10. Exploring Prayer and You
Take as much time as you need to find the prayer that is appropriate to your essence.
Give yourself time to make a prayer that will become the prayer of your soul. Listen to the voices of longing in your soul. Listen to your hungers. Give attention to the unexpected that lives around the rim of your life
(John O’Donohue, Eternal Echoes)
We believe that there is a unique way for you to pray and it not so much about ‘knowing’ a lot more but discovering this way for yourself. It is a matter of finding your own voice. This chapter attempts to help in this by giving suggestions on finding yourself space, and thinking about how and when to pray in the day.
Finding a Space
Finding a space to pray includes both the place itself and, if you create your own space, deciding what to put in it.
There are likely to be places that are already prayer places for you. You will have places where God has been real for you at some time in your life: places where it is subsequently easier to feel close to God. Try to name some of them. It might be in a church, or an art gallery or beautiful building. It might be a place in your own home. A window with a view. A favourite chair. Even your bed!
Many find it is outside. Perhaps a corner of your garden if you have one: or a place in a park, or open space. It might be a place with a view, a seat, a tree, a pond etc. Or just a place where you walk the dog!
Any place where God feels close
It’s very possible that these are places where you naturally feel drawn to go, without any conscious prayerful intent. Is it possible to spend time in this place regularly? Perhaps daily, or once a week, or once a month? You could establish a pattern of being there and of trying to be open to God when you are there.
You might go with a particular intention in mind, or you might not. You might find it helpful to begin by asking God’s blessing on your time there, and end by wondering to yourself what God might have been saying to you during the time. Often there won’t seem to have been a ‘message’ and the benefits of you being there will only be felt gradually over time.
Alternatively you might want deliberately to create a place for prayer. Suppose you had to create a prayer space in your home or garden, where would you choose to make it? Often just asking yourself that question and thinking about it for a minute or two is enough for you to be able to recognise where that space is.
Few of us are lucky enough to have a room we can set aside, but there might be a corner somewhere. You can pray sitting, or kneeling, or standing or any other way you want. Some people use a prayer stool, or some cushions. Hands up, hands together, down by your side, whatever helps.
A number of factors will influence your choice:
- Will you use it alone, or with others? If you share your home with other people, then you might need somewhere where you can be apart.
- When do you want to come to your prayer place? At set times? Or just when you want to? The advantage of a set time can be that it helps you to get into a rhythm of prayer: you know that at a certain time this is what you will do. If so then choose a time that will be easy to keep. Many people find a rhythm of this sort very helpful, but also recognise that they will often be distracted from it. So make it as easy for yourself as possible. Choose a time that suits you best, rather than a time when you think you ought to be praying! And decide on how long you’ll spend there. Again set the bar low. Its better to commit yourself to spend ten minutes each day and find that you can do that and want to make it longer, rather than commit to half an hour and ending feeling that you’ve failed.
- What do you want to do in your prayer space? To sit quietly, to read, to say an ‘Daily Office’, to sing, to listen to music, to look at something, or simply to talk to God? Theaids you can use will depend on where your prayer space is. If it is in a public space then you’ve either got to use the aids that are there-probably natural things; or things that you can carry in your pocket, like a rosary, or a small cross. If it is in your own home then you can use all sorts of things:
- an icon or religious picture
- a lighted candle
- incense or joss-sticks
- natural objects, like stones or flowers etc., which you could make into an arrangement if you chose.
- a Bible
- any other objects that are of special importance to you, such as an old photo, a post-card, or some significant quotation.
Again, don’t feel that there are things that you have to have there. Choose what feels right. You can always change them. Indeed, over a period of time you certainly will change them. You can always change the arrangement of your space to fit the church’s calendar, or the year’s seasons, or your changing mood.
All this may make creating a prayer space seem rather complicated! That’s because we have tried to cover a whole range of possibilities. But it’s probably best to start simple, with one idea, and then allow it to evolve. Remember that the object is not to create a prayer space, packed with all sorts of prayer aids, which will be the envy of others! But to create a space where you can be before God, and where you can have things which will help you to pray better.
Finding Your Way
Finding you own way of praying needs perseverance and confidence. It sometimes means going against the accepted wisdom and practice of your particular tradition.
There is an unspoken tendency in all Christian traditions to make some prayers and activities a ‘litmus test’ of spirituality. One or a couple of models or practices seem to dominate the thinking and becomes the ‘norm’ for almost everyone.
This tendency seems to occur across the whole spectrum of spirituality from ‘speaking in tongues’ to ‘centering prayer’ and all sorts of things in between. Many of us have sat in groups thinking ‘this is not working, but is it just me out of step?’ If you go on to talk to others in the group you usually find some were thinking the same but were feeling it must be their lack of spirituality or faith!
These thoughts can be taken into our own prayer life so that you keep on trying things that are the ‘norm’ for your group even though they do not work for you. They are all just methods and with any method, it can become an ‘idol’. There are, of course, times to persevere and stick at things that may have just gone stale. However, there are times to say ‘this is not working for me and has never worked, what else is there?’
You need to have the courage and confidence to know when something is not for you and it is time to try other things. For example, introverts in charismatic traditions and extroverts in contemplative traditions can really have a tough time in finding their own way to pray. It may not be that they need to change their tradition or denomination because many other things may be right for them but they may just need to break out from its norms. If that is you why not try some new things!
Finding a Rhythm for Your Day
A Jewish rabbi once said that
Dawn and dusk are basic times to pray, because then you have day-time and night-time consciousness at the same time.
(Rodger Kamenetz, The Jew in the Lotus)
An important part of considering prayer in our life is to find out when to pray. Many monastic Christian traditions have incorporated a rhythm of prayer into their day and have appropriate liturgy for each part of the day. Many of us will not have the same control over our lives but there may be things we can do that make a difference.
Our modern culture tends to cut us off from the natural rhythm of our bodies and of the day. We think we have to be on the go 24/7. We can have artificial light all the time, so we never have to stop. We can eat whenever we want. With phones and email we are never out of contact. There are seemingly no limits. It does not have to be like that: The day does naturally offer us a shape, although we will each respond to it a bit differently.
Part of being ourselves is to learn about our natural daily rhythm, and begin to trust, accept it and see it as a part of God’s gift to each one of us. Simple things like knowing when we are likely to concentrate best on prayer. Asking yourself whether you are a morning, evening, or mid-day person and then finding ways of making use of that can help. You could also consider how each part of the day has something different to say to you.
Night is a time of natural darkness, and we may be reluctant to face it because of ancient fears we have of darkness. Perhaps the challenge is to learn to trust the darkness as a symbol of mystery and the unknown. The reality often is that what feels like impenetrable darkness is actually nothing of the sort, and when our eyes adjust to the dark we realise that we can see more than we thought. Indeed we find that we can see things we couldn’t see in the light, like the stars!
Once we fall asleep we enter a dream-like world where our usual control on our thoughts and feelings has less play. All manner of insights and anxieties surface and work themselves out, leading often to a sense of recreation and refreshment in the morning.
You may find that if something is really troubling you then you will wake in the night worrying about it. (Perhaps like wrestling Jacob in Genesis 32: 22-32) In the middle of the night the issue can seem insoluble.
One way of dealing with this might be just to realise that you are not thinking straight at that hour and go back to sleep. Others, might be more helped by getting up, making a cup of tea, sitting down, lighting a candle and being with whatever is troubling you, until you can hand it over to God and go back to bed. Often in the morning it is less of a problem!
After the absolution of the night, the dawn is a new beginning.
(John O’Donohue, Eternal Echoes)
The rising sun can be a symbol of the giftedness of life and the new day: We don’t produce it, it is given. The women went to the tomb of Jesus at the break of day and found unexpected new life there. So the beginning of the day is a good time to be still and waiting for whatever will come, and maybe for saying a morning prayer over a cup of tea.
The morning has often been seen as the time when work is planned and begun. It is a time for us to engage with the world. God created us in His own image, which amongst other things surely means that we were made to be creative. Creativity begins here, however humble and ordinary the task. Each morning is a new beginning, and a fresh start. The Holy Spirit came upon the first disciples at Pentecost, in the morning, and they were filled with new life to do unimaginable things and be unimaginable people. The new life flows into us as gift and flows through us into the lives of others as a blessing, without our having to do anything except let it happen. So a brief prayer to ask God’s blessing on your work might be the most appropriate – maybe just on the way to work.
Noon marks the end of the morning and offers a pause before the after-noon. It’s a time to stop and reflect: To collectively renew our energy with shared food and drink, after the morning’s work.
It might be a time to go deeper. Jesus was crucified at noon. The sun is at its strongest at noon. It is also a time of quiet and birds and the animal kingdom are silent at the hottest part of the day. It is as if the world needs a pause from doing and a time to just be. Many cultures encourage a siesta after lunch but even a brief rest as part of a lunch break might be helpful.
As we move towards the end of the working day we are faced with the realisation that our work is never truly completed. There is always more to do, and another day to do it. Moreover, all the work that we do complete will pass away and disappear. Nothing lasts forever, or at least nothing that we can do.
In the story of Jesus’ passion the late afternoon is the time of his entombment, when his body is laid to rest, and he had to wait and trust upon God’s activity to renew it with life.
For many this is the time of the difficult transition from our place of work back to our home and family. Our best energies may be spent, we may face a stressful journey home, and we bring all too often to our nearest and dearest the very worst of us. It can be a difficult transition: A threshold moment for the balance in our life between our work and the rest of our life. Some need space and time to find themselves, others need conversation and company. How we manage to cross this threshold speaks volumes about the state of our being.
The evening is a time to lay down the roles and masks that we have worn through the day, and to find and be ourselves. For some it is a time to party, for others it is a time to relax with the television, a film, or simply over a meal with friends. The Last Supper (Lk 22: 7-23) and the shared meal at Emmaus (Lk 24: 13-35) both happened in the evening.
It is a natural time to review the events of the day, both our own and the world’s. As the light fades it is maybe inevitable that our own thoughts will be drawn to our own mortality, and we will find ourselves reflecting on the great questions of life. ‘Why am I here?’ ‘What am I for?’ ‘What is the point of it all?’ And as we prepare for bed we prepare also to let go of another day of life. We forget that some will not wake in the morning. We know not where we go during the hours of darkness. We have to let go into the dark and to learn to trust things that we do not know and have little control over.
HM and RG