How I Pray: Steven D. Greydanus

sdgSteven D. Greydanus is Catholicism’s premiere contemporary film critic. Through his website, Decent Films; his work for the National Catholic Register, Catholic Digest, Crux, and others; and his TV show Reel Faith, he offers intelligent film criticism that is informed by both faith and a sure aesthetic sense.  

Read more entries in the How I Pray series.

Who are you?

I’m a convert to the Catholic faith by way of, oh, Evangelicalism, Anglicanism and other things. And, of course, I’m a guy who loves a) watching movies, b) thinking, talking and writing about them, and c) trying to help equip other people to think about them more deeply.

What is your vocation?

Beyond the universal human vocations of love and beatitude, I have two particular vocations. The first, for going on 24 years, is my lady Suzanne, and also our seven children. The other, God willing, will be official next year: For 3½ years I’ve been involved in the formation program for the permanent diaconate in the Archdiocese of Newark, and we have a little over a year till ordination.

What is your prayer routine for an average day?

Routine is absolutely vital in prayer, though it’s also important to make room for non-routine forms of prayer. I’ll say more about this below.

As a permanent deacon I’ll be obliged to pray the Divine Office (Liturgy of the Hours) every day, at least morning and evening prayer, so I’m trying to make that the foundation of my daily prayer routine, still very imperfectly.

The Jesus Prayer is important to me, and I try to pray it at odd moments throughout the day — getting up from my desk or sitting down to work, for instance. The Jesus Prayer is the default universal personal prayer in Eastern Christianity, but too few Western Christians pray it regularly.

The form I use is “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” I know you, Tom, like to aspirate the Jesus Prayer in four beats; I find it helpful to pray it in a single breath and a single thought, with no commas.

The Rosary is the backbone of our family devotions, and twice a week my family pray a Jesus Prayer chaplet following the structure of the Rosary; more on this below.

How well do you achieve it, and how do you handle the moments when you don’t?

I wish I had a better answer to this! It’s a work in progress, especially the Divine Office — which I love when I do it. When I fall short, any prayer is better than none, so I try to do something, anything. I talk about it to my confessor and spiritual director.

Do you have a devotion that is particularly important to you or effective?

I’m not sure how well I can explain this, but I’ve found great value in meditating on the Blessed Sacrament specifically with respect to the Eucharistic species, i.e., the appearances of bread and wine.

So much Catholic devotion links us to Jesus in his transcendence, or to images and language filtered through the perceptions of centuries of devotion and development. It helps me to ground my faith historically to look at the elements on the altar and think, “Here we are using wheat bread and grape wine for this ritual meal, just as Jesus did 2000 years ago.”

The nature of the elements also speak to the nature of Jesus’ Eucharistic gift to us, and the gift he wants us to be to others: He gives himself to us as food and drink, for us to take into ourselves, to be sustenance and strength to us; we give ourselves to him, and he assimilates us into his body, making us into him; as he pours out himself to us, so we should pour ourselves out for one another.

Do you have a place, habit or way of praying?

Our bedroom for evening family prayers. The car. Our parish’s perpetual adoration chapel, where I customarily spend an hour a week.

Do you use any tools or sacramental?

I’ve tried a number of iPhone apps for the Liturgy of the Hours. I’ve recently started using DivineOffice because it has an audio feature that I can use to pray the Divine Office driving to and from work — not ideal, but often the best solution for me right now.

What is your relationship with the Rosary?

We pray the Rosary as a family every weeknight. For years we prayed it seven nights a week, then on weekends we began praying a chaplet based on the Jesus Prayer, but following the structure of the Rosary. I wanted the Jesus Prayer to be a regular part of my kids’ prayer routine. (I’ll describe this below.)

In my own experience, the key to the Rosary, for me, is not just meditating on the mysteries, but beginning with the mysteries in the foreground, as it were, and backgrounding the prayers. St. Louis de Montfort’s motto “To Jesus through Mary” only works for me if I think of it as “To Jesus with Mary.” So I approach the mysteries, as it were, with the Blessed Mother by my side.

We try to avoid what I call “devotion creep,” i.e., the tendency of extra devotions to accumulate, like adding more and more beads to a string that already has enough beads — particularly when you have a number of young kids with limited attention spans. We pray the decades without the Fatima Prayer, and though we pray the Fatima Prayer once a week, on Fridays. We usually only pray the Hail Holy Queen and the Prayer to St. Michael on Fridays as well.

Our Jesus Prayer chaplet — which I’ll describe here because you can pray them on rosary beads — follows the same five-decade structure, as follows:

We open with the Divine Praises (with its Trinitarian structure, like the Creed). Each decade is the Jesus Prayer ten times, with an opening Our Father and a closing Glory Be. Since we don’t split up the Jesus Prayer, we alternate: I say one, the family says the next, and so on.

Instead of a mystery narrative structure, we meditate on verses from psalms, the Gospels or epistles that I read or recite from memory. Our closing prayer is a sung setting of the Trisagion (“Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal, have mercy on us”) that we picked up in a Melkite Catholic parish.

Are there any books or spiritual works that are important in your devotional life?

Different books have been important to me at different times. In my youth I greatly benefited from A. W. Tozer’s The Pursuit of God. A short collection of excerpts of spiritual letters by the 18th-century Archbishop François Fénelon published under the name Let Go was a foundational source for me. While I haven’t read either in decades, what lessons I absorbed from them have become part of my spiritual DNA, as it were.

Other books I’ve valued since then include Unseen Warfare (a Russian Orthodox revision of a Roman Catholic devotional work — Lorenzo Scupoli’s Spiritual Combat, as revised by Thophan the Recluse); Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales; Christian Meditation by Hans Urs von Balthasar; and various writings of Joseph Ratzinger and John Paul II.

What is your most recent spiritual or devotional reading?

This is an odd answer, but I’m going to say The Beginning of Wisdom by Leon Kass. It’s not spiritual or devotional reading in the usual sense — it’s an exploration of the book of Genesis written from a philosophical rather than a specifically theological or religious perspective — but anything that opens up a new perspective on God’s word and on the human condition can be an occasion of spiritual or devotional edification, and I found that to be the case here.

If you want a more conventional answer, it would be Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, which I am rereading for one of my seminary classes.

Are there saints or other figures who inspire your prayer life or act as patrons?

Not specifically in my prayer life, I don’t think. St. Stephen, Thomas More, Francis de Sales, Francis Xavier, Therese of Lisieux and Edith Stein are all of special importance to me.

Have you had any unusual or even miraculous experiences as a result of your prayer life?

Nothing I’d call miraculous, no. Not that I’m comfortable talking about. I’ve had striking experiences of what I would call divine leading and answers to prayer, but all well within the bounds of the providential.

I would like to see _______________ answer these questions.

Amy Welborn and Al Kresta.

Anything else you’d like to add?

As I mentioned above, I think it’s important to looking for ways of incorporating prayer habits into one’s life beyond the routine of particular prayers at particular times.

One fruitful way of doing this involves mental associations involving an event or experience that one takes as a cue to pray, often for someone or something in particular. I mentioned an example above: praying the Jesus prayer when I happen to get up from my desk or sit down to work. Getting in or out of the car is another good opportunity for this kind of association: Strap on the seat belt, make the sign of the cross. Unstrap the seat belt, do it again. Some people pray at red lights.

If the sign of the cross, made with devotion, can be a prayer, so can other gestures. I’ve often noticed my father, driving past a cemetery, silently raise a fist in a symbolic gesture of defiance of the last enemy, death. I’ve never asked him about it, but I’m sure he’s thinking about, and probably praying for, his parents and other departed loved ones. I expect when he dies I will adopt that gesture on his behalf, and passing cemeteries will become an occasion for me to pray for him and other departed loved ones. (I could do it now, of course. I just haven’t.)

One can also pray in pictures. I find this helpful, for instance, in that split second when I hear car tires screeching nearby and don’t have time to form an intention in words, or even an abstract intention. I find that my imagination works faster, so I pray a picture: I imagine an angel standing between that car and whatever it might hit, and hold that picture up to God. Then in the seconds afterward I form the more abstract intention for the safety and care in driving of the drivers involved and everyone around them, and for drivers in general and all those around them.

Casting about while writing for a name for this practice of cultivating prayer associations with particular events or experiences, I tried out “prayer triggers” — a phrase so obvious I’m not surprised to find, via Google, that many other people have come up with the same term. (If for some reason the word “trigger” doesn’t work for you, you can think of them as “prayer prompts” instead.)

Years ago I began combining the practice of prayer triggers or prompts with a concept Catholics often talk about: “offering up” sufferings or sacrifices as a form of penitential prayer. I began doing this in response to a mental phenomenon I suppose most or all of us are familiar with: that occasional, wincing stab that comes with a random memory flickering through one’s mind of some painful past event, often involving someone we hurt or wronged.

When I feel that inner wince at some random memory of someone I hurt or wronged, I try to take the occasion as an opportunity to offer up a quick prayer for the person I hurt, “offering up” and even embracing the discomfort of the memory itself on their behalf. It’s the best thing I can think of to do with these moments — and, for what it’s worth, in my experience it tends to blunt their sting, and eventually they surface less often.

Not all triggers in my prayer life are ones I’ve deliberately fostered; some simply happen. Decades ago I discovered that if my mind wanders at Mass during the Eucharistic prayer, for some reason the name of Mary in the words “we honor Mary, the ever-virgin mother of Jesus” snaps me back to attention. (It probably started when I was a young Catholic and still unused to hearing Mary invoked like this, and then it became a self-perpetuating phenomenon.) At that point I simply try to go back to fully deliberate participation, with gratitude to the Blessed Virgin.