PRAYER & SPIRITUALITY
Prayer is basic to all religions, and is important in shaping our spirituality. Spirituality is one of those chamelion words, that means different things to different people; so on this page, first I explain my understanding of spirituality and the nature of Christian spirituality, and then offer an introduction to Christian Prayer, called Lord, Teach us to Pray.
SPIRITUALITY I take it to mean the way our spirit expresses itself, our whole way of being in the world. Spirituality is not just a religious thing confined to ‘spiritual’ people. To be human is to have a spirit; we are all spiritual beings. Our spirit is the animating, life-giving part of our being: connecting, inspiring, fulfilling. Our spirituality is an expression of our behaviour and our beliefs. Tom Jordan OP, a Dominican friar, describes spirituality as:
‘A particular way of living and doing things. Spirituality derives from the coming together of two things, a person’s life and a set of beliefs and practices. Spirituality does not exist on its own apart from the person (or group) who lives and practices it.’
Christian spirituality is about inner growth, working with what is given, nurturing our roots and inner qualities and relationships. Spirituality is about being, growth and conversion: ‘fundamentally spirituality has to do with becoming a person in the fullest sense.’ (John Macquarrie)
Christians do not have a monopoly on spirituality; there are secular alternatives, the most pervasive of which is shaped by the values of modern economics. We all have to live in the world and we cannot help being influenced by these alternatives, and in trying to live the Christian life we need to know what we are up against! Part of the work of conversion is resisting the secular model and the forces that drive it, and this is particularly so in the workplace.
Christian spirituality is shaped by the values of the Gospel; it is formed by prayer and study of the Scriptures; and it is expressed in a life of virtue and service – using our gifts and abilities for the good of our neighbour, and for the common good.
Two talks that I have given develop my understanding of spirituality –
A Biblical Spirituality – A talk I gave to SPIDIR, the Spiritual Direction Network of the Diocese of Southwark. It outlines four basic characteristics of a spirituality based on Biblical values: Trust, Incarnation, Righteousness and Liberation. It can be read here.
A Spirituality for the Times – In 2006 I gave a talk to a group of Templeton Scholars, drawn from the press and media, in which I offered a critique of our contemporary economic spirituality, and outlined an alternative based on the insights of St Benedict of Nursia. I also criticised the press for the way in which they systematically ignore and marginalise the Christian faith. My talk is available to download here, and there is more about Benedictine spirituality on the St Benedict page.
SPIRITUAL GUIDANCE As well as teaching about prayer and spirituality, I give spiritual guidance on a one-to-one basis. If you would like to know about this, please contact me: click here.
LORD, TEACH US TO PRAY
Prayer is basic to the formation of Christian spirituality. It is about developing a relationship with God, and, as with any relationship, its a two-way thing: we need to listen as well as to speak. One thing that it is essential to learn if our prayer life is to deepen, is that prayer is more than asking, bringing to God our needs, anxieties and the needs of others. This, I think, is how most people, and most Christians think of prayer, as with the frequently repeated question, ‘Have you prayed about it?’ While bringing our needs before God is important – and Jesus said that we should – we also need, like him, to learn to be still before God and to listen, to tune in to God’s wavelength. Prayer, like language, is a natural capacity that everyone possesses, but, like language, it needs to be developed and practised so that we become more confident.
Prayer also requires a focus: How do we understand what we are doing? For Christians this focus is the relationship of Jesus with God, whom he understood, at one and the same time, to be the source of our being (and of all that exists) and a loving father. It is growing into the same relationship that Jesus had with God that is the purpose of Christian prayer.
What follows is about private prayer, not the public prayer services of the Church, like Morning and Evening Prayer. It looks in turn at the prayer of listening and the prayer of asking, but first there are some preliminary points.
Prayer is natural, but it requires effort. As Jesus said, ‘Seek and you will find.’ Just as we are all different people and speak in our own way, so we all also have to find our own way of praying. Pray as you can not as you can’t.
2. Give God space within
Prayer is gift from God; it it God’s movement within us, and it is his Holy Spirit that enables us to pray. St Paul put it this way: ‘We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.’ (Romans 8.26 –29) Learning to pray better is about giving God space in our lives, taking to heart Jesus’ word to the disciples: ‘Sit here while I pray.’ (Mark 14.32)
3. Learn to be still
‘Be still and know that I am God.’ (Psalm 46.10) God speaks to us when we are still enough to listen. This is a bit counter-cultural. Silence is in short supply in the modern world, and so is stillness, but both are essential to prayer. Just as God spoke in the eternal silence and called forth creation, so in our silence he speaks to us in our depths. As one of the Desert Fathers said, ‘If you do not understand my silence, you will not understand my words.‘ There are various relaxing or centering exercises that can help us to overcome restlessness.
4. Pray with your whole person
Prayer is not an intellectual exercise, it is an offering of the whole self before God: mind, spirit, body; intellect, feelings, imagination.
5. Time, Place and Posture
The time we give to prayer should be regular and manageable, not over-ambitious. Decide how long your prayer time will be, and keep to it. The place should be private, and it helps to have a focus, e.g. a candle, a cross, or an icon. The posture should be relaxed and attentive. Generally sitting upright in a chair, legs uncrossed, is the best posture. Some prefer to use a prayer stool.
6. Dealing with Distractions
Distractions are normal; even St Teresa of Avila, one of the great Spanish mystics, experienced distractions. She is said to have remarked that an hour of distracted prayer was of infinite worth. When distractions come, as you become aware that your mind has strayed, simply recall yourself to the subject of your prayer, and continue. Don’t tell yourself off, or say things like, ‘Get a grip!’ One thing that happens to virtually everyone when we are still is remembering things that we need to do. Its a good idea to have a notebook beside you when you pray to note down these things, as well as any insights that are given to you.
7. A Prayer Guide
Finally, as with language, we need a teacher. It is important to have someone with whom you can talk over your experience in prayer. This could be your priest, or one of the growing number of people who offer the ministry of spiritual direction. Most dioceses have a directory of spiritual guides.
The Prayer of Listening
Learning to listen prayerfully is a basic step in our spiritual growth. So, how do we learn to listen? The best way of listening to God is to pray with the Bible. It is a way of getting on to God’s wavelength, or coming to see the world as he sees it, and making his values our values, his priorities our priorities. Below are two ways of doing this: Lectio Divina (or sacred reading), and Imaginative Prayer.
For both forms of prayer keeping a Journal in which you can record what comes to you, questions that arise, etc., is a valuable aid. It is also something you can talk through with your prayer guide.
Whichever approach is used, the preparation is the same:
1. Decide how long your time of prayer is to be.
2. Centre down, using a centering exercise.
3. Mark out the time as given to God with a simple prayer, e.g.
Lord, I give this time to you in prayer.
Let my heart be open to hear your word.
Or use one of the following prayers:
A Prayer of Brother Roger of Taizé
tirelessly you seek out
those who are looking for you
and who think you are far away;
teach us at every moment,
to place our spirit in your hands.
While we are still looking for you,
already you have found us.
No matter how poor our prayer is,
you listen to us far beyond
what we can imagine and believe.
An Invocation of the Trinity
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
O God, Father, moment by moment you hold me in being, on you I depend.
O God, eternal Son, friend and brother beside me, in you I trust.
O God, Holy Spirit, life and love within me, from you I live.
Come, holy, blessed and glorious Trinity,
send forth your light and your truth,
let these be my guide;
let them bring me to your holy mountain,
to the place where you dwell.
On Lighting a Candle
you are the light of the world,
and in you is no darkness at all;
let this light be to me
a sign of your great Light,
and of your presence with me,
now and always.
you are my light and my salvation,
and in your light we see light;
let your brightness shine upon me,
a lamp to my feet,
and a light upon my path
A Prayer of Confidence
In you alone, O God is my soul at rest;
my help comes from you.
A Prayer from Malling Abbey
in your own heart
the Spirit is at prayer
listen and learn
open and find
Lectio Divina, or sacred reading, is a way of prayer that St Benedict taught his monks. It is a slow meditative reading of scripture, or of any holy and inspirational book, and it has four stages: reading, reflecting, responding, resting.
Read: The chosen passage is read slowly, speaking the words quietly, but audibly, to ourselves, until a word or phrase arrests the attention, then we stop and reflect.
Reflect: We meditate on the word or phrase, repeating the whole of it or part of it. Meditation is done with the mouth; we repeat the words quietly, but audibly, to ourselves, like striking a bell and listening to the echo. We speak thoughts or questions that it poses for us, but not at length. The aim is not to wrestle with the text, rather to savour it, or to absorb it. When we feel we have done this we respond.
Respond: Briefly we offer a prayer that arises out of our reflection; just a brief petition for ourselves perhaps, or for whatever our meditation has brought to mind. And then we rest.
Rest: Benedict called this last stage contemplatio, resting in the presence of God, finding depth in a shared silence, like those who love each other, whose communion has passed beyond words. When this stage reaches a conclusion, the process starts again.
The aim of this way of praying is not to seek to understand the text intellectually but rather to let it speak to us intuitively or imaginatively. This is not to criticise intellectual study, but to say that we need to use other faculties in addition to the intellect if we are to appreciate scripture in all its fullness. So Benedict taught his monks first to listen and reflect rather than to think and question. We try to enter into the atmosphere, the shape, the feeling of the text in the same way that we might experience a beautiful garden or a wonderful view. It is the overall effect of the garden or the panorama that first strikes us; we simply look at it, trying to take it all in and imprint it on our memory. Then we might walk round and look at the individual shrubs and flowers. This is not speed reading!
A good passage to begin with is Ephesians 1.3–14.
Prayer is about using the whole of ourselves – body, mind, feelings and intuition – to tune-in to God’s wavelength. A good story captures our imagination, and we become bound up with it. Using our imagination to enter into a situation is a way of understanding it at a deeper level than the intellectual, and imaginative prayer is a way of doing this with the Bible. There are five stages –
- Read the passage slowly and carefully, enough times so that you can remember it clearly.
- Put down the Bible and close your eyes. Run the story as though you were viewing a film.
- As you watch, freeze the frame at the important moments. Look at the principal actors and the others in the story at that moment; try to sense how they are feeling, what motivates them, and what the story reveals about them.
- Place yourself in the scene, if necessary running the film for a second time. Note how you feel as the story unfolds.
- At the end, go up to Jesus and ask him a question. Listen to his reply.
A good passage to begin with is Mark 3.1-6.
The Prayer of Asking
The Prayer of Asking, or Intercession, is perhaps the most familiar type of prayer, and the most often used. But if, as we believe, God knows what’s going on, and what we need, why do we need to ask him for it?
Bishop Michael Ramsay explained the need for intercession as follows:
‘The compassion of God flows ceaselessly towards the world, but it seems to wait upon the co-operation of human wills. This co-operation is partly by God’’s creatures doing the things that God desires to be done, and partly by prayers that are channels of God’s compassion.’ (Be Still and Know)
So the prayer of asking is not telling God what he already knows (God does not need to be told the news or our needs), but in imagination holding up before him those people or situations about which we are concerned, holding them up, in mind and heart, in the stream of God’s compassion.
This prayer from Malling Abbey is a good one with which to begin a time of intercession.
a still place of light
a still place of love
your light radiating
your love vibrating
your touch and your healing
far flung and near
to the myriads caught
in darkness, in sickness
in lostness, in fear
make me a heart-centre here
Light of the world
Some Practical Points
1. Use you own words – talk to God as Jesus did, as to a loving father.
2. Keep it brief and keep it simple. Jesus warned against ‘babbling on like the heathen, who imagine that the more they say the more likely they are to be heard.’ (Matthew 6.7) Depth of feeling is more important than length of words.
3. Don’t rush. This is important work; give it time. Imagine yourself holding up the person or situation about which you are praying so that God’s compassion flows over them like a fountain or waterfall.
4. Use a prayer diary. There is so much to pray for in the world; we can’t remember everybody and everything every day. A Prayer Diary is a good way of organising our intercessions so that all that concerns us is remembered before God regularly. Get a small booklet and using either a weekly or a monthly pattern, write down on appropriate days the people or causes that you want to pray for. That way no one will be forgotten, and your prayer time will be manageable.
Sometimes there is a sense of prayer being answered; sometimes not. There are occasions when people are cured of their illness following prayer, sometimes dramatically, but more usually this does not occur. There is, I think, a parallel with Jesus’ ministry. Why, when he healed a crippled man at the Pool of Bethesda (John 5.1–9), were not the others also healed? Perhaps they did not ask, but even so it seems that the cures that Jesus did perform were principally intended as signs. He said this explicitly about the raising of Lazarus: through it God’s glory would be revealed (John 11.4). These signs are to help us to learn to trust that God is loving, that he is with us whatever befalls us, and that his compassion never fails.
It can be hard when prayer seems to be unanswered, and for some it is a severe test of faith, but the problem may be that we are only prepared to accept the answer that we want. God may be telling us something that we find hard to hear, or don’t want to hear. This is where talking over our experience with a spiritual guide can be helpful. Any journey of faith, any experience of prayer, is an encounter with the mystery that is both the origin and destiny of all that is. Just as creation began in silence, so at the end of the day it may be that we have to accept the silence of God. I think his silence reminds us that we don’t pray to get answers, nor to put God to the test, but to get on to his wavelength. And this is as true of the Prayer of Asking as it is of the Prayer of Listening.