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Explorations: Prayer

Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ  |  10 November 2018

Family at massWhether it’s due to a lack of time and space, or some deeper difficulty in connecting with God, many Catholics find it difficult to pray in their lives. In this Explorations we look at why prayer is such an important part of our faith, and at some of the different ways people go about it.

In movies people are rarely shown praying. When they are, they often look tormented and wild eyed, on the edge of breakdown. Prayer is apparently something you do if you are more than a little odd or in an absolutely desperate situation you need to be rescued from.

People certainly do pray in times of anguish – Jesus does so in the garden of Gethsemane when he realises that he will die a horrible death. And we may also sometimes find ourselves deeply troubled in our lives. But prayer is not just for those times. It is mostly for ordinary times with their ordinary challenges and ordinary satisfactions. If we pray regularly, it is not because we feel a desperate need or duty to do so, but because we feel the better for it. Prayer has become a natural part of a full life.

REDISCOVERING PRAYER

To some people prayer has come naturally from childhood on. Others had to rediscover it after it drifted out of their lives. They learned to pray set prayers in the morning and evening. As they grew older that way of praying seemed very artificial, particularly when they were exploring the surface of a world exploding with friendships, opportunities and desires. So they gave it up. But ultimately they found it dissatisfying to live on the surface of their world and to move breathlessly through it. They wanted to find something deeper, something bigger than they are. We can call the thing that they’re looking for ‘mystery’ – not because it is puzzling, but because it is greater than we can ever understand.

ATTENTIVENESS: WHERE PRAYER BEGINS 

The desire to go deeper invites us to be attentive to the places where God is present in our lives and our world. That is not easy. It requires an inner silence in which for a while we are alone with ourselves. Being silent and alone can be scary – we become frightened of what we might find when we look more deeply into ourselves, and we are overwhelmed by the rush of thoughts and feelings that enter us when we switch off. We find it much easier to live on the surface, surfing the waves of our feelings and desires.

If we hang in with our search for attentiveness we keep our eyes fixed on the horizon of our world, knowing that God always lies beyond it. But as the sun that lies over the horizon at sunset lights up and warms the clouds, trees, valleys and hills, so God illuminates for us the people, things and events of our lives. God reveals the beauty, warmth and power of our world. As we are attentive to our world and to our lives we wonder at them and are drawn to the mystery of the God whose light they reflect. Our attentiveness develops naturally into conversation with God.

COMMUNITY AND PRAYER 

For Christians, God is a personal God to whom we can speak through Jesus, God’s Son. It is natural that God’s love affair with us in Jesus should be central in our prayer. As followers of Jesus, too, we never pray alone. To connect with God is a gift – when we pray the Holy Spirit prays within us. And in our prayers we are bound together as members of Christ’s body, the Church. So entering the mystery of God is not the lonely journey of an isolated venturer. It is part of our shared journey in which we walk with others.

Praying together is a natural way of praying. For Catholics, the Eucharist is the central place of prayer, where we meet Christ, are reminded of his death and rising and are drawn to follow his way. But the other Sacraments are also times of deep prayer at key points in our lives, when we give ourselves to one another in marriage, experience the wonder of our child’s new life in baptism, confront our own weakness and betrayals in reconciliation, and accept our bodily frailty in anointing of the sick.

Belonging to the church also leads naturally to other times of shared prayer through devotions and through small groups in which we reflect prayerfully on our lives together.

The Agony in the Garden of GethsemaneWAYS OF PRAYER 

When people speak of prayer they normally have in mind asking for things: for health or healing, for peace of mind, for prosperity, safety or trust. Children are very concrete in the things they pray for. As we grow older our inner and outer world expands and the things we ask for become correspondingly more deeply personal and larger.

Asking God for things we need is certainly an important way of praying. Jesus invites us to pray naturally and spontaneously for all that we need for our own lives and our world. Big desires and trust in God are signs of a deep faith, which will be refined and tested when we find that our prayers are not heard as we had hoped.

There is more to prayer, however, than asking. In the Our Father only one phrase refers to our individual needs. We ask for our daily bread – not for an assured supply, but only for what we need for today. The other phrases in the Lord’s Prayer begin with praising God and then turn to the larger needs of our world and deeper aspects of our relationships. Our conversation with God stretches beyond ourselves and our immediate concerns to God’s plan for the world and for a peaceful and just society.

When we are attentive to our world and wonder at the mystery of God that lies beneath it, we are naturally led to say thank you. We are grateful to have been invited to be part of such a beautiful and rich world. We thank God for having loved us so much that he has chosen us to be alive in this world and has given us a part to play in caring for it. Thanksgiving is the characteristic way of praying and living for followers of Jesus. The Eucharist, our central prayer, means thanksgiving and does it.

In the Our Father we also ask God to forgive us our sins as we forgive others. Our sin, guilt and failure can easily take up much of our energy. Such thoughts can be very self-preoccupied, concerned not with our real selves but with our inflated expectations of ourselves. Conversation with God that acknowledges our sins and failures, recognises with joy the God who loves us, has compassion on us and calls us, all the time knowing that we are unreliable followers, is a deep prayer that leads easily to thankfulness. It also leads us to forgive as we are forgiven.

WHAT HELPS US TO BE ATTENTIVE? 

There are hundreds of ways of praying. All of them will help some of us in developing a habit of being attentive to our world and God’s presence in it, and bringing us into conversation with God.

When we are young we may have been taught to pray by learning set prayers, and by praying in the morning and evening and at Mass. Doing these things regularly can make stopping to attend to our lives, our families and our world a habit. When we grow older, however, we may need to find our own regular ways of being attentive. For some people these will include morning and evening prayer. Some may devote a considerable time to prayer during the day. Others will find moments during the day, ‘commercial breaks’, when they wonder at the mystery of God and the world.

Many people find it helpful to say set prayers that still the mind and heart. The Rosary, with its rhythm of repeated words and moving the finger over the beads, has been very effective for many Catholics. Devotions, too, with prayers to Jesus or Mary represented by different images can help develop inwardness and encourage conversation with God and the saints. Retreats, novenas, octaves and the nine First Fridays all dedicate time to prayer. In the Eastern Catholic tradition, people often pray before icons, sometimes repeating a single word or phrase.

It is significant that all of these ways of moving into prayer involve our bodies as well as our minds. We do things as well as think things. Walking, kneeling, bowing before the Blessed Sacrament or icons, telling beads, going into a chapel or lighting a candle, can all encourage the stillness in which we attend to God’s presence in the world. Our actions and our words lead us to a world illuminated by the God who lies beyond the horizon.

ATTENTIVENESS SHARED

Being attentive to the deeper things of our lives and world and the mystery that lies beneath them is a blessing for all human beings, not simply for Catholics. Today many people of all religions and none seek for paths to being attentive. They are not competitors with Christians but colleagues from we have much to learn. Buddhist practices of meditation and contemporary exercises of mindfulness help many people to be focus on what matters most deeply in life and to be compassionate.

For Christians, practices from other faiths can be helpful. They can enlarge our understanding of the mystery of God and open fresh paths of attending to what matters.

PRAYER FOCUSED ON JESUS

The test of any way of praying is whether it builds times and spaces of attentiveness that open into prayer. This naturally happens when we bring the stories of Jesus into our prayer, embroidering his healing, compassion, prayer, teaching and preaching the Kingdom of God on the cloth of our everyday lives.

We can bring Jesus into our prayer in many ways. In churches that came out of the Reformation, personal prayerful reading and reflection on the Scriptures were central. In daily meditation on Scripture which forms part of the rhythm of monastic life, monks are encouraged to read slowly, allowing them to penetrate their minds and hearts and interact with the circumstances of their lives. Many Christians have benefited from this way of praying.

In retreats, especially, it can also be helpful to enter the stories of Jesus and to engage with conversation with Jesus and the other characters in the passages. Such imaginative conversation draws us naturally to attentiveness and thanksgiving.

CONCLUSION

Disciplines like those of childhood – regular times and places of prayer – are important. They remind us that attentiveness and saying thank you are a way of life for the long haul, not just a succession of peak moments. As well as times and places of silence and attention, times of distraction are also part of the rhythm of our lives, reminding us that the river of God’s presence flows deeper than the level at which we live our lives. To reach its depths we must wait on God’s gift.

Prayer in all its various ways and forms is the way in which we wait on God. It is a gift that takes us more deeply into God’s great gift to us of Jesus.

 

Topic tags: ourrelationshipwithgod, thecatholictradition, prayer, liturgyandthesacraments

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