“Prayer is the lifting up of the mind and heart to God – or trying to”
Abbot Herbert Byrne
For Christians, prayer is utterly essential. St Paul was in no doubt on this point: “Pray without ceasing!” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) and the consistent witness of thousands of Jesus’s followers over the last 2000 years backs him up. It is our only way of letting God in.
But how do we do it? I find I am quite good at reading about prayer, but when it comes down to actually praying…well, that is a different matter altogether. I am of course wholly unqualified to teach anyone to pray.
The first thing to say, I think, is that only the Holy Spirit can truly teach us to pray. We must implore him to help us, to enlighten us – indeed, to pray within us. Books can be very helpful, but only the Holy Spirit can do it!
Secondly, we all pray differently – so any guidelines must be general and should not try to impose a straightjacket. (The great spiritual director Abbot John Chapman OSB famously said: “Pray as you can, and do not try to pray as you can’t”)
Nevertheless, I believe there are some golden rules (or, better, guidelines) for prayer, and I have suggested some below. I have taken these from those who really know about prayer – people such as Basil Hume (see for example his book “To be a Pilgrim”). Moreover, I know of one truly holy and wise person who is certain that prayer is “the simplest thing out” – but more of that extraordinary lady later.
I’ve been thinking about what initially attracts us to prayer. Again we’re all different but I have been a member of a Benedictine Parish all my life and I consider this to be an incalculable blessing, because what initially drew me the idea of praying was encountering men and women of prayer – initially the monks of Ampleforth and then people and ideas I found in spiritual books – including The Cloud of Unknowing, Julian of Norwich and the great Trappist monk Thomas Merton, a contemporary witness to the supreme importance of prayer..
I remember very clearly Abbott Herbert Byrne, Basil Hume’s predecessor as Abbot of Ampleforth, who was of course a curate at Leyland when in his nineties. He did the round of houses in the parish – including my family’s. What stood out? His wisdom, intelligence and humour, and a fondness for a slice of cake! But most vividly his lack of self-importance and trust in God.
Perhaps the man who best embodies the Benedictine tradition in our times is Basil Hume and I have found his writings enormously helpful. Again and again he stresses humility and prayer. I was fortunate to meet him very briefly on a few occasions when on retreat to Ampleforth as a young man when he was Abbot. I recall someone asking him how he would describe himself and he replied: “I suppose I am a failed Carthusian”. Carthusians of course are contemplative monks who spend much of their time in prayer, and it is surely very significant that he saw prayer as being at the very heart of the Christian life.
So, these are some suggested golden guidelines I have collected together:
1. It is important, insofar as we are able, to stick with a regular time to pray- if possible every day.
2. The Holy Spirit is the teacher and we should ask his help. We start every prayer time as absolute beginners.
3. We should remember that God is not a reluctant lover that we need to woo with our prayer techniques – as our Father he is all eagerness to love and help us and is utterly focused on each one of us.
4. At the beginning of the prayer time we should briefly express sorrow for our sins. Then decide how we will pray – perhaps a meditative reading of a gospel passage, a very slow saying of the Our Father, a prayer of our own, or just sitting still in God’s presence. I always find it better to address a specific member of the Holy Trinity rather than “God”. See Thomas Keating’s very inspiring book (below) on ways of praying.
5. Ignore distractions – it is the mind’s job to generate endless thoughts so just let them flow by (easier said than done!)
6. Often it seems prayer is a waste of time, or unreal or even a farce. Simply ignore any feelings of dissatisfaction and meaninglessness and trust not in our own feelings but in God’s unfailing goodness. He is all gift in prayer – though we may not feel it! He will give us in prayer the state of mind that we most need. Do not look for results. Ruth Burrows (see below) urges us to entrust ourselves, in blindness and helplessness, to divine love.
7. At the end thank the Holy Spirit for the great gift of prayer.
8. Never, ever give up – “Keep going or die in the process” was St Teresa’s advice (this is a double golden rule, not a guideline! – the most important one!)
9. Try and do some regular spiritual reading.
I mentioned earlier someone who has reached the very summit of the spiritual life who feels prayer is essentially very straightforward. She is a consecrated hermit who lives in the grounds of a Carmelite convent and spends most of the day in prayer. Her words on the subject are enormously encouraging:
“The essential act of prayer is to stand unprotected before God. What will God do? He will take possession of us. That he should do this is the whole purpose of life… If you desire to stand surrendered before God then you are standing there. It needs absolutely nothing else. Prayer is the last thing we should feel discouraged about – it concerns no-one except God – always longing to give Himself in love – and my own decision…In a very true sense there is nothing more to say about prayer – “the simplest thing out””.
(See “Ascent to Love” by Ruth Burrows – Chapter 6)
Pope Francis recently stressed in one of his daily sermons the need for each one of us to pray. As Lent approaches, let us renew today our commitment to prayer and put ourselves into God’s infinitely merciful hands.
Oh Father, unto whom all hearts are open
Unto whom all wills do speak
From whom no secret thing is hidden
We beseech you
So to cleanse the purpose of our hearts
With the unutterable gift of your grace
That we may perfectly love thee
And worthily praise thee
(From The Cloud of Unknowing)
These books I have found especially helpful – all are available on Amazon:
“To be a Pilgrim” – Basil Hume (St Paul Publications)
“Open Mind Open Heart” – Abbot Thomas Keating (Amity House)
“Essence of Prayer” – Ruth Burrows OCD (Burns and Oates)
“The Seven Storey Mountain” – Thomas Merton (Sheldon Press)