Pray40Days is a 40-day prayer experience led by Fr. Michael J. Denk. If you are visiting for the first time, scroll down to the first post and read the introduction.
TYPES OF PRAYER
There are six types of prayer that you will encounter in this book: Guided Meditation, Praying like a Pirate, Lectio Divina, Praying with the Senses, Contemplative Prayer, and Scriptural Relaxation. I will describe each of the types of prayer for you in this section of the book. However, if you find it too overwhelming to read about all of them at once, you can instead read about them before each day’s prayer experience. You may also want to come occasionally back to this page and refresh your memory about the type of prayer you will encounter.
Guided Meditation is a form of prayer that uses quiet reflection on a scene from the Scriptures or from everyday life. It is led by a person (guide) who describes the scene and the actions of those in the story. The purpose of guided meditation is to relax the participants so that they are free to use their senses to imagine a personal encounter with Jesus. When St. Ignatius had his conversion it was through meditation.
He was injured in the war. A canon ball had greatly disfigured his leg and he spent many months laid up in a hospital bed. He was so bored that he found himself reading book after book. He loved reading books about chivalry and “knights in shining armor” and the tough guy getting the girls!
After he read every book on war and women that he could get his hands onto he was finally given two books that changed everything: The Lives of the Saints and the Life of Christ. A very interesting thing occurred… The same creative imagination that he used to imagine himself in the scenes of war and women also helped bring to life something he once found so boring.
His imagination took flight as he read the life of Christ and the Lives of the Saints. He said to himself: “If St. Francis could do this, and many other saints like him, maybe I can too!” As he read more and imagined more, he discovered something very profound. In both cases “while” he was reading and imagining he was very excited, engaged, and inspired but after there was a drastic difference.
When he finished meditating on the “Worldly books” he realized he was left feeling desolate, downcast, and sad… The feeling didn’t last. But when he read The Life of Christ and the Lives of the Saints, not only was he inspired during his meditation but it was a lasting inspiration. He was not only excited, engaged, and inspired during the meditation but he remained in consolation for a long time after.
This “real” experience began his conversion and what would ultimately lay the foundation for the Spiritual Exercises and the use of imagination and meditation in prayer.
Maybe you have a vivid imagination, or maybe you think you don’t. The truth is we all have the God-given ability to “imagine”. It is a gift, but it can also be developed. If you haven’t used yours in a while… Don’t worry it’s there! We never lose them but when we use them wow can God come to us in amazing ways.
Some people think that if you are using your imagination, it is not “real” however our imagination is a gift given to us by God and can lead us to very “real” experiences of him. Remember there is a whole other level beyond the physical and our imagination can help take us there!
PRAYING LIKE A PIRATE:
Praying like a pirate: ARRR!!!! This is a type of prayer that I learned from Msgr. John Esseff. In this prayer you Acknowledge, Relate, Receive, and Respond to God. In the first step of this type of prayer, you acknowledge whatever is in your heart. Whatever your desires or feelings are; acknowledge them. After you acknowledge, you will relate those feelings to God. Tell Him how you are feeling. After you acknowledge and relate, you need to receive God’s message. This requires you to be silent to hear what God has to say. Once you receive God’s message, you will want to respond to him in some way. Perhaps it is saying, yes Lord, I will do that, or yes God, I can.
St. Teresa of Avila said that praying is a close and intimate sharing between friends. When you relate your feelings to God, you don’t have to deal with the feelings on your own. You can hand them over to God, who will then help you to understand them, process them, and actually take you to himself in the process. It’s important to know off the bat that all feelings are acceptable. There are no good or bad feelings. Sure some are more pleasant, and others are horrifying, but something wonderful happens when we share them with God. And the best part is you don’t have to do it alone! He is there with you every step of the way!
Lectio Divina (which is a Latin phrase meaning Divine Reading) dates all the way back to the 3rd Century. Over the years it was developed by some of the early Church Fathers, Saints of the Church, and religious communities; such as Origen, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Saint Benedict, St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, the Desert Fathers who formed the first monasteries in the Eastern Church, The Carthusians, The Cistercians, The Benedictines, The Carmelites… it has even been introduced to the Protestants by John Calvin.
It wasn’t until Vatican II, in 1965, that one of the Church’s most important documents emphasized the use of Lectio Divina. That document was “Dei Verbum” and is a dogmatic constitution or teaching on the Word of God… Scripture. In 2005, Pope Benedict XVI, reaffirmed the importance of Lectio Divina on the 40th anniversary of “Dei Verbum.” “I would like in particular to recall and recommend the ancient tradition of Lectio Divina: the diligent reading of Sacred Scripture accompanied by prayer brings about that intimate dialogue in which the person reading hears God, who is speaking, and in praying, responds to him with trusting openness of heart [cf. Dei verbum, n. 25]. If it is effectively promoted, this practice will bring to the Church – I am convinced of it – a new spiritual springtime.”
Pope Saint John Paul II, when he was the pope, described how to enter into this ancient form of prayer. One condition for Lectio Divina is that the mind and heart be illuminated by the Holy Spirit, that is, by the same Spirit who inspired the Scriptures, and that they are approached with an attitude of “reverential hearing”.
As is often said about Scripture, this type of prayer is itself “Ever Ancient, Ever New.” The practice of Lectio Divina is best when it is experienced. The best I can explain it is that it is an experience of prayer where you read Scripture in a prayerful and reflective way until God speaks to you through his word and as we “hear” it over and over and meditate upon it and contemplate it, the Word of God takes flesh in us. We become one with Christ. We experience this wonderful union with God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
As with all prayer, the “way” that we do prayer is not important, but sometimes, especially for beginners, it is really helpful to have a structure and a routine to “get us into” prayer. Lectio Divina consists of four steps: Lectio (reading), Oratio (praying), Meditatio (meditation), and Contemplatio (contemplating).
Let’s use the analogy of eating for this. When I found your words, I devoured them; your words were my joy, the happiness of my heart (Jeremiah 15:16). I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world” (John 6:51). Now let’s apply the four steps of Lectio Divina to eating.
Lectio (reading) is like looking at the meal that is placed before you, deciding which part you want to eat first, which looks the best, what you want to save for last and taking that first bite.
Meditatio (meditation) is chewing on the food, tasting it, deciding whether you like it or not or if you want more of it or want to try another part of the dish. This is often related to “chewing”. Sometimes we eat our food so fast we don’t even know what it tastes like, and we can do the same with Scripture. For us to really meditate we need to take it slow and notice all the textures and flavors of the Scripture.
Interesting enough, my last name “Denk” is a German word that means to think deeply or to ponder. This part comes naturally to me! The important thing though is that we are not doing any of these steps on our own, but rather reading with God and pondering with God. If we do it alone that’s when it can become a rather dark and frustrating experience. This is where it’s important to pray with God, with Scriptures, and always have Christ at the center. So “chew” until your heart’s content, but just remember your “chewing” Scripture and not your own thoughts!
Oratio (pray) means speech, discourse, or dialogue. It’s kind of like when we share a meal with anyone, especially with God, conversation tends to flow naturally. During this step you not only savor the food but you savor the company and your heart naturally wants to say something and hear something in response. This could be various spontaneous prayers or a more formal vocal prayer that you write out or say to God.
Finally, contemplatio (contemplation). There’s nothing better after having a good meal then “resting” in the company you are with. Think about an Italian dinner where nobody gets up from the table right away, or a Thanksgiving meal, you’ve tasted the food, you’ve drank the wine, you’ve talked and laughed and loved, and now you just spend that last moment in silence completely content, taking it all in, savoring it, enjoying it, just “being” there with the people that you love, with the God that you love.
The Catechism emphasizes that “Contemplative Prayer is silence… or silent love… (CCC, 2717) in which the Father allows us to dwell in His Son, to become one with his Son, to be infused with the Holy Spirit and experience the closest thing to heaven that we can on this earth. That’s a good meal huh?
PRAYING WITH THE SENSES:
St. Ignatius said “God takes on human flesh so that we can sense him.” And the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us, and we saw his glory, the glory as of the Father’s only Son, full of grace and truth (John 1:14). One of the gifts that we have been given is our senses. We take something into us by tasting, smelling, touching, seeing, and hearing. God came to us in the flesh so that we could “sense” or see him. All three forms of Ignatian contemplation end with an imagined conversation between you and one or more of the characters in the scene.
The idea with this type of meditation or contemplation is to get us out of our thinking mind and into way of concentrating with our senses. We use our senses both physically and imaginatively. There’s something very sacred about calling upon the Holy Spirit to come to us in a way that we can almost sense through our imagination. God gave us the gifts of our imagination and our senses and all things work for the Greater Glory of God. This type of imaginative prayer can lead us into a deep contemplation and a very real “felt” experience of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Like the other types of praying, this is just one exercise or structure to help us focus on and encounter the living Christ. In this spiritual tradition there are two types of senses: the “ordinary” and the “spiritual”.
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 the eternal life that was with the Father and was made visible to us—what we have seen and heard we proclaim now to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; for our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. We are writing this so that our joy may be complete (1 John 1:1-4).
SEE: “for the life was made visible; we have seen it and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was made visible to us” (1 John 1:2). Use your imagination to try to see everything in the Scripture passage. Let it come to life. Ask the Holy Spirit to help you to see.
HEAR: “What was from the beginning, what we have heard,” (1 John 1:1). Try not only to hear the sounds of the people, places, and things but what they might be saying, what God may be saying to you.
SMELL: “But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumph in Christ and manifests through us the odor of the knowledge of him in every place. For we are the aroma of Christ for God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to the latter an odor of death that leads to death, to the former an odor of life that leads to life.” (2 Corinthians 2:14-16). Smell and taste are so closely linked together. But it can be very beneficial to try them separately. St. Ignatius talks about the scent of God being very soft, gentle, sweet, and delicate. The phrase “Stop and smell the roses” works well here. We have to slow down and be gentle and delicate with ourselves and with the Word of God so that we can smell the fragrant aroma of the scene.
TASTE: Again the notion here is to savor and relish in the “Dolce” or sweetness of God’s word. “How sweet to my tongue is your promise, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (Psalm 119:103).
TOUCH: “…and touched with our hands concerns the Word of life…” (1 John 1:1). Scripture is filled with our need to touch and be touched by God. This is what the Incarnation is. The Word became flesh so that we might experience God in the flesh.
When we use our senses and experience the Word of God, we can enter in a very real, profound, and tangible way into the scenes of the Gospel. Often time’s people say they don’t experience God in prayer, have never seen him, or heard his voice. This is one of the ways that he can come to you and be very real to you.
When we pray with our senses and our imagination through the Holy Spirit, we can enter into God and allow God to enter into us. As with all prayer, the focus is never on us but on God and what God is doing in us and our world right now. “Ignatian contemplation is focused, not on losing oneself in God, but on finding oneself in God. Contemplating is ordinarily understood as ‘gazing upon’ the divine. In this gazing, the emphasis is not on the relationship between oneself and God but rather is being absorbed in God, lost in God, taken up into God. An example of this kind of contemplation is centering prayer. For Ignatius, however, the focus is always on relationship… For Ignatius, “contemplating the Gospel mysteries is the privileged way to come to know Jesus more clearly so as to love him more dearly and follow him more nearly….” (Fleming, 2008).
Prayer is ultimately about relating to God. We have all had the physical experience of using our senses and this prayer will help you discover a whole other level with the “Spiritual Senses.” Again, there is a deeper reality but because we are physical beings God wants to meet us in physical ways but also help us to experience the transcendent.
Finally, St. Ignatius encourages us to finish with a Colloquy: which is simply sharing a conversation about your experience with the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, and Mary. This type of prayer can help us to really know God, fall in love with God, and want to give the rest of our lives in service to God when we experience his love in a very real way.
In the Christian Tradition, there have been three levels or expressions of prayer: vocal prayer, meditative prayer, and contemplative prayer. Hopefully, at different points in our lives, we experience all of these and pray in these different ways. There is a progression of prayer; as was mentioned earlier, if we are not growing in prayer we are dying.
VOCAL PRAYER: Vocal prayer is the most basic and beginner prayer. Vocal prayer can be spontaneous talking to God or it can be something that we have memorized or read from a devotional book. “Prayer is the raising of one’s mind and heart to God or the requesting of good things from God” (CCC, 2590).
The Catechism relays the importance of these types of prayer: Blessing and Adoration, Prayer of Petition, Prayer of Intercession, Prayer of Thanksgiving, and Prayer of Praise. “These formulations are developed in the great liturgical and spiritual traditions. The forms of prayer revealed in the apostolic and canonical Scriptures remain normative for Christian prayer” (CCC, 2625).
Vocal prayer includes the traditional way that God speaks to us through his word, and we can speak to God by using our words. Throughout the entire Scriptures, we have experiences of people praying vocally. It is an essential part of the Christian life. The first prayer that Jesus teaches to his Disciples is “The Our Father.” When his Disciples ask him how to pray, he starts with vocal prayer. However, he gently reminds them it’s not about the words themselves, but what is behind the words. Vocal prayer is really about trying to express and articulate what is inside of us. Jesus teaches us that the purpose of vocal prayer is not just to recite something mindlessly but to pray it with our whole heart, mind, body, and soul.
In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them. Your Father knows what you need before you ask him. The Lord’s Prayer: “This is how you are to pray…” he then goes on to teach the Disciples the vocal prayer of the “Our Father” (Matthew 6:7-8). The next stage of prayer beyond vocal prayer is meditative prayer.
MEDITATIVE PRAYER: “The Catechism describes meditation as a great adventure! Meditation is above all a quest. The mind seeks to understand the why and how of the Christian life, in order to adhere and respond to what the Lord is asking. The required attentiveness is difficult to sustain. We are usually helped by books, and Christians do not want for them: the Sacred Scriptures, particularly the Gospels, holy icons, liturgical texts of the day or season, writings of the spiritual fathers, works of spirituality, the great book of creation, and that of history – the page on which the “today” of God is written” (CCC, 2705).
When we meditate with Christ upon Sacred Scripture, we make discoveries about God and our life. The Word of God is alive and every time we open it, every time we hear it, every time we pray with it, God speaks something new to us. We can actually “hear,” in a spiritual sense, the voice of God.
The Catechism goes on to instruct that “there are as many and varied methods of meditation as there are spiritual masters. Christians owe it to themselves to develop the desire to meditate regularly, lest they come to resemble the three first kinds of soil in the parable of the sower. But a method is only a guide; the important thing is to advance, with the Holy Spirit, along the one way of prayer: Christ Jesus” (CCC, 2707).
We owe it to ourselves to not only Pray40Days but to pray regularly every day. To develop a prayer life that is sustained by some ritual, discipline, and order for our days. And though 90% of prayer is just being there; when we engage all of our faculties, something wonderful happens. We encounter God and we let him enter into our lives.
“Meditation engages thought, imagination, emotion, and desire. This mobilization of faculties is necessary in order to deepen our convictions of faith, prompt the conversion of our heart, and strengthen our will to follow Christ. Christian prayer tries above all to meditate on the mysteries of Christ, as in Lectio Divina or the rosary. This form of prayerful reflection is of great value, but Christian prayer should go further; to the knowledge of the love of the Lord Jesus, to union with him” (CCC, 2708).
The reality is that all of our prayer is a mixture of vocal, meditative, and contemplative, but the highest form and the deepest desire we have is for contemplative prayer. This is ultimately the closest to heaven we will ever experience on earth.
CONTEMPLATIVE PRAYER: Contemplative prayer is ultimately a gift. It is not something that we can “make” happen; however, we can prepare ourselves to have this experience every time we pray with Scripture. We just need to be simply aware and mindful of God in our midst at every moment of our lives and focus on Christ.
The Scriptures encourage us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), but in order to come to that type of reality, we need to at least pray “sometimes”. In our busy, loud, and chaotic worlds we need to foster times of silence. Contemplative prayer is the simple expression of the mystery of prayer. It is a gaze of faith fixed on Jesus, attentiveness to the Word of God, a silent love. It achieves real union with the prayer of Christ to the extent that it makes us share in his mystery (CCC, 2724). St. Teresa of Avila stated that “contemplative prayer in my opinion is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us” (pg 96).
The choice of the time and duration of the prayer arises from a determined will, revealing the secrets of the heart. “One does not undertake contemplative prayer only when one has the time: one makes time for the Lord, with the firm determination not to give up, no matter what trials and dryness one may encounter. One cannot always meditate, but one can always enter into inner prayer” (CCC, 2710). Though it is a challenge, we can always be present to God in the midst of our lives. Even when we suffer, we can be united with God in that suffering.
Contemplative prayer is also the pre-eminently intense time of prayer. In it the Father strengthens our inner being with power through his Spirit “that Christ may dwell in [our] hearts through faith” and we may be “grounded in love” (CCC, 2714). Contemplation is a gaze of faith, fixed on Jesus. “I look at him and he looks at me”: “this is what a certain peasant of Ars used to say to his holy curé about his prayer before the tabernacle” (CCC, 2715).
Contemplative prayer is silence, the “symbol of the world to come” or “silent love.” Words in this kind of prayer are not speeches; they are like kindling that feeds the fire of love. “In this silence, unbearable to the “outer” man, the Father speaks to us his incarnate Word, who suffered, died, and rose; in this silence, the Spirit of adoption enables us to share in the prayer of Jesus” (CCC, 2717). Silence and solitude are a necessary prerequisite for contemplative prayer. I encourage you during this type of prayer to be in total silence. Turn off your phones, communicate to others that you do not want to be interrupted, don’t listen to any background music or noise, silence everything that you can, and be with Christ in the solitude.
“Contemplative prayer [oration mental] in my opinion is nothing else than a close sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with him who we know loves us.” (St. Teresa, p. 67). Contemplative prayer is actually the simplest of prayers; it is essentially just being in the presence of God. I believe children do this all the time when they are playing? Adults do it to when they see a beautiful sunrise, or hold an infant, or pray before the Blessed Sacrament. What makes contemplative prayer difficult for us is learning how to spend time in silence and solitude. Contemplative prayer is not about accomplishing something or gaining some insight or solving a problem, but just receiving the gift of God’s presence. It is very difficult for us to receive and not to do or accomplish something.
Contemplative prayer is a gift. It’s allowing God to work in us, to be with us and to nurture us. In contemplative prayer, we take the time to be with the one we know loves us above anyone or anything.
I learned from Fr. Bob McCreary about the importance of the humanity of Christ and our humanity as well is something that cannot be neglected. This touching the reality of the senses in prayer has a profound tradition in St. Augustine. “When I love my God; and yet I love a kind of light, and melody, and fragrance, and meat, and embracement when I love my God, the light, melody, fragrance, meat, embracement of my inner man: where there shineth unto my soul what space cannot contain, and there soundeth what time beareth not away, and there smelleth what breathing disperseth not, and there tasteth what eating diminishes not, and there clingeth what satiety divorceth not. This is it which I love when I love my God.”
Faith and reason go together. What we have learned from the psychological discipline, is a person can be aware of their thoughts and then change those thoughts through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). When the thoughts change, the behavior will follow.
From a Christian perspective, one of the most common phrases in Scripture is “do not be afraid” and is used throughout the Gospels. Ultimately, fear is a lack of trust in Christ and God’s providence. We have a tendency to ruminate; to try and to figure things out ourselves and we get trapped in our own thinking. With the wonderful advances in psychology and spirituality, we can, with the help of the Holy Spirit, we change our thoughts from; us figuring it out, to God figuring it out for and with us.
What is wonderful about CBT is it includes meditation, contemplation, and mindfulness. One of the greatest advances of our modern era is actually in the area of addiction and mental health. We have come to discover that spirituality is essential to the healing process. We have also come to acknowledge that the best approach to spirituality is one that encompasses our bodies, minds, and souls. We truly do believe in a holistic approach to spirituality. Not only our spirits but, our embodied spirits. So good, holistic spirituality, will treat your whole person, your body, your mind, your emotions, and your soul.
After consulting with some clinical psychologists from the Cleveland Clinic, I developed an exercise in which I combined clinically proven, effective techniques with Scripture and what I’ve learned from the Spiritual and Mystical aspects of our Tradition. The focus is always on Christ doing the healing. The Word of God changes our self-thinking patterns. The goal of this exercise is to help your body, mind, and emotions settle down and relax, to put you in a better disposition. As with all of these exercises, prayer is ultimately a gift from God and the exercises are a way to prepare us to receive him. I hope that you find that these scriptural relaxation exercises beneficial. That you may not only experience physical peace and emotional peace but a deep abiding spiritual peace that only Christ can give.
© 2016, Fr. Michael J. Denk. All rights reserved. No portion of this content shall be reproduced without written consent. Contact: FrMichael@TheProdigalFather.org