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Entering Into Prayer

March 8, 2014 by  
Filed under Anthony Lilles, Prayer

For those struggling to pray, one challenge in prayer is entering into silence. It seems the moment one goes into a chapel or room or some other private place, a thousand thoughts and feelings suddenly flow. Sometimes, in fact, it is to find some relief from particularly painful feelings or haunting thoughts that we find ourselves driven to prayer. Whatever the case, it can happen that the psychological activity in terms of thoughts, feelings and memories are so intense that they completely prevent someone from praying. Brooding over injury, feeling sorry for oneself, stirring up anxious thoughts, entertaining one's self with various visual or emotional fantasies – none of this is prayer. Prayer is interpersonal and it requires leaving all of these efforts behind and searching for Jesus in one's heart.

If we keep the eyes of the heart fixed on the Lord, all these distractions are quickly left behind. So, Teresa of Avila suggests thinking about a scripture passage or reading the Bible as ways of turning our attention away from distracting thoughts. She also advises thinking about our lives and how Jesus has been present to us. Thérèse of Lisieux, in her spiritual struggles, identifies with the bride from the Canticle of Canticles and calls out to Jesus, “draw me.” Elisabeth of the Trinity asks Jesus to fixate her on him. Occasionally, even naming the distraction and offering to Jesus is helpful. For example, one might pray, “Lord, this anxiety or injury is distracting me from seeking you. I entrust this to you with all the love of my heart. Have mercy on me and free me from myself so that I can find you. I know you are waiting for me.”

Whatever the method, God's love is stronger than our self-occupations. If we are confident and determined in prayer, He comes and frees us from distractions. In fact He is coming now, in an eternal act. He is the God who comes. We have every confidence because the abyss of his mercy is much deeper than the abyss of our ego. We can be determined because He is even more determined. Once we have found Him, whatever we had to suffer along the way seems like nothing at all. Most of all, He has confidence in us.


Art: Detail from “The Adoration of the Child” by Piero di Cosimo, ca 1500, PD-US, Wikimedia Commons.

Editor’s Note: For more of Anthony’s insights on prayer, don’t miss his new book, Hidden Mountain Secret Garden, an experience like no other. Anthony has an unusually profound understanding of mystical theology and lives a life of deep prayer. Among his many accomplishments and responsibilities, Dr. Lilles now teaches theology for the Avila Institute.

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About Anthony Lilles

Anthony Lilles, a graduate of Franciscan University of Steubenville, completed his graduate and post-graduate studies in Rome at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas. He and his lovely wife, Agnes, are blessed with three children and live in California, where he is the Academic Dean, and Associate Professor of Theology, St. John's Seminary, Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and Academic Advisor at Juan Diego House, House of Formation for Seminarians. For over twenty years, Dr. Lilles worked for the Denver Archdiocese directing parish religious education, R.C.I.A. and youth ministry, as well as serving as Director of the Office of Liturgy for the Archdiocese and as Coordinator of Spiritual Formation for the permanent diaconate. In 1999, he became a founding faculty member of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary where he was Academic Dean for nine years and Associate Professor of Theology. He is a Board Member for the Society of Catholic Liturgy. Dr. Lilles has provided graduate level courses on a variety of topics including the Eucharist, the Sacraments of Healing, Church History, Spiritual Theology, Spiritual Direction and on various classics of Catholic Spirituality. His expertise is in the spiritual doctrine of Saint Elisabeth of the Trinity and the Carmelite Doctors of the Church: St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross and St. Thérèse of Lisieux. In 2012, Discerning Hearts published his book "Hidden Mountain, Secret Garden: A Theological Contemplation on Prayer," a compilation of discussions with seminarians, students, and contemplatives about the spiritual life. He collaborated with Dan Burke on the books "30 Days with Teresa of Avila" and "Living the Mystery of Merciful Love: 30 Days with Thérèse of Lisieux". And, his book "Fire from Above" was published in 2016. Among his many accomplishments and responsibilities, Dr. Lilles now teaches theology for the Avila Institute. He blogs at

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  • debby_d_NJ

    Beautiful way to begin Saturday, our Lady’s particular day!
    She is the gardener of the enclosed garden of my soul.
    If only this dirt and stone and clay would rejoice with full surrender at Her approach! She turns things over to expose in truth my true self, so that He, the Great Owner of the Field, can plant, remove, add what is His preference. Too often I wince rather than receive. I imagine rather than entrust in acceptance and silence, the quiet of silence (more often i is the vacant bored silence ticking off the minutes, but She will continue to cultivate and weed). I need deeper conversion. Deeper truth. Deeper cultivation of the Gospel. Praying more truthfully for His Will. His Love. His Grace of boundless Forgiveness for myself and all this Lent. Praying for Mercy and Generosity of Spirit toward all He places in my path – most particularly my own family members. Less Less Less! of me…..More, More, until it is ALL Him.
    I don’t remember reading you before, Prof. Lilles. Spent a bit of time before Mass this AM with you on your blogspot. I dare say you are proof of what God does, namely “bring a lily out of a dung-hill” (I think that is St. Jose-Maria Escriva). You mirror hope. I thank you for that. (and for this post) Awesome.
    All my family here are in my heart as I receive Holy Communion this AM. Freedom in Him, dear ones! my love, debby

  • Camila

    What are the “eyes of the heart”?
    Is it the will informed by the intellect?
    Is it a feeling?
    Is it reason illumined by faith?

    • Jeanette

      “Eyes of the heart” – I believe it’s the same as an ‘attitude of the heart’ – the way we think and feel about someone or something that affects our behaviour.

    • MaryofSharon

      I like your question Camila! I have spent an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out what the heart really is. Its meaning is obscure, but it has to mean far more than our emotions, as many of our contemporaries understand it. In Catholic thought, words like “heart” have profound meaning, but it is only in understanding what is actually meant by the word that we can understand what much of scripture (“heart” used over 1000 times), the Catechism (“heart” used over 200 times), Saints, and spiritual writers like Dr. Lilles are trying to tell us. I’ve searched the internet and even asked both a monk and a theologian. Here’s one of the better explanations of the meaning of “heart” I’ve found.

      And then in the Catechism in par 2562-2563 we find:

      2562 Where does prayer come from? Whether prayer is expressed in words or gestures, it is the whole man who prays. But in naming the source of prayer, Scripture speaks sometimes of the soul or the spirit, but most often of the heart (more than a thousand times). According to Scripture, it is the heart that prays. If our heart is far from God, the words of prayer are in vain.

      2563 The heart is the dwelling-place where I am, where I live; according to the Semitic or Biblical expression, the heart is the place “to which I withdraw.” The heart is our hidden center, beyond the grasp of our reason and of others; only the Spirit of God can fathom the human heart and know it fully. The heart is the place of decision, deeper than our psychic drives. It is the place of truth, where we choose life or death. It is the place of encounter, because as image of God we live in relation: it is the place of covenant.

  • Lisa

    A beautiful meditation, Professor. I especially need to remember Who I am praying to….Jesus, Who is so keenly and perfectly aware of all I am and all that occupies my heart and mind. To simply offer it to Him, to tell Him what is in my way…..there is a lot of hope in that simple act. He invites, we show up. He engages….we enter and sit at his feet.

    Sometimes, it is helpful to imagine oneself visiting a dear friend. Upon entering their home, you would greet your friend warmly, perhaps remove some articles from your person—hat, gloves, sweater, purse. These could vibe stand ins for our distractions. And who is it that receives them? Your beloved friend, who sets them aside. Perhaps it is a custom for you to bring a small gift to your friend….flowers, wine, chocolate. You too have many sweet offerings to present to Jesus. These are simple analogies….just as we need to settle into a visit with a friend, we can imagine ourselves settling into prayer with a Jesus. Give Him what needs to be set aside for the time being. Then take His lead.

    I think it helps, also, to name the Person of the Trinity we are addressing in our prayer time. Personally, I relate to each Person of the Trinity distinctly.

  • judeen

    to set before my God.. if I think of so many worrys and things in my life.. so I set them at Jesus feet… Lord… this I am thinking about.. I give it to you.. what shall I do? or I know you will take care of it… everything in my heart I give to you.. each thing.. if it is going on and on.. so it is the devil trying to destract me from my prayer.. so then I just offer it up for souls and coversion of souls … then say begone evil in the name of the Lord Jesus
    christ…. my whole life is for Jesus even my prayer.. I do not fight it… I give it to God.. and say I trust in you… Jesus was human.. He knows what our lives are… and how the devil trys to keep us from Him … so He understands and also protects us if we ask… just sitting.. there is a comfort.. giving everything I have to God…

    • debby_d_NJ

      judeen, i think you have the key here: “to set before my God”….”just sitting”. YES. this is what each one of us can “DO” which broadens our capacity to BE. thank you for sharing this intimate prayer.

  • Jan England

    Just a plea for more quiet in our churches and chapels – especially before and after the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

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