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Catholic Spiritual Direction

How can I learn to pray more?

February 21, 2011 by  
Filed under Fr. Bartunek, Mental Prayer, Prayer

Dear Father John, I am a young teenage Catholic currently discerning a vocation to the consecrated life as a nun or sister. Lately I’ve been feeling a very strong urge to pray a lot and go to Mass every day and Adoration whenever possible. I want to pray more and more but I am not exactly sure how I should go about doing it, or what I should pray. I love to say the rosary, but I would like to do more than that as well. Thank you so much for your time!

The urge to pray more can only come from the Holy Spirit. So you are absolutely on target – right in the bull’s-eye, in fact – when you ask for guidance about how to go about it. And the good news is that you don’t have far to look to find some excellent helps. But before I point you to some of those resources, I hope you will allow me to give one warning and make one recommendation.

A Cultural Warning

The warning is fairly simple. As you know, our culture is based primarily on feelings, on emotions. This is how advertisers convince us to buy things – whether new music, new shoes, or a new mattress. They use images, jingles, and clever stories (think about the Super Bowl commercials) to stir up pleasant emotions. And so we then associate those emotions with the product being advertised, and we purchase it, subconsciously thinking that the product will make those pleasant emotions a permanent part of our life. In our consumer society, we are trained from an early age to behave according to that pattern. Of course, it’s not true. No emotion, whether pleasant or unpleasant, lasts forever. Emotions come and go – that’s how God designed them. And sometimes they come and go without any reasonable explanation. A good mood or a bad mood can be triggered by the weather, by a hormonal surge, by something we ate, by the phases of the moon…

God’s call in your life will touch a deeper chord than mere emotion. Certainly, his presence has an emotional resonance – sometimes, at least, when he permits it. But because he knows you so thoroughly, and because he loves you so completely, he doesn’t want his friendship with you to be based merely on feelings. He wants it to go deeper. As a result, it will be important for you to gradually learn to go deeper and deeper in your prayer life – and that’s where the warning comes in.

Sometimes our prayer gives us consolation at the level of feelings and emotions, but other times, it doesn’t. In both circumstances, what matters most is your heart. Your heart is the very center of who you are, the “I” at the core of your soul. When you pray, you let God into that core, and you listen to him there, and speak to him from there, and sometimes just sit with him, in his presence, letting his grace enlighten and strengthen that most intimate and beautiful aspect of who you truly are. This is why real prayer can occur even when we are extremely sad, emotionally, because of the loss of a loved one, for example. It can also happen when we simply feel emotionally dry – like a desert. In prayer, as Blessed Cardinal Newman put it, “Heart speaks to heart” – God’s heart and your heart.

A Counter-Culture Recommendation

Now for the recommendation. In order to help you continue to go deeper in prayer, it is recommended by all the great spiritual writers (St. Francis de Sales, St. Teresa of Avila, St. Ignatius Loyola…) that we give a little bit of structure to our prayer life. If we don’t, we run the risk of just praying when we feel like it, and if that’s the case, it’s hard to get down to the level of the heart. So I would suggest that you think about what kind of daily and weekly prayer commitments you would like to make to our Lord, as a way of showing him that you really do want to know him, love him, and follow him more and more – wherever he leads. Here are some ideas that may get you started:

  • Daily: morning offering, at least 15 minutes of mental prayer, Rosary, 10-15 minutes of spiritual reading, evening examination of conscience, (any one of these could easily be combined with Adoration).
  • Weekly: Sunday Mass, daily Mass once or twice during the week, a weekly Holy Hour (preferably on Thursdays), the Way of the Cross on Fridays.
  • Bi-weekly: a good confession.

If that seems like too much or too little, that’s fine; it’s just meant to give you a starting place. There is no “right or wrong” here – it’s just a matter of you deciding to give some structure to your prayer life, because you want to make sure you are doing your part to grow in your friendship with Christ.

Of all the items I listed, the most important one for your discernment is, without a doubt, daily mental prayer. Mental prayer keeps the soul in tune with the Holy Spirit, assuring that you are in the best possible disposition to receive God’s grace throughout the day (and in the other sacraments) and to fulfill whatever he asks of you. It is the main spiritual exercise for everyone who is sincerely seeking to discern and follow God’s will in their life.

Becoming a Better Pray-er

I don’t have space in this answer to go into detail about mental prayer (also known as Christian meditation), but here is where some other resources can help you.

Online, I would highly recommend that you explore thoroughly the website www.vocation.com. They have a brief explanation of meditation there (A Guide to Meditation). They also have actual texts, Gospel based, that are specifically designed to help young men and women in their process of discernment (Meditations to help discernment). Here on our spiritual direction site, we have plenty of entries on prayer, which you may find helpful (this one, for example). If you prefer books, a lot of people have found this one very helpful.

Loose Ends

Finally, in addition to your prayer life, discerning your vocation will involve some active steps too – like striving to obey the commandments in your daily life, visiting orders or communities of consecrated women, receiving spiritual direction, and, of course, serving your neighbor. You may find it helpful to listen to some testimonies of others on vocation.com who have gone before you, but the most important thing is for you to keep your gaze “fixed on Christ” (Hebrews 3:1), and trust that he meant what he said when he told us: “And so I tell you, keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you” (Luke 11:9).

As I finish this post, I am saying a prayer for you!

Yours sincerely in Christ , Fr John Bartunek, LC, Thd

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". He has also published four other titles: "Seeking First the Kingdom", "Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions", "Meditations for Mothers", and "A Guide to Christian Meditation". Fr. John currently splits his time between Rome and Rhode Island, where he teaches theology as an adjunct professor at the Pontifical Athenaeum Regina Apostolorum and at Mater Ecclesia College. He is also continuing his writing apostolate with online retreats at www.RCSpirituality.org and questions and answers on the spiritual life at www.RCSpiritualDirection.com. FATHER JOHN'S BOOKS include: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer", "Inside the Passion"--The Only Authorized Insiders View of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, "Meditations for Mothers", and "A Guide to Christian Meditation".

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  • TingTing

    very beautiful – both the question and answer!!!
    For sure i’ll pray for your discrenment!!! and Father, thanks for the very useful information provided! :)

  • Mark Albanese

    I have found the Office of the Hours to be a good way to structure my prayer life. One of the benefits is that all religious pray the Office. When I am able to pray the Office in community with others my prayer life is exponentially enhanced. It took me awhile to learn this prayer but the benefits make it worthwhile.

    • anita

      Hi Mark,
      I’m glad to hear someone else say that it takes a while to learn the Office because when I bought one of the volumes to use at home I got absolutely lost in it! I’ve made a comedy of errors trying to pray it in community as well :)

      All the best to those who master it!

    • Totus2us

      I agree with you Mark. The Office is a rich treasure of prayer and a springboard for deeper prayer and meditation. Add to that “The person who prays the psalms in the Liturgy of the Hours Prays not so much in his own person as in the name of the Church, and, in fact, in the person of Christ himself” (GIRM #108).

  • Mary@42

    How joyful to read this young girl’s desire to offer her life to God. I join TingTing in praying for you to discern what the Holy Spirit is telling you. And Fr. John, thank you for yet another very informative and enlightening Post. God bless you all on this Website. It has become a vital Spiritual Life-line for me.

    • Assaf

      Please Mary pray for me too

  • AAlberto P. Jiao

    Yes, here in Rotterdam, The Netherlands we are starting Perpetual Adoration
    in a small chapel by the Basilica (laurentius n Elisabeth) and mental Prayer
    or talking to Him and He talking to you is best.

    • Noldus

      This is so encouraging to read. We need more chapels for Perpetual Adoration in the Netherlands

  • Evarg

    I love the prayer recommendations. I converted about a year ago from being a no-practicing Catholic and am also trying to grow in my prayer life. Also, I had never thought about the fact that if you dont have that structure, you risk only praying when you feel like it but it makes perfect sense and will obviously put limitations on your growth. Thank you so much Father John and the young lady for her question!

  • Inipso1

    I’ll pray for you!!!! If you ever need info about some ‘legit’ religious orders out there, feel free to send me an email. :) I’m a young woman discerning consecrated life too! inipso1@gmail.com

  • Marie

    I would like to add my “thank yous” to both Fr. John for his reply and to our young Catholic teen who is searching for a deeper relationship with Our Lord!
    My prayers tonight will be for both of you. Blessings!

  • Isso

    Thank you its great

  • Mary@42

    Thank you, Isso. Be assured I will bring you before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament in a few hours from now when I go to Him for the 3.00 O’clock Holy Hour Adoration which we, Eucharistic Apostles of the Divine Mercy observe every day. And together with the young lady seeking discernment to join the Religious Life, I shall also take you along when I go to Pray the Stations of the Cross which I do every Friday.

    I truly appreciate when anyone asks me to pray for them. In this way, I fulfill my Spiritual Works of Mercy as an Apostle of the Eucharistic Divine Mercy. God bless you all