For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them. (Matthew 18:20)

Thomas Merton said: “What is the good of religion without personal spiritual direction?”

Spiritual direction takes self out of deciding what you should do and how you should do it. We want to serve God, but we are blinded by self, by our desires and pride and avarice. Spiritual direction eliminates the blinding effect of pride from discernment. We can see more clearly what other people need, and others can see more clearly what we need. Submission to a spiritual director is denial of self.

(This self-denial and submission may be dangerous for the spiritual director—they make for an environment in which secret abuse is possible, for example. We submit first of all to God, and only secondarily to a spiritual director. Or maybe groups of three are even better than two.)

One question spiritual directors sometimes ask is “in what does your prayer consist?” Describe your life of prayer. When you sit down to pray, what do you say or think or do? Do you repeat a fixed prayer such as the Lord’s Prayer? Do you internally tell God all your failings and troubles and needs and ask for your daily bread? What are you thinking about most—yourself and your own needs, your loved ones, God? Do you read a passage of scripture and consider how it applies to you? Do you read a book, or recite a psalm, or listen to a song, or ponder an image, or think of the people you love and what they need, or gaze on the beauty of Christ, or focus on your breathing, or try to calm your racing mind? Go for a walk? Weed the garden? Knit socks? Yoga?

How is your will involved? Do you try to love God, and submit yourself to him, and seek him? What do you fear or desire? Do you hate the sin in yourself and seek healing? Do you formulate internal sentences and paragraphs, or is your prayer a groan of the spirit too deep for words? Do you have clear and distinct knowledge, or overflowing emotion, or confused, dark love? Do you track from thought to thought, trying to figure something out, to think the right things, or do you let your mind wander in God’s love, or do you try to banish thought? Or do you listen, seeking a word from the Lord?

How do you assess whether prayer went well—what are you seeking? What is your deepest desire? Are you trying to convince God to give you and those you know what they need? Are you exposing your desires to God and laying them at his feet and letting him correct them? Are you trying to relax your mind and find peace and joy and strength for the day? Are you looking for some kind of feeling or experience or knowledge?—wouldn’t it be great to have a sense of God’s presence, a word from God, an answer to a question, a reassurance of love, a vision, a rapture, to hear the angels sing, to speak with God or a saint, to see, to love, to live?

Or maybe you seek nothing in prayer—you don’t pray the prayer; rather, the prayer prays you. Or you just sit in aridity and agony, unable to pray. Or maybe you are completely distracted and can only think about the trials of life and the needs of the day.

When these questions are laid out in plain view, it becomes apparent that they are fundamental to the spiritual life. How should I pray? What is the goal of prayer? Pursuing different goals will lead to very different places. And it may also be clear that prayer will have different character in different seasons—from hour to hour, from year to year.

In what does your prayer consist? In the upcoming week, take notes. What is your mind doing? What is your will doing? What are you seeking? How do you decide if prayer “went well”? If you can, discuss it with one or two other people, simply describing your prayer to each other.

Categories: Meditation

Harry Plantinga

Harry Plantinga is a professor of computer science at Calvin University and the director of and