By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
IOWA CITY — At a men’s retreat at St. Wenceslaus Church Feb. 20, French author and prayer expert Father Jacques Philippe had a twinkle in his eye as he explained his need for an interpreter. “I speak English, but not good enough for you and for me,” he joked as the audience joined him in reassuring laughter.
The priest of The Community of the Beatitudes was joined by a sister of the same order, Sister Clare Lyons. Despite the short pause between his words and Sr. Lyons’ translation from French to English, audiences connected with Fr. Philippe and his spiritual guidance. “He had such a gentle and loving presence … and he also had a wonderful sense of humor,” said Mila Grady, a member of St. Wenceslaus Parish in Iowa City. “His laugh was contagious.” Sr. Lyons observed, “I can see people respond well to him.”
Fr. Philippe, whose books on prayer have sold more than 500,000 copies, spoke at three events in Iowa City Feb. 19 through 21. He told The Catholic Messenger that he hoped to awaken a desire and thirst for prayer in the audience members and to help them persevere and not be discouraged.
On the first day, he gave a presentation on “True Conversion” to more than 200 people at St. Mary Parish. He explained that the path to conversion is different for everyone. “God alone knows our way of conversion and we need to be open to that,” he said. He offered steps for achieving true conversion —or the ability to learn, recognize and put into place the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. He said it is first important for individuals to recognize their sins, and then to realize that they do not have the strength to overcome sins on their own.
“We have the power to desire good, but not the power to accomplish it,” he said. Finally, one must have openness to the grace of God, especially through having an attitude of gratitude. “Each time we thank God, we are turned toward God.”
Pam Ockenfels, a member of St. Joseph Parish in Wellman, attended the talk and appreciated Fr. Philippe’s wisdom. Having read several of his books previously, she was also impressed with his humility after meeting him in person.
At the men’s retreat Feb. 20 – which several women also attended – Fr. Philippe spoke about the importance of prayer and growing closer to God. He said God may not always seem to speak during prayer and the person praying may not always “feel” God’s presence. One should continue to pray anyway and believe that God is there. “It is not enlightenment but an attitude of faith that brings us close to God.”
He equated prayer with a cleansing of the soul and used an ancient, trash-filled well as a metaphor. He said God can help individuals work through their sins – or the trash – until they eventually get to the sparkling water at the bottom of the well. “What we find in ourselves isn’t that great … what is deepest in us is absolutely pure because it is the presence of God. In the depths of the heart is a spring of peace, freshness and love,” he said.
Chris Kabat, a member of St. Wenceslaus Parish and a deacon candidate, attended the talk with his teenage sons. He said Fr. Philippe seemed to understand what it is like to struggle with prayer and a connection to God. “It’s like he has experienced it himself … He has a simple message of faith, hope and love and gives you ways to live that.”
About 325 women attended his women’s retreat Feb. 21 at St. Patrick Parish. The talks revolved around prayer in the style of St. Therese de Lisieux; she exemplified the idea that human weakness is not an obstacle but a grace that God can make use of, Fr. Philippe said. He encouraged the women in the audience to understand the importance of placing trust and hope in God and relying on him alone with confidence, much like St. Therese did.
He also urged the retreat-goers not to feel pressure to be perfect. “So much is asked of women today; sometimes it’s too much! … In prayer, the only thing we need to do is to accept (God’s) love. … In prayer, we don’t need to be the perfect wife, the perfect mother or the perfect businesswoman. … God, as my Father, is never against me. He may correct me as a father, but he is with me, for me, even though I am imperfect.”
Grady was grateful to Fr. Philippe for his words of wisdom over the three days, and was thrilled with the strong turnout. “It was truly a blessing to have him in our midst, and the reaction to him seemed to be overwhelmingly positive.”
How long and how often should I pray?
It is more important to pray daily for a short time then it is to pray for a long period of time less often. A good place to start is 15 minutes a day, Fr. Philippe said.
How can I keep myself from being distracted during prayer?
Fr. Philippe said distraction is normal and not to get discouraged. Meditating on a passage or praying the rosary can help with focus.