What's the Best Way to Talk with Jesus?

One of our readers, a Mr. Tom Bailey, recently sent me a question that has surely been on the minds of many of us at one time or another:

Jesus mentions to Sr. Faustina and to other holy souls that we should talk to Him. What do you think He means? Structured prayer? Praise and glory worship? Or does He mean just talking with Him like He was your good friend? He says we must be like little children, and little children talk plainly; they explain their feelings openly. What is your opinion on this matter of talking to God?

Great question, Tom. It reminds me of an old hymn I used to sing at a YMCA summer camp, when I was a little boy:

What a friend we have in Jesus,
All our sins and griefs to bear.
What a privilege to carry
Everything to God in prayer!
O, what peace we often forfeit,
O, what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry
Everything to God in prayer.

You are definitely right, Tom: Jesus invites us to approach Him with complete trust and openness, with all the freedom and spontaneity of a child. Over and over again, this is exactly what he encouraged St. Faustina to do as well. You will find the most vivid example of this in her Diary, entries 1485-1490, where Faustina records her conversations with Jesus in the various states of her soul: sometimes sinful, sometimes despairing, sometimes in great suffering or striving after perfection, and even at times attaining perfect love for Him. At every step of the way, Jesus encourages her to be completely honest and sincere with Him:

Be not afraid of your Savior, O sinful soul. I make the first move to come to you, for I know that by yourself you are unable to lift yourself to Me. Child, do not run away from your Father; be willing to talk openly with your God of mercy who wants to speak words of pardon and lavish His graces on you. ... You will give Me pleasure if you hand over to Me all your troubles and griefs. I shall heap upon you the treasures of My grace (1485).

Tell me all, My child, hide nothing from Me, because My loving Heart, the Heart of your Best Friend, is listening to you (1486).

Poor soul, I see that you suffer much and that you do not have even the strength to converse with Me. So I will speak to you. Even though your sufferings were very great, do not lose heart or give in to despondency. But tell Me, My child, who has dared to wound your heart? Tell Me about everything, be sincere in dealing with Me, reveal all the wounds of your heart. I will heal them, and your sufferings will become a source of your sanctification (1487).

Now, we may wonder, Why does Jesus ask us to "reveal" all our miseries to Him? Doesn't He know all about them already? Doesn't He see everything, and understand the sorrows of my heart even better than I do myself?

Of course, that is perfectly true: He does know all about them already. In the same way, you may go to the doctor, and He may already have seen your x-rays before you come in the door of his office. But he still needs you to show him your injured limb, because unless you permit him to, he cannot begin to apply the remedy that you need. In the same way, Jesus, the Beloved Physician of our souls, knows very well what we need even before we ask Him. But asking Him, sincerely sharing everything with Him, is our way of showing Him our spiritual wounds, entrusting our spiritual illnesses into His care. When we do that, He takes it as our consent to do all that He can to heal and sanctify us. That is why He said to St. Faustina when she dared to begin to trust in His mercy in a time of great discouragement:

You have a special claim on My mercy. Let it act in your poor soul; let the rays of grace enter your soul; they bring with them light, warmth, and life (1486).

By the way, this free and spontaneous way of talking to Jesus, and to our heavenly Father, in the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of Truth (Jn 16:13), means that we can and must be completely truthful with Him, even opening to Him our negative feelings: anger, frustration, confusion, and despair. Jesus prayed to His Father with complete candor - and even brutal honesty at times: "Abba, Father, all things are possible to Thee; remove this cup from me. ... My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?" (Mk 14:36, 15:34). The Psalms too are filled with this kind of honesty before God:

Give ear to my prayer, O God;
And hide not Thyself from my supplication!
Attend to me and answer me;
I am overcome by my trouble.
I am distraught by the noise of the enemy,
Because of the oppression of the wicked.
For they bring trouble upon me, and in anger
They cherish enmity against me.

My heart is in anguish within me,
the terrors of death have fallen upon me.
Fear and trembling come upon me,
And horror overwhelms me (Ps 55: 1-5).

And yet, at the same time Jesus and the Psalmist always lead us through these dark nights of the soul to a new dawn. By sharing honestly their human, spiritual suffering with our heavenly Father, they "worked through it," so to speak, and, with the help of His grace came out the other side into the light again. "Father, into They hands I commend my spirit" (Lk 23:46), Jesus said from the Cross, and the Psalmist encouraged us with the words:

I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in His word I hope;
My soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning.

O Israel, hope in the Lord!
For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
And with Him is plenteous redemption.
And He will redeem Israel from all his iniquities (Ps 130: 5-8).

So we are invited to talk with Jesus and our heavenly Father in prayer using our own simple, spontaneous words, any time we wish. How can we be afraid to do so, since He has shown Himself to be the one who loves us with infinite, merciful love?

At the same time, Jesus also encouraged St. Faustina to use more formal prayers at times, prayers already set down in written words. For example, He gave her the beautiful litany of praises of The Divine Mercy (see Diary, 948-949) and a special round of prayers called the Novena to The Divine Mercy (1209-1229). Many people find these prayers helpful for times of mediation and refreshing to the spirit. Our Lord gave to His disciples a "set prayer" too: the Our Father. The Church invites us to say the Daily Office, and the Liturgy of the Eucharist itself is a communal, set prayer.

In the very last book that he wrote before he died, the great Christian apologist C.S. Lewis explained to a friend why he always felt it best to mix in formal, set prayers with his times of more natural, spontaneous talking to God:

The ready-made modicum has its use. ... First, it keeps me in touch with "sound doctrine." Left to oneself, one could easily slide away from "the faith once given" into a phantom called "my religion."

Secondly, it reminds me "what things I ought to ask" (perhaps especially when I am praying for other people). The crisis of the present moment, like the nearest telegraph-post, will always loom largest. Isn't there a danger that our great, permanent, objective necessities - often more important - may get crowded out? ...

Finally, they provide an element of the ceremonial. On your view, that is just what we don't want. On mine, it is part of what we want. I see what you mean when you say that using ready-made prayers would be like "making love to your own wife out of Petrarch or Donne" (Incidentally, might you not quote them - to such a literary wife as Betty?) The parallel won't do.

I fully agree that the relationship between God and a man is more private and intimate than any possible relation between two fellow creatures. Yes, but at the same time there is, in another way, a greater distance between the participants. We are approaching... the Unimaginably and Insupportably Other. We ought to be - sometimes I hope one is - simultaneously aware of the closest proximity and infinite distance. You make things far too snug and confiding. Your erotic analogy needs to be supplemented by "I fell at His feet as one dead"....

A few formal, ready-made prayers serve me as a corrective. ... They keep one side of the paradox alive. Of course, it is only one side. It would be better not to be reverent at all than to have recourse to a reverence which denied the proximity.
(Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, no. 2)

By "reverence" before God, Lewis is not telling us to approach God in servile fear, as if in doubt of His mercy and goodness. Rather, Lewis is telling us that we should include in our prayer life not only the attitude that Jesus is our Best Friend, but also that He is our infinite, radiant, heavenly Lord. The Scriptures say that people sometimes fell on their knees or flat on their faces before the Lord, not because they were afraid of Him, but because they were in awe of Him, overwhelmed with wonder and amazement at His divine glory: "And so with all the choirs of angels in heaven we proclaim your glory and join in their unending hymn of praise: Holy, holy, holy Lord. ..." That too should be an aspect of the way we relate to God, even in our personal prayers, and sometimes using set prayers as part of our daily prayer times with God can help us with this.

Besides, the best set prayers can often express our deepest sentiments and aspirations better than we can do on our own: They give us words that we otherwise might not be able to find to express what is on our hearts. Hymn lyrics are great for this: "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me, I once was lost, but now I'm found, was blind, but now I see." How could we put it any better than that?

Finally, daily set prayers can often be used as "launching pads" for our spontaneous prayers and meditations. Saint Bonaventure used to call this kind of prayer "elevations," because they start with written prayers, Bible passages, or litanies, and yet we are free at any moment to spring up from any line of them into our own reflections, and aspirations toward God: expressions of thanks, praise, adoration, supplication, contrition, or simple longing for His presence.

You see, Tom, Jesus gives us a variety of ways to come into His presence and converse with Him in prayer, from drawing upon the rich treasury of prayers passed down to us in the tradition of His Church, to the most simple, spontaneous, childlike raising of our hearts to God. In our personal prayer times, we are free to use any of these ways, as the Spirit moves us and as our spiritual directors may advise us to do.

Just one last thing: When we are talking with Jesus in prayer, let's remember to keep some times of silence as well, so that we can listen as well as speak, and let Him talk to us!

Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. Got a question? E-mail him at questions@thedivinemercy.org.

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