When I was a child, my mother taught me how to pray: through her teachings, through invocations, formulas, supplications thanksgiving and praise, she showed me the way to connect with God. At home, at school, in church, or privately, I had learned to recite words by heart that could be used when I spoke to God. At that time, I thought I knew how to pray. But the future had some surprises in store for me!
At the age of 14, memorized prayers were getting in the way! The social and cultural changes of the 1970s, with their hedonistic, agnostic, or atheistic tendencies, had seduced me and distanced me from God and His Church. The absence of God now gave me the right to do my own will and no longer to feel guilty about things that were previously considered immoral according to divine law. Prayer was no longer a part of my life, and for the next ten years, I would be a member of the Unbelievers’ Club.
At the age of 24, faced with the imminent loss of my father in a serious open‐heart operation, I heard a voice telling me to read the Bible my mother had given me the year before. Twice, I refused to listen to this voice. But the third time, in desperation, I gave in and started to read it. After only two weeks of diligent reading and reflection, I began to believe in the existence of God. I asked Him for special intentions, and to my surprise, He would answer me and give me what I asked for! I discovered that He was close to me and to those who love Him and wish to do His will. I realized that this loving and merciful God was very different from the one I had imagined in my youth. What an overwhelming discovery: a God who loves us intensely and personally, not only in a general or intellectual way! To be frank, I had never before spoken or prayed to God with this inner conviction and with such affection.
This experience of conversion has led me to question the way we pray. When we address our prayers to Him, do we relate to Him in a personal way and know that He truly loves us? Do we pray mechanically or routinely, with formulas and words learned by heart? Or are we in the presence of a living, loving, and merciful God who loves us all personally?
The times of crisis that we are experiencing with COVID‐19 are leading us into a period of containment for the good of all. But this time also allows us to learn to communicate with more compassion and affection with the people we care about or with the more vulnerable people who feel isolated, sick, or dying. This way of communicating with more creativity, listening, and empathy, and with more affection, is a golden opportunity to develop a more personal relationship with God. The way we pray to God can give us a whole new perspective on the difficult situation we are living. To get there, we need to learn to pray appropriately, no matter what devotions we favour or how much time we take in our prayer time.
To begin with, let us consider what Jesus says in the Gospel: “In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words.” (Mt 6:7) Prayer, then, is not a matter of quantity of words or interventions that we address to God to be answered. Rather, it is a question of faith, of conviction of heart and of trust in His Love and Mercy. But how do we get there? Here is the inspired path that the great Saint Teresa of Avila gives us: “Praying is to converse in a familiar way with God, whose love is known to us.” This is the secret of authentic prayer that God certainly hears: to pray is to converse, that is to say, to dialogue with God.
Dialogue implies being able to speak and listen at the same time. Not just talking, as we are so naturally inclined to do in a group or individually, but listening. Otherwise, we are soliloquists. Sometimes, while a person is speaking, we think about what we are going to say to convince them, to defend ourselves, or to impress them. This is the exact opposite of empathic listening, which alone can make us grow in each other. We must model prayer on this affective way of communicating with others. Praying is not just talking to God: it is learning to listen to Him attentively. And I must confess that this is the greatest challenge for Christians and believers of all kinds. We know how to speak, to ask, to beg, to give thanks. But we do not know how to listen to God properly, He who speaks to us and listens to us with such attention and affection.
How do I listen to His voice? The answer is very simple: you want to hear the Word of God in a very personal way. Open the Bible, read it, and above all, reflect for a while on the divine words you have read. This reflection is called “meditation;” a moment when the Word of God can penetrate and transform our hearts and make us encounter the presence of God who lives in the depths of our soul. It is in these moments of listening to the Word that we can understand or even hear God’s inspirations. To learn to “dialogue” with God, we must learn to be silent and to listen after having spoken. If we speak constantly, we will never hear God’s voice, because He is far too respectful to interrupt us while we are speaking.
Let us learn to treasure moments of silence in our times of prayer, either by reflecting, or simply by lovingly looking at a beautiful image of Jesus or Mary, as we do when we adore Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.
When we recite the Rosary, let us learn to be silent before or after the decade, meditating on the proposed mystery of Jesus’ life. If you want, you can also slow down the pace a little by reflecting on the words of the Our Father or Hail Mary while you recite them “by heart,” to place yourself more fully in the presence of God and Mary. Another way to recite the Rosary piously is to try to meditate on the proposed mystery while saying the Our Father and the Hail Mary. This requires a little more concentration and imagination, but it is an excellent way to combine the two important dimensions of true prayer of the heart, which are meant to be a dialogue.
The moments of silence or meditation that we take while praying will thus contribute to giving a much more personal dimension to our recitations or devotions that we too often do in a mechanical and routine manner. And they will allow God to speak to us as well, not just to listen to us. Let us give Him this important time so that He can speak to us and reveal the depth of His love. Finally, let us remember that Jesus is the “Word” of God. A living Word who must speak to be heard and loved! How can we hear His Voice if we constantly talk in our moments of prayer?
Let us take Mary as a model of dialogue in prayer: she knows better than we do the value of listening attentively to the Word of God, which has its source in a loving conversation with this God “with whom she knows she is loved.” There is no doubt that the prayer of our Blessed Mother is truly a prayer “in the Holy Spirit,” because she gives Him the opportunity to speak and to pray from within her. In his letter to the Romans, Saint Paul’s inspired words indirectly reveal to us the importance of attentive listening in prayer: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (Rm 8:26–27)
If we truly desire the Holy Spirit to come and to pray within us, then listening to God is imperative. And it’s a way to avoid falling into the category of the pagans who babble many words when they pray.