Some years ago I met with a friend on several occasions to talk about prayer. The more we interacted, the more I realized that he knew much more about the subject than I.
Sensing that he was a gentle man, I made myself vulnerable by asking, "John, what do you think I need for spiritual growth?"
He responded without hesitation, "Alex, what you need is a more personal relationship with Jesus."
The words stung. At the time, I was an American Baptist pastor serving as a Navy chaplain. My Sunday sermons regularly urged men and women to receive Jesus so that they could enter into a vital relationship with him. In fact, I had invited Jesus into my life 23 years before because I specifically wanted to know God personally. I had even become a Baptist mainly because that denomination emphasizes a personal relationship with the Lord. Despite all of this, I was being told that what I valued most highly ... my relationship with Christ ... was somehow deficient.
My pride had been hurt, but even more disturbing and puzzling to me was that this critique came from a Roman Catholic priest. John was Father John McAnulty, S.J. (Society of Jesus), director of the House of Prayer for Priests in Los Angeles, California. And even though I considered John a spiritual man, I found myself wondering (unfairly) "What do Catholics know about a personal relationship with God?"
I had arrived at the House of Prayer for Priests that afternoon feeling spiritually complacent. His comment had left me flustered. I wasn’t sure I could agree with or trust his assessment.
But in the days that followed, John’s words kept coming back to me, and my heart kept telling me that his evaluation was correct. The honeymoon experience of joy that had been mine when I’d first received Jesus into my life had largely faded. I had to admit that I was not experiencing intimacy with God. Also significant to me was the realization that despite the many books I had read, seminars I had attended, and training I had received, I wasn’t sure how to revitalize my relationship with Christ nor how to deepen and enrich it.
It took me a couple of weeks before I was ready to call John and ask if he would help me develop a closer relationship with Jesus. He suggested an eight-day retreat in which he would guide me through The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. That retreat, with its focus on praying over the ministry, teachings, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus, turned out to be an extremely significant experience. John exposed me to new forms of prayer, helped me become more sensitive to the leadership of the Holy Spirit in prayer, and guided me into a deeper experience of intimacy with Jesus. These were blessings I wanted to share with the Navy men and women whom I served.
I asked Father McAnulty if he would function as my supervisor as I directed five sailors, a sailor’s wife, and a chaplain in Ignatius’ Exercises. The plan was to stretch the eight-day retreat with five prayer periods each day into eight weeks of prayer training with one prayer period each day. This would serve as my doctor of ministry dissertation project at Fuller Theological Seminary. He agreed, commenting that Ignatius intended his Exercises to be used for persons in various states of life, including those who could not separate themselves from their employment for a private retreat.
When I completed the project 20 years ago, several persons read my dissertation, Spiritual Direction: A Project Modeled on St. Ignatius’ Exercises,1 and urged me to write this book. They believed the public would be interested in its teachings. But I did not feel ready. There was too much I still needed to learn.
At the time, I was serving as senior pastor of the Union Church of Manila, an international, interdenominational church in the Philippines. During my five years there, I taught the prayer material, refining and tailoring it for members of our church, for missionaries from a variety of mission organizations, and for seminary students at the Asian Theological Seminary. I always received an enthusiastic response.
From Union Church of Manila, I was called to serve as senior pastor at Kenwood Baptist Church, Cincinnati, Ohio. My 12 years there gave me additional time to develop and refine what I have come to call "Devotional Prayer," which I am now recommending in this book.
There is no shortage of books on prayer, but the books, in and of themselves, seem to do little to improve one’s prayer life. Susan Wise Bauer, in her Christianity Today article "The Myth of a Better Prayer Life," laments that "Bagfuls [sic] of books on this subject showed me I wasn’t struggling alone."2 These Christian writings, she concluded, seem almost interchangeable. She found many beneficial explanations regarding prayer, but reading the books made little difference in her prayer life. Bauer concluded by saying that she was searching for a partner in prayer. She was praying for a spiritual director who would be "a wise and mature companion in prayer."3
For 20 years, I have served as a spiritual guide to a variety of people largely on a one-on-one basis and have tried to be the kind of partner in prayer that Bauer described: "a wise and mature companion in prayer." Since I cannot personally serve as your guide, I have written this book to assist you in prayer. My book not only explains the types of prayers you will be using and the skills you will need, but, unlike most books on prayer, it coaches you over an eight-week period through a series of interactive prayer exercises. This written guide or curriculum is for individual or group use. It can be used most effectively by meeting once a week with a mentor or spiritual tutor or someone who has gone through the eight weeks of prayer training in this book. However, if such person is not available, the book has been written so that you can proceed on your own, using the book as your personal spiritual guide.
Perhaps your relationship with God has grown distant, even cold, as mine had. Like so many others, you may never have been taught how to experience and nurture intimacy with the Lord. Even though you may be a faithful follower of Jesus ... attending church, involving yourself in various religious activities, perhaps even having a consistent "quiet time" ... the intimacy of daily communion with Christ is missing. If you see yourself in any of these descriptions and want to deepen your relationship with Christ and experience intimate communion with him, this book is for you.