By Ignatia, continued from Part 1.
Being able to hear God’s voice is vital for figuring out where He’s calling you now – if you aren’t listening to Him or giving Him space to talk to you, how can you know what His will is?
So what’s another way to pray that doesn’t involve sitting still for an hour?
A friend and I just started this prayer idea for Lent which might prove helpful.
First, the background:
We had a one-day retreat recently at my school, and the priest giving the retreat was speaking about the desert fathers way back at the beginning of monasticism (ca. 4th century AD). He said that they left the cities because, after being legalized, Christianity had become something associated with status, and they felt like they needed to experience difficulty in order to progress in holiness. One of the things that they wrote about was their thoughts – that is, those stories we tell ourselves all day long to narrate what’s going on around us. And they recognized that our thoughts are really, really powerful – the things you think enter into your subconscious and manifest themselves in your actions. And negative thoughts, they said, were particularly potent. They also recognized that temptations generally started not with passions or emotions, but with a thought. So they tried to figure out how to battle these lies that they found themselves telling themselves all the time (the negative thoughts), and they figured out that they needed to replace the lies with truth whenever they came up.
If you have ever done any cognitive behavioral therapy, this might all sound rather familiar. Modern science and psychology has “discovered” many of the same things that the desert fathers knew back in the 4th century.
But what the desert fathers did that went beyond what most modern therapists do, is that they took the next step: I need to replace these lies with truth, but where is Truth found most of all? In Scripture. So they would memorize Scripture to have ready as a “weapon” against the thoughts – similar to the way the Lord used Scripture during the temptation in the desert.
Our retreat master told us the story of a monk who had been in the desert for ten years. One day, he went to get water somewhere near a village, and he saw a woman there. And immediately, the thought came into his head: “Why am I out in the desert doing all this penance? It would not be so bad to get married. Look, this woman is all alone – she probably needs someone to provide for her. I could do that. I could leave behind this penitential stuff and go help her.” But he knew that it was a temptation and not the authentic voice of the Holy Spirit. And the verse that he had been meditating on that day was “The Lord is my Shepherd, there is nothing I shall want.” He immediately began repeating this verse over and over, attacking the temptation and reminding himself to find his comfort and fulfillment in the Lord alone.
So what our retreat master encouraged us to do was to have a “word” from Scripture every day that we read either before going to bed or when we wake up in the morning, and that we then carry with us throughout the day, maybe writing it on a sticky note and putting it someplace we’ll see it. We should keep it very close to us and think about it throughout the day, so that if at any point during the day someone were to ask “What is the word you’re carrying today?” we could answer without hesitation.
Based on this, my friend and I have decided to work our way through the Psalms using this method – one verse every day. And that one verse is the “word” that we read and think about and give to the Lord to fill it with meaning for that day. This means that it’s really about Him: We’re not picking verses we like, we’re just working through them as they come and waiting to see what the Lord does with them, asking Him to help us understand them and to hear Him speaking to us through them.
And when we find ourselves falling into negative thoughts during the day, we can use this word as a weapon against it. So the thought might occur to me “I’m such a failure, I’m never going to be able to do anything with my life” and instead of agreeing with it or trying to fight it on my own strength, I can respond by repeating that verse over and over. It redirects my thoughts to the words of the Lord in Scripture instead of getting stuck thinking about how much of a terrible person I am.
And the fact that the desert fathers – and even Jesus Himself – used Scripture in this manner to fight temptation gives me the confidence that this is an ancient practice in the Church in which I can trust.
Recently, my verse of the day was “Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous” (Psalm 1:5). I can’t say that I was thrilled with this verse – it just didn’t seem to say much to me. But I was determined to do my best to let the Lord use it to speak to me and to let Him fill it with meaning.
I’m currently in graduate school studying theology, and on that day in my Moral Theology class, my professor began talking about obedience in religious life and what it encompasses – as well as what it does not encompass. The topic was rather out-of-the-blue, since the course is on virtues and vices and we hadn’t read anything directly related to religious obedience. It’s a sensitive topic for me – and for many of us who’ve left the convent, I suspect – and so it was difficult to remain calm, but by some grace of God, I was able to stay calm enough that I could really listen to what he was saying and ask questions, and it actually helped me a lot. I felt like I was finally starting to understand better what had happened to me in the convent and the events that led to my departure. Still, it brought up a lot of emotions, which manifested themselves when I went to Mass after class. As I was kneeling after Communion trying to pray and my heart was hurting quite a bit, I called to mind my verse for the day and tried to use it against the hopelessness that was threatening to overtake me … but it didn’t work. I felt absolutely nothing. No consolation came. So I turned to the Lord and told Him so: “Lord, this isn’t helping! Give me something that actually helps!!!!”
To my surprise, a verse from the Psalms immediately ran through my mind: “The Lord is my light and my salvation, whom should I fear? … Of whom should I be afraid?” (Ps 27:1). And with it came a sense of peace. I spent the rest of Mass – and then the rest of the day – repeating that beautiful verse which I am sure the Lord gave me to help me. It continues to give me comfort and the strength to continue to process some of the more painful memories from my time in the convent even now, a week later.
I have to admit that I hadn’t envisioned this practice turning out that way – I had anticipated the Lord suddenly giving me an insight into the verse I’d originally had, not give me an entirely new one! But somehow He always manages to surprise me, and is constantly reminding me not to box Him in. So I am learning even through lessons like this one to rely even more fully on the Lord and to remain open to His voice, however it comes to me.
Perhaps you’re in a place where a daily holy hour isn’t possible for whatever reason, or you want to pray with Scripture more but can’t afford to set aside any more time for prayer than you already have. I hope this method of praying with Scripture will prove helpful – it’s less intimidating than committing to a holy hour every day, since it only takes a few minutes at the beginning or end of your day, and then a brief moment now and again to recall that one verse while you’re “on the go”. It can help combat the negative thought cycles we so easily find ourselves caught in, and it’s a beautiful way to incorporate the Word into your everyday life, giving Him the opportunity to speak to your heart in His own words.
St. Anthony and all the desert fathers, pray for us!