. Toribio de Mogrovejo
1538-1606
Peru

Born in Valladolid, Spain, Toribio was a pious young man and an outstanding law student. As a professor, his great reputation reached the ears of King Philip II, who eventually nominated him for the vacant Archdiocese of Lima, Peru, even though Toribio was not even a priest. The Pope accepted the king’s request despite the future saint’s protests. So, before the formal announcement, he was ordained a priest, and a few months later, a bishop. He walked across his archdiocese evangelizing the natives and is said to have baptized nearly half a million people, including St. Rose of Lima and St. Martin de Porres. He learned the local dialects, produced a trilingual catechism, fought for the rights of the natives, and made evangelization a major theme of his episcopacy. Moreover, he worked devotedly for an archdiocesan reform after realizing that diocesan priests were involved in impurities and scandals. He predicted the date and hour of his death and is buried in the cathedral of Lima, Peru.

St. Mariana of Jesus Paredes
1618-1645
Ecuador

St. Mariana was born in Quito, modern-day Ecuador, and not only became the country’s first saint, but was also declared a national heroine by the Republic of Ecuador. As a little girl, Mariana showed a profound love for God and practiced long hours of prayer and mortification. She tried joining a religious order on two occasions, but various circumstances would not permit it. This led Mariana to realize that God was calling her to holiness in the world. She built a room next to her sister’s house and devoted herself to prayer and penance, living miraculously only off the Eucharist. She was known to possess the gifts of counsel and prophecy. In 1645, earthquakes and epidemics broke out in Quito, and she offered her life and sufferings for their end. They stopped after she made her offering. On the day of her death, a lily is said to have bloomed from the blood that was drawn out and poured in a flowerpot, earning her the title of “The Lily of Quito.”

St. Theresa of Los Andes
1900-1920
Chile

St. Theresa of Jesus of Los Andes was Chile’s first saint and the first Discalced Carmelite to be canonized outside of Europe. Born as Juana, the future saint was known to struggle with her temperament as a child. She was proud, selfish and stubborn. She became deeply attracted to God at the age six, and her extraordinary intelligence allowed her to understand the seriousness of receiving First Communion. Juana changed her life and became a completely different person by the age of 10, practicing mortification and deep prayer. At age 14, she decided to become a Discalced Carmelite and received the name of Theresa of Jesus. Deeply in love with Christ, the young and humble religious told her confessor that Jesus told her she would die soon, something she accepted with joy and faith. Shortly thereafter, Theresa contracted typhus and died at the age of 19. Although she was 6 months short of finishing her novitiate, she was able to profess vows “in danger of death.” Around 100,000 pilgrims visit her shrine in Los Andes annually.

St. Laura Montoya
1874-1949
Colombia

After Laura’s father died in war when she was only a child, she was forced to live with different family members in a state of poverty. This reality kept her from receiving formal education during her childhood. What no one expected is that one day she would become Colombia’s first saint. Her aunt enrolled her in a school at the age of 16, so she would become a teacher and make a living for herself. She learned quickly and became a great writer, educator and leader. She was a pious woman and wished to devote herself to the evangelization of the natives. As she prepared to write Pope Pius X for help, she received the pope’s new Encyclical Lacrymabili Statu, on the deplorable condition of Indians in America. Laura saw it as a confirmation from God and founded the Missionaries of the Immaculate Heart and St. Catherine of Siena, working for the evangelization of natives and fighting or their behalf to be seen as children of God.

St. Manuel Morales
1898-1926
Mexico

Manuel was a layman and one of many martyrs from Mexico’s Cristero War in the 1920s. He joined the seminary as a teen but had to abandon this dream in order to support his family financially. He became a baker, married and had three children. This change, however, did not prevent him from bearing witness to the faith publicly. He became the president of the National League for the Defense of Religious Liberty, which was being threatened by the administration of President Plutarco Elías Calles. Morales and two other leaders from the organization were taken prisoners as they discussed how to free a friend priest from imprisonment through legal means. They were beaten, tortured and then killed for not renouncing to their faith. Before the firing squad, the priest begged the soldiers to forgive Morales because he had a family. Morales responded, “I am dying for God, and God will take care of my children.” His last words were, “Long live Christ the King and Our Lady of Guadalupe!”