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In 'Fire From Above', Dr. Anthony Lilles, Academic Dean at St. John's Seminary in California, shows you how to put your whole life in conversation with the Risen Lord within the Catholic tradition of spirituality.

In 'Fire From Above', Dr. Anthony Lilles, Academic Dean at St. John's Seminary in California, shows you how to put your whole life in conversation with the Risen Lord within the Catholic tradition of spirituality. Contemplative prayer captures the heart in love and leaves it in a kind of speechless. Prayer: improve the moment with prayer, spiritual reflection, or asking a higher power (or the universe, or pure luck, whatever you choose to appeal to) to help you get through this moment of pain.Sometimes this means talking to the void, venting to someone or something you feel is listening to you even when you have no physical person to listen to you.

Contemplative prayer captures the heart in love and leaves it in a kind of speechless wonder that it does not understand. Mental or contemplative prayer for Teresa of Ávila involves attentiveness to the presence of God. In her efforts to be attentive to Him, she meditated on Christ within her or read a spiritual book to place herself in the presence of God. These spiritual exercises dispose the heart for deeper kinds of contemplation.

While doing this, Teresa would oftentimes experience the Lord suddenly making Himself felt in such a way that she could no longer doubt that He was in her or that she was totally immersed in Him. She sometimes even felt suspended outside herself in love unable to remember or think about anything but Him. She explained that the only understanding of this she enjoyed was that she knew she understood nothing about it. His presence was too immense, too beautiful, and too intimate to understand. She identifies this experience as 'mystical theology.'

She recommends two kinds of spiritual exercises for disposing ourselves to the Lord's presence. We can think about Jesus and various scenes of His life, or we can carefully examine our lives and search for His presence in our memories. Both of these efforts to meditate open up moments of deep intimacy with the Lord. This spiritual exercise of our imagination, understanding, and affectivity renders us mindful of Him.

During meditation, in very gentle and profound ways, sometimes noticed and sometimes not, He touches us when we try to exercise sincere and mindful devotion. As we call to mind the Passion of Christ, the thought of Him who was pierced for our offenses can also pierce us. As we call to mind His mercy in our lives, we find countless instances of His kindness for which the only proper response is sober gratitude and adoration.

Contemplative Prayer and Distractions

Contemplative prayer involves a determined effort to attend to the Lord and to allow the heart to rest in the things of God. Saint Teresa's conversion involved ongoing dedication to this kind of prayer. She strove to make her days begin with holy thoughts and desires worthy of the Lord. She would baptize her imagination and her intellect by reading teachings on prayer and the wisdom of the saints.

Her effort was not to work herself up into an emotional state. Compunction is evoked, not produced. This holy sorrow is a gift, the response of the heart to something the Lord has to say. Saint Teresa's effort to meditate was instead a matter of learning to listen.

For Saint Teresa, mental prayer is nothing other than a holy conversation with God. Like any worthwhile conversation, in order to have something worthwhile to say, we must listen. In the case of mental prayer, listening involves a special attentiveness to the mystery of God's presence with all the powers of our being.

In addition to thinking about the life of the Lord, we can also reflect on all the wonderful ways God is present in our lives.

Mental prayer is the effort to render one's whole existence vulnerable to truths so unfathomable that they can only be received and accepted, but never fully grasped. This kind of prayer does not aim at achieving a spiritual or psychic state. It is not primarily ordered toward attaining enlightened consciousness. It is a simple and humble movement of trust, a seeking of the truth in love. The proper use of spiritual exercises in this kind of prayer consists, therefore, in the humble effort to welcome the truth.

We can be pierced to the heart only when we learn to listen with this kind of obedience. Such attentiveness is a radical availability to the will of God over and above the projections of our own ego and personal projects. Beyond any scheme for self-improvement, this obedient readiness to respond to God requires a prayerful receptivity. This total availability of a listening heart 'sees' or 'contemplates' God because nothing in such a heart obscures His self-disclosure.

How do we discipline ourselves to listen to God rightly? We return to Saint Teresa's image of prayerful meditation as drawing water from a well. We need to embrace spiritual exercises that turn our attention to the Lord anew. As we noted at the beginning of this discussion, this means pondering the mysteries of Christ's life or mystery of Christ revealed in our own life story.

When our minds are scattered on unholy and frivolous things before prayer, a simple firm decision to attend to the presence of God is a good first step. Sometimes we need to be determined not to allow our minds to wander into problem solving or into entertaining fantasies. Instead, out of love for the Lord, we resolve that this time that we have set aside for God belongs to Him alone.

Fire from Above

A holy picture or the Bible or a good book on prayer can help us renounce these distractions. Gazing on an icon or a crucifix helps dispose our senses and imagination to this conversation with God. Thoughtfully repeating a Scripture verse or recounting moments in the life of the Lord opens our minds to this contemplative work. Then, closing our eyes, we can also think about holy things until we are filled with wonder. Perseverance in this effort, even when peppered with distraction, is already the beginning of mental prayer.

In addition to thinking about the life of the Lord, we can also reflect on all the wonderful ways God is present in our lives. Saint Augustine's Confessions, a work very dear to Teresa of Ávila, is filled with this kind of prayer. He looks back and sees all that the Lord has done in the face of his own sin. He confesses the folly of his pride to help us see the righteousness of God. He confesses his sexual struggles and weakness so that we might understand the greatness of purity and God's strength in us. His journey into prayer became a journey into truth, goodness, beauty, and life — and he witnesses in all of this that the Lord spoke to him personally, not with human speech, but with words that pierced the very marrow of his being.

During meditation, in very gentle and profound ways, sometimes noticed and sometimes not, He touches us when we try to exercise sincere and mindful devotion.

In many ways, Saint Teresa of Ávila's autobiographical work, La Vida, is the same kind of work that the Confessions represents. Like Augustine, we find her recounting events from her past life and marveling at the ways God was so close to her even when she was very far from God. This goes beyond a mere autobiography. It is a personal witness to what happens when a soul finally listens to the Lord.

Personal reflection on her own life was a moment of prayer for her. This gave her a new occasion to submit all her memories and struggles to the Lord all over again and to discover in deeper ways the beautiful work that He was accomplishing in her. Like these saints, we have so much to be thankful for, and we are so little aware of all that God has done.

This kind of mental prayer is almost always possible when we are honest with ourselves. This is true even when our hearts do not seem to feel what they should when we think about holy things. Whether we contemplate Christ dying for us on the Cross or whether we turn our attention to the Lord's mysterious presence in our neighbor, this raising of our mind to God and the things of God is already the threshold of prayer.

Cultivating a Love for Silence

Saint Teresa learned that, although in the beginning drawing up this spiritual water took a lot of effort and determination, at a certain stage it became easier and easier for her to rest in the loving awareness of God's presence. She called this ability to rest in God's presence the prayer of quiet.

Such prayer is the holy recollection of the powers of our soul in Christ, a silent stillness before the mystery of His presence, and an adoring openness to His generous love. It is like standing at the threshold of heaven. In her reflection on the Lord's Prayer, Saint Teresa turns our attention to the immanent presence of our heavenly Father — a reality she insists that we must not only believe but also understand by lived experience:

Withdraw into solitude and look for Him within. Do not neglect so good a Guest. With great humility, instead, speak to Him as to a father. Tell Him about your trials, ask Him for help, and realize that you are not worthy.

Along the same lines Saint John of the Cross encourages:

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Rejoice and enjoy your interior recollection with Him, for He is so close to you. Desire Him within, adore Him there.

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Anthony Lilles, S.T.D. 'Mental Prayer and Spiritual Exercises.' from Fire from Above: Christian Contemplation and Mystical Wisdom(Manchester, NH: Sophia Institute Press, 2016): 161-166.

Reprinted with permission of Sophia Institute Press and the author.

The Author

Anthony Lilles, S.T.D. is the Academic Dean and Associate Professor of Theology, St. John's Seminary, Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and Academic Advisor at Juan Diego House, House of Formation for Seminarians. He holds both the ecclesiastical licentiate and doctorate in spiritual theology from the Angelicum. He was a founding faculty member of Saint John Vianney Seminary in Denver where he also served as academic dean, department chair, director of liturgy and coordinator of spiritual formation for the permanent deacon program. He is the author of Fire from Above: Christian Contemplation and Mystical Wisdom, Hidden Mountain, Secret Garden: A Theological Contemplation on Prayer, and co-authored with Dan Burke 30 Days with Teresa of Avila. He blogs at www.beginningtopray.com and www.rcspirtualdirection.com.

Copyright © 2016 Sophia Institute Press

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  • Megan Hill
  • 201613 Apr

This post is adapted from Praying Together: The Priority and Privilege of Prayer by Megan Hill.

How to Lead While Others Pray

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If the fear of public speaking is the general population’s greatest fear, fear of praying publicly may be its Christian equivalent. It is no wonder. In prayer together, the leader brings his brothers and sisters on a holy errand to the very throne room of almighty God. But the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge (Prov. 1:7), and appreciating the enormity of the task can lead us to appreciate the enormity of our help. The Christian never prays alone, and the Christian never leads others in prayer by himself but always has the promised and sufficient help of the three: the listening Father, the mediating and interceding Son, and the helping Spirit. With this confidence, you can take steps (I’ll suggest three) to better lead others in prayer.

2.1 the difference quotientap calculus worksheet. 1. Be ready.

This has several aspects. Your readiness for public prayer always begins with a regular habit of private prayer. As Samuel Miller wrote in Thoughts on Public Prayer, “None can hope to attain excellence in the grace and gift of prayer in the public assembly, unless they abound in closet devotion, and in holy communion with God in secret.” [1] You also get ready by studying the prayers in Scripture and by paying attention to the public prayers of more mature believers. Too, you get ready to pray publicly by thinking ahead about what you might pray. Maybe a verse from your private Scripture reading or the application from a recent sermon, maybe a particular mission field or gospel opportunity, maybe a suffering friend or struggling church could become the subject of your prayer. Beyond that, you get ready to pray by resolving that you will pray if given opportunity. If you don’t intend to pray, you likely never will.

2. Be clear.

Your great aim as you lead others in prayer is that they would pray along with you. Jesus strongly warns against thoughtless rambling (Matt. 6:7) and hypocrisy and pride (Matt. 6:5). Instead, you should pray with simplicity and humility, encouraging others to join their hearts to yours. It is good to pick one or two items for prayer and pray thoroughly and briefly about them; this allows others to “Amen” your petitions and leaves time for others to lead. The words and sentences of your prayer should also be clear; use the language of Scripture informed by your natural way of speaking.

3. Be corporate.

When you lead in public prayer, you are not praying for yourself only but also with others. You are asking them to join you as you approach God and to make your petitions their own. For this reason, you should try as much as possible to use corporate language (“we,” “us,” and “our”) and to pray for things that are common to everyone.

On a recent Wednesday night, my six-year-old son prayed aloud in the church prayer meeting. He prayed for missionaries to preach the gospel, for Muslims to trust in Christ for their salvation, and for the sick people in our congregation to get better. His prayer was sincere, simply expressed, and very brief. It was just what the church needed. Brothers and sisters, your most feeble prayer may unite the hearts of the church before God. By the help of the Spirit, you may remind them of forgotten truth, stir them to renewed desire, or move them to greater love. At the very least, your prayer will cause them to pray together. And that is just what they need.

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[Editor’s Note: Content taken from Praying Together: The Priority and Privilege by Megan Hill, originally appearing on Crossway's blog, ©2016. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187.]

[1] Miller, Thoughts on Public Prayer, 260-261.

Megan Hill is a pastor’s wife and a pastor’s daughter who has spent her life praying with others. She serves on the editorial board for Christianity Today and is a regular contributor to Her.meneutics and the Gospel Coalition.

Publication date: April 13, 2016