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A New Good Way to Pray

For many of us, the start of a new program and school year feels like more of a “New Year” than January 1.

For many of us, back-to-school time is also back-to-routine time, back-to-church time, back-to-exercise time.

For anyone who is open to a fresh approach to prayer, I have a gift for you today. Here is a way of praying offered by Dennis Hamm, S.J.* that I find very useful, and powerful.

Hamm’s five-step prayer, which takes only about 15 to 20 minutes a day, is a version of the “Daily Examen” which St. Ignatius of Loyola wrote in the 1550s.

Here are the five steps, and below that, a few more words about why I like, and recommend you try, this way of praying.

1. Pray for light. Recall you are in the presence of God. This is a time to be still in the presence of God; you are not daydreaming, or merely reminiscing, but looking for how the Spirit of God is leading you. Pray for illumination, for a graced understanding. “Lord, help me understand this blooming, buzzing confusion.”

2. Review the day in thanksgiving. “Fondle beautiful gifts.” Looking back over your past 24 hours, recall anything and everything for which you are, or can be, thankful. Give thanks for gifts of existence, work, relationships, food, challenges. Walk though the past 24 hours, hour to hour, person to person, task to task, thanking God for every gift you have encountered.

3. Review the feelings that surface in your replay of the day. Your feelings -- positive and negative, painful and pleasing -- are clear signals of where the action was during your day. Simply pay attention to any and all feelings as they surface, the whole range: delight, boredom, fear, anticipation, resentment, anger, peace, contentment, impatience, desire, hope, regret, shame, uncertainty, compassion, overwhelmed, disgust, gratitude, pride, rage, doubt, lust, confidence, loyalty, admiration, shyness -- whatever was there. Emotions are a lively index!

4. Choose one of those feelings and pray from it. Choose the feeling you remember the most, the one that most caught your attention, and focus on it. It is a sign that something important was going on. Express, spontaneously, the prayer that surfaces: Praise? Some petition? Confession? A cry for help? -- “Lord, I put myself in your hands.”

5. Look toward what is next. Using your appointment calendar again, focus on the immediate future, the next 24 hours. What feelings surface as you look at your tasks, meetings, appointments, that you face? Fear? Delighted anticipation? Self-doubt? Temptation to procrastinate? Zestful planning? Regret? Weakness? Whatever it is, turn it into prayer: for help, for healing, for courage, for patience…whatever comes spontaneously. End with the Lord’s Prayer.

Here’s why I like this way of praying. As Hamm points out,

• It always gives you something to pray about.
• It starts out in gratitude, which should be the foundation of our relationship with God.
• It recognizes that God meets us where we are, and as we are.
• It acknowledges the fact that when we pray from our feelings, we are librated from them. Ask any psychologist: unattended emotions can dominate and manipulate us. As Hamm writes, “Attending to and praying from and about the persons and situations that give rise to our emotions helps us to cease being unwitting slaves to our emotions.”
• We find something to bring to confession. We stumble across our sins without making them the primary focus.
• We can experience inner healing. Praying about, as opposed to fretting over or denying our feelings, leads to healing of our mental health life.
• Praying like this helps us get over our Deism. God is more present in our everyday life than we normally think or see!
• Praying like this helps us get over our Pelagianism -- life as a “do it yourself” project, or the thought we can work our way into God’s favor, or into heaven. It reinforces a true theology of grace and freedom, and it sees life as response to God’s love and grace.


*Fr. Hamm’s original essay appeared in America magazine in 1994. I have modified it only slightly.

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