By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (May 28, 2008)
A good friend named Tom from a Divine Mercy prayer and study group in Texas recently sent me the following question:
During her retreat of June 2, 1938 ... Jesus instructed St. Faustina to read from the Bible (see Diary of St. Faustina, 1751). In 1757 He said to her, "Today, you will read chapter fifteen of the Gospel of St. John. I want you to read it slowly. In Diary entry 1765 He said to her, "Today, My daughter, for your reading you shall take chapter nineteen of St. John's Gospel, and read it, not only with your lips, but with your heart." In entry 1773: "Today, for your spiritual reading you shall take the Gospel of St. John, chapter twenty-one." Can you explain why Jesus wants to confirm this message over and over again with her — and through her, with us?
Well, I will try my best, Tom. I think our Savior was persistent about this with St. Faustina, and through her Diary, with us all, because He knows that His Holy Word, the Bible, is a "dead letter" to us until we learn how to read it with the help of His Holy Spirit (the same Spirit, by the way, who inspired it to be written in the first place!).
As apostles of The Divine Mercy, we should commit ourselves to a daily time of prayer, always including Scriptural readings, especially a Gospel reading and meditation on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus our Savior.
In his book Introduction to the Devout Life, St. Francis de Sales tells us why such daily mediation on the gospels is so important (Part Two, section 1.1): "I especially counsel you to practice mental prayer, the prayer of the heart, and particularly that which centers on the life and passion of our Lord. Be often turning your eyes on Him in meditation, your whole soul will be filled with Him. ... Just as little children learn to speak by listening to their mothers and lisping words with them, so also by keeping close to our Savior in meditation and observing His words, actions, and affections we learn by His grace to speak, act, and will like Him."
Saint Francis counsels that we should choose a regular time and place for our daily meditation on the gospels, if our life circumstances make this regularity possible: "Set aside [some time] every day ... if possible early in the morning, when your mind is less distracted and fresher after the night's rest. ... If you can perform this excercise in church and find sufficient quiet there, that will be the easiest and most convenient place."
But of course, for many of us, just a daily quiet time in our own room will be sufficient.
Many Catholics do not know how to meditate on God's Word, simply because no one has ever bothered to teach them. But it is easy to learn.
First, St. Francis de Sales tells us, we must place ourselves in the presence of God and invoke His assistance.
To place oneself in His presence, we can first bring to mind how our Father is present everywhere, all around us and within us. This is a truth frequently attested by Holy Scripture (e.g. Psalm 139: 7-12, and Acts 17: 26-28). Here is how the great Anglican spiritual writer of the 17th century, Jeremy Taylor, describes this first step:
God is wholly in every place, but limited to no place. ... We may imagine God to be as the air and the sea, with all of us enclosed in His embrace, wrapped up in the lap of His infinite nature; or as infants in the wombs of their pregnant mothers. We can no more be removed from the presence of God than from our own being. ... Let everything you see suggest to your spirit the presence, excellence, and power of God. Let your relationship with creatures lead you to the Creator. The more often you behold Him in the mirror of creation, the more often your actions will be done with an actual eye to God's presence. In the face of the sun, you may see God's beauty; in the fire you may feel His heat, in the water His gentleness to refresh you. He it is who comforts your spirits when you have taken a cordial. It is the dew of Heaven that makes your field give you bread, and the fountains of God pour forth drink to your necessities (from Holy Living).
According to St. Francis De Sales, a second way to place ourselves in the presence of God is to remember that "He is not only in the place where you are but also that He is present in a most particular way in your heart and in the very center of your spirit." Taylor puts it this way: "God is specially present in the hearts of His people by His Holy Spirit. Indeed, the hearts of holy men are truly His temples. In type and foreshadow, they are heaven itself, for God reigns in the hearts of His servants. There is His kingdom."
A third way to make our hearts and minds attentive to the presence of God is to imagine ourselves returning the loving gaze of Jesus our Savior. Saint Francis de Sales writes: "Consider how our Savior in His humanity gazes down from heaven on all mankind and particularly on Christians, who are His children, and most especially on those who are at prayer, whose actions and conduct He observes. This is by no means a mere figment of the imagination but the very truth. Although we do not see Him, it remains true that from on high He beholds us. At the time of His martyrdom, St. Stephen saw Him in this way (Acts 7:54-60)."
Having placed ourselves in the divine presence, we must do one more thing to begin to meditate: invoke the assistance of our Savior. True prayer is always something He helps us to do, by His Holy Spirit. It is a gift that we receive, not something we have to try to accomplish on our own. Jesus told us that to receive this gift, all we need to do is ask for it (Lk 11:13). Pope John Paul II reminded us of these important truths about authentic Christian prayer in his book Crossing the Threshold of Hope:
In prayer, then, the true protagonist is God. The protagonist is Christ, who constantly frees creation from slavery to corruption and leads it toward liberty, for the glory of the children of God. The protagonist is the Holy Spirit, who "comes to the aid of our weakness." We begin to pray, believing that it is our own initiative that compels us to do so. Instead, we learn that it is always God's initiative within us, just as St. Paul has written [Rom 8:26].
To be continued next week...
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press).Got a question? E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.