Summary of Opening to God: A Guide to Prayer by Thomas Green

The purpose of this book

  • “The purpose of this book is to describe the life of prayer, at least in its initial stages, for those who truly want to learn to pray. It thus attempts to be not an attempt to convince the doubter of the value of prayer (necessary and valuable as such a book might be today), nor a suggested technique for praying, but what might be called today a phenomenology of prayer – i.e., a description of the way the Lord actually seems to work, and the type of response He seems to desire, in the lives of men and women to whom he chooses to reveal Himself” (23-4).

1: What Prayer Is

“Prayer is a personal encounter with God in love” (Thomas Green)

  • “Personal encounter with God”: “Prayer is experienced and is utterly personal. There is no single method of prayer and no one way to encounter God” (19). God’s part = He always initiates the encounter as a free gift of grace (cf. Jn 15:16, 3:8, Rm 8:26). Our part = we must open ourselves to Him (to “listen well”) by using both our minds and our hearts – since we cannot love what we do not know.
  • “in love”: “The important thing (in prayer) is not to think much but to love much: do, then, whatever most arouses you to love” (St. Teresa of Avila). The goal of prayer is to encounter God in love. And love, as Teresa goes on to say “consists, not in the extent of our happiness, but in the firmness of our determination to try to please God in everything.” For the pray-er, it is the heart that matters that most because the pray-er is a lover.

2: The Irrelevance of Prayer

Prayer is irrelevant in the same way that love is irrelevant.

  • “There is an important sense in which prayer is, and must be irrelevant. If by relevant we mean useful as a means to accomplish our ends, then prayer is no more relevant than human love” (41)… Imagine if a couple madly in love with each other asked the question: “What is the relevance of our love for each other?” “Love is not relevant – timely, opportune, pertinent, useful. Once lovers begin to ask these questions their love has become an object to be examined and not an experience to be lived” (37).

3: The Relevance of Prayer

Prayer is also supremely relevant because it is essential for discernment.

Since we are called to be mature Christians, this demands that we take responsibility for the specific faith-decisions which determine the direction of our lives – these decisions can only be reached in prayer. This is the art of discernment, something that is learned only by doing. There are no shortcuts here. Just as two people who love each other gradually become experts at interpreting the moods, wishes, hopes and fears of the one they love, so too it is with us in our relationship with God – we learn His likes and dislikes, His desires for us and for the world gradually through prayer.

“When I pray, how do I know that it is God I am talking to and not just myself?” 

  1. Scripture – The basic touchstone of all good discernment is scripture. This is the place where we come to know Jesus and discover the pattern for how to live our lives as Christians. Therefore, meditation on scripture is essential to know God’s will.
  2. Peace – “A second basic rule of discernment for the beginner is the following: for those who are sincerely seeking to serve and love God, He always works in peace, and usually slowly” (51). Ask yourself: “How do I feel about this discernment situation when I am most at peace? – When I am at prayer and quiet and most open to whatever the Lord wants?” (51). Also, God also works usually slowly. This certainly is the pattern of Jesus’ formation with the apostles, and it seems to be the lesson of the history of the Church. There are no shortcuts to holiness… God chooses to work slowly, and we must have great patience, with him and with ourselves, on the road to holiness (52).
  3. Spiritual direction – “A final rule for the beginner is this: Real growth in knowledge of God and sensitivity to His will normally require a good spiritual director… it is important to make it a guiding principle of attunement to God that we must be open to hear Him through His human instruments” (53).  … Although it is not entirely true that he who guides himself has a fool for a guide… it is undoubtedly true that he who listens only to himself has a fool for a hearer (53). … In important matters, a good spiritual director is essential, especially for beginners. He will act as a co-discerner in helping us interpret what God is saying to us in the concrete events of our lives. The goal of good direction is the formation of mature and responsible Christians, who can properly discern the Lord’s word to them (53).

4: The Techniques of Prayer

There are no techniques for making God speak.

  • “We cannot turn God on and off like a water faucet or an electric light… So radical is our dependence on the good pleasure of the Lord that we cannot even desire to pray unless God draws us. Even the beginnings are sheer gift. Hence no techniques of “meditation,” be they yogic or transcendental or Ignatian, can ever guarantee an encounter with the Lord” (59).
  • “There are no techniques that guarantee an encounter with the Lord. He is Lord, and His coming to us is sheer gift” (68).

But we can speak of techniques insofar as ways that we can cooperate with God’s grace. 

  • “Think of this in terms of listening to a radio or TV program. God is the Broadcaster. Our minds and hearts are the receiving sets… I must get away from or block out other competing noises – this is coming to quiet – and I must turn on and tune in the radio or TV – this is positively disposing myself to hear. Neither will produce the sound if the station is not broadcasting, but both are necessary if I am to hear whatever is being broadcast” (61).
1. Techniques for coming to quiet

Techniques for bringing ourselves to stillness and peace in which the voice of God can be heard (“a still, small voice” (1 Kings 19:11-13) is the principal effort for the beginner in prayer – a major achievement in today’s world.

It is in coming to quiet that the techniques of yoga and Zen can be of help to the pray-er:

  • A mantra – repeating a formula quietly and slowly, can help you quiet down before the Lord.
  • The Rosary and Divine Office – See these as ways of coming to quiet before the Lord – of being reminded of His love and providence at certain pivotal moments of the day, rather than as a source of new ideas about God and His place in our lives (64). This can help overcome the monotony that might plague you.
  • Relaxation techniques – Another helpful method that psychologists use is to concrete on each body part and intentionally relax it until our whole body is relaxed. This can also help reveal where our real tension or disquiet is.
  • Gaze at beauty – Another tip is to go out in nature and let your eyes wander over the entire panoramic scene, with no concern for time or forcing concentration. Then allow yourself to focus on a single experience and then dive deeper and deeper into that one reality (eg. the universe in a blade of grass or a flower).

Keep in mind that, for the Christian, this is only a preliminary step.

  • “As we grow and mature in prayer, we will be able to come to quiet more quickly and more easily. In fact, if we are faithful to prayer, we will find a natural drawing to quiet as the state where we are most at home. This takes time, and the beginner may have to exert long effort to mature in this way – but it is important to remember that it is only the beginning. The effort to come to quiet is not in itself prayer. The time will come when the gazer must close his eyes, when the background music must be turned off, when the stroller must sit still and the pray-er of ejaculations must keep silent – the time, that is, to “be still, and know that I am God” (Ps 46:10).
2. Techniques for positively disposing ourselves to encounter the Lord = “the active purification of the soul” (St. John of the Cross)

The active purification of the soul refers to what we must do in order to open ourselves to encounter God.

  • “God helps those who do what they can to help themselves” (St. John of the Cross)

“Just as a broken radio set cannot pick up the broadcast, so too a broken soul cannot hear God. Sinful man must first be healed, “repaired,” purified, before the voice of the Lord can truly penetrate his spirit” (69).

  • “John of the Cross expresses it beautifully by means of the famous metaphor of the log of wood being transformed into fire (cf. The Living Flame of Love, book 1, #16). As the wood burns, it becomes blackened, it cracks and steams, and all the knotholes and flaws are exposed. If the log could speak it would cry out: “My seeking to become fire was a mistake! I am now worse than I was when I started – black, ugly and flawed. I was better off before.” The log is the soul and the fire is God. And the truth, of course, is that the log is not worse off than it was before. All the ugliness and defects were present before but thy were concealed. The only way the log can become fire is to be revealed honestly and openly as what it is in itself. The process is painful but, contrary to appearances, it is the mark of real growth in union with God. That is why good souls who are making real progress often feel they are regressing and getting further from God” (81).

In order to encounter God in love, we must, with the help of His grace, purify in ourselves whatever makes us unworthy of standing in His presence. In other words, we must be free from all conflicting inordinate attachments and disordered desires in order to be free for God.

Fr. Green recommends the following: 

#1: Meditation on Scripture

Meditation is “taking time to learn who this God is whom we are drawn to love, what He stands for, what He values, what it would mean to be His friend” (86).

  • Meditation is the use of our understanding to discover who God is – to learn to know Him more fully in order that we may love Him more deeply and follow Him more faithfully.

The primary source for meditation should be Scripture since it was written so that we may come to know God in and through Jesus Christ.

  • Meditating on Scripture should be seen as a time of courtship in our relationship with the Lord. Since love depends upon knowledge, meditation on the scripture is an essential first step to genuine prayer.
  • In preparing to pray with Scripture, remember that good preparation (time, place, passage, prayers) is whatever most helps us to pray well – whatever most moves us to love God.
  • In praying with Scripture, we discover both what God reveals of Himself in the person of Jesus and how God is revealing Himself to us today in the events of our lives.
  • Keep in mind though that meditation is the beginning of a good prayer life – a means to an end and not the end in itself, which is to encounter God in love.
  • “Another caution: fruitful meditation or contemplation is an art, and thus is not so much taught as it is learned by experience. Although we use our own faculties of reasoning and imagination, the knowledge we seek is ultimately God’s gift” (97).

Since the heart of prayer is an encounter with God in love, we should always end our prayer with a colloquy or conversation with the Lord.

  • Gradually the colloquy will become more spontaneous, more natural, and the very substance of our prayer time, as knowledge gives way to love. Then there will be less and less need for meditation or contemplation. Our primary need will be to be with the Lord, whom we have come to know and love – and that, as we have said, is the essence of prayer (96).
#2: Penance

“All the saints have recognized that there is no genuine holiness, no solid spirituality, without penance” (76). Penance is never an end in itself. It is always a means to an end, and it must be chosen as any good means is chosen – insofar as it helps to achieve the end in view (76).

As embodied spirits, our spiritual acts need to be incarnated, enfleshed, sacramentalized. Bodily penance is a visible sign of an inner attitude.

Therefore, always be clear why you are doing a particular penance and always choose a penance which is best suited to accomplish your goal.

St. Ignatius outlines 3 legitimate reasons for doing penance:

  1. make satisfaction for our sins – to show by some visible sign (both word and deed) your sorrow for wounding love;
  2. to help overcome our selfish inclinations – to act against the natural inclination you wish to correct;
  3. as a form of prayer – to obtain some grace or gift that you earnestly desire.
#3: The general examination of conscience

If we wish to overcome our faults, it is a great help to focus our attention upon them – to be aware of how and when we fail, and to note any progress we make in diminishing the frequency of failure. At the same time, it’s a work of grace in which we ask God to help us see ourselves, our sinfulness, as he sees us, and also in the sense that it is a call for his healing power to work in our lives.

4. The particular examination of conscience

The particular examen “is a review of how I have done during the day in the one specific area where my failures seem most to block the genuine encounter with God which I seek. This is a powerful channel of grace, exposing to the Lord your precise area of weakness.

  • When we resolve to live a good life, we soon realize that our failings are many. In the face of potential discouragement, we must realize that “it is far better to light one small candle than to sit cursing the darkness.
  • This is the idea of the divide and conquer principle – single out our failings and work on them one by one. Don’t expect to change everything at once, but work and pray to change one thing at a time, beginning with those failings which most impede our growth” (80).
5. The Sacrament of Penance

This is the means, par excellence, to the active purification of the soul… it is essential to any genuine growth in holiness in the Church… see it as a means to liberation and growth – and not as a mere laundry list of sins (82).

Active purification of the soul leads to genuine self-knowledge:

“Genuine self-knowledge is a necessary means to and concomitant of a true encounter with God in love” (82). “True knowledge of God always goes hand in hand with a painful self-knowledge” (81).

  • “The basic principle of purification is that knowledge of self and knowledge of God go hand in hand. We cannot come to a deeper knowledge of God without, at the same time, coming to a profound realization of who we ourselves really are… It is a painful process to come to see ourselves truly, but “the truth will make you free” (John 8:32)” (72, 73).

5: Key proof to genuine prayer

“The principal proof of the genuineness of our prayer – the evidence that we are on the right track despite the darkness – will be the growth in us of the fruits of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).

  • “If we are growing in these, then our prayer is genuine and we are on the right road. To possess them perfectly, by the working of the Holy Spirit in us, is the goal of our prayer” (104).

6: The goal of prayer

“The goal of all good prayer, no matter how elementary or how advanced it may be, is to transform our lives, to deepen and strengthen our love of God in action. Whatever our stage of interior growth may be, the growth in the fruits of the Spirit is the only touchstone of genuine prayer” (106).

  • “The goal of the life of prayer – the fruits of the Spirit grounded in a true knowledge of who God is and who I am” (108).

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