How do we approach Scripture in order to prayerfully listen to God speaking to our hearts?
The first step will be to ask the Holy Spirit who inspired the words of Scripture to stir within your hearts and inspire you both to understand the Scripture and hear him speak through them. Underlying this request for the Holy Spirit’s help is the belief that prayer is a gift of God’s grace.
Prayer is not a technique that is under our personal control; it is not a method by which we can guarantee or attain a certain state of consciousness. Rather, prayer is a gift of a personal relationship with God, who personally reaches into the depths of our hearts and minds and lovingly addresses our needs, questions, and desires. God our Lord is not under our control; he initiates the relationship and graciously guides it in such a way as to make us better and more loving than we would ever know how to be on our own. Our role in the relationship is to seek him and ask for his help with a respect for his divine dignity, such as you might show to your fellow human beings.
Though our prayer depends on the Holy Spirit to guide and fill it, we may still use certain methods and techniques in prayer, just as we use standard forms of speech in everyday conversation. We simply keep in mind that the prayer method is not what causes the relationship with God any more than our speech patterns cause our friendships; it is simply a tool of communicating.
You can begin with a simple way to pray using Scripture developed by a Jesuit priest, Fr. Armand Nigro, SJ. It involves making some simple decisions at the outset.
Place. We need a place of prayer that is quiet and free of disturbances and distractions. My favorite places are chapels where the Blessed Sacrament is reserved, either in the tabernacle or exposed in a monstrance. But a further extension of sacred space can be made inside the home, with an area or a room set aside for prayer. However you can accomplish this task, you should find a place to pray quietly and without distraction.
Posture. No one posture is required during private prayer. This is not the case for the Church’s public liturgical prayer, in which postures are prescribed in accord with the rite. At Mass, for example, there are set times to stand, genuflect, and kneel. However, in private prayer you may use any posture that keeps you both alert and relaxed. The goal in choosing a particular posture is to maintain that balance between peaceful listening to God and alertness. Whether it’s sitting, standing, kneeling, or lying down, you should experiment to find the posture that best suits you.
Choosing a Passage. Next, choose a passage from Scripture, which can be done in many ways. One way is simply to use the daily or Sunday Mass readings. You could also easily use the Scripture readings from the Liturgy of the Hours as the basis for a year’s worth of meditations. The psalms from any of the “hours” could be the passage chosen for private prayer. Or, base your selection on the mysteries of the Rosary. There are many Scriptural Rosary pamphlets and books available that list one passage of Scripture for each Hail Mary for each of the twenty mysteries.
It is good to be aware of the variety of ways of choosing a passage from Scripture for prayer, but a key to using any of these methods is to choose the passage ahead of time rather than waiting until the actual time of prayer to start looking for a passage. By being prepared with a passage, you can start praying right away.
Approaching the Text in Prayer. Next, simply begin to pray, to talk to God—thank him or praise him using the words in the scripture you are reading, ask him questions about it, or just sit quietly pondering the passage. Ask the Holy Spirit to help and guide your prayer, since the same Holy Spirit who inspired the words of Scripture is also going to make it possible for the Scripture texts to speak to your heart and mind. Prayer is part of your relationship with God, and only God can make this relationship come alive. For this reason, we depend on the help and inspiration of the Holy Spirit in our prayer.
A person who tries to pray without the help of the Holy Spirit will merely try to think about and study the passages. Of course, it’s good to do this sometimes, but this is not prayer. Listening to God speak will be the central activity of our prayer. In order to hear the Lord address my heart and mind, I must depend on the Holy Spirit who inspired the sacred words of Scripture to stir within my heart.
Sensing the Spirit’s Peace. Once you sense the presence of the Holy Spirit, pause there and be at peace. You may not get any new ideas—in fact, do not worry about getting new ideas. Rather, enjoy the sense of peace that St. Paul describes as “a peace that surpasses understanding” (Philippians 4:7). Instead of worrying about gaining new insights into the text, simply allow the Holy Spirit to fill your heart with his peace in connection with a certain line or word or passage, and rest in that quiet. Then return to the passage and seek the peace of the Holy Spirit again. You keep going back and forth, to the passage and then to the peace, until you finish your time of prayer.
Making Time. It is good to set a predetermined period of time for your prayer rather than praying until you feel like stopping. Perhaps consider our Lord’s suggestion: “Could you not spend an hour with me?” (see Matthew 26:40). That may seem like a long time because we all have a lot to do. Yet we might learn from St. Francis de Sales’ conversation with the mayor of his town, who said, “You know, Bishop Francis, I can’t spend an hour in prayer. I’ve got so much to do.” Francis responded, “Anyone as busy as you are needs two hours of prayer!”
A surprising result of taking a regular, predetermined, and suitably long amount of time for prayer is that we will probably get more done than if we did not pray. This is an act of faith, but it almost seems as if God multiplies our minutes when we give him a decent amount of prayer time.
There are many useful ways to pray. However, this is a good way to begin praying with Scripture. Further growth and deepening of the relationship with God will lead you to search for other methods of prayer. Use them to the extent they help you in coming close to God. Yet always keep in mind that prayer is a gift of God’s grace. Depend on him for that gift as you continually seek to listen to him.
This is a selection from How to Listen When God Is Speaking, A Guide for Modern-Day Catholics, by Fr. Mitch Pacwa, SJ (The Word Among Us Press, 2011), available at www.wau.org/books.