The School of the Holy Spirit - The School of Prayer
by Aneel Aranha
Welcome to the School of the Holy Spirit! It is a good idea to begin school with a blank slate so if it is possible at all for you to wipe your mind clean of all the preconceptions that exist, please do so. I am not proud that I was an atheist most of my life, but one of the benefits of not being raised in the faith was that there was no conditioning about Christian beliefs that I had to overcome, no paradigms to lock me in. I realized that most of what I had believed to be true about God, life and just about everything else was wrong, so I simply wiped the entire slate clean and prepared to start afresh. Clean slates are easy to write on. If it isn’t possible for you to clean yours, please at least come with the humility to accept that you might be wrong about a lot of things and an eagerness to learn what is right. The Holy Spirit often teaches you things that go against what you believe to be true and mental resistance makes it difficult for Him to work effectively in you. Please do note that while some of the things that He teaches might appear to go against the Catholic faith, they don't; they merely go against what we believe the Catholic faith teaches, which isn’t quite the same thing.
As I stated in the Induction to the School of the Spirit, there are lessons that one has to learn. These come under several subjects of which the primary are prayer, self-purification, faith, overcoming weaknesses and learning how to love. There are also distinct levels of growth, but as the delineations between them are not very sharp, we will go through the “syllabus” by subjects rather than levels. I will, however, roughly divide the levels into three: Primary, Intermediate and Advanced, so that you can have an approximation of your progress as you grow.
Prayer is the first thing that the Holy Spirit asks you to do. Everything begins and ends with prayer and if you want to progress in the School of the Holy Spirit, you will have to get down on your knees. Understand that there is no getting around this truth because it is in prayer that the Holy Spirit will teach you most of your lessons. Recognize the excuse that you don’t have time for prayer for what it is — an excuse and a very poor one at that.
Traditional prayers like the very beautiful Rosary and community worship like the Holy Mass are excellent ways to get started, but it is a good idea to get into a habit of personal prayer even in the early stages of your prayer life. Spend a few minutes alone with God each day, talking to Him, and more importantly, listening to Him. God speaks to most of us through His Word, so make it a habit to read a little of it each day when you are spending time with Him.
Set aside a time and a place for this personal prayer, and be determined to stick to it regardless of what happens. It isn’t going to be easy. For one, there is a reluctance to spend time closeted by yourself, even if it is for a few minutes. For another, the enemy is going to do his best to stop you from spending any time with God. He will make you forget your prayer time; he will persuade you that other things are more important; or — this is his favourite — he will make you feel sleepy! Ask the Holy Spirit to help you and He will, though His help will mostly consist of reminding you when it is time to pray and urging you to stop dragging your feet if He sees you doing so. You will still need to make it to that prayer room on your own steam!
Close your eyes when you pray. It helps you to get rid of all external stimuli and concentrate better on God. Having pictures or statues of Jesus might seem like good aids in prayer but there is a very real danger that you might begin to idolize them. God despises idolatry, regardless of the form that it takes. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t have pictures or objects of religious significance in your house. I have images of Jesus in mine. One is a huge picture that dominates an entire wall of my living room. I also have an altar of sorts in my prayer room. But I am very clear in my mind that these are nothing more than pictorial representations of the God I love, not God Himself. If you were to remove the pictures and take away the altar it wouldn’t detract in the slightest from my prayer. Would you be able to claim the same? Or if you were to move your altar to the backyard would you feel that God has moved to the backyard too? This is a serious question that I ask you not to take lightly. The second danger in focusing on images and other “props” in prayer is that it externalizes God, making God something that is “out there” rather than someone who is “in here”. Remember that you are a temple of the Holy Spirit who lives in you. A clear understanding of this will take you a long way in achieving union with God, which is what true prayer is.
Once your daily time with God becomes a habit (it usually takes 40 days to develop any habit), increase the time you spend alone with Him to an hour. You will need help here. An hour is a long time to spend in prayer and the first thing you wonder is what you are going to talk to Him for an hour! Most people run out of things to say to God within five minutes. I was no exception, but I discovered a beautiful little booklet by Linda Schubert that proved an immense help. It is called Miracle Hour and it takes you through a series of steps involving praise, spiritual warfare, surrender, thanksgiving, intercession, forgiveness, and everything else you need to engage in a meaningful hour with God.
Develop this hourly prayer into a habit too. Once it has — forty days later or however long it takes you — make a present of the book to a friend because you’re not going to need it anymore. You are ready to let the Holy Spirit take over completely and you will very quickly discover the real joy and power of prayer. You will also discover the truth that the Spirit blows where He wills. During your hour with God, there will be occasions when you will weep bitterly for the sins of the world and beg God for His mercy. There will be occasions when you will glorify God and joyfully sing praises to His name. There will be occasions when you just overflow with gratitude for His love. And there will be occasions when you simply bask in His presence in blissful silence. Just let yourself be carried by the Spirit wherever He wishes to take you, knowing that this unchoreographed, unrehearsed, unplanned Spirit-led and Spirit-filled prayer is communication of the purest kind between you and God.
Be aware, however, that there will be occasions when you won’t feel the presence of the Holy Spirit during this hour and prayer will be a real struggle. Don’t let this trouble you too much. Simply revert to the prayer basics that you learned and finish the hour. The very “sacrifice” of prayer often draws you right into the presence of God. But then again it might not. God sometimes just “disappears” on you, but as we will see later, it is for a good reason.
Around this time the Holy Spirit will lead you into interceding for the needs of others. Intercessory prayer is generally looked upon with disdain, but any serious advancement in the school of prayer requires praying for the needs of others. It is only prayer that can save the world from being destroyed! Much as you might wish to disassociate yourself from this world, you are part of it and you have a responsibility towards saving it. Though there might be limitations to what you can do to save souls, you can most certainly pray for their salvation. Like everything else, the Holy Spirit will let you know when the time is right to start interceding for others. He will usually get you to pray for yourself first, then your family, before He steers you toward praying for other people. This makes sense, not only because it is important to ask God to fix you first before asking Him to fix the world, but because once you walk in God’s ways, He is more likely to listen to you when you pray for others.
Also around this time, the Holy Spirit will lead you into fasting. Like any other lesson from the Spirit, this too will be taught to you in a systematic manner. He will begin by asking you to skip a meal on occasion, then two, and then perhaps go an entire day without eating. He will gradually increase this to several days, but he will never ask you to fast for a length of time that will put your health or your life in jeopardy. On the occasions when He asks you to keep an extended fast, He will strengthen you so that you do not feel too hungry or get sick. I know of people — men, women and children — who regularly fast for forty days at a time, consuming nothing but water and are none the worse for it. On the contrary, they are in superb health, and needless to say, in superb spirit! No matter what anybody tells you, 40-day total fasts are very much in the realm of the possible, and it is quite probable that the Holy Spirit might lead you to do something similar. But then it is just as probable that He won’t. He chooses an exceptional sort of prayer person to fast that long. I, myself, have never been led to fast even one-third that time, though week long fasts are now de rigueur. Even seven days of fasting, however, are enough to make miracles happen!
If you wonder why fasting should result in an outpouring of God’s grace, I might have a reason. In Lent last year, I persuaded my little daughter who was then only 6 years old, to do a 24-hour fast for Ash Wednesday. The girl, more to please me than please God, agreed. She went through the entire day consuming nothing but water. By evening she was starved and came to me asking if she could eat. Reluctantly, I told her to continue with the fast as there were only a few hours left in the day. She loved me enough to agree and went to sleep after a while. In the middle of the night, she woke up violently sick. My heart simply broke and if it was in my power to perform a miracle and make her well right then and there I would have, as well as given her a splendid gift to reward her for the sacrifice she made! Though I was severely berated by my wife for my insensitivity in putting the child through this (and rightly so), I understood, then, in my pain as a father, why and how our fasting moves God. He is, ultimately, a father too. Our father.
Fasting should always be accompanied by prayer, otherwise you are engaging yourself in nothing more than a starvation diet that could be very dangerous. Pray continuously during these times and read God’s Word constantly. A man once told me that if I were to lock myself in a room for a week with nothing but water and God’s Word for nourishment, I would be a totally different man when I left that room. I have had no occasion to try it, but I believe that to be true.
The Holy Spirit will keep leading you on, step by step, until eventually you will reach a point in growth when you are permanently in prayer. This does not consist of muttering Je-sus, Je-sus all the time that you are awake or saying Hail Mary after Hail Mary. This simply is the state when you are in perfect union and harmony with God. There will not be an action that you take without your mind automatically seeking God’s approval. There will hardly be a moment that passes by without your thoughts straying towards Him, seeking Him, wanting Him, needing Him, loving Him. There will be an overwhelming sense of oneness with God, leaving no degree of separation between Him and you. There will be perfect attunement. And when this happens, know you have graduated in Prayer from the School of the Holy Spirit.
How long will it take you to reach this far? It depends entirely on you. Prayer is not a stand-alone subject that you can learn independently of the others. Your growth in it is dependent on how well you grow in the other subjects as well. And growth in all of them depends on how obedient you are to the Holy Spirit. Obey without hesitation, without justifications, without excuses, and you will zoom through school like a rocket shot into deep space. Disobey in any one area and the engine starts to sputter. Disobey too much and the engine simply dies.
May the Spirit be with you.
These are approximations of prayer levels and, as stated earlier, are to be used only as a rough indicator of your progress.
Level 1 - Basic prayer: Traditional prayer and worship like the Rosary and the Mass. Fellowship with a prayer group. A few minutes alone with God. Bible reading. Petitioning is usually self-centered. Prayer is very vocal, often noisy.
Level 2 - Intermediate prayer: At least an hour at a stretch with God each day. Some fasting. You meditate on the Bible. Petitioning expands to include family and friends. Prayer becomes quieter, more meaningful.
Level 3 - Advanced prayer: Three hours or more of prayer each day. Petitioning graduates to interceding for the world. Fasting is frequent and often total. You are now studying the Bible. Prayer is totally guided by the Holy Spirit.
Graduate Level: Constant, continuous prayer. You are totally in tune with God. The Bible is the living, breathing Word of God. You can fast as led, whenever led. You're ready for the University of the Holy Spirit!
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Copyright © 2004 Aneel Aranha. All rights reserved. Image titled 'Martha at the feet of Jesus' is part of the Hearts Gallery Collection by Gwen Meharg. Copyright © 2004 Gwen Meharg. All rights reserved.