Prayer, in its truest form, is the act of communicating with God; talking to Him, and more importantly, listening to Him. Good communication invariably results in a good relationship and the better the relationship we have with God–and this needs to be with all three persons in the Trinity: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit–the easier our journey through the School of the Holy Spirit becomes.
Prayer is the very first thing that the Holy Spirit asks us to do when we enter His school. Everything begins and ends with prayer and if we want to progress in the School of the Holy Spirit, we have to get down on our knees. We need to understand that there is no getting around this truth because it is in prayer that the Holy Spirit teaches us most of our lessons. And we need to recognize the excuse that we don’t have time for prayer for what it is–an excuse and a very poor one at that.
Traditional prayers, like the very beautiful Rosary that many of us are accustomed to, and community worship like the Holy Mass, are excellent ways to get started, as is fellowshipping with a Prayer Group. But it is a good idea to get into a habit of personal prayer even in the early stages of our prayer life. When the apostles asked Jesus for advice on the subject of prayer, He said to them: “But whenever 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.”
Our Father wants to develop a relationship with us, and relationships are best developed in private, in extended time spent one-on-one with a person. Many of us may not have taken the time to build a deep relationship with our Father and may, consequently, know little or nothing about Him, imagining His sole purpose to be fulfilling our various petitions.
To get to know our Father well, Jesus offers some more advice. “When you are praying,” He says, “do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
We have a tendency to talk a lot, wanting to be heard by everybody we speak to, and because talking has become such a habit with us, we do it even in prayer, maintaining a steady monologue with God, usually consisting of the things we want Him to do for us. Jesus tells us to keep our words to a minimum, because God already knows what we need; what God wants is for us to know what He needs! And He will tell us, if only we can remain silent and listen.
Jesus gave similar advice to Martha at her house one day. Martha, who was Lazarus’s sister, had invited Jesus over for a meal, but while He was there, she busied herself in serving Him, while her sister Mary sat at Jesus’ feet, listening attentively to everything He had to say. Irritated that Mary wasn’t helping out, Martha finally went and complained to Jesus, who said that of the two things both sisters were doing, Mary had chosen what was better.
If we are not engaged in extended, one-sided conversations with God, we are busy trying to do things for Him when what God really wants is for us to sit at His feet and listen to Him, to learn from Him, to understand Him, to know Him. This is possible only through personal prayer.
We need, therefore, to set aside a time and a place for this personal prayer, and be determined to stick to it regardless of what happens. This isn’t easy. For one, there is a reluctance to seclude ourselves somewhere, even if it is for a few minutes. For another, the enemy is going to do his best to stop us from spending any time with God. He will try to make us forget our prayer time; he will persuade us that other things are more important; or–this is his favorite–he will make us feel sleepy! (Try reading the Bible in bed and see how long your eyes stay open.) When we ask the Holy Spirit to help us, He will; though His help will mostly consist of reminding us when it is time to pray and urging us to stop dragging our feet if He sees us doing so. We still need to make it to that prayer room on our own steam!
It helps to close our eyes when we pray. It makes it easier for us to get rid of all external stimuli and concentrate better on God. Having pictures or statues of Jesus might seem like good aids in prayer, but there is a very real danger that we might begin to idolize them. God despises idolatry, regardless of the form that it takes. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t have pictures or objects of religious significance in our houses. I have images of Jesus in mine. One is a huge picture that dominates an entire wall of my living room. I also have an altar of sorts in my prayer room. But, I am very clear in my mind that these are nothing more than pictorial representations of the God I love, not God Himself.
The second danger in focusing on images and other “props” in prayer is that it externalizes God, making God something that is “out there” rather than someone who is “in here”. We are temples of the Holy Spirit who lives in us. A clear understanding of this will take us a long way in achieving union with God, which is what the aim of prayer is.
Once our daily time with God becomes a habit (it usually takes 40 days to develop any habit), we should increase the time we spend alone with Him to an hour. We will need help here. An hour is a long time and the first thing we may wonder is how we are going to spend it in prayer! I was no exception, but I discovered a beautiful little booklet by Linda Schubert that proved an immense help. Called Miracle Hour, it takes the reader through a series of steps involving praise, spiritual warfare, surrender, thanksgiving, intercession, forgiveness, and everything else we need to engage in a meaningful hour with God.
Reading Scripture is part of her prescription for the hour, but we need to spend far more time with God’s word than five minutes a day. It is a good idea to take our Bible with us wherever we go and to read a few chapters from it each day, meditating upon the verses that strike us and memorizing them, if possible. The Word of God is described as “the sword of the Spirit” by Paul in his letter to the Ephesians, and is a powerful weapon against evil. Not only does it allow us to defend ourselves from the attacks of the enemy, it lets us go on the offensive too. But just as a sword is pretty useless if it is never taken down from its place on the wall and practiced with, so is a Bible rendered ineffective if it simply gathers dust on an altar shelf.
Once praying for an hour has become a habit we can make a present of this booklet to a friend because we won’t need it anymore. We will be ready to let the Holy Spirit take over completely and we will very quickly discover the real joy and power of prayer. We will also discover the truth that the Spirit blows where He wills. During our hour with God, there will be occasions when we will weep bitterly for the sins of the world and beg God for His mercy. There will be occasions when we will glorify God and joyfully sing praises to His name. There will be occasions when we just overflow with gratitude for His love. And there will be occasions when we simply bask in His presence in blissful silence. We should just let ourselves be carried by the Spirit wherever He wishes to take us, knowing that this unchoreographed, unrehearsed, unplanned Spirit-led and Spirit-filled prayer is communication of the purest kind between us and God.
We should be aware, however, that there will be occasions when we don’t feel the presence of the Holy Spirit during this hour and prayer will be a real struggle. We shouldn’t let this trouble us too much. We should simply revert to the prayer basics that we learned and finish the hour. The very “sacrifice” of prayer often draws us right into the presence of God. But then again it might not. God sometimes just “disappears” on us, but as we will see later, it is for a good reason.
Around this time the Holy Spirit will lead us into interceding for the needs of others. Intercessory prayer is generally looked upon with disdain, and there are very few people I have met who are inclined towards praying with any degree of seriousness for others, but any advancement in the school of prayer requires praying for the needs of others. It is only prayer that can save the world from being destroyed. Much as we might wish to disassociate ourselves from this world, we are part of it and we have a responsibility towards saving it. Though there might be limitations to what we can do to save souls, we can most certainly pray for their salvation. Like everything else, the Holy Spirit will let us know when the time is right to start interceding for others. He will usually get us to pray for ourselves first, then our family, before He steers us towards praying for other people. This makes sense, not only because it is important to ask God to fix us first before asking Him to fix the world, but because once we walk in God’s ways, He is more likely to listen to us when we pray for others.
Also around this time, the Holy Spirit may lead us into fasting. Like any other lesson from the Spirit, this too will be taught in a systematic manner. He will begin by asking us to skip a meal on occasion, then two, and then perhaps go an entire day without eating. He might gradually increase this to several days, but He will never ask us to fast for a length of time that will put our health or our life in jeopardy.
On the occasions when He does ask us to keep an extended fast, He will strengthen us so that we do not feel too hungry or get sick. I know of people–men, women and children–who regularly fast for forty days at a time, consuming nothing but water and they are none the worse for it. On the contrary, they are in superb health, and needless to say, in superb spirit! No matter what anybody says, 40-day total fasts are very much in the realm of the possible, and it is quite probable that the Holy Spirit might lead you to try something similar. But then it is just as probable that He won’t. He chooses an exceptional sort of prayer person to fast that long. I, myself, have never been led to fast even one-third that time.
Even a few days of fasting, however, are enough to make miracles happen! If we wonder why fasting should result in an outpouring of God’s grace, I might have a reason.
On Ash Wednesday in 2003, I persuaded my little daughter who was then only 6 years old, to do a 24-hour fast. The girl, more to please me than please God, agreed. She went through the entire day consuming nothing but water. By evening she was starved and came to me asking if she could eat. Very reluctantly, I told her to continue with the fast as there were only a few hours left in the day. She loved me enough to agree and went to sleep after a while. In the middle of the night, she woke up sick. My heart simply broke and if it was in my power to perform a miracle and make her well right then and there I would have, as well as given her a splendid gift to reward her for the sacrifice she had made. Though I was berated by my wife for my insensitivity in putting our child through this (and rightly so), I understood, then, in my pain as a father, why and how our fasting moves God. He is, ultimately, a father too–our Father.
Fasting should always be accompanied by prayer, otherwise we are engaging ourselves in nothing more than a starvation diet that could be very dangerous. When fasting, we should pray continuously and read God’s Word constantly. A man once told me that if I were to lock myself in a room for a week with nothing but water and God’s Word for nourishment, I would be a totally different man when I left that room.
The Holy Spirit will keep leading us on, step by step, until we eventually reach a point in growth when we are permanently in prayer. This does not consist of muttering Je-sus, Je-sus all the time that we are awake or saying Hail Mary after Hail Mary. This simply is the state when we are in perfect union and harmony with God. There will not be an action that we take without our minds automatically seeking God’s approval. There will hardly be a moment that passes by without our thoughts straying towards Him, seeking Him, wanting Him, needing Him, loving Him. There will be an overwhelming sense of oneness with God, with no degree of separation between Him and us. There will be perfect attunement. And when this happens, we will have graduated from the School of Prayer.
How long will it take to reach this far? It’s largely up to us. Prayer is not a stand-alone subject that we can learn independently of the others. Our growth in it is dependent on how well we grow in the other subjects as well. And growth in all of them depends on how obedient we are to the Holy Spirit. If we obey without hesitation, without justification, and without excuses, we will zoom through school like a rocket shot into deep space. If we disobey in any one area the engine starts to sputter. If we disobey too much the engine simply dies.
As stated earlier, there are many lessons to be learned in the School of the Holy Spirit, of which prayer is one. There are also distinct levels of spiritual growth, but as the delineations between them are not very sharp, we will go through the “syllabus” by subjects rather than by levels. We can, however, roughly divide the levels into three: Primary, Intermediate and Advanced, so that we can have an approximation of our progress as we grow in the School of the Spirit.
Level 1–Basic prayer:
Traditional prayer and worship like the Rosary and the Mass. Fellowship with a prayer group. A few minutes alone with God. Bible reading. Petitioning is usually self-centered.
Level 2–Intermediate prayer:
At least an hour at a stretch with God each day. Some fasting. We meditate on the Bible. Petitioning expands to include family and friends. Prayer becomes quieter, more meaningful.
Level 3–Advanced prayer:
Three hours or more of prayer each day. Petitioning graduates to interceding for the world. Fasting is frequent and often total. We are now studying the Bible. Prayer is totally guided by the Holy Spirit.
Constant, continuous prayer. We are totally in tune with God. The Bible is the living, breathing Word of God. We can fast as led, whenever led. We’re ready for the University of the Holy Spirit!