11. Finding New Ways to Pray
This chapter is inspired by a collection of ‘Prayer Cards’ which were displayed in Soul Space at Greenbelt over a number of years. They are a collection of things to try in prayer, ways of thinking about prayer and the way God works in our lives. In this chapter, I have given a selection of some of the most popular ones and others that give some idea of the variety of creative ways that people find helpful in approaching prayer. As always, this is just a starting point and you can modify them in anyway to suit you, your personality and your tradition. In addition, I hope it might inspire you to seek, for yourself, new and creative ways to pray.
Remember if they do not work for you, sometimes it is worth persevering, sometimes coming back at another time, or sometimes letting them go as not for you. You may have to look beyond these.
If you want a fuller collection of the Prayer Cards these can be found at the Annunciation Trust website: http://www.annunciationtrust.org.uk/prayer-cards/.
If you want more suggestions of the way to pray, you can go to the ‘Approaches to Prayer’ book or on the website at http://www.approachestoprayer.info/.
Below is the list so you can browse to see which ones interest you and might be helpful.
- Blogging as Prayer
- Colourful Prayer
- Daily Office
- Distractions in Prayer
- Drawing and Using a Labyrinth
- God Basket
- Holding Cross
- Jesus Prayer
- Lectio Divina
- Living with Mystery
- Nature Walk
- Prayer Walking
- Praying the Bible
- Praying through the Body
- Praying with My Body
- Praying with Stones
- Sacred Space
- Silence and the Senses
- Using Active Imagination
- Using the Rosary
- When ‘God language’ breaks Down
Blogging as Prayer
On one level it’s a way of conveying information: items of news, links to other websites. On another level it’s a scrapbook, a means of collecting interesting quotes, pictures, sound and video files. Or it may be an easy way to keep in touch with a scattered family, distant friends: conveying mundane details which only resonate to people who have a close connection.
Blogging is all these things to me. But the daily discipline of adding an entry to my website also serves a deeper spiritual purpose. I would explain this three ways.
First, blogging is a daily discipline. It is a means by which, at the end of every day, I permit myself time to sit down and reflect back on the time just passed. The events of the day, conversations, things seen, heard, read: at the computer, before my fingers strike the keyboard, all these are given a second thought and – not every time, but quite often – at that point new thoughts emerge, discernment comes, ideas and inspirations arise.
I may not end up posting on the blog my deepest, most poignant or personal thoughts, for reasons of confidentiality (where these involve others) or decency (like everyone else’s my mind has mountains, cliffs of fall, frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed which are best avoided in public). I may instead end up posting a link to an interesting article which I’ve read.
But the process is the thing, and that’s my second point: that adding an entry is a way of celebrating that new things have happened that day, new insights, new encounters, which demonstrate the richness in even the most ordinary of times and places. Posting something different each day is a challenge in recognising these things, of sharing the joys which are there to be discovered in my mundane, everyday life.
The third spiritual aspect of blogging is that I do this on my website. There may be millions of other bloggers on the world wide web, but no-one writes like I do, no-one else’s website looks like mine. And so this is an extension of me.
Blogs and bloggers of course get criticised for being self-possessed or exhibitionist, and putting yourself ‘out there’ online does carry the potential for such pitfalls. But me, I’ve always been a writer, always best expressed myself through the written word, and so the blog seems an ideal vehicle for me to communicate in a way I enjoy and which is in some ways most ‘me’. I find it a deeply satisfying way to end each day: playing with words, clicking the keys, communicating with friends and strangers some joys, some insights freshly appreciated. The friends and strangers are important to me, but if they weren’t there reading my blog I’d still find the writing fulfilling.
So, is blogging a way of praying? I recoil a little from such a naked suggestion. But if praying is a way of engaging in a spiritual quest, involving listening and creatively attempting to express what is heard and understood, then blogging can be that. It is, for me, some days.
John Davies (http://www.johndavies.org)
What colour do you associate with anger?
If you asked that question to a room full of people you would get a variety of different answers. Colour is of very real importance to each of us, but the significance of a colour is likely to be different for different people.
From our early experiences, now long forgotten, we are often left with colour associations; different colours came to be associated with our different feelings and emotions. For example, someone may associate anger with the colour black, another with the colour purple, another with orange, etc.
Try the following exercise:
Remember a time when you were very angry, what is the first colour that comes to mind? Repeat this with a variety of different scenarios; a time when you were very excited about something, very pleased, anxious, happy and so on. In this way, you can build up your own colour code to match your feelings.
Sometimes it is too difficult and painful for us to express our feelings in words. At such a time it might be that we are able to express them in colour and shape. Colour can become for us a means of reaching out to others and to God.
To colour your prayer:
- Spend a few moments becoming still and centred.
- Identify an issue which is very much on your heart and mind and about which you would like to express your feelings to God.
- Be focused on that issue, see what colour or colours come to mind.
- Use these colours to make your prayer in whatever shape that comes.
Praying with colour is not an attempt to create a work of art or a picture; it is a way of deepening our relationship with God.
For some people using regular set prayers each day can be a help in finding a prayer space. For others it will be too constrained but it might work for a while and then they need to find something new.
In some Christian traditions, Bible-reading notes are used and can be helpful. There are many ‘Throughout the Year’ books which give daily readings and prayers. As with everything these daily reading books can become a burden and there is a need to treat them only as just tools to help you to pray and not as ends in themselves.
The Church of England offers The Book of Common Prayer and Common Worship: Services and Prayers for the Church of England that includes prayers for morning, evening and night. These can be used on your own. People can get great encouragement knowing that these are being used at the same time all over the world.
The internet offers many other versions of the Daily Office from all sorts of traditions. Just ‘Google’ in ‘Daily Office’ and see what you get and try some. The Sacred Space website at http://www.sacredspace.ie is an example of a site offering some spiritual help each day.
You may also like to consider collecting together your own ‘Daily Office’ with inspiring passages and prayers that are helpful to you. Angela Tilby has published hers in The Little Office (1998, Published by Arthur James) which you could use as an example.
You might also use other things which inspire you like pictures and music which you could make a regular part of your day.
Perhaps just to start collecting for a Daily Office might give you some fresh inspiration for creating a prayer space in your life.
Distractions in Prayer
Conventional wisdom tells us that when we seek to be silent and open to God, with no words or thoughts, just present to God in the silence and emptiness, then inevitably distractions will come into our minds: wandering thoughts and feelings that take us away from what we are trying to be.
Conventional wisdom also says that when this happens we need to notice that it is happening and then gently bring ourselves back to our intention to be present to God in the silence and emptiness. Perhaps having a word which we repeat, or an image that will bring our attention back, can aid this process.
Much of our prayer time is likely to be taken up with these distractions, and it can feel frustrating to be seemingly spending so little time actually praying. Conventional wisdom says that we need to stick at it. It may get better with time and practise. Even if it doesn’t, the very business of trying is itself praying.
I have no doubt that there is deep wisdom in this conventional advice, and that we will do well to heed it. However, I also sense that there may sometimes be another way of looking at it. I wonder if we might be better served by taking these distractions a bit more seriously. These thoughts and feelings that clamour for our attention when we try to be silent and still may, have something important to say to us. They might be telling us what is preoccupying us. They could be giving us valuable information about the movements of our own spirit and even of God’s spirit within us. Perhaps they are an important part of who we are, and just perhaps we need to be willing to bring them into God’s presence, rather than constantly trying to gently dismiss them?
If we go with them perhaps they will spin themselves out and we will know that they are not that important?
Perhaps we could talk to God or Jesus about them? “As soon as I try to be present before you Lord I find that my mind keeps going back to…….…..and I don’t know why?” Perhaps taking them seriously and allowing them their space before God will allow us to understand them and realise what they are trying to tell us? Maybe God will be able to say something to us about them.
Or maybe we could try to enter into dialogue with them? “Oh, its you here again! Why do you keep coming into my thoughts and feelings just when I’m trying to do something else?” Try listening to what they are trying to say to you. It might be that they are friendly, and not something of which to be fearful.
Equally of course, it could be that they are something within us that we are afraid to face, or reluctant to bring before God, but which God is inviting us to explore during our prayer time together. A persistent distraction often points to a barrier that has grown up between ourselves and God or even between ourselves and others.
So, sometimes, the distractions we all have in prayer are actually invitations to explore something deeply with God, and not obstacles to our relationship with God.
Drawing and Using a Labyrinth
The primitive labyrinth design, which with its twisting and tortuous path was adopted in medieval times to symbolise the pilgrimage to the Holy Land, or the way to salvation through the cycles of life, death and resurrection.
Recent years have seen a revival in the art of making garden labyrinths and mazes (the former being distinguished by having only one path) but an indoor one can be made at far less expense and trouble. The process is a contemplative activity in its own right; a dedicated act of attention and true prayer.
The labyrinth depicted embraces the two main characteristics of medieval Christian designs: an equal-armed cross and rotational symmetry.
You could construct your own labyrinth using a soft board, pins and strong cotton. Work on the labyrinth for a set time in silence then have a time of meditation.
The site http://www.lessons4living.com/drawing.htm shows how to draw a finger labyrinth. Then you can use this as a means of meditation. Use your finger to trace around the labyrinth thinking about the process and what it might be telling you about your journey and the twists and turns to the centre. It might give you insights into your place in relation to God and prayer. It could be something that is important in your prayer life on a regular basis or something that you do occasionally
If you want to be more ambitious http://www.lessons4living.com/build.htm describes how to construct a full size labyrinth which can be marked out with stones, rope, or anything else that is to hand
An online labyrinth simulating the one set up in St Paul’s Cathedral in the year 2000 can be found at http://rejesus.co.uk/spirituality/labyrinth. This takes about 45 minutes to complete.
Find yourself a basket or box and put this somewhere in your prayer space.
Write on the box:
I am God. Today I will be handling all of your problems. Please remember that I do not need your help. If life happens to deliver a situation to you that you cannot handle, do not attempt to resolve it. Kindly put it in the ‘something for God to do’ basket. It will be addressed in my time, not yours. Once the matter is placed into the basket, do not hold onto it…….
When you come to pray with those things that you are finding it difficult to let go of try writing them down and putting the prayer or concern in the God basket. The idea is that this will now help you leave it with God, so try not to look at it again.
It may help you to fold the paper so you can’t read it again and destroy in someway. A symbolic way might be to take it outside and burn it letting the smoke disappear into the air.
A Holding Cross
A holding cross is a small wooden cross, about 4 inches long and 3 inches wide, with the arms set not quite horizontal with each, so that the fingers of one hand can wrap easily around it.
Having a holding cross in your prayer space could be a useful resource for a prayer time. Just holding it without saying any words can remind you of God’s presence. It is also small enough to carry it around and just knowing that it is there or just holding it briefly can be a source of strength. It could be a way of creating a ‘mini-prayer space’ wherever you are. The holding cross can be great resource for people who are ill or depressed or grieving. Just to hold it can bring great spiritual comfort.
The standard form of the prayer is:-
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me a sinner.
but there are many minor variations in the wording. Basically this is an adaptation of the prayer of the blind man outside Jericho (Luke 18:38) and it is similar to the prayer of the publican (Luke 18:13).
Its origins are probably in the desert spirituality of the monks of fourth century Egypt, where emphasis was laid upon inner mourning and upon the need for God’s mercy.
They also recommended the repeated use of a short phrase as a method for maintaining the continual remembrance of God, and so moving into a kind of prayer without images or words. Thus, despite being a prayer in words, the Jesus Prayer may lead into silence.
Its use became more widespread in the fourteenth century when it is particularly associated with the monks of Mount Athos in Greece. Some of these monks developed a physical technique in which the head is bowed; the eyes (if open) are fixed on the place of the heart; and the rhythm of the breathing is slowed down and co-ordinated with the words of the prayer.
At the same time the person praying seeks ‘to descend with the intellect into the heart’. By the heart they meant the moral and spiritual centre of a person, the place where a person becomes most truly personal, and at the same time closest to God.
This level of prayer has been attained by many Christians using one word or a phrase, over and over again. St. Francis used to spend whole nights in prayer, just repeating “My God and My All’. Other Saints have had their own favourite words. (It is perfectly possible to use the Jesus Prayer with a rosary, substituting it for the Hail Mary).
In the Orthodox tradition, the Prayer is used primarily as a way into imageless, contemplative prayer, whilst in the West it was more commonly used as a prayer of the feelings and emotions, being linked with devotion to the humanity of Jesus.
My journal is a trap in which I can catch and hold on to otherwise fleeting thoughts, feelings, insights, experiences, dreams and fantasies. Many of them have no meaning for anyone except myself. However, others have had very practical implications. It has been an invaluable aid in my research and my writing.
[Lawrence Osborn: Paper Pilgrimage]
How to do it
You’ll need a notebook which is durable and flexible, for writing /drawing/sticking in. Or you could use a cassette recorder or a lap-top. Its good to:
- date entries.
- keep it private
- be honest: no self-delusion/no castigation/no escapism.
write fast, write everything, include everything, write from your feelings, write from your body, accept whatever comes’.
(Tristine Rainer: The New Diary)
It is written
to enable me to ask definitely by forcing myself to put yearnings into words.
(The Journals of Jim Elliott)
Questions to consider
- Who is it addressed to ? God? Myself?
- Will it cover all areas of my life: spiritual/secular/dream/family/professional? If so should I have different sections for each area? Or is it OK to let them be muddled together?
- What techniques might I find helpful?
- Might it be helpful to write as unsent letters?
- Or as dialogues, with anyone I like
- Or daydreams
- As diagrams and pictures
Using Code letters may be helpful
|P||unresolved problem which will require more thinking|
|M||meditations, and reflections on Biblical or other texts|
|V||voices, of my unconscious|
But remember there are no rules.
Journaling has value for reviewing and looking for trends and developments. It will probably be helpful to re-read what you have written from time to time, maybe once a week or once a month, in order to spot any trends and developments. Does the same question keep recurring? Have you clearly moved on with some issue?
You can use your journal to enrich your prayer life.
You could have two columns, prayer in one and the other to record answers to prayer.
It might be helpful -re discernment on a decision you have to make. Try writing the pros in one column and the cons in another, and keep revisiting your list until it becomes clear what you have to do.
It can be a place of self-examination
It might be helpful to write prayers, even letters to God-be honest!
Writing rather than saying can sometimes aid concentration
Noting moments of joy and anger may lead to deeper worship
Examples of books that began as journals
Dag Hammarskjold: Markings.
Annie Dillard: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
CS Lewis: A Grief Observed
Henri Nouwen: Genesee Diary
Anne Frank’s Diary
This is a very ancient model of Bible study, which has four parts:
Read the passage through slowly and carefully and study what it says.
Reflect upon the ideas and insights of the passage. Personalise the message either by hearing the words as spoken directly to you, or by imagining yourself into the event.
Dialogue with God about what you have read and learnt. Respond personally to anything God has said to you through the passage. This deepens our relationship with God. A heart-felt reaction of some kind may occur. Any of four kinds of prayer may be appropriate here:
adoration and praise
Sit quietly, be still and listen, open to God.
Living with Mystery
I have a friend who speaks of knowledge as an island in a sea of mystery. It is a lovely image – let this, then, be the ground of my faith. All that we know, now and forever, all scientific knowledge that we have of this world, or ever will have, is as an island in the sea.
(Honey from Stone: A Naturalist’s Search for God” by Chet Raymo.)
This quotation hit me like an axe in the head when I first read it, and has stayed with me ever since. What I know, what human kind will ever know, is but a small island amidst a vast sea of unknowing and mystery. The edges of the island will shift as new things are learnt and old things are forgotten, but the mystery remains huge and overwhelming and touches us everywhere, wherever we look.
This is so true on so many different levels. I have just made myself a cup of tea, not in itself a very challenging task but if my making of a cup of tea was totally down to me I would be in deep trouble. I don’t know how to grow tea, let alone harvest it and prepare it for the tea-bag. I might be able to milk a cow but I don’t know how to do so. I don’t know how to grow sugar and harvest it either. I would be hard pressed to make a cup to drink it out of or a spoon to stir it with, let alone a pot in which to boil the water.
So just such a simple task, which I undertake several times a day without thinking about it, potentially reminds me first of all on how dependent on the skills and knowledge of other people I am; and of other people from all around the world. My cuppa is, as they say, ‘the product of more than one country.’
On another level, I know relatively little about myself and the people I love most. The woman I see most of actually spends most of her time not in my presence! I have not known her for most of her life. I do not know what is going on in her body most of the time, let alone what is going on in her mind or heart or soul. I have some clues about those things but I can’t actually know very much, and I’m kidding myself if I think otherwise.
This is just as true of myself. There is a part of me that I know quite well. I have lived with him all of my life but I am constantly learning new things about him. There is a vast amount I don’t know and never will. I don’t know where I came from before my birth, and I don’t know when or where or how I will die, or what will then happen next, if anything. I am in many ways a mystery to myself.
If I think about the world I live in, well I don’t know very much about that either. If I look up to the heavens, I know I’m looking into infinity and that it is a very long way away: further than anyone can measure or even imagine. If I look at a small plant through a magnifying glass or microscope then I see detail beyond my wonderings. And I don’t know any of it.
I don’t even know very much about God. God by definition is beyond our knowing: a vast dark silent emptiness. We may sense God’s presence from time to time. We may believe that Jesus has shown us something of His nature, sufficient of God’s nature even. We may feel confident that in one sense we do know God. But, in another sense, however true that may be, God will always remain beyond our knowing. God is too great and beyond us, for us ever to know God.
If we suppose that this small island of knowing that we have amidst its sea of mystery is intended and indeed good, then what is its purpose? Why is it like this? What might it be trying to teach me about itself, and about me?
It might increase my sense of inter-dependence, not only with all other human beings but with all of creation of which I am but a small part. Even if only humans are aware of it everything in creation seems to share in this mystery. We might go so far as to say that mystery unites us.
So, maybe we could usefully learn to approach all of life with a sense of mystery, wonder and reverence.
It might usefully teach us a little humility.
It might deepen our need of prayer and of worship, and it might change what we hope for from prayer and worship.
Begin with a recollection of God’s love for you and his presence with you.
Take a deep breath of fresh air and reflect on the wonder of this all-pervasive gift which keeps you alive; of the unseeing providence of God who holds you in existence and is continually creating you.
As you begin to walk allow your senses to come alive. Look around you, notice the colour, shape, movement, beauty of what you see: a tree, flower, the sky, clouds, a face…….Delight in it all, enjoy it, rejoice…. Reflect on the gift of sight and thank and praise God ….aloud if you can.
Listen to the variety of sounds, even the tiniest ones….voices, wind, animals, water……even to the seeming silence. Be glad for the music of sound, delight in all you hear. Reflect on what your sense of hearing means to you……and express your gratitude to God the giver of this gift.
Feel wind, sun the air……a stone, a leaf, the bark of a tree, the ground under your feet, the clothes you wear….reflect on your use of touch in expressing affection, in physical work, in playing musical instruments, writing…….
Imagine your life without this sense of touch. Express your gratitude and praise. Smell the scents around you…….the atmosphere, fresh grass, flowers, plants….Delight, rejoice, express your gratitude.
Taste an edible berry, a nut….and at your next meal become aware of the subtle tastes of various foods, savour what you eat and drink, delighting in it.
How grateful do you feel for your senses? What has been evoked by this exercise? Express your gratitude naturally to God, aloud if possible.
Now, or later, move on to reflect on your life and let gratitude arise for all that you genuinely appreciate in your life. Express your feelings spontaneously in whatever way seems right to you.
Put shoes on your feet and step outside, the place on which you will walk is holy ground.
You can prayer walk anywhere if you believe that God is everywhere and interested in all people and all places. If you walk in places where there is hurt or pain or the memory of bad events then your prayers can be intercessions. Anywhere you walk your prayers can be of thanksgiving for the places and people you see en-route. Or you might simply enjoy listening to God as you go where your feet take you.
Prayer walking can consist of stops at a series of predetermined ‘stations’. Perhaps the bus station and the fire station would be on your route where you would pray for those who work there and use these places and their services. Other less literal stations might be to stop outside a school to pray for the pupils, their families and those who teach; a row of shops to pray for those who work there and whose lives involve frequent journeys to and from them; an industrial site, a leisure park, a bridge over a motorway to pray for those on faster journeys.
Prayer walking can involve symbolic actions – writing prayers for the sick on ribbons and tying them to the railings of the health centre, putting prayers for sailors into small pieces of wood and dropping them into water which will carry them out to sea, petitioning for peace by slowly circling a military establishment or offering a stranger a daffodil.
Prayer walks might be enhanced by an openness to unexpected meetings or events. Someone may stop you outside their house to ask what you are doing; the ensuing conversation might result in your praying with them for their family and neighbours. A security guard might misunderstand your intentions entirely and ask you to move off the factory premises, and if the spirit of this exchange is good then the conflict might be energising for all involved.
If you are planning a prayer walk you might elect to choose a particular theme. A walk I once led connected four well-known gateways or entrances in the city centre, and at each one we stopped to consider the comings and goings of the people who use them, the politics and spirituality of inclusion and welcome, and pivotal points in our own lives.
In one town which had been recently flooded we followed the waterways, stopping at various points to pray for the people who lived on and nearby to them, our prayers involving cupping water and skimming stones as well as silence and spoken words. Once, as a way of praying, I spent a day walking in a large out-of-town shopping centre and in the afternoon sat in a coffee house composing prayers for the shoppers and the centre workers based on what I had seen and heard.
Any place carries the potential for prayer. Prayer walking relies on the intentions and perspective of the person walking in relation to the environment they are in. If you sense that no place is out of bounds for God, and you can carry that sense with you every time you step outside, then in theory any everyday walk can be a prayer walk.
Praying the Bible
First select a passage and read it through slowly, concentrating on each word, and with the intention of reaching an understanding of the passage as a whole. Then try one of the methods below. After you have tried one, perhaps try another. It is important to remember that what is helpful for one person may not help another, and that what helps you now may not be what helps you next week!
- Read the passage again until a word or phrase ‘hits’ you. Then pause and reflect on it, allow your mind to follow whatever attracts it. When your reflection runs out of steam, go back to the passage and continue reading, until another word or phrase ‘hits’ you. When you have read the passage once go back and read it through again, in the same way. Keep re-reading until you have had enough.
- See if there is a phrase in the passage which seems to speak to you. Don’t worry about what it is or what it means. It may well be that the phrase chooses you, rather than you the phrase! Repeat the phrase over and over again, slowly, perhaps in time with your breathing or heartbeat.
- Read the passage through as if it had been especially written just for your benefit. Allow it to speak to you.
- Try and visualize the scene described in the passage. You might even try drawing it. It doesn’t matter if you are not an artist! no-one is going to see what you draw. Draw ‘stick people’ if you like. Allow your imagination to fill in the gaps in the picture. What might be there but is not mentioned in the text? Try involving as many of your senses as you can:
- How does it look?
- What sounds can you hear?
- What smells are you aware of?
- Is there a taste in the air?
- Can you reach out and touch anything in the scene?
What happened the minute before the scene you have visualized? And what might happen immediately afterwards?
- Imagine that you are there. Who might you be, on the edge of the story, watching what happens? Do you have a role in the story? Watch the scene unfold. Do you get involved? How do you feel? When the scene comes to an end what do you do next? Suppose that you write a letter or an email soon afterwards to a friend, how do you describe what you witnessed and the impression it left on you?
- Imagine yourself as one of the main characters in the story, perhaps the main character. Hear the words and actions addressed to that character as addressed to you. How do you respond? How do you feel.? What will you now do?
- If you enjoy a bit of Biblical criticism why not have an imaginary conversation with the writer of this passage. What does he/she mean? Would he/she write the passage exactly the same today? If it is a synoptic passage, put the various synoptic parallels together and imagine a conversation between Mark, Matthew and Luke, discussing the merits of their different accounts. If you are really enjoying this introduce some other characters into the conversation!
- What great truths does the story teach you? How might you apply them in your own life?
- Are there other stories which have echoes of this one? Which have some of the same characters or places? Can you shed more light on this story by comparing it with other stories?
Praying through the Body
My body moves to the cupboard where I used to store the muesli before I moved it.
Or takes the turning to work when going to the seaside.
Or wakes much earlier than it need while on holiday and I had been anticipating a good sleep and lie-in.
Habits are embodied and my mind has to engage to remind it of changes. And that typified a general view I had of the body as something needing to be instructed and, perhaps in one reading of St Paul, controlled.
But I’ve discovered my body remembers things that my mind cannot recall and knows things that my mind can never have done. Like the time that I needed a leather needle to complete a project and, in frustration at not having one on a Sunday, going to clear the garage, only to find when sweeping up exactly the needle I required. Even now I have no idea how it came to be there.
Or the times when my body has stood up from whatever I have been doing at a desk and headed off, much to my mind’s bemusement. Once it wanted to walk two miles into the centre of York from the University and I couldn’t understand why. I said to myself as I left, “I might as well take a book to read, since I’ve no idea what I’m doing”. I had a good walk and sat down on a wall opposite the Minster. I’d never done so before and the different view was interesting. After a minute I thought that as I wasn’t doing anything, I would read my book. I had just opened it when my brother walked up to me. He was on a mystery coach tour from a music week some fifty miles away – I had no idea he was on the week, let alone any means of knowing that he was coming to York. And he certainly had no idea until they arrived ten minutes previously. Ah, that’s why I’m here on this wall, I thought. And we went with his friends and had a great day.
There is a bit of me that would like to say such events are rare in order that I appear normal. They happen reasonably often. And sometimes with a strong disagreeing dialogue, I can describe it no other way, between the body and the mind. I’ve discovered that there have been times that the mind has over-ridden the body when the latter was right. Probably many more that I do not know about.
But if my body knows such things that the mind does not, perhaps it knows God in a way that my mind can not. And I’ve started exploring the way to ask the body questions in prayer, moving from the argument of not understanding what it is up to through to acceptance and appreciation. “What does my body say about this?” I might ask. And I’m surprised to discover not only that it answers, but has insights that can transform the mind’s emotions and my subsequent action.
Part of the struggle was the theology I’d received. Surely the body is there as the ‘natural man’ to be subdued and controlled from its impulses? Of course, the body has desires and can certainly sin when I do not choose to place its action in the way of following Christ. But in that it is no different to the mind. The split, I’ve learned, is not a body/mind one, the latter renewed and the former subdued, but one of a complete person, one in a natural state moving to a spiritual one, body and mind.
I’m thirsty, my body said very clearly. Having seen P driving his car, I had followed him to his home. Formerly a stalwart member of our worship band, he had not been to church for many months and did not return calls. As we parked a fellow church member in the car with me asked what I was going to say. No idea, I said; my body replied “I’m thirsty”. As we met at the front door, I said to P, “I’m thirsty any chance of a cup of tea?” And he let us in and we had one. The Church leaders asked me about what I had said, what I had prayed. My mind agreed with their looks of derision. But that man never missed another service for all the years I was there. Only much later did he tell me the whole story and thank me for accepting him as a friend without comment, it had enabled him to return. He didn’t know it, but he was thanking my body, not my mind who, like the leaders, had nagged out all those ‘ought-to’s at me.
I cannot pretend that it is easy. I’m on a learning journey of exploration. This PhD brain often won’t accept the body’s wisdom or that it has a right to speak, seeking to explain it away or in an about-face then trying to claim it as projection. Although where else does the Holy Spirit dwell, if not in the body, I wonder. What else is it that makes people’s faces shine, their lips to smile, hearts to be glad – all unconsciously. It is in the confidence of the Christian credo that I continue, for it is the body that will be resurrected, not an un-embodied mind.
My body continues to be astonishing in the way that God uses it to speak to me. The body may take me somewhere surprising or, and I can use no other word for it, speak to me: “Go into York”, “Turn right”, “I’m thirsty”. But it is sitting in prayer explicitly asking and being attentive that some of the best has come. It can be equally surprising and transforming. I’m learning a new way of praying.
Praying with My Body
For many years I have practised ‘lectio divina’. It is a very old way of meditatively reading the Bible, but you can also do that with your body.
With lectio divina of the body you can listen to the story of every part of your body.
Sit comfortably. Breathe slowly. Gently focus your attention on your breath without trying to control the rate of breathing. Note the way the air feels as it enters your nostrils, flows down your throat and into your lungs. Give yourself time to become accustomed to this rhythm. Then let yourself become aware of the wave of oxygen as it enters, coursing through your limbs down to your toes and out to your fingers.
Having become aware of your breathing, now let your awareness go to the various organs and parts of your body: brain, lungs, heart, stomach, liver, intestine, kidneys, bladder, genitals, eyes, ears, nose, lips, teeth, skin and so on.
As you breathe, give thanks to God for each of these organs, and for any part of your body that you choose. With the breathing, focus your awareness on each organ, noticing, and allowing yourself to be mindful of its ongoing work within the larger whole. Take as much time as you need to attend to each organ. Notice if there is a particular area of the body that calls for your attention or that has a particular significance, or that brings memories forth.
Choose one organ from those you have attended. Focus kindly your awareness on that particular part of your body, adding this prayer: “I will thank you because I am marvellously made” (Psalm 139, 13).
As your attention remains with one particular organ notice if you have any feelings, fears, misgivings, anxieties, questions, or thanksgivings. What memories came to you? Concerns? Associations? Allow yourself time to pay attention to any images or colours that come to mind. Perhaps a line from a song or a poem will come to you during this time of focusing.
Gather your thoughts and feelings into a prayer. Give thanks for your body, for any particular organ and its ceaseless working. Become mindful of those in the healing professions who help persons who have an illness that affects this particular organ. Pray for those who are ill and those who care for them.
Finally, allow yourself to become aware of the deep connections of the human family, for we are very much alike in the structure and arrangement of our physical selves. Let this connection enter your awareness, pray for the whole human family.
After your prayer, let yourself receive the silence once again. Imagine your body encompassed by a gentle, illumining light. Rest in this illumined silence.
Gideon van Dam
Praying with Stones
Stones can be used to help you to pray in a variety of ways – here are some suggestions to get you started.
- Pick a stone – just an ordinary stone, but each is part of God’s creation. Each one is unique, like us, created and loved by God. Really look at it, its colour, its shape – dip it in the water and see how the colour changes. What messages does your stone have for you, what is the “water” which shows you in your true colours?
- Hold your stone and notice its temperature change. Maybe this is how you feel when you pray and are “held” by God, or perhaps you would like to feel held but do not?
- Look at your stone – is there anything in the colour/pattern/blemishes that helps you get in touch with something in your own life, in your own spiritual journey?
- Does your stone have crystals that sparkle in the right light? What makes you “sparkle” and what is the “light” which helps you to sparkle?
- You might like to make a pattern with some stones – perhaps each stone will have a particular meaning for you (maybe each stone representing a person who you want to pray for, or an event in your life). As you lay the stones down pray for the person or event it represents.
- You could carry a stone in your pocket or bag, and when you touch it remember to pray. Pray for whatever is on your mind at that time – and remember to thank God for His love.
- Is there something you want to ask God to forgive you for? Hold the stone and pray about this thing, ask God to forgive you and allow the stone to drop gently into the water. Feel the weight of your sin washed away.
- Thank God for the insights you have received from holding your stone.
Finding a sacred space for ourselves can be important and it can be useful to ask the question ‘where do I go when I want to find God’. Three illustrations below might start you thinking:
Susannah Wesley, a busy mother with no privacy, would sit in a rocking chair with an apron over her head praying while John and Charles and the rest of her large family talked and played around her.
Mahatma Gandhi loved to sit in front of his spinning wheel, which reminded him of the life of struggle for the poor.
Precious Ramotswe in “The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” books by Alexander McCall Smith, found her space to mull and ponder under a nearby acacia tree.
We asked a number of people ‘Where is your sacred place? And these are some of the replies:
In the bath
A walk in the country
A walk on the seashore
By the sea or river
In an empty Cathedral
In my room
In an art gallery
On the train
In the car
In the gym
Just sitting quietly
Hanging out the washing
Some of these might give you clues where yours might be. So,
Where do you find YOUR sacred space?
Silence and the Senses
Often it is good simply to be silent and still before God: to try to empty the mind as best we can, and just to wait upon God. But this is not easy! Unless you are very experienced in the life of prayer, and have a spiritual guide to accompany you, you will almost certainly need to take something with you into the silence. It may be a Biblical word or phrase, a symbol or a picture. Or it may be that you can use your senses.
Centering prayer is a method of contemplative prayer in the Christian tradition, although people of all faith-paths use this form. As the sixteenth century Gregory the Great expressed it, “its focus is resting in God, being in communion with the Divine in an attitude of silence”. It has some similarities to eastern meditation in that it involves the use of a single word, repeated like a mantra: Possibilities include Jesus / peace / shalom / love / Abba. Like a mantra, the repetition of the word serves as a focal point, a marker to return to when distracted by other thoughts.
Centering prayer begins with the intention to be with God. Some practitioners advocate doing it twice a day, in sessions of about twenty minutes each.
The format is simple: choose your sacred word, or phrase, position yourself comfortably, and slowly repeat the word or phrase silently or out loud. When thoughts intrude and your mind starts to wander then come back to repeating your word or phrase. Let your words be something that you keep coming back to. Conclude the session gradually and gently.
Although you might feel you have received insights or new understanding around the sacred word chosen that is not the point of centering prayer and, in fact, practitioners are encouraged to simply return to the word rather than follow the train of thought.
Thought is seen as an impediment to the experience of God which is the reward of contemplative prayer. As the author of ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ wrote:
If you strive to fix your love on him forgetting all else, which is the work of contemplation I have urged you to begin, I am confident that God in his goodness will bring you to a deep experience of himself.
You can use the principles of Centering Prayer but have something other than a word or phrase as the thing upon which you focus:
Focus your attention on a simple object, like a lit candle or a painting or a photograph. Don’t think about it. Just look at it. Allow yourself to concentrate just on the candle. When your concentration wavers, as it surely will, just bring it back to the candle again.
Remember that the object of the exercise is actually not looking at the candle at all, but rather looking ‘through’ the candle to the emptiness beyond where God is. Using the candle as a way of clearing your mind, creating a space where God can enter.
You can do much the same thing but using sounds. This time focus your attention on your hearing. You might just be aware of what you can hear. Name the sounds that are loud and close by and then gradually name those that are further away until you are concentrating on those sounds at the very edge of audibility.
You might choose to play a CD of natural sounds: water running; the sea; or wind through the trees.
For many people an easy way into silence is through listening to music. A musician might achieve much the same sort of thing by playing their musical instrument and focusing on the sounds they produce.
Again, you are using your hearing, to hear ‘through’ the sounds, to the silence around and beyond them, where God is. Using your hearing as a way of clearing your mind, creating a space where God can enter.
You can do the same sort of thing, but this time using your sense of smell. You could burn joss sticks or incense. You could light an ‘aromariser’ with natural oils in it. You could simply be aware of the scent of flowers in the room.
Another way in is to focus on your breathing. Not to breathe deeper or shallower than usual but just to breath normally, and then to concentrate on your breathing. Be aware of your body taking air into the lungs, and then expelling it out. Concentrate on it, and allow your concentration to clear your mind of other things. If your concentration wavers, just bring it back to your breathing again.
You might find it helpful to imagine yourself breathing in the life giving Spirit of God, and breathing out sin and pain.
The whole body
You might try being aware of the whole of your body. Sit with your back straight, your hands relaxed and open on your thighs, and the soles of your feet flat on the ground. Imagine that there is a thin piece of string attached to the back of your head, and running taut up to the ceiling so that your body is held upright.
Now, start by being aware of all the sensations in your feet. Don’t move the feet, just be aware of all the sensations that are there. Take about ten seconds. Then move up your body to your ankles, and notice all the sensations there. Next your thighs, then your knees, and so on, right through to the top of your head.
When you have been all around your body once, do it again, slowly and gently. You may notice all sorts of odd aches and pains that you didn’t know were there! You may feel that your body is trying to tell you something! But just let them go and move on.
Many people find this a very effective way of clearing the mind and thus preparing themselves for prayer and God.
Synchronicity can be defined as “a meaningful coincidence of two or more events, where something other that the probability of chance is involved.
It is synchronicity when somebody does something which meets a need of yours, about which they knew nothing; or when a need of yours is met by outside circumstances; or when you have a dream, vision or premonition about something which then happens.
I have the quite frequent experience of just the book I need ‘jumping off the shelf ‘in a bookshop at me. Or, of picking up a book to read at home and finding to my surprise that it speaks to something I am concerned about, although that was not consciously why I picked it up
A friend of mine, a very practical feet on the ground sort of friend, told me how he and his wife were looking to move house but couldn’t find what they wanted no matter where they looked. One day coming home from his job in London he accidentally got on the wrong train and had to walk home by a different route. His journey took him straight past the house they had been looking for and had been unable to find. They bought it and have lived there very happily ever since.
Some time ago I was wandering through The National Gallery in London, as I often do, and was struck by a picture of ‘the crowning of the Virgin’ which I must have seen before but had never really noticed. Later in the same visit I found myself very taken by an image on the Virgin and Child. I looked at, and thought about both images. A month or so later I found myself reading a book of Jung where he talks quite a lot about the feminine, especially Mary, and Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ which also features the feminine heavily. Then I had a powerful dream about a feminine figure who spoke to me. Now it seemed to me difficult to deny that something was going on here! My attention was being drawn to something. Jean Shinoda Bolen says “in the experience of a synchronistic event, instead of feeling ourselves to be separated and isolated in a vast world we feel the connection to others and the universe at a deep and meaningful level.”
My experience is that there is frequently something ‘accidental’ about these things; there seems to have been an element of chance about them; they were not altogether what you had planned.
Most of us, I think, have this sort of experience more often than we realise. Reflect on some of the most significant moments in your life.
How did you meet the most significant ‘other’ in your life?
How did you come to be living in your present home?
How did you come to get the job you presently do?
What have been the moments of important growth in your life?
Often we intuitively recognise these moments: Something feels right that is not easy to define but of which we have little doubt. Oddly, the timing often seems to have been right, and we might well have not been so receptive a short time before.
It seems as if there is a strong undercurrent in life and that we, for the most part, splash about on the surface. Sometimes the undercurrent comes to the surface and we experience it and sometimes we sink and then the undercurrent bears us up. I wonder if this is what generations of Christians have called grace?
I reckon that these moments of synchronicity happen more often that we own. My experience is that they often seem to happen in clusters. There are times when there seems to be a lot of such moments and others when it seems as if nothing is happening at all. The ‘cluster’ moments are usually times of change in my life. So it pays to watch out for them, and to learn to trust them when they occur. They frequently lead to good wisdom, although sometimes they do not appear to lead anywhere, and they may help us to trust life and the providential care of God more deeply
Using Active Imagination
One night I had a very vivid dream which disturbed me. I felt that it was somehow significant as it remained with me, but I didn’t know how to interpret it.
Was it coincidence that at the time I was reading a book called “Inner Work” by Robert Johnson, subtitled “Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth.” and in it he described how this could be done. I was intrigued and not knowing what to expect decided to give it a go.
The first step, I was told, was to be in a place where I would be alone and undisturbed. I then took a notebook and pen, lit a candle and prayed that whatever emerged would be of God. Then I emptied my mind except for my remembrance of the dream and the people in it; myself, a frog and a kingfisher. To my amazement the three of us started a dialogue which led us to go on a journey. This started by entering a cave, but we have since been through forests, up and down hills, by rivers and many other places, and as we travelled we encountered different characters, some of them animals, each one identifying themselves and joining us on the journey, soon becoming integrated with the others. The frog, who is the wisest character although the most insignificant, interprets what is going on and that each character is a part of myself. There are now ten of us! I have identified hitherto unrecognised grief (in the form of a chained gorilla), and rage (in the form of a bear), good and bad characters (the latter I was not at all keen to welcome at first). As we journey together we are becoming more accepting of each other and are gradually being transformed. At times, when we are struggling and seem to be lost we become aware of God’s presence in the form of a dazzling light which overwhelms us, and then it gradually fades and we are as we were before, though aware that something momentous has happened and are overawed for a while before we continue on our journey knowing that God’s presence is still with us.
I have no control over what I write, it streams from my unconscious and I can hardly keep up with the dialogue which is at times hilarious as the characters squabble with each other but also help each other, and often what comes out is very profound. The sessions seem to last about an hour and it becomes clear when it is time to rest. The journey is ongoing and I do not know where or when it will end.
I have found it helpful and indeed important to be able to share what is going on in my imagination with someone I can trust. I have a spiritual guide who fortunately knows about using Active Imagination and she has encouraged and affirmed me in this process and validated it so that I don’t feel I am ‘off the wall’.
It has been, and continues to be an amazing experience. I have always had a vivid imagination and I do believe that God is using this to help me to an understanding and acceptance of myself, the good and the bad, and His acceptance and valuing of each of these parts of me, transforming me and integrating them into, one day I hope, a whole person, the one he created me to be. Trust is one of the important characters in the story, and it is in this spirit that I continue my journey.
Using the Rosary
A rosary is a string of beads for counting prayers in a pattern of prayer and meditation. Various aids for counting prayers seem to have been used in Western Christendom from as early as the fourth century. This particular form begins to appear from about the tenth century.
A popular way of using it is to start with the crucifix, on which the Creed is said; the next five beads are used for the Lord’s Prayer (1), three Hail Mary’s (2,3,4), and the Gloria (5).
Where the pendant joins the circle there is a large bead on which the Lord’s Prayer is said. Then come ten small beads for ten ‘Hail Marys’ The next large bead is used for the Gloria which concludes the first decade, and for the Lord’s Prayer which begins the next. There are thus five decades around the circle. You exit back down the pendant (as above but in reverse order).
The saying of these prayers is combined with a pattern of fifteen meditations on subjects drawn from the life of Jesus, and devotion to his mother Mary. These subjects are known as ‘mysteries’ and fall into three groups: five Joyful Mysteries, five Sorrowful Mysteries and five Glorious Mysteries. As each decade of the rosary is said one of these subjects is meditated on so that each time the complete five decades of the rosary is prayed one of the three groups of Mysteries is worked through.
In order to deepen your meditations, you will probably want to reflect on each of the Mysteries outside of your time of prayer, studying the relevant Bible passages where appropriate.
There is no reason why you could not use other words if you wanted to, substituting the Jesus Prayer, or some other simple Biblical phrase, for the Hail Mary. Equally, you could choose a different set of Glorious Mysteries if you wanted to use only Biblical subjects.
Or you could simply use a string of beads as something you hold and move along from one bead to the next while praying. It might or might not be helpful quietly to say a word or phrase, which is meaningful to you as you move from one bead to the next.
The Hail Mary
“Hail Mary, full of grace; the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen”
“Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, Amen.”
The Joyful Mysteries
- The Annunciation (Luke 1: 26-38)
- Mary visits Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-42).
- The Nativity (Luke 2:4-8)
- The Presentation in the Temple (Luke 2:22-25)
- The Finding of Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:46-49)
The Sorrowful Mysteries
- The Agony in the Garden (Luke 22:39-46)
- The Scourging (Mark 15: 9-15)
- Jesus is crowned with thorns (Matthew 27:27-31)
- Jesus carries His cross (John 19: 16-19)
- The Crucifixion (Luke 23: 44-47):
The Glorious Mysteries
- The Resurrection (Matthew 27: 5-8)
- The Ascension (Luke 24: 50-53)
- The Coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2: 1-5)
- The Assumption
- The Coronation of the Virgin (Revelation 11:19; 12:1-2)
When ‘God language’ breaks down
I have a priest friend with whom I have been meeting regularly for many years to reflect together on his journey with God. One day when we met he said that he thought that perhaps this would be our last meeting. I asked him why, and he replied that the theistic framework was no longer helpful to him: To ask ‘where is God in all this?’ was no longer a helpful or indeed meaningful question to ask.
I replied that it seemed to me that while this might be the right time to end our meetings, it might equally be argued that this was precisely the time when we should continue, as he was now facing the possibility of considerable change in his way of thinking about life. We agreed to continue to meet, and I was especially glad that we did so because it became clear in conversation that he felt a sense of rejection from a number of his other Christian friends because of his newly found position.
If ‘where is God in all of this?’ is no longer a helpful question to ask, what might be a helpful alternative question, I asked him. We came up with three possibilities:
Is life purposeful or meaningful?
Is life wholesome?
What are the quality of my relationships?
When we meet now these questions are where we start our conversations.
I’ve mentioned this conversation with many people over the years and have noted alternative questions which they identified. You might like to reflect on some of them yourself, not least because trying to frame and answer these questions without resort to overtly religious language sometimes brings interesting insights to light, and can lead us to see things with a new clarity.
What is the meaning of life?
Does my life style support this meaning?
Where and when does meaning break into my life?
What are the issues against which the meaning is currently being tested?
What inspires me to go on living?
What gives me life?
What brings disintegration and death?
What do I ultimately hope for?
Where do I see energy in the world?
To whom do I give thanks?
What expletive might I use in the face of a disaster?
What question is life asking me now?
All this raises a number of interesting questions for me. I think that there are many people who struggle, as my friend does, with ‘God language’. Now it may be that these people have rejected any notion of belief in God. But it seems to me, equally possible that what they have rejected is not God but the language we use about God. I recall a quote I think from Simone Weil in which she said something about ‘there being two atheisms of which one is a purification of the notion of God.’ What I understand this to mean is this. We may no longer believe in God, or we may continue to believe but reject most, perhaps all, of the language we have grown accustomed to using about God. This may be a terrifying experience, but it might also be a purifying of our knowledge of God.
Rationally, this is not very surprising. By definition, God is bound to be beyond our understanding. So any language we use about God, however useful and true it may be must, to some extent, become an idol standing in the way of the full truth about God in which case a little purification of our language might be a very good idea. To realise this, and to reject the language may actually be a great act of faith rather than a rejection of faith. All of which suggests to me that the line between faith and atheism is often a very fine one, and may be difficult for us to discern. Someone may sound like an atheist but in fact have a deep faith, and someone else may sound like a person of faith but in fact be using faith as a way of avoiding an encounter with the true God. We therefore do well to be proceed carefully and to refrain from judgement.
So we do well to be careful in our use of language about God, and especially to beware of dumping the language that currently helps us, onto other people. Many people, I suspect, when they ‘reject God’, are not in reality rejecting God at all: they are reacting against and rejecting language about God which they hear believers claiming to be the only legitimate language to use, but which they cant accept because it doesn’t match their own experience and which they don’t find helpful. I sometimes wonder if our evangelism may not put more people off than it helps? As I’m not against evangelism in principle, I’m not quite sure where I go with that? Perhaps we should heed the words of St Francis of Assisi, “Preach the Gospel at all times, and if all else fails use words”
A difficulty is that when you let go of ‘God language’ it is not at all clear where you go instead? What other language might do? What if no language seems right? Often people move from this position into silence or music or images or nature, and often somewhat to their surprise find that God is there already waiting for them!