Q: Dear Father John, in the first part of your book, The Better Part, you mention something about preparing for tomorrow’s meditation the night before. I also heard that mentioned by a priest giving us a talk during a retreat. Can you explain this a little bit more? What do you mean, exactly, and is that something just for religious and priests, or should I be doing it too?
A: It seems to me that your question is being asked in direct response to the nudging of the Holy Spirit. You have noticed references to the “preparation of points” (as spiritual writers often refer to it) in two different contexts, and it has made you curious. That’s usually how the Holy Spirit tries to get our attention. I will do my best to give you some clarity.
Reasons for Getting Ready
Let’s start with an analogy. If you are going on a car trip to a place you have never been before, what’s the first thing you do? You look up the directions (unless you have a GPS, that is, but for the sake of argument, let’s say you don’t). And as you look them up, you jot down the key landmarks: get onto I-95 going north, take exit 78 towards Clintonville, turn right at the Gulf station… Once you start your trip, you keep the direction handy, referring to them now and again as you head towards your destination. They do not take the place of your journey; they are an aid to a smooth journey, one in which you don’t get lost.
The “preparation of points” for our meditation is like jotting down the directions for your meditation. It’s a longstanding practice used not only by priests and religious, but also by lay people – by anyone who is striving for greater depth and consistency in their life of mental prayer. It’s based on an extremely realistic principle, namely, that we rarely (if ever) find ourselves in the perfect circumstances for prayer. Usually, in fact, mental prayer is quite demanding. Not only do we have to keep our worries, agendas, and to-do lists on the back burner during the meditation (and they tend to throw tantrums when we don’t pay attention to them), but often we also have to battle against physical tiredness or discomfort, external noise, and even the wily distractions of the devil. This helps explains why persevering in prayer is challenging. It also helps explain why so many well-intentioned Christians never advance beyond the most elementary level of mental prayer – the onslaught of obstacles impedes their forward progress. The preparation of points is one proven tactic to help us deal more effectively with all these obstacles.
Here’s how it works. In the evening, or at night before you go to sleep, take five minutes to prepare for your next day’s meditation. Do it the night before, even if you won’t be doing your meditation until midday or tomorrow evening (though it is highly recommended to try and get our meditation in before we launch into the day’s busy-ness). During those five minutes do the following:
- Gather the materials you will need for your meditation, e.g., your notebook or spiritual journal, your crucifix, plus whatever book or text that you will be meditating on (your Bible, a missalette, a book of meditations…). Getting all this together the night before helps assure you will be able to get started without delay when tomorrow’s meditation time comes along.
- In your notebook or journal, jot down (it helps immensely to write things down at this point, even if you only write down key words – it focuses your mind now, and it will help focus your mind tomorrow, when the distractions or tiredness try to sidetrack you) the “points” of your meditation.
- The first point (and the most important one to call to mind the night before) is usually the fruit you are seeking in your meditation. This is tied in with your program of life, with the needs of your soul, with the virtues you are focusing your spiritual work on. For example, my fruit could be “to deepen my conviction that God is my Father who loves me with an everlasting love.” Sometimes the fruit can be stated in the form of a petition: “Lord, help me to see and to believe more firmly in your love for me.” This is the grace you are seeking in your meditation. It is in light of this grace that you have chosen whatever book or text you are using to help your meditation, and the other “points” that you may want to jot down are drawn from that text. You can read quickly over some or all of the text you will be meditating on, and if something strikes you, write down a key word – this is a “point” of meditation. If nothing strikes you, you can still write down some thoughts that will help get you into your meditation the next day. For example, you can write down an intention: “Offer this meditation for Jerry, who has surgery this week.” Or you can write down a reminder: “Finish the meditation by praying Psalm 22 slowly, using it to renew my confidence in God.” The points of meditation, when we write them down, become points of reference during the meditation, anchors that keep us focused as the waves of distraction and exhaustion pull us in a hundred different directions.
- As you jot down your points, try to avoid being to elaborate. You aren’t supposed to do the meditation the night before, just get the ingredients ready. Then, after you say your night prayers and turn off the light, as you go to sleep you can call to mind the points that you have prepared. This gives your subconscious a chance to work in favor of your meditation. Sometimes, key insights will come to you as you drift off, insights that will become the centerpiece of tomorrow’s meditation.
That’s it; it’s that simple. I could try to describe in greater detail the many benefits that accrue to those who make an effort, even a small one, to prepare their meditation points. But the simple fact that this practice has been common and recommended by the Church for at least the last five hundred years should be convincing enough. And besides, it’s more interesting to try it and see what the Holy Spirit does for you personally, rather than slogging through the description of someone else’s experience and then, perhaps mistakenly, trying to reproduce it detail by detail for oneself. But even so, I am sure we will all be interested to hear how it goes, if you decide to give it a shot. God bless you!
Yours in Christ, Father John Bartunek, LC