We often wonder how we ought to pray. Paul Andrews SJ points to some not too difficult ways we could start.
When the apostles asked Jesus: Teach us to pray, he taught them the Our Father. That is the beginning for all of us. You know one teacher’s advice on learning to pray: ‘Say the Lord’s Prayer, and take an hour to say it.’ There is no word or phrase in it which does not repay you if you mine it for meaning, and savour it: for instance Our – not just my father, for I share You with the human race. Is there anyone whom I feel uneasy to claim as a sister or brother?
Take the prayer slowly, breathing slowly as you relish it and are led into its depths. It sets the scene: each of us as a temple of the Holy Spirit reaching out to the Father through his son. Many of you who read this have gone beyond words to a sort of quiet presence.
The body has its own part to play in prayer. Here is one suggestion on how to arrange your body. Sit with your backbone straight, from the tip of your head to your bottom. Breathe slowly, deep and regular. Hands open, resting on your thighs, palms down. Feel the weight of them on your thigh, first the left, then the right; feel the heat. Get in touch with your body. Then turn the right hand upwards, palm open. Notice the change in heat and pressure in your hand, and on the thigh. Do the same with your left hand. What is the change in you? Slow down your mind. Make it open like your hand, empty, ready to receive. So is your heart. You have a sense of handing over, losing control, vulnerability. That is how we come to God. He is active. I have no control over what will happen in prayer, where God will lead me, what will be the fruit.
One dead end in developing my spiritual life is to want to have someone else’s spiritual life. If, for instance, I visit a convent one day, or see a monastery on TV, I may find myself thinking, ‘I wish I could pray like them’. But if I am a schoolteacher, or a builder, or a full-time mother, then that rhythm of prayer may just not be suited to me. Pray as you can, not as you can’t is an obvious maxim, but one that is frequently overlooked, leading to a lot of unrealistic expectations, and frustration.
Finding my own rhythm, a way of praying that suits me, may involve some experimentation with times and places and with different styles and approaches. At times I will need to persevere and not give up on something too easily, but also be prepared to say, ‘This doesn’t work for me’. Finding a way of praying I can sustain is an important step in developing my relationship with God.
Saint Ignatius Loyola, who founded the Jesuits, spent most of his energies on just that. Before his conversion, his idea of prayer was reciting Our Fathers and Hail Marys. When he started to read the scriptures, he found God was talking to him, especially through the stories about Jesus. He wrote about it later: God taught me like a schoolboy.
As the years passed, his prayer became more wordless; he had such an appetite for prayer, such heart-wrenching delight in it, that he had to ration himself, because the tears of joy were affecting his sight. His friend Lainez described him going up to the roof of his house at night: He would sit there quietly, absolutely quietly. He would take off his hat and look up for a long time at the sky. And the tears would begin to flow down his cheeks like a stream, but so quietly and so gently that you heard not a sob nor a sigh nor the least possible movement of his body.
Many other unexpected Christians shared that experience. Baxter, a Puritan contemporary of Cromwell, said he was converted by reading – praying his way through a dog-eared copy of Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises. In the 1800s, Russian Orthodox Christians made the same discovery. In the 1900s it was an Anglican who edited one of the best editions of the book.
When we turn to God in personal prayer centred on Jesus, the walls that divide the Christian churches melt away. We find we can pray together. The secret history of the Church is not in the councils, doctrines, crusades or bishops, still less in churches or cathedrals, but in the body of Christians who pray to the Father through Jesus Christ his Son: what you might call the contemplative tradition.
That is evident in Manresa, the Jesuit retreat-house in Dublin (called after the Spanish cave in which Ignatius had his first agonizing lessons in personal prayer). The people who come here to pray include many Christians of other Churches. There are courses for prayer-guides, who go back to their parishes and neighbourhoods, and find like-minded souls who want help in a personal search for God. In every parish there are mystics who do not know they are mystics, people whose prayer has reached a simplicity and intimacy beyond words.
Many others pray at their computers, logging on to sacredspace.ie, as I once described in the Messenger (December 2006). A Scottish visitor described it recently: ‘I come on to Sacred Space in the evening; it is my time for quiet, reflection and prayer. Today has been a day of ups and downs and I feel as though I am in a tunnel; so coming on to Sacred Space allows me to be quiet and hand things over to the Sacred Heart to deal with. I get so much from the fact that there are other people out there along with me.’
This article first appeared in The Messenger (March 2008), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.