"Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction." (DCE 1)
Christianity is about a living personal relationship with Jesus. It is not about following rules, which becomes legalistic and impossible in our own strength. An essential point is that being a Christian is primarily about the grace God gives us. God empowers us to live the Christian life. Prayer and the sacraments give us this grace which empowers our Christian life. Christianity is also not ultimately about the truth that it contains. There is a difference between knowing about someone and knowing someone. In a similar way there comes the point of not just wanting to know about the Catholic faith, but wanting to have an encounter with Jesus. The primary way we encounter Jesus is through prayer. The communication in our relationship with Jesus grows through prayer and is clarified through discernment. We can have various inspirations that we think come from God, but we need to learn how to discern (decide) if these are from God or not. As we decide to put into practice what we learn from Jesus we grow in good habits (virtues).
GROWING IN THE CHRISTIAN LIFE
We can summarise growth in the Christian life with this saying:
Sow a prayer reap an inspiration
Sow an inspiration reap an act
Sow an act reap a virtue
Sow a virtue reap a character
Sow a charater reap a destiny.
This saying indicates something of how to grow in the Christian life. It starts in prayer. We may receive an inspiration in prayer, or we may just think we should do this particular action. It is up to us to carry it out. This is part of God’s leading us to do more than we would ordinarily do. It could be something simple like go to someone and say you are sorry for what you have done. It could be something more major like offering your help in your youth group. By acting you are putting God’s word into action. You are building your house on rock, as Jesus himself explains:
Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash. (Matt 7: 24-27)
If we repeat our individual acts we start to develop a habit (virtue). If the acts are directed towards God’s will, they contribute towards our fulfilment. By repeated acts we develop habits. Habits allow us to more easily carry out particular types of acts. Virtues are the habits we have that build our character such as prayer. If we keep working on our virtues, they become part of our character, eg we become a ‘prayerful’ person. They become natural things that we do and like to do. If we keep maintaining our character, we will end up where we are meant to go. Someone who develops good sports skills may end up a professional sportsman. Ultimately our character will lead us to our true destiny, heaven. The first habit to always establish is prayer, because it increases grace in our lives and helps us develop other good habits. Once we have the habit of prayer then we can work on establishing other habits or ridding ourselves of vices (bad habits).
We should never take on too much, nor too little. There is always a window of opportunity for growth. If we make a plan, eg praying 15 minutes a day, then this is enough for now. It usually takes a few weeks to establish a habit. It then takes a few months for that habit to become part of our character. Once we have a habit, we should consolidate it a bit more, before taking on working on a new habit, so we suggest working on a new habit quarterly each year. There is nothing wrong with working at other habits, eg doing various good works, but don’t over do it.
Yes prayer can be hard work, but over time you will experience the difference prayer makes. You will find it becomes easier to do good and resist evil. You will start to recognise God's voice in your life. You will start to have a greater inner happiness. You will start to recognise God's blessings in your life. You will be encountering Jesus in a more intimate way and build that personal relationship with Jesus.
“Human virtues acquired by education, by deliberate acts and by a perseverance ever-renewed in repeated efforts are purified and elevated by divine grace. With God's help, they forge character and give facility in the practice of the good. The virtuous man is happy to practice them.” (CCC 1810)
Here is a simple method of prayer that you can use to start with.
Stage 1. Actively seeking God (meditation)
You have to work to encounter God. There are many different ways to actively seek God. One is by using our imagination with a gospel passage. Here is an imaginative prayer method:
1. Start with the sign of the cross
2. Preparatory prayer: “Dear Lord, please give me the gift of prayer and perseverance. Open my mind and heart to receive your love and truth.”
3. Imagine the place where the meditation is set.
4. First recall what took place in the passage using your memory then as you think about it reflect on various aspects of the passage, why did things happen as they did, then connect your emotions with what Jesus was feeling, and allow yourself to respond emotionally to the passage, to feel Christ’s compassion, or to be aware of how you could better live the way Jesus lived.
5. Talk with Christ about the passage as one friend speaks to another, eg ask for some grace, or blame yourself for some misdeed, or talk about what is happening in your life or asking for God’s guidance in your life.
6. Pray an Our Father.
7. Finish with the sign of the cross.
As with all prayer we need to keep our focus on the prayer, but to be open to the action of the Holy Spirit within us. As we focus and engage more with the passage we deepen in prayer (our light burns brighter).
But if we become distracted, it starts to go out. We then should focus on the passage again to engage with the prayer again.
As I engage with the passage more, or I start to talk with God directly, I may become aware of God Himself, being present. This is the next stage of prayer: an awareness of his presence.
But if I become distracted, I need to focus again on the passage.
Stage 2. Awareness of God’s presence
Have you ever had the experience of feeling as if someone is looking at you, then turning and seeing the person looking at you? Some do. This is a bit like that inner awareness of God’s presence, except, God always looks on us with eyes of love. As I become aware of His presence in my soul, it is like I know where He is. He is with me, right now, really present. His presence is a presence of love. I begin to cross over from my work to letting God work in me. I should give over to God’s presence, and decrease the work to let God increase His work in me. I should stop memorizing and give myself over to God.
This is the next stage: contemplation.
Stage 3. Surrender (Contemplation)
Once you are aware of God’s presence, you can surrender yourself to that presence. It is just a matter of giving yourself to God and enjoying the deepening embrace of His love. St. Teresa of Avila calls this “the prayer of quiet”. This is the proper spiritual meaning of contemplation. Gradually we let God have more and more of me. You become one with God and burn more brightly.
The aim of prayer, therefore, is surrender: to let God be God; to receive His grace and love.
As our experience of personal prayer deepens, it increases the experience of prayer at other times when we pray. We experience God’s love personally in a real and direct way.
You need to be aware of a couple of things when it comes to deep prayer. If you are starting to experience a higher form of prayer, give over to it, ie if while you are remembering or reading the scripture you start to actually imagine what is happening and you are gaining insights into their deeper meaning or engaging with Jesus’ feelings then allow yourself to continue that process. If you become distracted, start with actively seeking God again, i.e. if while you are reflecting, you become distracted and think about something else, start meditating again.