Prayer isn’t one-size-fits-all. We are not all called to wear a hair shirt in the desert, “leap and dance” before the Lord, dwell with Assisi’s animals or any of the other unexpected forms of prayer the saints were called to. We are, however, all called to prayer.
Hitting a wall in prayer can be an opportunity to examine our personality or temperament instead of abandoning prayer altogether because “it’s just not working for us.” Who we are should not be an obstacle to prayer. We were meticulously and particularly designed, and understanding this design can widen the channels of divine communication and deepen our intimacy with God.
The following reflections — taken from the book Prayer and Temperament by Monsignor Chester P. Michael and Marie Christian Norrisey — highlight just four of many styles of Catholic spirituality and prayer life named for four of the church’s most iconic saints and personalities.
Consider these reflections an invitation to understand your particular spirituality and explore new styles of prayer that might better complement your “design.”
Dating to 1000 BC when the Israelites used to pray by immersing themselves in an event to relive it symbolically, Ignatian prayer uses a sanctified imagination to project oneself into the Gospel stories to better understand what God is trying to communicate through them. Ignatians are sensory-oriented and apply this to their meditations, imagining what a biblical event would have been like by noticing the smells of the marketplace, the sounds of the cattle, the feel of dust on their feet. By relinquishing control in this holy daydream, the promptings of the Holy Spirit can move you to uncover something new from the same reading each time. At one moment, you could be Pontius Pilate examining your fear of being associated with Christ; the next, you could be Mary, contemplating the unthinkable loss of your son. At one time, you might reflect on your distrust of Jesus; at another, on your adoration. It’s an opportunity to immerse yourself completely in the Gospel to see what you can learn from it.
Reflection: You, a devout Israelite from Ephesus, are a stranger in Jerusalem on your first trip for the Passover. It is Good Friday morning; you find yourself caught up in a noisy crowd leading a man away to be crucified. You have never seen a crucifixion, so out of curiosity you follow the crowd to Calvary and find the man’s name is Jesus of Nazareth. You are fascinated by the proceedings and by the conduct of Jesus. You stay until he dies. Close your eyes, and in your imagination relive the scene and try to capture the impressions and conclusions you may have experienced. Draw some spiritual fruit for your own spiritual growth. What change is this experience going to make in your life? (54)
St. Augustine had his conversion when he read Romans 13 as if it were a message spoken and written specifically for him at that moment, and this is how the Augustinian prayer style works. Unlike Ignatian prayer, in which you place yourself into the Gospel story, Augustinian prayer is a practical application of Scripture reading, pulling out of it what you find applies to your present circumstances as if the passage is personal communication from God. Augustinians are less driven by the senses than Ignatians; they are intuitive, reading between the lines and grasping what is inexpressible.
Reflect: Read Isaiah 43:1-5. Change the words “Jacob” and “Israel” to your own first name. Try to imagine the Lord speaking these words directly to you. What meaning would they have for you in your present situation? Try to transpose the message from God to yourself today. What is the Lord talking about when he tells you, “Fear not”? What fears do you have? Water and fire were the two greatest dangers that aroused the fears of ancient people; what are the greatest dangers you face in your life? What is the Lord telling you to do in times of danger? Imagine Jesus saying to you now, “You are precious in my eyes, and I love you.” “Fear not, I am with you.” How do you see this to be true in your own situation today? (64)
Like St. Francis of Assisi, Franciscans tend to be carefree, moving impulsively to what the Spirit is calling them to do. They bristle at being “tied down by the rules.” More deeply rooted in the present moment than other spiritualities, Franciscans benefit from tangible aids for prayer such as sacramentals or music. Their prayer style is more incarnational, focusing on the events of Christ’s life rather than on his teachings. Thus, they appreciate finding Christ present in nature, art and those they can serve.
Reflect: Read Daniel 3:26-90. Compose your own canticle of praise to God for all the beauties of his creation. Include the beauties of the inner world, of the Spirit, of one’s own nature, of friends, as well as of the physical world. (75)
In the tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas, Thomists are spiritually characterized by an intense pursuit of understanding. They are perfectionistic, driven by a consuming desire to uncover total truth. They think about the future and are goal-oriented, which is why they are often leaders of their community. Unlike the carefree Franciscans, Thomistic spirituality depends on a neat, orderly, intellectual prayer life. In prayer, Thomists will take a virtue, mystery of faith or a theological truth and study it from every angle asking: Who? What? When? Why? How?This leads them to deeper contemplation and dialogue with God.
Reflect: Read Matthew 11:29, Luke 14:7-11 and Corinthians 4:7. Take the virtue of humility. Reflect upon it; what does it mean? What is the connection between humility and authenticity? What does Jesus mean when he says, “Learn of me, for I am meek and humble of heart?” If you have some good spiritual book, you might read what it says about the virtue of humility. Think of some examples of persons in the Bible who were humble (Moses, Mary, Joseph). Where have you been humbled in the past? What are some examples of your failure to be humble? What changes do you need to make in your life to be more humble? What do you need to do to grow in humility? What might you do this day to practice humility? End the period of prayer with petitions to God, Jesus, Mary and the saints to help you to be more humble. (87)