Monday, May 28, 2012

Lessons from My Mother

In my own journey to discover what it means to pray "with the heart" or "with the mind in the heart" I'm led further and further back into my own past, recalling things my mother (may her memory be eternal) used to say to me about prayer. But let me first say a few things about my mother. She was a simple woman who's faith was simple. She never went to college, having married my dad at the age of seventeen or eighteen, shortly after their high school graduation. Mom was a country girl until the day she died. She was raised in a small rural community in southeastern Indiana, moving to a small town on the Indiana-Ohio boarder after marrying my dad, and eventually moving "up in the hills" of rural Indiana just above the Ohio River valley.

I remember mother taking my brother and sister and I to daily Mass and weekly Adoration/Benediction as I was growing up. My brother and I served the Mass almost every day for nearly ten years before we went off to college. Participation in the Sacramental life of the Church was one of the greatest gifts my mom gave us, and it always situated our prayer life solidly within the life of the Church. Of course, all of the great mystics of East and West speak of the necessity of participation in the Sacraments in order to grow in prayer. But my mother wouldn't have known that, not being quite the avid reader of the writings of the saints that I am. She was just doing what came naturally, what seemed most obvious, what made the most sense. If you want to learn how to pray, then you have to learn to pray with Christ, with His Body the Church. That means going to Mass/Divine Liturgy regularly, praying the Liturgy of the Hours, going to Confession, etc., etc., etc. In her simple yet profound approach to the Faith, my mother was able to see this, and to impart it to her children.

But one thing that has really been sticking out to me lately is something that she said in regards to private prayer. I mentioned this in a previous post, but I think it's worth mentioning again and delving into a little deeper. In order to really pray, my mother always said, you have to pray as though whomever you are praying to is standing right before you. If you are praying to Christ Jesus, pray as though He's standing right in front of you and you're talking directly to Him. Do the same if you are praying to the Ever-Virgin Mary, or to your favorite saint, your guardian angel, etc.

This theme has sort of resonated with me throughout my entire spiritual journey. I remember meeting once with the famous Franciscan author and lecturer, Fr. Benedict Groeschel, founder of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal. In many of his lectures he speaks of talking with "good friends" of his, not revealing their names at first, but later revealing that these "good friends" are saints to whom he had a particular devotion. Inspired by his lead, I started talking to some of my favorite saints as though I were talking to a dear and very close friend. I've often referred to St. Francis of Assisi as my best and closest friend because I've had a life-long devotion to him - I cannot remember a time when I did not love St. Francis.

A friend and close confidant of mine in college also spoke to me about his prayer life. His honesty and openness in approaching God was astounding and inspiring. He would go in front of the Blessed Sacrament and simply unload his problems, concerns, frustrations, joys, etc. in language that he would use in everyday conversation with his friends. So often when we pray privately we try to sugar coat ourselves and our prayer, thinking it inappropriate to simply open up to our Abba, our loving Father, and let him know in the most honest way what is going on with us. St. Theophan the Recluse says: "The work of God is simple: it is prayer - children talking to their Father, without any subtleties. When we speak to God, there is no use in being subtle, in beating around the bush, in sugarcoating anything. He knows us, our problems, our needs, our concerns. All we need do is simply open up to Him, unburden ourselves, and then allow Him to show us His love.

Pray as though Christ (or Mary, your guardian angel, or your favorite saint) is standing right in front of you. As I mentioned in a previous post, this was also the advice given by a Ukrainian Orthodox nun in the film The Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer. But it is advice that we can apply to all prayer, not just the Jesus Prayer. And it is advice that teaches us how to "descend with the mind into the heart." When we are speaking with friends, we don't really think about what we're saying to one another. We speak from the heart. We enjoy each other's company whether we are talking or sitting in silence. The conversations may go where they will, but ultimately the conversation isn't the point of being with our friend. The point is communion, sharing one another's company and in that way participating in the life of one another.

There is a wonderful story from the life of St. John Vianney, the Cure of Ars. St. John observed that a certain elderly farmer spent a great deal of time in the church praying. This went on for some time before St. John finally approached the old man and asked him what he said to Christ during all of his long hours of prayer. The old man replied simply, "I say nothing. I just sit and look at Him and He looks at me." Loving attentiveness to the other. That's what friendship is about, and that's what prayer is about.

But let's look to the writings of one of my favorite Eastern Fathers for further illumination. St. Theophan the Recluse says: "As you recite the Jesus Prayer, try at the same time to quicken your realization that Our Lord Himself is near, that He stands in your soul and listens to what is happening within it... And then cry out to Him whom in your thoughts you see before you: 'Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me.' ...Let the Jesus Prayer be on your tongue; let God's presence be before your mind; and in your heart let there be the thirst for God, for communion with the Lord" (emphasis mine).

In her simple yet profound faith, this was the lesson that my mother taught me as a child. I only hope and pray that this lessons sinks more deeply into my heart, and that I am one day able to pray truly as both she and the saints taught. May her memory be eternal. And may her soul and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.

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