By Richard M. Gula
How does one pray with scripture? How is that method of prayer helpful in spiritual direction? While we believe in faith that God is always present to us wherever we are (cf. Ps. 139), we do not always pay attention to the presence of God. Sometimes we need to turn to some special places that help us put ourselves consciously in God's presence. Nature, for example, is one of those special places for many people. For others, personal experiences of family life or professional life, as well as historical events of world significance or the less spectacular moments of the day's very human situations, become starting points for prayer and places of encounter with God. Dreams serve this purpose for still others. Yet, even with all these, the Bible remains a privileged place for meeting God, since it is filled with stories of God's deepest desires for us. So it is worth knowing how to pray with the scriptures.
In prayer we purposefully pursue our relationship with God. The aim of spiritual direction is to help believing persons deepen their relationship with God and to live freely and creatively the consequences of that relationship. Through the process of direction, believers hope to become more consciously aware of the presence of God in their life, more deeply in love with God, and more alive in the Spirit of God. Since praying with scripture can be a special place of encounter with God, it can serve as a special resource for spiritual direction. Before taking up how to pray with scripture and how to use this sort of prayer in spiritual direction, however, I wish to make some observations about prayer in general as a privileged context for experiencing God and as a prerequisite for spiritual direction.
The prayer of many who come for spiritual direction for the first time is often not the kind of prayer most conducive to conscious growth in one's relationship with God. I have found two kinds of prayer to be predominant among beginners in spiritual discipline. These are prayer as talking to God and prayer as thinking about God. A third kind of prayer, however, seems more conducive to the goals of spiritual direction and spiritual growth. This is contemplative prayer, or prayer as attentive listening to God.
Prayer as talking to God is the notion of "saying" prayers. This is usually expressed through reciting formula prayers, like the Our Father, the rosary, litanies, and novenas. Or it is primarily a kind of prayer that asks for things so that petitioning makes up most of one's prayer.
Formula prayers and petitions are valuable and valid forms of prayer that have sustained the lives of many. Some people who use these forms of prayer are able to be quite attentive to God's presence to them. In these instances, this form of prayer is appropriate for spiritual direction since it is conducive to a conscious growth in relationship with God.
For many other people, however, this is not the case. For them this form of praying has become quite mechanical and is done with little attention. What was supposed to be a conversation with God quickly becomes a monologue. When this happens, this form of praying does not well serve the purposes of spiritual direction and spiritual growth. These formulaic prayers have lost touch with the immediacy of personal experience of the living God.
This is one of the great dangers in praying memorized prayers. What was once a meaningful expression of a genuine religious experience has become rigid and now conceals the experience. When this occurs, prayer becomes an activity totally detached from personal experience. Prayer is no longer a personal response to the presence of God in one's experience, but becomes a world in itself, drawing the pray-er out of his or her own world and away from nourishing contact with God. Prayer then dries up. One day the pray-er awakens to the startling awareness, "There is nothing here for me!" and abandons praying in any form. The serious challenge to such persons is to find God in the immediacy of experience and to express one's awareness and response to God in a way that is personally meaningful.
Thinking about God
The second kind of prayer, prayer as thinking about God, regards prayer as an opportunity to solve problems or to think thoughts about God. In either case, prayer becomes a strictly intellectual affair marked by the precision of rational analysis. When this kind of prayer lacks passion and keeps one analytically distant and uninvolved in experiences, it is not conducive to spiritual direction's concern with conscious growth in one's relationship with God.