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: A holy Church begins with you

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A holy Church begins with you

Bishop Rodriguez challenges Catholics to realize their call to holiness

Roxanne King

Even as the Catholic Church deals with the disgrace and shame of the clergy sexual abuse scandal and moves forward with repentance and renewal, it is challenging as faithful not to be disheartened and discouraged.

The answer to this situation is to follow the Scriptural mandate to holiness all Catholic Christians have been given, Denver auxiliary Bishop Jorge Rodriguez told attendees of the May 17-19 Aspen Catholic conference titled, “The Encounter: New Life in Jesus Christ.”

As he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in every aspect of your conduct, for it is written, ‘be holy, because I [am] holy,’” the bishop said, quoting I Peter 1:15-16.

“Holiness,” the bishop asserted, “…is the only thing that will get our Church through this crisis. It’s a transformation that we all need.”

The annual conference, an initiative of Father John Hilton, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Aspen where the event was held, drew people from the Archdiocese of Denver and from outside the state to strengthen their relationship with Jesus Christ, deepen their understanding of the Catholic faith, renew their spirit in the beauty of Colorado’s high country, and return home equipped to better share their faith.

Despite the current crisis, which is evidence the Church is comprised of sinners, every Sunday when professing the Creed, Catholics say, “I believe in the holy Catholic Church.”

“We say publicly that we believe the Catholic Church is holy. Do we mean it?” Bishop Rodriguez mused before affirming: “The Catholic Church, like it or not, will always be holy for three reasons.”

First: “Jesus Christ is the author of holiness and he is the head of the Church. … Jesus is the Church with all of us. The holiness of Jesus fills the whole Church.”

Second: “The Church is the only institution in the world that possesses all the means of sanctification left by Christ for his Church to sanctify its members and to make them holy.”

Third: “There are many, many holy people in the Church, both in heaven and here on earth.”

Holiness…is the only thing that will get our Church through this crisis. It’s a transformation that we all need.”

Slain STEM School shooting hero Kendrick Castillo is an example of a holy, young Catholic, Bishop Rodriguez said.

“He gave his life for his classmates. If this is not holiness, what is?” the bishop said about the 18-year-old who was killed May 7 when he tackled a teen shooter.

Servant of God Julia Greeley, a former slave known for her acts of charity and generosity from her own meager means to others in early Denver, and St. John Paul II, who in emphasizing the universal call to holiness of all Christians beatified and canonized more people than the combined total of his predecessors in the five centuries before him, were among others Bishop Rodriguez mentioned who comprise “the great cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1) of those believers who have preceded us into God’s kingdom. Additionally, there are countless “next-door saints,” he said, using a term coined by Pope Francis to describe those unknowns of heroic virtue among our family, friends and neighbors.

Rodriguez said, because the Scriptures say, Christ so loved the Church and gave himself up for her to make her holy (Eph 5:25-26).

“‘The Church is holy because it proceeds from God, who is holy,’” the bishop said, quoting Pope Francis’ Oct. 2, 2013, general audience address. “’It is not holy by our merits; we are not able to make her holy. It is God, the Holy Spirit, who in his love makes the Church holy.’

“The Catholic Church is and will be holy, even though some of her members still need repentance and conversion,” Bishop Rodriguez said. “Great sinners don’t make our Church unholy, but make the Church a factory of saints, where sinners are made holy by the power of God.”

Holiness is our deepest longing because we were created to be holy, the bishop said. But the only way to realize that call is to submit to God and allow him to transform us, he said, using the scriptural analogy of clay taking shape in a potter’s hands.

“We cannot deserve, produce, gain, create, or make holiness,” Bishop Rodriguez said. “Only God in his gratuitousness and infinite love can make a saint of you. … Holiness is pure gift, is grace.”

Catholics believe holiness is real — that grace received through the sacraments, prayer and reading Scripture, infuses and transforms the believer into a new creation, Bishop Rodriguez said.

“Salvation is real,” the bishop said. “Pope Francis [warns] about a heresy that has been in the Church since apostolic times under different appearances — Gnosticism. It is a doctrine of salvation by knowledge, reducing Christianity to doctrine [or] text, to something intellectual.”

In doing so, Gnosticism loses the flesh of the incarnation and reduces Jesus to his message, Bishop Rodriguez said. Likewise, Protestant theologian Rudolf Bultmann, a major figure of 20th-century biblical studies and liberal Christianity, promoted “demythologizing” the Gospel to attract modern adherents.

As a result, “people lost faith that these things really happened,” Bishop Rodriguez said. “[Bultmann] did tremendous damage to Christianity.”

The Apostles, however, insisted on the truth of Jesus’ incarnational reality, the bishop said, noting the First Letter of St. John proclaims: What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we looked upon and touched with our hands, concerns the Word of life — for the life was made visible; we have seen it and testify to it and proclaim to you.

Great sinners don’t make our Church unholy, but make the Church a factory of saints, where sinners are made holy by the power of God.”

“Our Christian faith is not a body of doctrines, not a code of conduct, not an ethical idea, not an elaborated ritual,” Bishop Rodriguez said. “It is not even a community. It is a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. It is an event. It is a person. It is an event that happens. In the Gospel everything begins with an encounter with Jesus. Have we encountered Jesus?”

Jesus may be encountered through prayer, Scripture and the sacraments, Bishop Rodriguez said.

“These are three gifts God has given to us to open us to holiness,” he said. “These are the Catholic ways to have a personal encounter with Jesus that is real.”

Regarding prayer: “The best way to start is to become aware of Jesus presence. … prayer [then] becomes a personal encounter, otherwise it’s an intellectual exercise.”

Regarding Scripture: “It’s not about information … it’s about God telling his love for me.”

Regarding sacraments: “The sacramental life is God touching me with his holiness.

“In the Catholic Church we believe that Jesus Christ didn’t want us to only have a recorded memory of him as in the Scriptures, but a living presence among us. He said: ‘I will be with you until the end of time.’”

I dare you to allow God to make a great saint of you.”

Just as Jesus was present with the people of Galilee healing and forgiving them, so he is present with us today through the sacraments, Bishop Rodriguez said.

“That’s why he instituted the sacraments. Each sacrament is a merciful and sweet touch of Jesus in our lives,” the bishop said. “This is what we mean when we say he makes us holy through the sacraments.”

So why isn’t there more holiness in our lives and more saints in the Church?

“God wants to work with our clay … but to make a saint is a question of love,” Bishop Rodriguez said. “Love cannot be imposed, it cannot be mandated.”

Rather, one must cooperate with God’s grace to become the saint God desires.

“Last March, Pope Francis wrote an apostolic exhortation on our call to be holy, Rejoice and Be Glad,” Bishop Rodriguez said. “His thesis is that we have been made for happiness, and true happiness and joy only comes from a holy life.”

Holiness doesn’t mean perfection, performing miracles or that we are not tempted, Bishop Rodriguez said. Rather, it means loving God and one’s neighbor by doing the everyday tasks of life with love.

The answer for times of persecution and crisis in the Church has always been the holiness of the people of God, Bishop Rodriguez said.

“I dare you to allow God to make a great saint of you,” he challenged.

“This is our response to the Church crisis today: holy Catholic men and women,” he asserted. “We will never give up and we will fight against discouragement and loss of hope. Jesus is with us as he promised.”

Featured image by Roxanne King