Climbing the mountain of prayer
February 15th, 2016
By Father Mark Doherty
Often enough it happens that after I’ve given a talk on the topic of spiritual discernment, one or another of those in attendance will approach me and ask for an appointment so that I can begin teaching them the Ignatian (named after St. Ignatius of Loyola) method of the discernment of spirits. Whenever possible I’m happy to oblige, but I explain at the outset that if the instruction is to be possible and amount to anything they need to have an active prayer life that includes at least daily periods of silent, still recollection.
St. Ignatius, like all masters of the spiritual life, stressed this point often to those he helped to find Jesus. Without a regular, developed prayer life, one’s knowledge of the ways of the Spirit remains speculative. Speculative knowledge is book knowledge. In itself it is good, but because here we’re speaking about knowledge of another person, namely Jesus, St. Ignatius says we need practical knowledge, that is to say, experiential knowledge, tasted knowledge. It is better to have a little tasted knowledge of milk than to know many things about its properties, he said. Jesus, God, is not an idea to be mulled over but a person to be in relationship with.
So long as we remain perpetually ensconced in the din and fray of life we will not gain this tasted knowledge. As Abraham needed to leave behind his surroundings and make his way out to the desert sky in order to see the bright stars canvassed above, so we need to allow the Lord to call us out of our hectic routines each day for some time alone with him in the wilderness, where he can lay out for us in a crisp, dark sky all the bright rays of grace that he is pouring down upon us. As Peter, James and John needed to climb the mountain in order to experience more deeply the splendorous identity of the Lord, so we need to climb the mountain of prayer, to rise above the din, where in the clean air of the mountaintop the movements of the Lord’s Spirit stirred within us are sharper, brighter, more colorful and lively.
It is in the quiet moments of prayer, especially when we are on retreat, that we can experience more intensely the stirrings of God within us. God seems to write in bigger, bolder strokes when we are on the mountaintop. His presence to us seems more vibrant and striking.
Of course, time away on the mountaintop with God is precisely that, time away. We cannot stay there indefinitely. Jesus summons us back down into the din of daily life. The difference now is that, having tasted more deeply the contours of God’s Spirit moving within me, having had a deeper experience of the Almighty on the mountaintop, I can more easily discern his somewhat hidden and subtle presence in the midst of the back and forth of daily life.
During Lent the Lord invites us out into the dessert. He summons us to moments of deeper prayer. Why not take him up on the invitation? Allow him to lead you up the mountain. He will not disappoint you. Up there, in the clean, crisp air, he will provide you with a deeper, more vibrant experience of his life at work within you.
Father Doherty is parochial vicar at St. Peter Parish, San Francisco, and chaplain for Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory.
From February 18, 2016 issue of Catholic San Francisco.