Summary of Personal Prayer: A Guide for Receiving the Father’s Love by Fr. Thomas Acklin, OSB & Fr. Boniface Hicks, OSB

My thoughts: One of the best books I’ve ever read on prayer. So practical. So relatable to human life. So inspirational!

The Foundation of Prayer: Experiencing Prayer as a Relationship

We pray as human beings: Acklin & Hicks describe prayer in a way that is more familiar to our human experience by using the language of personal relationships.

  • Since God created us as human beings and He Himself became a human being, it follows that He calls us to enter into a relationship with Him as human beings.

Always bring yourself to prayer: When we speak to God, we can start with the kinds of words we would speak to a close friend, a parent, or a spouse.

  • “Speaking with God is thus both like and unlike speaking with another human being, but imagining what it is like to speak to another human being is a helpful starting point. We can imagine God looking at us, gazing into our eyes, seeing deep into our hearts. This is not the same as when another human person looks at us, though it is closer to what it is like when a person who really knows us looks into our eyes. If we use our imagination to visualize God giving us a penetrating look filled with love, that will engage our humanity in the right way to help us enter into a concrete encounter with the real and living God” (8-9).
  • When we use our imagination, this is not make-believe since imagination is an essential part of our human way of entering into every relationship. At the same time, it’s important that our imagination and conversation with God is formed by God’s definitive self-revelation found in both Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition (eg. writings of Saints).

Contemplation: Acklin & Hicks present the contemplative dimension of prayer as foundational and something that grows steadily in the life of everyone, permeating the entire experience of prayer and indeed the whole of the Christian life – a normal part of the path of sanctity.

  • “Contemplation is not so much an elite stage of prayer development as it is an aspect of a personal relationship. When we think of prayer in relational terms, we understand how a relationship between a mother and a child can be very deep and intense even before words are possible” (xxxiii).
  • “Contemplation is nothing else than a mental attitude of loving, simple, persistent attention to holy things” (St. Francis de Sales).

3 levels of conversation (see Conversational Intelligence by Judith Glaser) – distinguished by the level of trust by conversation partners:

  1. Transactional = “Tell and Ask” – exchange information, updates, facts – to make sure we’re on the same page.
    • God = oracle. Trust = low. We treat God as an oracle (seeking info or favours) to achieve our own ends. Therefore, we ask Him only for things that are general or we go to Him only after all our own efforts have failed.
    • There is always place for Level 1 conversation with God. God does indeed want us to ask Him things & tell Him things. But our relationship with God cannot remain at this level.
  2. Positional = “Advocate and Inquire” – advocating for what you want (rather than just telling you) and inquiring about the others position to try to influence them.
    • God = a boss or a benevolent master. Trust = conditional. Higher trust based on feeling safe, secure, supported, etc. We feel that God at least listens to us. We try to get what we want from Him & clothe the language in pious aspirations but open to make certain changes (cf. Abraham tying to convince God to save Sodom & Gomorrah in Gen 18:16-33). We listen but in a limited way. We look for answers & results.
    • There is also a place for Level 2 conversation with God. Jesus praised this type of prayer in the persistent widow (cf Lk 18:7-8) & expressed it Himself in the 1st part of the Agony in the Garden – “Father if you are willing…” (Lk 22:42a) but then He moved on to level 3.
  3. Transformational = “Share and Discover” – full sharing of thoughts, ideas, and feelings, dreams, desires, fears, etc).
    • God = best friend. Trust = high. We believe everything we have to share is valuable for the other, even the most trivial of things. Anything can be shared and it will be received with reverence and genuine appreciation. Focus more on the person rather than results.
    • There is always a place for Level 3 conversation with God. Jesus wants us to share everything with Him, and He shares everything with us if we let Him (cf. John 15:15).

“The way we approach Him or choose to speak with Him will determine the depth of our relationship, just as it does in human relationships.

  • If we treat Him like a stranger, He will remain a stranger to us.
  • If we only share ourselves with Him at a superficial level, the relationship will remain superficial.
  • If we only spend time with Him sporadically, the relationship will remain at the level of acquaintances.
  • If we bring our whole lives to Him and share our fears, our hopes, our wounds, our failures, and our love, then we will see that the relationship opens up more and, because He is God, becomes infinitely deep. In fact, there is no limit to how deep our relationship can be with Him; it is limited only by our own willingness to trust Him and be vulnerable with Him” (5-6).

The Fundamentals of Prayer:

1st – Vulnerability

Since God is infinitely vulnerable, eternally present in both (1) the Trinity: the self-emptying filiation of the Son and the spiration of love between Father and Son in the Holy Spirit; and (2) the Incarnation: uniting divine vulnerability with human vulnerability

  • vulnerability always remains our meeting place with God & facilitates the deepest human and divine encounter in prayer – a key to the way in which we are like Him (cf. Gen 1:27).

Therefore, “[t]o develop a deep relationship with God, we must become vulnerable” (30).

Rather than trying to ignore the aspects of (1) our frail humanity (distractions, temptations, tiredness, sadness, irritation, and other foul moods) and (2) our sinfulness (guilt, sense of unworthiness, etc), which seem to us to be the primary stumbling blocks to prayer, and hiding behind the facade of what we wish we were or what we someday hope to be (beginners often bring their best selves to God), we must learn to come before Him as we are.

  • When we open up the depths of our hearts to Him and expose our littleness, our weakness, our uncertainties, our failures, our sins, our big dreams, and our playful plans, we make ourselves very vulnerable before God.

To develop a deep relationship with God, we must become vulnerable. The best way to open up to vulnerable intimacy with Him is to make a profound act of humility and to open our hearts wide to Him. As explicitly as possible, we should offer our entire selves to Him, every part of us, especially the parts we consider poorest and ugliest. To Him all is precious. We do this with our mind and our heart, and we also do this with our bodies by our posture” (eg. prostration, kneel, open hands, bow heads) (30-31).

[A]s we persevere, we discover that God is actively trying to open our hearts and draw us into a deeper, vulnerable intimacy with Him” (31). God opens our hearts in vulnerability through Scripture, silence (God draws more out of our heart when we speak to Him in silence – moving us beyond initial questions), feelings (we want to open up everything to God – memory, reason, imagination, emotions, everything), distractions (invite God into your distractions), deepest desires, memories & sins (only God loves you in those places – in fact, He loves us most of all in those places). Overall, love seeks totality – so share everything with Him.

  • Vulnerability is as essential part of liturgical prayer, both in private & public: “The most vulnerably intimate human acts are redeemed by the Liturgy” (190).

On a scale of 1-10, how vulnerable are you in prayer?

Click here for an article on the courageous vulnerability it takes to invite God into the temptations and lies that assault us in spiritual desolation.

2nd – Silence & Listening

Understanding silence

  • “Our relationship with God began in silence. From the moment of our creation, indeed from all eternity, He knew us and loved us beyond words. He has never stopped knowing us and loving us and willing us into being. All of that happens in silence” (64).
  • “Silence also marked the beginning of our most foundational relationships… [Our mother’s] love for us was communicated like God’s, primarily in silence. Even after birth, as a baby who cannot speak, love was communicated in silence and simplicity. A mother knows her baby and loves her baby mostly without words… Even the words that father and mother began to use to speak to their child are incomprehensible to the baby at first. Only over time does the baby come to understand those words and begin to speak and slowly to converse” (65).
  • “For a baby at rest in its mother’s arms, there is the most profound communication of love taking place that gives life to the baby and fosters growth, but which the baby is not able to consciously acknowledge. Likewise, we spend our whole lives in the arms of God, being loved by Him, without realizing that we are in the arms of God. The deepest prayer is a silent acknowledgement of that fact, expressed in a choice to receive His love and to rest in Him” (65).
  • “Two of the things that we dislike most about prayer are when we pray and don’t hear anything, or when we pray and it is all dry and dark. We feel that prayer then is not good, is not working. In fact, these are two of the things that indicate we are truly praying to God and connecting with Him who is hidden, and not just entertaining our own thoughts and feelings. We actually should seek the darkness and seek the silence, not try to avoid them!” (132).

Awkward silence: We struggle with silence in our relationship with God. There is an analogy here with human relationships. We speak of an “awkward silence.” Think of getting into an elevator with strangers… we become very self-conscious and worried… Now reflect on how different it is when we share the elevator with someone we know… We are able to wait peacefully in silence.

There is a breakthrough when we discover that God’s silence is never ambiguous. God’s silence is always silent love… He is not withholding anything from us. He is not refusing to speak to us or to answer our questions. Rather, His presence is always Himself. He, Himself, is the answer to all our questions. His love is the fulfillment of all our longings” (73).

All of this depends on trust. There is no way to differentiate the silence of condemnation and the silence of love without trust… This is not blind faith nor wishful thinking. We have good reason for this faith in Christian revelation (the Church, the Saints, Scripture, Sacraments)” (76).

Overcome fear of silence: “Sometimes we are held back by the fear that is is all real and that God will speak! Sometimes we resist silence because we are really resisting an encounter with God. Perhaps He will turn my life upside down. Perhaps I will lose my feeling of comfort or even my very self. Perhaps He will consume me and take away my freedom, and everything familiar will disappear. It is good to examine our hearts and not only ask whether I will hear anything but ask precisely, “What am I afraid that I will hear?” (90).

Stages of listening:

The first stage of listening is just being aware of Him as we are sharing our hearts… not so much trying to hear what He is saying (ie. waiting for a word or sign) but simply becoming more aware of God’s loving attention towards us (ie. waiting in loving receptivity)” (44).

The second stage of listening involves entering into silence” (45). As we open our hearts to the Lord and await some response, “we simply focus our loving attention on Him” (45).

  • “As our relationship with God develops and becomes more personal, we become more aware of the ways that God responds to us personally, which may be different than the ways He responds to other people” (45). It may come in the form of a word, an image, a new insight, a feeling of peace, or just a deeper awareness of God’s loving presence.
  • “[M]ore often He speaks in our thoughts and our voice in a way that seems not to have originated from ourselves and yet which we recognize as true and a part of ourselves” (290).

“As prayer develops, as with human relationships, the tendency over time is to move toward fewer words” (48).

  • “God, like an attentive mother, is always listening. If we listen with the ears of our hearts, we will hear the word of the Lord and we will know Him in the abiding peace He gives us. Like a good mother who loves each of her children best, God loves each one of us as if each one of us were the only person in the world; He loves each one of us best!” (53).

3rd – Feelings & Faith

Feelings:

  • Our feelings are part of being human. We should not try to suppress or control our feelings.
    • “Feelings are a meaningful part of our discernment of the authenticity of a religious experience, but by no means the sole determinant of that experience” (106).
  • Our feelings can easily mislead us. Although our body is meant to express our soul, sin has now damaged this relationship.
    • Our feelings are not reliable indicators in assessing where God is or where we are in relation to Him. Do not take them as a serious indication of what is really going on, of how well prayer is going or of what God is doing.
    • “Sometimes our feelings tell us God is far away, but in fact God is never distant. He is always closer to me than I am to myself” (105).

Faith:

  • Faith gathers up all our feelings and directs them to the Lord. Rather than trying to suppress or control our feelings, we need to allow our faith to take the focus off ourselves (and our feelings, which can lead to self-absorption) and puts it on the Lord (in prayer).
  • “Ultimately, our emotions can be trained and transformed to become a powerful support to our virtues and part of a more perfect act of love, worship, hope or faith” (100).
  • Feelings (emotions) are like docile children that must be taken by the hand and guided in the right direction (rather than wild horses).

“The point of prayer is not to produce feelings or experiences that I like or that are encouraging to me. The point of prayer is not even primarily what God has to say to me or what I have to say to Him. The point of prayer is a loving relationship with God” (104).

Comments

  1. Thank you for these summaries, Father. They are so helpful! I’d be interested in reading the article you mentioned above (“Click here for an article on the courageous vulnerability it takes to invite God into the temptations and lies that assault us in spiritual desolation”) — but something seems to have gone wrong with the hyperlink… do you happen to remember what you intended to link to? Thanks so much.

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