Cover image for Close to the heart : a guide to personal prayer
Close to the heart : a guide to personal prayer
Silf, Margaret.
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Publication Information:
Chicago : Loyola Press, [1999]

Physical Description:
xvi, 230 pages ; 23 cm
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BV210.2 .S53 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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A real-life approach to prayer Sharing her own life-changing prayer experiences as well as those of others, Margaret Silf invites us to embark on our own adventure in prayer, with promises that we will not be disappointed. In Close to the Heart, she introduces a world of imaginative yet simple ways to approach personal prayer, tempting us to search for "clues to the kingdom" in everyday life. This experiential book, Silf explains, "starts where people really are and encourages them to discover God in their real lives--in the agony and the ecstasy, the glorious and the mundane."
Breaking through boundaries and stereotypes, Margaret Silf shows prayer as a journey into reflective living. This comprehensive guide helps readers experience prayer as a natural, organic process and offers a powerful vision of what personal prayer can be.
"This is an excellent book on prayer and its relationship to every aspect of life. Writing of ordinary things in simple, lucid prose, . . . the author helps us glimpse God, seamlessly woven into earthy experience."
--gerard w. hughes, s.j.
"[Silf] has a great gift. . . . She never skirts real life, with its questions, fears, doubts, and desires. She doesn't clean anything up and make it 'spiritual and holy,' for she sees all of life as spiritual and holy."
--janet schaeffler, Office for Religious Education, Archdiocese of Detroit

Author Notes

Margaret Silf is a popular retreat director and speaker on Ignatian spirituality. She is the author of numerous books, including Compass Points , Inner Compass , Close to the Heart , Going on Retreat. and her forthcoming boo k The Other Side of Chaos. She lives in Scotland.

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

Silf, author of Inner Compass, offers her readers a basic guide to contemplative prayer. Utilizing techniques acquired during her own spiritual formation, Silf maintains that contemplative prayer is an aid to locating the calm below the emotional and mental turbulence that characterizes much of modern life. She urges her readers toward a creative reappropriation of the biblical Gospels by imagining themselves as participants in many key Gospel narratives. The application of such techniques results in encounters with God that are consistently affirming. Organizationally, the book is designed to guide the beginner from the basic elements of contemplative prayer to praying with "the Word" as discovered through creation and Scripture. Each chapter ventures a bit further in prayer techniques, as Silf encourages readers to discover the joys of the lectio divina and of experimenting with conversational prayer. Yet while aiming to introduce "experiential Catholicism," Silf is mostly silent about Catholic encounters with God through the sacraments of the Church. Her work is less grounded in Catholicism than it is in generic spirituality, tinged with New Age overtones (the first chapter, for example, is entitled "Discovering God Inside You"). Silf presents only selected aspects of the Church's collective experience of God through the ages. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Hearing God's Heartbeat It seems to be a fact of life: Everyone who ever thinks about "prayer" or tries to pray feels that everyone else can do it much more effectively. Perhaps we have dismissed as irrelevant our childhood "saying of prayers" and are unsure of how to find any more personal approach to God. Perhaps we feel that prayer is a secret, inaccessible space in the center of our hearts. We have some sense that God himself is dwelling in that place, but we have no idea of how to get there or of what to do if we could. If anyone were to ask you to speak about your prayer life, you might run a mile in panic. There's nothing to tell, you might think. The space in your heart, where you feel God should be, may feel empty and deserted. Or it may feel dark and frightening. You might be afraid to reveal it to another, because it would make you so vul-nerable and expose things in your depths that you would rather not bring into the daylight. Both of these very understandable and normal reactions have their roots in fear. We are afraid of facing, at the heart of ourselves, what may turn out to be "nothing" or something too dark to contemplate. Suppose, however, that we could go back, at least in our imagination, to the Garden of Eden and notice how things were in the beginning. When I do this myself, I notice three things in particular that encourage me to take the risk of personal prayer: * Before anything ever went wrong in the scheme of things, God looked at his creation and said that it was good. * God walked daily through the paths of paradise with his created beings. Being on intimate terms, Creator and creature engaged in heart-to-heart conversations as a matter of course. * It was fear that spoiled all this. For Adam and Eve, a fear of their inner darkness, their vulnerability, and their nakedness prevented this everyday intimacy with God. Fear, then, puts a stop to our natural communion with God. Does it have to be a full stop? If God is dwelling in our innermost hearts, as Scripture affirms, how might we approach this sacred center of our existence? How might we come close to the heart of ourselves, there to discover the source and the destination of our being, in God, through prayer? From experience I see that two things have happened, in my personal life and in the life of all creation, to block the communication with God that we call prayer: * Fear has seduced me into putting up barricades around my heart, to keep a hostile world at bay. Inevitably, however, these same barricades have also kept me out of my innermost self and prevented my meeting there with God. * Because I have fenced my heart in this way, I have quite literally lost my way. I am no longer on easy terms with God or with my own heart. I am no longer familiar with the paths to my own center. Even if I could find them, they would be over¬grown with thorns and brambles and I would be afraid to walk along them. The purpose of this book is: * to dispel fears that keep us at a distance from the heart of our being, where God is, and to restore our confidence that God will welcome our approach and is already coming to meet us and assure us that he longs to reestablish that first communion with us; * to open up pathways we may have lost (or may never have realized were there), to reveal specific ways of reaching into our hearts here and now, in the midst of our everyday living. Not that prayer will lead us to a world of certainties, but it will give us ways of being in our uncertainty. This isn't a book for spiritual experts. It is a guide for the lost children of Eden, who know that they don't know but have enough trust to take the first step of opening their hearts to God in prayer and see where it leads them. I am taking these steps, these first steps, myself, and I expect still to be taking first steps on the day I die. I invite you to discover your own steps and let God build up your confidence, gradually and steadily, that this, truly, is a path that can be trusted. Nor is this a book for "religious" people, except in that all of us are religious, because we are energized by God. If prayer is meaningful at all, it is meaningful for everyone, and it is to be discovered in the places where we live out our lives, not in some special "holy" (and ultimately unreal) place, to which we feel we have no access. A Prayer Story One year a friend decided to set aside Advent as a time for deeper personal prayer. But she found that her small daughter had other ideas. The child had set her heart on a particular soft toy, her only Christmas wish. The mother searched the toy shops in vain and ultimately decided that she would have to knit the toy herself. And so the cherished prayer time seemed to be short-circuited as Christmas approached; the details of the knitting project took over. Barely knowing where to start, she gathered all colors of wool yarn scraps from around the house and from friends and relatives. Her search was exhaustive and exhausting. And then, as her imagination clicked as fast as her needles, she desperately hoped that the work of her hands would meet with her daughter's approval. Prayer seemed almost lost in an overloaded schedule in the service of her family. She tried to search for meaning in the daily work and hoped that God would accept the results. On Christmas morning my friend knew her efforts had been fruitful. For days her daughter showed her new toy to everyone she met, with the proud and joyful introduction, "This is my Christmas present and my mommy knitted him herself!" The toy meant so much more to her than any machine-made equivalent the shops might have stocked. "Mom" told me this story, full of regret for the prayer she had failed to make during Advent. But what I heard wasn't her regret, but God's delight over all she had discovered of God, of love, and of life during these weeks of preparation celebrating the life of another Child. This mother had gathered the scraps of her experience into her living prayer during that time, just as surely as she had gathered the scraps of wool for her daughter's toy. There was no doubt in my mind that God was sharing the story with the angels and saints, with the proud words: "This is prayer, and she knitted it herself!" Surely God rejoiced more over that homemade Advent prayer than over the formal retreat my friend never made! There is more prayer in the scrap yards of our hearts than we imagine. If we look for signs in the heavens, we may easily overlook God's footprints in the sidewalk. The true vine is on the green¬grocer's shelf. The pearl of great price lies hidden in the cracks of our city sidewalks. And the salt of the earth is what we sprinkle on our own potatoes. Overview of This Book Through this book I hope to help you explore some ways of becoming more aware of "God's footprints in the sidewalk"; if we follow them, they will lead us close to the heart of our own being and that of all creation. The book is divided into four sections. Part 1, "Entering Prayer," looks at some guiding principles for a life of personal prayer: the discovery of God's life-generating pres¬ence within our own hearts and experience; the call to stillness; the positive power of our own desires; and the art of living reflectively, so that what we discover in the stillness of heart--called prayer--can permeate and invigorate our daily lives and routines. Part 2, "Learning to Focus," gives a number of particular and specific suggestions for personal prayer. Each approach brings your everyday experience into the light of God's presence. Try these suggestions and see whether they bring any new light into your experience. Part 3, "Using the Word as Our Guide," explores ways of praying with Scripture--ways in which God's Word, in its many forms, can be the gateway through which you enter into prayer. Part 4, "Stumbling Blocks and Stepping Stones," offers a few thoughts on overcoming some difficulties and making use of some opportunities in the journey into prayer. I also suggest how you can make prayer become a way of life. Short chapters within each part explore one approach to personal prayer. Each chapter also includes suggestions for exercises ("Taking It Further"). Some of these ways of prayer may appeal to you more than others. I suggest that you begin by reflecting on the foundations suggested in part 1. Then explore the various possibilities set out in the remainder of the book. Take and use anything you find helpful, and leave the rest. Remember that there are infinite ways of praying. No one way is ever the right way or the only way. What is right for you is what draws you closer to God and to your truest self, at this particular time and place in your journey. The approaches suggested here are merely the ones I have found helpful in my own search for God. I make no apology for the many omissions, because I can share only what I have experienced personally. If you stand still and place a finger on your pulse point, you become aware of your heartbeat. The throbbing of your pulse, easily discernible on the outer edges of your being, is actually a manifestation of the life-giving energy constantly generated by your heart and circulating through your entire body. In the same way we can stand still on the outer edges of our daily experience, in the created world, and pick up the resonance of God's eternal energy flowing through our beings. Close to the Heart invites you to tune in to this pulse of life, which is constantly flowing through every part of your experience. This is prayer, and it draws the pulse of your daily life into ever-deepening resonance with the heartbeat of God. As you become aware of this resonance, you realize that that secret space at your center is neither empty nor to be feared; it is filled with the love of God, eagerly waiting to flow through every part of your being and into the world in which you live.   PART ONE Entering Prayer Prayer invites us to become aware of the living interaction between the transcendent God, who will remain always beyond all we can think or imagine, and the immanent God, who abides deep in our own hearts. As we become aware of this sacred encounter, we become, ourselves, a place where God's dream is becoming incarnate in our own personal human life. We enter into a personal and intimate relationship with the Author of our being. How can we open ourselves to the possibility of this interaction? How might we approach this call, this desire in our own hearts, for a personal relationship with the One who is closer to us than we are to ourselves and whose dream of us is coming to birth every day of our lives? This section suggests some ways of entering the heart-depths of prayer. 1 Discovering God inside You The bean and the blotting paper   Through all the stages of growth, is not the real aim in life to become ourselves, to allow the barriers to come down so that the deepest "I" can emerge? . . . To grow from the seed of life within each of us, rooted in our earth and history. Is this not our journey home? --JEAN VANIER, OUR JOURNEY HOME I remember the day, many moons ago, when I was introduced to the secret of life. It was all so simple, and it comes back to me today as a model worth following as we begin this exploration together. It began with an elementary-school teacher's instruction to bring a jar and a piece of blotting paper from home to our next science lesson. In those days jars weren't thrown into the recycling bin but were washed and stored in the cellar and recycled in the kitchen every strawberry season. And blotting paper was a household necessity in the days of pen and ink. Once our rows of jars were lined up in the classroom, the miracle could begin. The teacher told us to soak our sheets of blotting paper with tap water and place them as a lining around the inside of our jars. We were still at the age of wonder, and no one had spoiled the story for us by telling us the plot in advance. The science teacher came around and gave each of us a bean, which was clearly going to play some key role in the unfolding drama. We were then invited to place our beans carefully between the wet blotting paper and the inside surface of our jars. And that, really, was the end of all demands upon us. We prepared our little trinity of offerings--the jar, the wet blotting paper, and the bean--and the rest was out of our hands. What happened next was nothing, really. All the teacher did was line up our jars along the windowsill, strategically positioned above the central heating radiators and in the full light of the morning sun. And then we left the experiment to get on with itself. Everyone knows the rest of the story. A week later when we revisited our jars, each bean had sprouted. Perhaps there is never again quite the thrill of that experiment, when we first observe the beginnings of new life with our own eyes and in our own jars. The more I think about it, the more it reminds me of prayer. If we are willing to think small, it isn't too hard to see our day-by-day experience as a piece of blotting paper, soaking up impressions, reactions, events, demands, and responses. And that blotting paper sits (comfortably or otherwise) within our world, the jar. Then comes the bean--the seed of our uniqueness that will grow into our individual being. This potential is the dream God dreams of us when his love spills over into creation. Our Godseed. Dry and dormant, maybe for many a long year, but one day the moment comes--the "kairos moment" of God's perfect timing, when our experience, soaked through with the living water of the Holy Spirit, sprouts and begins its amazing growth into "Who-I-Am." And all we have done is to bring our threefold offering to the place of miracle (which is wherever we happen to find ourselves). We bring our Godseed, our experience, and our world, and we let the Lifemaker do the rest. We can help the process, both in ourselves and in others. Just as the elementary-school teacher lined up our bean jars along the windowsill above the radiators, so we can bring our raw ingredients to the place of warmth and light. When it comes to spurring the desire for prayer, a warm place means an accepting, encouraging, and safe space. We place ourselves in a warm space and even generate warmth when we "befriend" the desires of our heart, accepting them just as they are and letting them come to consciousness, welcoming ourselves without judgment or denial or reproach. And we are warmed when we walk alongside others, listening with love and awe as they reveal their hearts' deepest desires and inner movements, trusting that we will understand, accept, and affirm them. Heart speaks to heart only where there is such warmth. And light? If there is any light to be shed, it doesn't come from us. We are like the planets, generating no light of our own, yet able--and called--to reflect the light of our Creator. This reflected light is needed if the bean is to come to life. Some of this light comes to us through the prayer-wisdom and practice of the centuries, which has illumined so many pilgrim paths before our own. We can never teach ourselves, or others, to pray, because prayer is a gift, but we can receive the light passed on to us from those who have made the journey of prayer ahead of us, and we, in our turn, can pass on something of that light to those who follow after. We can pass it on in the language and the images of our own times and of our own generation's experience of the world. The light, whether it comes directly from God to the praying heart or is reflected light shared by fellow pilgrims, reaches our Godseed through the glass of the jar. It travels to our hearts through the reality of the created world. The Godseed sprouts and grows right there in our experience, where it has its roots. The various approaches to prayer we will be exploring are firmly grounded in these two places: in our world and in our personal experience. And they are brought to life by the gifts of warmth and light: gifts that we receive from God and that we also give to each other and to ourselves. Given these conditions, we, like those seven-year-olds in my science class, will find ourselves once more approaching a miracle. But this time the life we see sprouting is the eternal life that God is calling into fullness in our hearts. Prayer, rooted firmly in where-we-are, yet striving for where-we-long-to-be, is the expression of that heart-call--God's call to us--and our response. We can see the miracle with our own eyes. We can watch it happening in our own jars. And once we have seen its beginnings in our hearts and have started to notice its effects in the way we live and relate to one another, we will know that we have tapped into the secret of Life. I hope, through this book, to offer a little warmth and a little light. The jar is all around us, in the created world in which we live and the political world in which we operate, with all its glory and its shame. You will need to bring along the blotting paper of your daily experience, soaked as it already is with the living water of God's Spirit that has been springing within you since your life began. You bring also your Godseed, of course--the bean that is uniquely and irreplaceably you among all the other fifty-seven times fifty-seven varieties. This Godseed is already sprouting and striving for all that it is becoming, in God. Equipped with these raw materials, we might explore together some ways of adventuring into personal prayer, enjoying the warmth of good companionship as we make this pilgrimage of the heart, and letting a little light shine in still undiscovered places. * TAKING IT FURTHER * Life is a bakery I once heard that "truth is delivered to us daily, fresh-baked in the ovens of our own experience." Try dwelling on the picture these words evoke for you. Try making friends with your "oven"--your everyday experience. Reflect on the possibility that the walls that seem to enclose you, the heat and frenzy that seem to stifle you, and the delays and frustrations that seem to hold you back may be the very means of revealing the truth that is already in your life. Sit still Allow yourself to be still for five or ten minutes, alone if possible, in a place where you feel comfortable. Relax and simply enjoy this time of being you, free for a while of the many demands on you by other people to fit into their plans and structures. Let yourself be like the bean, whose only purpose is to grow into what it really is. The internal blueprint Reflect on the innermost kernel that contains your unique, eternal blueprint. Can you recognize what or who is providing, or has ever provided, warmth and light for you? Perhaps you recall particular times and places that have made you feel especially alive. Or you remember particular people who have (perhaps quite unconsciously) spoken a word or sparked an idea or response in you that you now see was life-giving, or even life-changing. Let your memories float free. Enjoy them. Draw on the energy they have released in you. Allow them to be food for your journey.   2 Listening to God Receiving or transmitting?   When you listen with your soul, you come into rhythm and unity with the music of the universe. --JOHN O'DONOHUE, ANAM CARA-- SPIRITUAL WISDOM FROM THE CELTIC WORLD On my way to work, I pass a radio telescope. Every time I pass, it seems to be in a different position: sometimes flat, with its huge dish raised to the skies like a soup bowl, and sometimes almost upright, as if searching out some stray star that is just about to slip beyond the horizon. Sometimes I see it laboriously moving, its huge bulk creaking heavily up or down, left or right. Whenever I pass this telescope, it reminds me of prayer. Prayer can be pretty heavy-going too. Or so it seems, especially if we go at it in the ways so many of us were taught as children. Depending on your Christian tradition, you may have learned that, to be effective, prayer must be painful. Stiff limbs and aching knees were part of the package, and the rest was often a test of memory. Perhaps the worst of it was the awful sense of guilt that overcame you when you forgot (or willfully omitted) your prayers or found, at the end of prayer time, that you had been away in some fantasy and couldn't rightly remember what you had said. Perhaps I am projecting my shortcomings onto you. Maybe your early experience of prayer was entirely sa-tisfactory. A child who learns to pray in a parent's embrace, for example, has a head start when it comes to relating to a loving God. No matter how you learned to pray, you will have your own reasons for picking up this book and looking, perhaps, for some new approach to your personal life of prayer. Whatever those reasons are, I would like to invite you back to the radio telescope. It reminds me of the huge, complicated efforts we make to catch the signals of the stars. But it also reminds me that all we can do to receive God is direct our hearts towards God and trust him to do the rest. That satellite dish spells out for me a few simple ground rules: * Prayer is God's initiative, not our achievement. * Prayer is about listening more than about talking. * Prayer is about receiving more than about making requests. * Prayer is about coming to rest while pointed in God's direction. The satellite dish can do nothing more than direct itself toward the source of the signal. It can't force the signal to happen. All its efforts are directed toward receiving the signal and interpreting it in ways that mean something for life on Earth. Prayer is like that. We can open ourselves up to it and remain alert to it. We can receive it and reflect on what it means for our daily living. We can act on it and let it inform our choices and decisions. But we cannot force it, because prayer is God's gift, and, however carefully we prepare for it, it will always take us by surprise, which, after all, is what real gifts are supposed to do! And how might we set about opening ourselves up to receive God in this sort of way? I would suggest that we do this in exactly the same way as we would open our hearts to a dear friend. We listen. And we ask for the grace to listen with our full attention and with the trust and expectation that we would have in a conversation with our friend. To listen like this requires a degree of stillness and silence that doesn't always come naturally in our world of feverish and anxious activity and busyness. Ten Feet Down A friend once told me an interesting fact. During a storm at sea, the water ten feet below the trough of the highest wave is perfectly calm. The picture appealed to me, and it helps me come to prayer. Like most people, I live most of my life on the surface of myself. My conscious journey through a typical day is mainly occupied with the "waves." Sometimes they are manageable. Sometimes they reach storm force, and at the end of the day I feel exhausted and fraught. Yet this stillness, if my friend is right, lies just "ten feet down." That doesn't seem like an impossible depth to reach. Might we use this image for ourselves when we are seeking the stillness of heart in which prayer can happen? Through the ages, men and women have sought this close communion with God that we call prayer, and almost all traditions of faith and spiritual searching have realized that prayer depends on stillness. The purpose of stilling ourselves is to bring us down to the deeper currents of our hearts. Here we can notice what we are really feeling, what is moving us at this level of our being, and where these feelings and movements come from. And it is precisely in those deep currents that God is speaking to our hearts, revealing our innermost desires and fears to us, inviting us to reach toward our truest desires and to surrender our fears and hurts to God's healing. Surrender! A challenging word and an act of faith in itself. Because when we still ourselves and sink ten feet down, we are acknowledging that we are not our own managers. We are acknowledging that our surface thoughts and preoccupations--and even our images of God and notions of how prayer ought to be--can be obstacles to our meeting with God in the furthest reaches of ourselves. Prayer is an act of surrender. It asks us to let go of our own agenda and listen to God. When we surrender, we take a risk. We make ourselves open to God's suggestions. We do so in an act of faith, trusting that God will pour himself into our stillness and fill us with his Spirit. When this happens, we can no more predict the consequences than the astronomer can specify in advance what the skies will reveal through the telescope and what implications those revelations may have for life on Earth. This is the cost, and the adventure, of the inner journey. Tuning In Once it is in the right position, the telescope becomes passive; it simply waits there, open and receptive. There is really only one active moment in this whole procedure: The telescope needs to be focused on the place where the signal is expected to be found. This question of focusing lies, I believe, at the heart of prayer. When you are engaged in an intimate conversation with a friend, you will probably not be gazing out of the window or concentrating on the state of your fingernails or reading the newspaper. You will more likely be looking at your friend eye to eye. And you won't even be aware that you are focusing so deeply on your friend, because your attention is no longer on yourself and on how well you are doing in the interchange, but on your friend and what he or she is revealing to you. This is often a fundamental difference between the ways we have learned to pray and the kind of prayer that is truly directed toward God. There is prayer that centers around my words, my petitions, what I want God to do for me. And there is prayer that sinks into stillness and surrenders to God. This book suggests some ways of coming to this deep stillness and explores some ways of focusing our hearts on God. And we may discover that we are no longer "saying our prayers" but, rather, listening to them. As we sink into this focused stillness, the teeming questions that normally fill our minds are gradually relinquished as our own efforts lessen and our receptivity sharpens. No longer: "Where am I? What is happening to me? How must I do things?" But simply: "Be still, and know that I am God" (Psalm 46:10 KJV). * TAKING IT FURTHER * Find a sacred space At this early stage in our explorations, the most important thing is the discovery of our own inner stillness. This is the quiet place in our hearts where God can speak to us and where we can listen and hear. Try remembering a place and a time where you have been deeply happy and at peace. Let the scene come back to you. Remember where it was, what the weather was like, what season of the year it was. Were you alone or with someone else? Feel the sun, or the rain, again on your cheeks. Smell the scents of the place. Hear its sounds. Go back there in your imagination, quite deliberately, and be quiet with your memories for a few minutes. In your own way, express your gratitude to God for this remembered experience. Invite God to come to you again in that memory and to make that place a sacred space for you. A sacred space is quite simply a space where you can become more fully aware of God's presence. These few minutes that you have spent with your memory are prayer. Be still, in the recognition that you have met God in your sacred space. Your telescope has come to rest in a place where it feels focused on God. Perhaps you have come into this exercise thinking, I can't pray. Now savor the joy of discovering that you can pray, and that it didn't hurt at all! Now that you have discovered a sacred space in your memory and in your heart, return to it as often as you feel drawn to do so. This could be in a time of reflection on the bus going to work, in the grocery checkout line, or over the kitchen sink. Go back to your space, but as you do so, ask God to meet you there. He is the One who first gave you the experience you have just remembered. Show God your joy in receiving it. Your own joy is only a fraction of his joy in receiving your response. If you doubt this, remember how you have felt when you have given a child a gift and the child responded happily. In such a situation, whose joy is greater--yours or the child's? If you practice this stilling exercise whenever you can, in all of the frenzy, you are sure to notice little pockets of calm. Your days will have been touched by prayer. Depending on your circumstances, you might like to find a corner of your home or maybe another spot where you feel at ease and where you can be alone. If you can, make this little corner into a prayer space. The space might have more significance to you if you place a candle there or a cross, picture, or flowers and your Bible. This will become your focal point for a set-aside time of prayer. Don't worry if this doesn't seem to be possible. Not all families offer individual family members the luxury of this kind of privacy! If this isn't for you, there are many other ways of marking a place in your life as prayer space. Try putting some small reminder of your desire for God in the car or on your desk or in the kitchen with the detergents or on the bathroom shelf. It doesn't have to be anything religious. It may be much more powerful as a symbol if it is something ordinary that expresses your personal relationship with God. For my birthday one year, my daughter gave me a little string hammock cradling a furry toy. I have it hanging on the window by my desk. Other people may see it as a toy, but for me it is a reminder that I am held in God's unfailing love. When things get frantic, it nudges me to see myself in that cradling hammock of God's love. Little things like this are ways of returning to prayer over and over again, right in the middle of "real life." Satellite dish This second exercise is intended to help you turn the dish of your inner telescope toward God (and, therefore, away from yourself). This may sound easy, but actually it is very difficult to wrench the focus away from self and toward the other, whether the other is God or a human person. It is hard because it means facing our human tendency to relate to others in terms of how they are affecting us. Some people make us feel good. Some disturb us, annoy us, or antagonize us. Some seem well-meaning, and others seem to want to undermine us. If we look at these sorts of feelings toward others, we have to admit that they are about "how we feel." Empathy lies at the heart of all true listening. Empathy is, I believe, about making that radical switch of focus from "I" to the "other." If we can really feel as the other feels, if, as the old saying goes, we can "walk a mile in his shoes," then we are beginning to learn to focus our hearts and to love with God's love. So the exercise is this: Try noticing one or two of the conversations or personal encounters you have each day. It doesn't matter whether the other people are friendly or not-so-friendly. Just become aware of them. Begin by reflecting on one or two encounters each day before you go to sleep. (With practice you may be able to develop this awareness at the time of the conversation.) Ask yourself: Where was my focus, for the most part, during this conversation? On myself or on the other person? A word of warning: Don't be discouraged if you find over and over again that the focus is mainly on yourself. Welcome to the human race! Almost no one practices real empathy in their dealings with others. But we can learn to do so, and our finest teacher is Jesus. Try reflecting on one or two Gospel incidents. Let Jesus show you how he relates to others; notice especially where his focus is in these conversations: * Matthew 14:22-33. Jesus walks on the water. Notice what happens to Peter's focus here. * Matthew 19:13-15. Jesus is with the little children. Where is Jesus' focus? Where is the focus of the dis-ciples? * Luke 18:35-43. Where is the blind man's focus? How does Jesus change this? Reflect especially on verse 41: "What do you want me to do for you?" Do you have a relationship in which you feel empathy (at least from time to time)? In the better moments of family life, for example, a person may genuinely feel the pain or the joy of a child or of an elderly relative; in doing so, the empathic person is able to go beyond his or her own interests. John the Baptist realized this need for complete refocusing when he said, in John 3:30: "He must grow greater, I must grow less." Find and treasure any moments of empathy in your daily experience--your empathy with another or another person's empathy with you--and ask God to imprint on your heart how it feels when you are relating to another person in this way. You may discover gifts in the day, such as the phone call from someone who cares enough to ask how you really are or that lurch of pain inside you when you hear a child being unjustly harangued by an overwrought parent. Such moments lead us to empathy, to genuine "holy listening." These moments point us to the heart of God.   Excerpted from Close to the Heart: A Guide to Personal Prayer by Margaret Silf All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.