God does the heavy lifting, says novice master. All we have to do is show up

Jesuit novice master and writer Father Mark Thibodeaux likes to start his mornings off with prayer. But he advises folks stuck in their prayer life to try to relax a bit. Prayer should be a bit like sharing a cup of coffee with your best friend.


 

by Anita McSorley
anita.mcsorley@theleaven.org

It takes a spreadsheet to keep track of Jesuit Father Mark Thibodeaux’s day job when he’s here in Kansas City. With the assistance of Father Jim Goeke, SJ, he supervises six Jesuit novices during their six-week stay at the Cathedral of St. Peter in Kansas City, Kan., while they minister throughout the metro area.

It takes a spreadsheet to keep track of Jesuit Father Mark Thibodeaux’s day job when he’s here in Kansas City. With the assistance of Father Jim Goeke, SJ, he supervises six Jesuit novices during their six-week stay at the Cathedral of St. Peter in Kansas City, Kan., while they minister throughout the metro area.

 It takes a spreadsheet to keep track of Jesuit Father Mark Thibodeaux’s day job when he’s here in Kansas City. With the assistance of Father Jim Goeke, SJ, he supervises six Jesuit novices during their six-week stay at the Cathedral of St. Peter in Kansas City, Kan., while they minister throughout the metro area.
But at home in Grand Coteau, La., Father Mark has more time to devote to one of his favorite topics: prayer. It is a subject he has written three books on, and has spent a lifetime studying.

Last month, he sat down with The Leaven for a Q-and-A on the topic, just in time for readers who really hope to make some progress in their prayer life this Lent.
His first bit of advice? Relax!

Q. Let’s start, Father Mark, with a simple question. Why did the apostles have to ask Jesus how to pray? Didn’t they already know how?

 

A. The first century Palestinian Jew probably did a lot of recitation of the psalms and Old Testament, especially from Isaiah and the prophets. I think the reason why they asked him how to pray is because they knew he was something different, that this was something . . . new.

Mark’s Gospel says, over and over again, [how Jesus] speaks with a new authority — on his own authority.  And they observed him praying constantly, on his own, in silence. I suspect that first-century Palestinian Jews would be praying in the Temple and synagogues all the time, but Jesus would go off by himself in the desert.

And so I think they wanted to know what was he doing when he was spending all that time alone.

 

Q. Did the introduction of the Our Father by Jesus, then, introduce a totally new way of praying to them?

 

A.  I think the two things that were new was, first, the idea of “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” This connection between the two — a relationship between the way we forgive and the forgiveness we receive, that those things go hand in hand, and maybe even that we receive healing when we reach out in forgiveness — I suspect that . . . was a new idea for them that they had not heard before.

And certainly, the very beginning of the Our Father — calling God “Abba,” or “Father” — that was brand new.  Calling God “Abba” — which the best English translation [renders as] “Daddy” — is shocking. And it would have been shocking to Jesus’ audience, to call God the Father by such an intimate name.

It even is shocking to us in many ways, because we still don’t really refer to God the Father as “Daddy.” Because we’re still too afraid to, I think — to think of him as our daddy.
Q. In addition to teaching the words of the Our Father to the apostles, what else was Jesus trying to teach them with this prayer?

 

A. I would say one of the other striking things about the Our Father is its simplicity — that schoolchildren can understand it, for the most part. So the number one thing I think would be the intimacy that we’ve already talked about — that God is intimate and that we can have this intimate relationship with God.

And then, number two, as I said before, is that there’s a reciprocal . . . inseparable relationship between my relationship with God and my relationship with others.

But then the third might be just the simplicity of the Our Father — that it isn’t a long, long recitation, as they would have been used to. They were used to reciting an entire psalm from the very beginning to the end, and they would have it memorized. So this would have been a refreshingly short piece, and it asks for very simple things, doesn’t it? For daily bread, for forgiveness, for the grace to forgive others and, ultimately, to be led into God’s kingdom in the end.
So I think that’s what the grace and the gift of the Our Father is for them.

 

Q. Was Jesus successful in teaching his apostles this new way to pray? 

 

A. I think he was successful because, if it’s true that the most unique and shocking part of the Our Father is the very beginning, this “Abba,” and that he was trying to teach the apostles and the disciples that God wanted an intimate relationship with them, then it sort of laid the groundwork for what became the agape meal . . . where Jesus has this shockingly intimate meal where he gives his very self, his very body and blood to consume.

And so I think that . . . by teaching them to call God “Abba” in the beginning, Jesus laid the groundwork for this intimacy that they were able to experience later through the agape meal, which is now our Liturgy of the Eucharist, our Mass.

 

Q. Lent  is a time when many Catholics try to connect to the Lord with the same sort of intimate prayer that he introduced to the apostles. Do you have any advice for them? 

 

A. I always recommend that people make what I call a puny commitment to the Lord. I say that because I think what happens a lot of times — and for Catholics, a lot of times it’s in Lent —is that they’ll commit something huge, and it goes terribly. It goes wonderfully for day one — Ash Wednesday, [then] Thursday. But then, by the next week, they will have burnt out. And then they feel terribly discouraged and, in a way, they feel like they’ve actually gone backwards instead of forwards!

So when I’m teaching about prayer, I usually say make an incredibly puny commitment. Because I think it’s more important that people commit to [and] be faithful to and loyal to a small commitment than that they make some big commitment that they’re not loyal to.

So what do I mean by that? Well, what are you comfortable with? Are you comfortable with 10 minutes, 15 minutes, of quiet prayer in your home, or in the church — just quiet, silent prayer for 10 or 15 minutes? If it’s that short, that’s perfectly fine. Whatever you are comfortable with.

And if you can sort of keep that commitment — that puny commitment — for a long time, I think what will happen is you’ll grow very comfortable with it, and you’ll grow so comfortable with it that it will feel strange on any given day that you’re not doing it.

So that would be the first little piece of advice that I’d give.

Secondly, I think it’s a great idea to have a supply of favorite Scripture passages — your go-to passages. Maybe, you have 10 or 20 passages that you really love. I can name a few of my favorites — Ps 1:39, Ps 1:31, the prodigal son, Luke 15, the paralytic going through the roof, the “I will make you fishers of men” passage.
So you might have several passages that really move you, that really speak to you. And if you had that on a list on a sheet of paper — 10, 15, 20 passages that you really like — and if you’re just getting started in your prayer life, you want to kind of stick to those that you know work for you already.

Then get yourself quiet. And spend a few minutes, maybe if you like, singing or humming a song like “Amazing Grace” — something simple — and then read over that passage and see if you can notice your heart being moved by something, your heart moved with a particular emotion.

Once you realize that [this is happening], name that emotion to the Lord. Tell the Lord, “Lord, I’m feeling this when I read this passage.” And just sit with that, maybe say it a few times to the Lord — “Lord, I feel joyful,” “Lord, I feel joyful” — again and again, as you’re reading over that passage.

Then see if you can detect what’s moving inside the Lord — see if the Lord tells you his own response to this passage, and his response to your emotion.
By “see if you can detect it,” I mean do you have a sense in your heart that Jesus is trying to tell you something about his own response to that passage and his own response to you and how you feel about it?

You can even say that back to the Lord — “Lord, I think I’m sensing that you’re telling me this.” And so there’s a sort of heart dialogue, where your heart speaks to the Lord’s heart.

Do this for just a few minutes. When you start to feel distracted or bored, go back to the passage. So you read the passage until you get into this quiet state and you can have this conversation between two hearts.

If you start to feel yourself getting distracted, you go back [again] to the passage, go back into what your heart is responding to, and you kind of do this give and take.

Then, at some point, you might close with the Our Father, or Hail Mary, or Glory Be.

So I like to begin and end with a formulaic prayer or a song, read a Bible passage, let your heart respond to the Lord, listen to see if the Lord has anything he wants to say, and then end with a formulaic prayer. Very simple.

 

Q. I’ve found in talking to people struggling with their prayer life that their basic question is really: “How do you hear God’s side of the conversation?” I mean, if he’s not literally talking out of a burning bush, or sending an angel as a messenger to you, how do we hear his voice?

 

A. I think if you’re going be faithful to your prayer life, you’re going to need some helpers. And by helpers I mean a spiritual director — a priest or religious Sister, or even a layperson — who is further along the path, who has had experience in prayer.

Because we all need helpers, we all need someone else on the outside of the experience to help us, to kind of discern what it is the Lord might be telling us at any given time.

The other day in the first reading, we had 1 Samuel, Chapter 3, where the boy Samuel hears his name called and he goes to Eli, and says, “Did you call me?” And Eli says, “No, I didn’t call you,” and he goes back to sleep. And it happens three times, right? Finally Eli says, “Oh, this must be the Lord,” and he says, “Next time, when you hear your name called, say, ‘Speak, Lord, I am listening.’”
What’s interesting about this is that, OK, the boy doesn’t know that it’s the Lord’s voice. But even Eli, who is this wise, holy man, doesn’t get it until the third time.
So it takes a lot of repetition, and it takes dialogue with someone further down the path to discern God’s voice.

 

Q. I’ve always been touched by the line in the fourth eucharistic prayer in which we pray for “all who seek you with a sincere heart.” Is it possible for people to continue to seek God and never really connect? Or do most of those who seek eventually find?

 

A. It’s been my experience that if you work at it and stay with it — and have a good helper, a good spiritual director or someone further down the path to keep encouraging you — that over time you will, indeed, hear or see or sense God’s presence in your prayer time. It may take a long time and it may be something as simple or as vague as you sense God’s presence in your own hunger, in your own craving of God.

And who’s to say that that’s not where God dwells, right there inside your wanting to be with him? And perhaps that hunger, that craving, is what you need more than anything to live a good Christian life.

 

Q. Do you have any final words of advice for our readers?

 

A. What I want to say to people starting out is this: Do the best you can to relax in your prayer time. Try not to make it a chore and don’t feel like something has to happen. Because God does the heavy lifting. All you have to do is show up. God’s going do all the rest of it.

In one of my books I talk about . . . when a little baby wants to be fed or needs something, the baby cries and lifts his arms, and Mom shows up. And the baby thinks he has all this power. But all he did was lift up his arms, you know, and Mom comes running across the room.

Well, that’s true with us and God. We just sort of lift up our little hands and God does everything else. So we don’t have to do much, we just have to sit in the chair and relax.

So do whatever it takes to relax.. . . I’m a Cajun, and we love very strong black coffee. And so, most of the time, I begin my prayer time with a strong cup of coffee with the Lord. And it’s wonderful; I love it. I look forward to it every day.
But I wouldn’t look forward to it if I saw it as sort of a chore, or something that I had to get done. You know, we talked about the Our Father earlier and how the most unique and powerful thing Jesus did [with it] was talk about an intimacy with the Lord.

Well, what is spending time with your best friend like? It’s probably extremely relaxed. And, most of the time, you probably don’t “accomplish” anything.
Your best friend is precisely the person you don’t have to get anything done with, or accomplish anything with or even necessarily even have a good conversation with. You just enjoy the company.

That’s sort of what we’re looking for with the Lord. So as best you can, relax, as opposed doing what you think you “should” do.

And just trust that the Lord will meet you wherever you are.

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