Prayer: why it’s so important, what it is, and how to do it were the topics of Dan Burke’s Mini-Retreat, “Into the Deep” on July 15 at Holy Apostles. Burke, founder of the Avila Institute for Spiritual Formation and the website www.spiritualdirection.com, addressed the purpose and practice of authentic Christian spirituality before a crowd of about 80 people. (Burke also wrote a book by the same name, subtitled, “Finding Peace Through Prayer,” published last year by The Dynamic Catholic Institute.)
Drawing on his own powerful spiritual journey and conversion, which included much pain and suffering, Burke also brought the wisdom of the saints to this enlightening and practical discussion. Participants were provided with a link to an online mini-course on the same topic, so that what was presented could be later reviewed and implemented.
God has a desire for union with each one of us, and we are thus created with a longing and desire for this union as well. Burke emphasized that prayer is man’s response to this longing. Although having a sacramental life is most important, when we don’t pray, Burke says, we are not properly disposed to receive all the graces available in the sacraments, especially Holy Eucharist. “Jesus longs to commune with you in the Eucharist at Mass and he longs to commune with you in prayer,” says Burke. Mental prayer is intimate time with God. The spousal analogy, says Burke, is that mental prayer is like spending time with one another, giving total attention to each other in love, the highest form of union.
Generally, a person who is pursuing a deeper relationship with God will progress in the depth of their prayer, beginning with rote and vocal prayer, moving gradually to meditation and ideally to contemplation. This progression, though, requires an investment of time, and often the going is difficult.
To begin a serious life of prayer, Burke emphasized three essential elements and three necessary conditions. The elements begin with setting aside sacred time. Burke recommends first thing in the morning, before the distractions of the day hit. “Make it a serious commitment, and schedule everything else around your prayer time,” Burke said.
The second element is setting up a sacred space within your home where nothing else happens. The reason, Burke said, is that “the power of the sacred space draws your heart and mind to God.” His own initial sacred space included simply an icon, a candle and a small bench.
The third element, sacred attention, is the interior turning of our mind and heart to God. “If your mind wanders — and it will until the day you die — simply and gently bring your attention back to God.” Burke recommends the prayerful reading of Scripture, “discovery prayer,” known traditionally as lectio divina. Burke provided a description of the steps for discovery prayer, which allows a person to listen to God speaking within the words of Scripture.
In order to sustain and make significant progress in the spiritual life, Burke outlined three necessary conditions. The first is “clarity” — studying Christian spirituality and deciding on a rule of life that includes a daily plan as well as monthly and yearly commitments.
Next, community is an important aspect of spiritual progress, because friendships and solidarity will help reinforce us in the spiritual battle that we will inevitably fight.
The third condition, related to community, is accountability, both internal, through the daily examen, as well as from external sources of community, spiritual direction and regular confession.
“To the degree that we have a coalescence of these three conditions, we will have significant sustainable progress,” Burke said, but, he cautioned “it takes a long time for most people to get all those in place.”
Burke offered an in-depth question and answer session, and then invited everyone to pray and consider: “how will I respond to God’s call today?”
I was not merely a neutral observer reporting on this event. As an attendee and someone pursuing a deeper prayer life, I was also interested in how others viewed this presentation and how it affected their daily prayer life. What impact did it make, if any, on their spirituality? Here are follow-up comments from a few participants.
An important aspect of Burke’s talk, said Margaret King in an email, was that “others struggle with some of the same things that I do, and [providing] techniques to overcome some of the obstacles that hinder me from going into a deeper relationship with God.”
“The most important message for me was that our relationship with Christ has to grow through prayer; is very personal; and, it can’t be achieved by following a formula,” said Debbie Hankins. She said she was also surprised to hear about “the concept of having a rule of life for daily, monthly, and yearly goals for prayer, and plans to incorporate this in her life.
“Most impressive to me was how practical the talk was. It was not a theoretical, lofty explanation of prayer,” said Patty O’Connell. She said she appreciated that “the ‘necessary elements for success in prayer’ he described are attainable and instantly applicable. He provided encouragement to us all to lead lives of holiness and to strive to be saints.”
“I was very, very struck by his emphasis on truth,” said Deb Harney. Burke “didn’t deviate from the teachings of the Church into relativism, especially when answering questions about approaching prayer with Eastern influences.”
Donna Nandin was struck by Burke’s answer to the question, “What else can you do besides pray for your kids to come back to the faith?” “He immediately replied that he prayed and fasted — to me implying that fasting was just as important as praying,” Nandin said, which was something she had not considered.
In the Oppelt house, a sacred space has been created. A small bookshelf in the spare bedroom is now the place where we go to pray.
“In the past, my attempt at a sacred space was my easy chair in the living room, open to all the other activity in the house, loaded with distractions, and easy to fall asleep in . . . now we have a sacred space,” Joe Oppelt said.
As for timing, Oppelt said, “I pray first thing upon waking in the morning. Don’t open the internet or feed the dog or read the mail. Straight to the sacred space . . . even with the fog of sleep still in my head. My mind is not enervated by anything else when I do this.” Using the “Pray-As-You-Go” online meditation of the daily Scripture readings, “I find that my mind is absorptive of the meditation, and I have yet to fall asleep doing this,” he said.
I too have committed to getting up earlier to give God that first part of my day. My days are much more peaceful, regardless of the external issues going on around me. It’s a question of priorities; deepening my relationship with God is well worth losing a bit of sleep.
(Linda Oppelt is a member of Holy Apostles Parish and administrative assistant for The Colorado Catholic Herald.)