“Pray without ceasing” urges St. Paul (1 Thes 5:17). This doesn’t mean we should be on our knees or in Church 24/7. But what does it mean, and how can we — if not praying always — at least be a bit more prayerful? The Church long ago took St. Paul’s words to heart and recommended dozens of short aspirations that Christians can learn by heart. Ideally, such prayers should become second nature, as much a part of our daily lives as breathing.
St. Augustine in his “Letter to Proba” writes, “The monks in Egypt are said to offer frequent prayers, but these are very short and hurled like swift javelins.” Not a bad idea, and a great image! Such quick, short prayers might also be called “postmodern” or “tweet prayers” as they are brief and to the point like so much of social media today.
Perhaps the best example of what we mean is our reaction when someone sneezes. “God bless you” is the automatic response, but is it not in reality a prayer — what I choose to call a prayer dart or javelin prayer? Such prayer is a thoughtful, prayerful reaction to something that happens, including a sneeze. My suggestion is that this is an example of how we can react prayerfully to other events that come up in our everyday lives. Of course, we can and should sit down occasionally and consciously focus on set prayers or our own words. But are there not myriad occasions in our everyday lives that might lead us to short, quick javelin prayers?
A few more examples. We hear by email that a friend or relative is ill. We say a quick prayer: “May God bless and care for Aunt Helen.” We hear that a neighbor has passed away. We might pray, “Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord … .” When we sit down for a meal, our first words may or should be “Bless us O Lord … .” And how well I recall every morning when I left to walk or take a train to school, my mother’s words were always, “God bless you.”
Putting life in prayer
Such prayers traditionally go by the name of aspirations. The word “aspire” originally meant “to breathe into, to put life into something.” More generally it means to strive to attain something. We might think of aspirations as expressions of our hopes, prayers that rise or shoot up to God — indeed, as javelins hurled toward God.
We find examples of such prayer in the life of Jesus recorded in the Gospels. Note his reaction when Jesus is tempted in the desert. He faces the devil and says, “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test” (Lk 4:12). In the agony in the garden facing rejection and suffering, Jesus prays, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will but yours be done” (Lk 22:42). His words on the cross are prayerful reactions, pleas in response to what he is experiencing and what is going on around him. “Father, forgive them” (Lk 23:34) is his response to those who crucify him. “I thirst” (Jn 19:28) expresses to his Father his suffering in body and soul. As he dies, he cries out, “It is finished” (Jn 19:30) and “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk 23:46).
|THE LORD’S PRAYER|
We might reflect upon the Our Father with its seven petitions as seven short aspirations or javelin prayers that can be applied to many situations.
In our own way, Christians speak such short prayers at Mass in response to the priest: “The Lord be with you … And with your spirit.” As the priest recites the words of consecration, many Catholics echo the short prayer of St. Thomas in affirming their belief in the Real Presence as they pray, “My Lord and my God” (Jn 20:28).
Saints, too, have spoken about and practiced these short prayers, perhaps none better than St. Francis de Sales in the second part of his “Introduction to the Devout Life” in the chapter entitled “Of Aspirations, Ejaculatory Prayers, and Good Thoughts.”
He calls these prayers “elevations” or “the turning of the heart to God.” He describes them as “short but ardent movements of your heart” whereby we “admire God’s beauty, implore his assistance, and adore his goodness.” Wisely, St. Francis advises us to present our soul to God “a thousand times a day,” to stretch out our hand to God as a little child to his father. He adds that the everyday challenge is to “Behold how one may extract good thoughts and holy aspirations from everything that presents itself amidst the changes of this mortal life.” Indeed here lies the groundwork of a rich, deeply Catholic spirituality.
Application to our lives
How might these short prayers become more central and commonplace in our lives? We might try to foresee situations and experiences that call forth a quick prayer. Here are some examples:
- A storm arises, lightning and thunder. Our response can be, “bless the Lord,” but also, “Lord protect us.”
- We drive by a cemetery and so add a quick prayer: “Eternal rest grant unto them O Lord… .”
- We drive or walk by a Catholic church and we thank God for his special presence in the tabernacle.
- We hear news of the sickness or death of a friend or relative and offer a prayer.
- The siren of a police car or fire engine blares. We pray that no harm will come to anyone.
- We are unsure of what to do next or where to go, so we simply say, “Come, Holy Spirit.”
- Someone annoys us, so we ask the Spirit for the gifts of patience and charity.
- Indeed, if we can’t find our glasses or our keys, we pray, “St. Anthony, St. Anthony, please come ’round, something is lost and cannot be found.”
- We have a dentist appointment and so pray for the intercession of St. Apollonia, patroness of dentists.
- Taking our cue from the Bible, we drive by a stream, lake or river and say, “Water, bless the Lord.”
- From our train compartment, as the train passes an orchard or tree nursery, we pray with the psalmist, “Praise the Lord from the earth … fruit trees and all cedars” (Ps 148:7, 9).
- So, too, with animals tame and wild, with birds and creeping things, we fire out our prayer dart: “Bless the Lord.”
- When we hear or see a child, our prayer so easily becomes, “all God’s children, bless the Lord.”
Through this practice of prayer darts, we continually affirm the deeply Catholic principle of sacramentality. The universe and every part of it comes from God, is holy and can point us to God. Nothing is untouched by God. How important and how beautiful it is to practice these javelin prayers ourselves and to demonstrate and teach this way to our children!
“Try it, you may like it.” This common proverb can be applied to the use of javelin prayers. These prayers help to keep us close to God and to pray always, as St. Paul urges us. Then as we begin to add aspirations to our daily life, we begin to see that they are not extra, not distractions from what we are doing, rather they become a natural part of our lives and activities. They enrich our experience and enable us to go deeper. Through these javelin prayers, we draw closer to the ideal of St. Ignatius Loyola to seek, find, serve and respond to God in all things, all times and all places.
Father Peter Schineller, SJ, is the archivist for the New York Province of the Society of Jesus and former associate editor of America magazine.
|EASY PRAYERS TO MEMORIZE|