I got back yesterday afternoon from my annual eight-day retreat which I spent alone in beautiful Door County, Wisconsin. I basically had no interaction with people and was able to walk on the trails of Peninsula State Park. I also immersed myself in the Gospels. I felt called to focus my retreat this year on the life and teaching of Jesus and my spiritual director affirmed that before I left for my retreat.
As supplementary reading to the Gospels, I picked up parts of the first volume of Pope Benedict's "Jesus of Nazareth" where I found some interesting observations about prayer. Chapter 5 is a reflection on the prayer of Jesus, the Our Father. In the preface to his reflections on the actual parts of the Our Father, Pope Benedict writes:
God addresses every individual by a name that no one else knows, as Scripture tells us (cf. Rev 2: 17). God's love for each individual is totally personal and includes this mystery of a uniqueness that cannot be divulged to other human beings.
In other words, each of us is a unique individual and though we share a common human nature we relate to God in unique and very personal or individual ways. I like to put it these two ways: 1) there's a place in God's Heart made just for you and just for me; 2) each of us gives God a delight or pleasure that no other human being can give God.
Pope Benedict goes on to say:
We are all familiar with the danger of reciting habitual formulas while our mind is somewhere else entirely.
So often people ask me how to get over distractions in prayer. I usually respond with "Welcome to the club!" Isn't it consoling to know that the Holy Father writes about being familiar with distractions?
Then he goes on to talk about prayer as relationship and as the foundation of life.
Most importantly, though, our relationship with God ... should be present as the bedrock of our soul. In order for that to happen, this relation has to be constantly revived and the affairs of our everyday lives have to be constantly related back to it. The more the depths of our souls are directed toward God, the better we will be able to pray. The more prayer is the foundation that upholds our entire existence, the more we will become men of peace. The more we can bear pain, the more we will be able to understand others and open ourselves to them. This orientation pervasively shaping our whole consciousness, this silent presence of God at the heart of our thinking, our meditating, and our being, is what we mean by "prayer without ceasing." ... This is what prayer really is--being in silent inward communion with God. it requires nourishment, and that is why we need articulated prayer in words, images, or thoughts. The more God is present in us, the more we will really be able to be present to him when we utter the words of our prayers.
In these words I find two approaches to prayer. One is the necessity of spending some quality time with God. This is what a retreat is; it's what a daily period of personal prayer is. This is the "nourishment" that our relationship, our communion with God requires. But we also need a time of prayer in which "the affairs of our everyday lives" are related back to God. This is the Examen or Evening Review or Examination of Consciousness. Through this prayerful review of the day we look back at what we said we were going to offer to God when we began the day with our Morning Offering. We look not only at what we offered to God but what God offered to us--how God was present in the events and people of our day; how God was speaking to us throughout our day. We can in this way "pray without ceasing" because God is present in every moment of our day. The more attuned we become to God's presence there in the moments of our day, the better we will be able to listen and the deeper we will grow in our relationship with God.