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Hi, this is Father Michael Denk for another episode of Praying with Priests. I am here with Father Bill Byrne. We are going to be interviewing him about his prayer life as he shares how he has come to know and love God.

 

Father Michael:

Thank you very much, Father Bill, for spending time with us. What I would like to start off with is just tell us a little about yourself; what you are up to and a little bit about your priesthood, and then we will start talking about your life of prayer.

Father Bill:

This is my twenty-fifth year of being a priest. I am more in love with the Lord and more in love with the priesthood than I was even 25 years ago, and that is saying something because I was overjoyed then. I am the pastor of a suburban parish in Washington D.C.—a place in Potomac, Maryland, Our Lady of Mercy. They have a school, an assisted living, about a couple of thousand families and a lot going on. I am from the area. I grew up the youngest of eight kids in another suburb called McLean, Virginia. That is who I am.

Father Michael:

The youngest of eight. Growing up, what was your first memory of experiencing God?

Father Bill:

Well, I don’t know if I have a first memory because my parents were both daily communicants. My mother is still alive. So it was just part and parcel. You got in the car for the trip and you said a prayer or we did some of the Rosary. It was just part of the air that you breathed as our faith experience and I don’t really have a memory of it not being there. It was just always there. Interestingly, my father, God rest his soul, was a doctor and he had different call schedules. My mom would be a Eucharistic Minister so we never had to go to Mass as a family. You just had to go. You rode your bike. It was kind of good because, I think, it gave us ownership early on. Most people just inherit their faith. When we got older, we had to show up. We never had to go to Mass as a family and so we owned it, I think, earlier on. When we got to high school, you had to show up with the bulletin to make sure you had gone. I also had an uncle who was a priest in the Archdiocese of New York. That experience of priests in the family as a normal part of everyday life was beneficial in that I always thought it was normal. Also, growing up, my two best friends—they both were big lawyers in town—their dads were also daily communicants. I just grew up thinking that is what dads do. Dads go to Mass before they go to work. That added to the friendship, that faith as a normal part of life.

Father Michael:

What was the effect of that experience of that? Did you enjoy it? Was it boring? Was it just a normal part of life? What was it like?

Father Bill:

I do not remember it being boring. I do remember in high school a lot of times my friends and I would meet on Sunday and go down to a church in Georgetown, Holy Trinity. We would go there and then all go out for burgers afterwards. It was part of a club growing up in a Catholic environment and Catholic culture. Certainly there were times that it was boring, but I was also an altar server, so there was that to do. Then if the homily was bad there was something entertaining about it.

Father Michael:

As you think back about your personal prayer life, how did you experience that as a child?

Father Bill:

I remember always having a relationship with the Lord and desiring prayer. My one sister, who eventually. . . she is now a religious sister. She is a very interesting person. She is  surgeon and a religious sister and also has been in the army so she is also a colonel. At one point she was involved in a prayer group, a prayer movement that was charismatic. She is not anymore but she had been at that time. I remember going to those meetings when I was in junior high, maybe in high school, and witnessing people actively engaged in a spiritual encounter with the Lord and that impressed me in such a way that I always had a desire for prayer, albeit immature. I remember trying to decide which of the two Catholic high schools I should go to and I played Bible Bingo where you flipped the bible and you would see the page. I ended up going to Georgetown Prep based on whatever verse my finger landed on. I would hardly call it mystical in any sense. Then in college, I knew that I had—I’d gone to a regular college, Holy Cross—and I was having a lot of problems so it wasn’t like I was a choir boy by any sense of the word. It was part of Catholic culture that most everyone went to Mass on Sunday. I do not know if that is still the case today.

I remember thinking about priesthood so I asked one of the priests to lead me in spiritual direction and they had a very effective retreat that was led by one of the Jesuits. We had a community where we went on a good solid four day silent retreat, which for a college student is remarkable. I think then, sort of in a rudimentary way, my experience of prayer was sort of trying to do stuff. It was more like trying to figure out the system of prayer as opposed to just realizing its relationship. When I went to seminary, we had a spiritual direction every two weeks. That is where I started to really realize this is about relationship and my conversion. As that happens, then that is when the scales fall from your eyes a little bit and you realize the movement of the heart and not just a performing sort of action that looks prayerful; like doing your breviary, having the scriptures actually speak to you and recognizing that this is a privileged encounter that is unique to you with the Lord desiring to have you be with Him.

Father Michael:

Did they teach you that in seminary?

Father Bill:

Yes. We had excellent spiritual formation. My spiritual director was a guy named George Aschenbrenner (he is not my current spiritual director), a Jesuit, who was a notable writer and director of the spiritual exercises. And then in early priesthood, I did. . .I have had the same spiritual director for 25 years and that helps. I do think spiritual direction is a key part of growing in the Lord because it is easy to miss things yourself. Early priesthood, I did the Adaptation 19 which is the spiritual exercise of St. Ignatius for those that cannot take 30 days. I met with my spiritual director weekly and committed to this hour prayer and that began a much more formalized experience of doing a Holy Hour. Which is not to say that I kept and do a Holy Hour every day. That is how I begin my day. When you commit yourself to doing it every day, at first for those that might find that daunting, it seems like a holy two hours. You know, the time seems slower. And then as you get into it, it seems like a holy five minutes because the time flies and you find yourself craving for more and you end up going back in the afternoon—your appointment cancels or whatever—and having a visit with the Lord.

Father Michael:

One of the things I talk about often is Karl Rahner** says, “In the days ahead we will either become mystics or we will despair.” He talks about a mystic as one who has experienced God for real. Sounds like you have had those experiences. If you think about during your Adaptation 19 or during your four day retreat, can you tell us a little bit about a memory or two of where God became real for you or that personal relationship?

Father Bill:

I am trying to think of a time where . . . I think it was more like cooking the frog. I do not remember a moment when there was an “aha” moment. I have certain experiences of deep consolation and they were profound. Probably one of the prominent ones I remember was . . . I worked for three years in between graduating from college and entering seminary. I went to my mom and dad and I said, “I am thinking about being a priest.” My dad, whose older brother is a priest, kind of wandered off and could think of nothing greater. My mom said—I was young, I had gone to college at seventeen— and she said, “You know, I would love to have a son who is a priest. I’d hate to have one who was a priest.” She said, “Why don’t you give yourself a little time.” And she was wise. She understood that maybe I needed a little growing up to do. I taught school for three years and in that time entered into more formalized spiritual direction as a layman. It crystallized something. During that time I had gone on a trip with my parents to Lourdes in France, and while I was there we all scattered and we planned to visit in the lower chapel, the Crypt there. I went in and sat down and hadn’t realized that there was Eucharistic Adoration going on. I looked up and saw the Lord in the Monstrance and then He took out a baseball bat and smacked me on the head and said, “I am real. It’s all real.” Two things happened there. It led me to enter the seminary but it also anchored my spirituality and my prayer in the Holy Eucharist. I started Eucharistic Adoration of some kind or another in each place where I have been assigned as a pastor. So, here we have Eucharistic Adoration between the Masses and we have a Holy Hour every day and that is typically where I do my Holy Hour. I do it for several reasons. I think it is good to pray with the people. I think it is good for people to see their pastor at prayer and I think, not that I am doing it for any showy reasons, I just think it helps them and encourages them to think, “Yes, this is all very doable.” And so my Holy Hour is almost always, unless I am traveling, in the front of the Blessed Sacrament. And why not? He is there, you know? He is really, truly there; body,blood, soul and divinity.

Father Michael:

Tell me about the transition going from that time into the seminary and then beginning to have a more formalized prayer life.

Father Bill:

I am a pretty big extrovert. So I am used to having people around me. Youngest of a big family. I think the hardest, scariest thing for me is silence. Just going to silence, being in silence, learning to confront my own thoughts. Noise makes that all go away but the only way to hear the Lord is in silence. If we take out the ear buds and turn off the radio or give ourselves periods of time of quiet prayer, that’s the only way for this to be possible. That was by far the biggest challenge for me; entering into quietude, sort of transversing the long dry plains of loneliness. And, only when you enter into that, do you find what Dorothy Day called the long loneliness. That is the place then for the Lord to fill you. The Lord cannot fill you if you are not willing to admit that it is there. Had we been born with a restless heart, it will only rest in Christ as Augustine said. Sometimes we prefer to just be restless because then you do not have to confront the real source of the mountain-sized space in our lives and in our hearts. Now I think that is funny because I go to prayer like somebody slipping into a tub after coming from a cold day out doing work and then you relax. For me now, silence is now something I crave. So, when I do my annual retreat, I much prefer to do it in a place where it is all silence. You are only talking to your director.

Father Michael:

What would be your advice to somebody that struggles with silence and hasn’t really heard or experienced the voice of God?

Father Bill:

Well, I think part of the, part of the experience—I often think of this as a metaphor for our spiritual life: imagine going into the local mall to pick something up at the store and as we are riding the escalator, suddenly a song plays that we like on the piped-in music and previous to noticing that, we hadn’t even realized there was music playing. Then something broke in and we are able to then become conscious of it. Well, the sweet music of God’s graces is playing around us constantly and prayer is about giving ourselves the time and the place to actually hear it. I think that part of the reason that people might not be experiencing God is not that God is not talking to them, we just don’t open up our ears to hear it. And then once you start believing. . .I am a big believer. I believe that God waves. That if I am thinking this and I call somebody when they pop into my head it is almost always, “I was just thinking of you.” Or something like that. That God is constant. The more we tune ourselves in faith to hear outside/inside/all around, then we start to experience it evermore and we become more attuned to it and you are able to, say, stand in awe and wonder every day. Here is an example. I went on my retreat this summer and before I left my spiritual director and I were talking and he said, “I think if I were you I would start with Romans 5:5,” which is, “Hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” Okay, that is good. We were talking about that. I went to this monastery in California and I requested to just read to one of the monks a couple of times just to keep myself focused. We chatted for a few minutes and he said, “You know, I think I would start with Romans 5:5.” So I was like okay, God, I get it. I guess that is where you want me to go. So, I spent five, six days on one sentence on the love of God. I think it is a matter of just opening our hearts and then you start to see it. You start to see Him.

Father Michael:

You spent five days on one sentence. Talk about that a little bit.

Father Bill:

Well, it’s just a matter of. . .I believe that one of the real spiritual gifts that the Lord has blossomed in me is we receive the gifts of faith, hope and love in our Baptism. I believe that He gave me a capacity to really bring hope. I feel like it is a charism of hopefulness that I am sort of embracing now, 25 years into the priesthood. I think part of it came through this year of crisis. We had the crisis of the hierarchy. People’s disappointment and anger. All that’s gone on this year. And I have believed since the first. . .I remember taking to prayer last summer and it seems like every headline was worse than the next and I was just waiting for the next shoe to drop. I went to the Lord with this heaviness of heart and He just spoke in my heart. He said, “I have this. I have this. My work is purifying, I have this.” So, I was like, then what am I worried about? I just have to make sure that I am bringing the good into every possible situation I can and helping people understand that the Lord does have it and if we count on Him, then great things will happen. And, great things are happening.

Building on that experience of that gift, hope does not disappoint. The Lord was just confirming in me through my experience of His priesthood in my life, my experience of His tender care, all of this you just, you tend in the silence to just allow things to become more alive. We receive these powerful gifts in our Baptism and in our Confirmation the Gifts of the Holy Spirit; but as Father Cantalamesa, Preacher to the Papal Household said, “Most of them are bound like they never took the plastic wrap off.” It is about unbinding the Gifts of the Holy Spirit. So, wonder, awe, and fear of the Lord is encouraging. There is an insight into all these things allowing the Lord to unbind them in our lives. That is really what that five days was about.

Father Michael:

How does one do that? I think we live in an age of such despair, where people look at the heroin epidemic, suicides, and shootings. How does one who doesn’t experience hope or has not unbound that yet—how can they ask God to help them do that?

Father Bill:

I think that part of it is that, you know, we make an act of—faith is believing in the unbelievable. Hope when it is hopeless. It is about staring into the dark and trusting. But that happens through not just a gift that is given, but through the actual utilization of the gift. So if we find ourselves in periods of doubt or despair, that is when we kneel down and we say, “I know You are there. I make an act of faith that You love me, that You care for me even if I am not feeling it.” Ask any married couple that has weathered every single storm because they made an act of love and they were not feeling very lovable or they really didn’t feel too lovey about the other person. That is how deep the despair is. Make the act even when you do not feel it. Also, bring the gift even when it is not fully alive. It strengthens us when we pass the gift on, which is what Saint John Paul II called The Law of the Gift . Love is experienced not only when you hold on to it, but when we give it. Faith becomes more alive when we share and bring hope to others. I will give you an example. So you are talking about all this despair. I started a support group in the parish because we have a bunch of families that lost children, mostly sons. Some were depression, some were opioids, and some were weird, their heart stopped. When I talk to younger priests about this, I always tell them that they cannot be afraid to step into somebody else’s grief. Most people feel that would be an intrusion but it is not. When I hear the bad news, I go straight to the house because it is as if the people are lost in the darkest, deepest forest and they have no idea how they got there and how to get out. The person of faith, in particular the priest, shows up with the torch and that is Christ. He says, “Take my hand, follow this light, it will not be easy but we can get to a place of clarity.” Just being the missionary builds up hope in your own life. It is about stepping up into that darkness but you only do it with a torch, the light of Christ.

Father Michael:

I like to talk about prayer as a personal relationship, relating to God in a personal way. If you think about that yourself, God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, how do you relate to the persons of the Trinity?

Father Bill:

I think for me the starting place is always Jesus because He is the one that is most tangible to me. I can look at a crucifix and I can experience Him in the Eucharist. I sit before Him in the tabernacle. I realize that He is always pointing me, as He did everything in His entire life, to the Father. For me, I start with Jesus and I am drawn into that relationship. I am realizing that the Holy Spirit is the dynamic experience of that love. To me the starting place is always Our Lord Jesus, coming to know Him and in the process, if you see Me, you have seen the Father.

Father Michael:

What is the Father like?

Father Bill:

It’s interesting because one of the great struggles for people is that I have seen time and time again is where people who have difficult relationships with their father have a very hard time relating to God in general. We can enter into it with our own filters that eventually have to fall away. Even if you had the most magnificent father, still God is not your dad, your own personal dad. He is the source of all. For me the most telling parable in coming to understand the Father is the Prodigal Son, of course. To realize the fatherly love as the father is running to the son. . .so countercultural and so counterintuitive. A chieftain would never run to the lost son. He would wait for the son to come to him. Yet he throws away all that, the preconceived notion. . .It is overwhelming if you stop to imagine the One who created everything desiring me in that same way and sending His Son to find me and to carry me to Him. It is beyond words. Therein lies the source of who we are. Our identity as children of God. When he says, “I no longer want to be called your son, treat me as you would one of your hired hands.” In that moment you would expect the father to say, “Yeah, you are going to work this debt off. Even though you said I was dead and wanted my inheritance {sic}.” But the father ignores that because sin is not who we are, it is who we are not. He says, “Get the ring, get the cloak, get the calf, my son is back.” That restoring of the sonship, recognizing that we are all being called into that intimacy, that healing at every level of our being in terms of a son or a daughter of God unworthy of it but still receiving the grace of the only begotten Son of God.

Father Michael:

Who have been some of your—you mentioned your spiritual director—but who have been some of the people over your life span that have been guides, or given you direction, or maybe helped you see and experience God?

Father Bill:

That is a pretty long list because my mother, my father, my parents, my friends; in a way I would have to say everybody I met. Even people that were. . .I had a. . . someone I knew years ago when I was a chaplain. For whatever reason they just didn’t like me and made it known to me personally. I remember after a very odd and interesting experience with this person going into prayer and the Lord said, “Love your enemy” or “Love people who hate you” and I remember taking that to prayer and thought I cannot do that unless somebody hates me. So, thank God for this lady. She’s allowing me to do the impossible and to will her good, even though she was not for me. I had great priest friends and friends I’ve had from before that are constantly part of my life so I feel overwhelmingly blessed to have people that show me the face of Christ. Priest friends that I get to on my day off. And over a Scotch at the end of the day we are still talking about our relationship with the Lord and not just talking about the lady whose golf game we played. We did talk about the golf, but it is about essentially not being afraid to be a disciple with other disciples. If we can have that kind of dialogue and conversation, then it helps us along. Just like I said, “You share faith, you grow faith.”

Father Michael:

I feel it has been wonderful talking to you because there is a sense of hope. You do have that precious gift. For people that are new in their prayer life just starting to want to pray and maybe listening to us right now, can you give them any practical advice?

Father Bill:

Absolutely! I think the thing is, the one thing you have to do is calm down a bit. Start with whatever is comfortable. Five minutes, ten minutes and you just imagine it. Let us say I introduce you to someone you did not know. Father Michael, this is Joe. We are going to make a deal that we are going to talk ten minutes a day on the telephone or in person, wherever we are. On the average, five minutes Father Michael will talk, five minutes he will listen. A year from now, you and Joe are going to know a lot about each other and the likelihood is that you are probably going to be friends. So, it is ten minutes a day. Five minutes of talking. Five minutes of being quiet. When I say being quiet, I mean reading the scriptures slowly. You can start at the beginning of the gospels or do the readings of the day according to the Mass schedule and then you talk some. When I mean talk, I usually sit down at the beginning of my prayer time and I say, “Lord, let me figure out where I am.” What am I feeling? Am I feeling happy? Am I feeling kind of discouraged? Am I feeling . . . where am I? Because I need to invite you into that. If we do not acknowledge where we are or there is anything particular on my heart I say, “Lord, this is something I want to review with you.” Then move into some kind of spiritual reading and just taking time with the gospels and just seeing what happens. Someday, it is like any conversation. You are talking to Joe and someday Joe is having a crisis at work and you are going to hear all that. And, some day it is like, “Well not much happened.” Not every day is it lights and magic. One of the things that happens to you is, if you have a friend that you talk to every day, it is easier to talk to that person because you will say, “Oh, how did that thing go yesterday?” Whereas if you run into a friend, let’s say somebody that you were close with and you have not seen them for five or six months, it is kind of awkward. You don’t know the details of their life to ask about. I remember running into someone I knew from high school and I said to her, “Oh, my gosh,” (and this is the one time you learn a lesson and keep your mouth shut) “when is the baby due?” And she said, “Two months ago.” I was like ooh, okay, sorry. She had had the baby and had not. . .I turned bright red. I am pretty bright red all the time anyway and I turned even brighter red and it was an awkward moment but that’s what  happens when you do not talk to people. You don’t know that they had a baby, and so it is with Our Lord. If you talk every day it is much easier to talk every day.

Father Michael:

It is so practical to pick a time, ten minutes or so to start off and spend the first half talking and then half the time listening.

Father Bill:

I also think it is a good idea to keep—I keep one of those marbleized composition notebooks that you use in high school or college. I keep that with me so if it’s a quote that comes out, I write it down. If there is some kind of word that I feel He has spoken to me, I write it down. In the isolation of—what you actually have, in the aggregate, when you read through all of those things, you start to see that it’s like Hansel and Gretel threw stones on the path, that the Lord can be directing you. You might not realize this but He is calling you to trust in Him because these certain lines are jumping out.

Father Michael:

I’ll often hear from people when they talk about their prayer life that they talk to God all the time. Then I’ll ask them, “Do you listen? Do you hear Him?” A lot of times there will be a look on their face like well, no. Is He supposed to talk to me? What would be your encouragement for someone that doesn’t, they don’t feel like they’ve heard the voice of God or feel stuck in prayer?

Father Bill:

Or, maybe not recognized it as such. One of the things that, or maybe this is me, my language. . .each of us has one of those seismographic needles like for earthquakes, there is an earthquake and all of a sudden it goes “WAH WAH WAH.” It goes farther on either side and you know how big of an earthquake it was. I think we have one of those needles running in our hearts. When it jumps, either to the happy or sad, that is often an indication that something is working. If the needle jumps, you might not have the time to pick it apart. For example, you are reading an article in a magazine in the dentist’s office and something jumps out at you, write it down and then take it to prayer later. It can be I read Vanity Fair in the barbershop and it is a totally different article on something completely different, some screwed up star’s life or something like that and something will jump out at me and then I write it down or put it in my phone and then I take it to prayer and I’ll go, “What did that mean?” Maybe something is reflected in that that pinged you. Those little pings are worth listening to.

Father Michael:

It is in your daily experiences being aware of that and then taking that to your time of prayer. Thank you so much for spending time with me and for our listeners. Wow. What I would like to do is end with you blessing our listeners and just ask God and the Holy Spirit to give them that increase in the life of prayer.

Father Bill:

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen. Father, you are always so generous and we stand in awe and wonder of your love. Your love that was so profound that you sent Your only begotten Son to find us, to draw us into your eternal life in the Holy Spirit of love. Descend that Spirit upon all those listening to these words. Open their hearts and unleash for them the gifts of faith, hope and love that you gave them in their baptism. The power of the gifts of the Spirit. Most especially the gift of awe and wonder at your Majesty and help us to see how you are playing your sweet music for us at each moment. Give us the ears to hear it and the voice to speak it so that we may always give glory to Jesus Christ, Our Lord. Amen. May God bless you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Father Michael:

Thank you, father.

Father Jim:

You’re welcome.

 

 

About the Author, Fr. Michael Denk

Fr. Michael was ordained into the priesthood in the Diocese of Cleveland on May 12, 2007. He is dedicated to helping others encounter Christ through the celebration of the Eucharist, preaching, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, spiritual direction, and prayer.