By Barb Arland-Fye
At the start of Lent, my classmates and I in the Master of Pastoral Theology Program were instructed to choose Scripture or another source of spiritual reading to begin daily meditation. We were to keep a spiritual journal to reflect on our reading, and I chose to begin with Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians.
But it was three days into the journaling before I realized that our professor, Father Joe DeFrancisco of St. Ambrose University in Davenport, wanted us to address four specific questions in our journals:
• Where did I experience God’s presence or absence in my life today?
• Where or how was I present or absent to God this day?
• Where or how did I reach out to others in kindness, love, service today?
• Is there a Lenten discipline that I am following that may or may not be having some effect on my spiritual journey to Easter?
In answering these questions, honestly, I was surprised to discover that I do not always feel God’s presence in my life nor am I always present to God – even though I work for the Church! I think about God, talk about God and pray to God every day — but I wonder if my relationship isn’t sometimes superficial. I engage in what might be described as a monologue — petitioning God, thanking God and praising God.
Fr. DeFrancisco said sometimes we just need to “shut up” and listen to God. He asked our class, “What language does God speak?” I jokingly responded that God is multilingual. Fr. DeFrancisco, who has a good sense of humor, disabused me of that faulty logic. God, he said, speaks the language of silence. “Be quiet, in the silence you will hear God.”
Silence isn’t nothingness, however. God speaks to us through God’s creation, Word, prophetic prayer, the sacraments and our conscience. Someone in our class asked whether God speaks through dreams; it’s possible, Fr. DeFrancisco said, but “God dreams are rare.” From personal experience, I believe God speaks to me through his creation. I revel in it, savor it and thank God profusely for the aroma of lilacs, blooming flowers and budding trees and sunrises that fill me with awe. But still, I continue with my monologue because I need it.
Prayer at its essence is a conversation, a way of communicating with God — as St. Anselm put it, heart speaking to heart. In prayer, as St. Augustine observed, “Oh God ever the same, let me know myself, let me know you!”
Fr. DeFrancisco told our class his goal is to let God “reveal himself to you.” To strive toward that goal we need to learn how to become active in prayer. It begins with discursive prayer. We’ll know if prayer is working if our words become affections, our professor said. “You’re not saying more, you’re feeling more.” If not, we’re using prayer as a control mechanism. Prayer is about presence, reflection, awareness, yearning, effort and resolution. Part of prayer is resting in God, Julian of Norwich said. It requires being open to the power of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the way God breathes life into us.
A disciplined prayer life is vital to the deacon candidates and all who minister, Fr. DeFrancisco said. “You’ll need knowledge, understanding, discernment, the gift of prayer.”
Keeping a spiritual journal is developing awareness in me, a desire to pay closer attention so that I can hear God’s voice and respond.