Sister Wendy Beckett was a Roman Catholic contemplative who knew a great deal about art. You may have seen her on tv talking about it, or you may have read one of her many books on the subject. She also wrote about prayer, and there is a quotation that I attribute to her that has stayed with me. “If God is love, and prayer is important, then it cant in principle be difficult.” Certainly she was convinced that “prayer is simple.”
One of the problems with organised religion is that it tends to give the impression of the opposite, that prayer is difficult, and that only a small group of people do it well. As a consequence most people feel that they’re not much good at prayer, and often feel guilty about it. My experience is more in line with Sister Wendy, that prayer is simple, and what’s more, that most people are better at it than they give themselves credit for. The reason is also simple: we have bought into a far too narrow a definition of prayer.
I’ve learnt over the years that its best to define it broadly: “Prayer is what ever nourishes the relationship between you and God” . This definition affirms two things. The first is that it is God who does most of the praying. God called us into life, created us for this relationship and invites us into it, and has given us everything that we need to explore it. God is the primary nourisher of the relationship, the primary prayer.
The second is that prayer embraces a far wider range of activities than might have previously been thought. Crucially, its not mainly a matter of saying words. I sometimes ask people a question. ‘If you needed to pray, but you couldn’t use words or enter a religious building, where would you go, and what would you do?’ The answers vary of course, some go for a walk in a green place; others make or listen to music; some sit quietly and light a candle, while lying in the bath or sitting in a favourite chair; some just sit in silence; my wife gardens; I might smoke my pipe and mull; I know someone who goes dancing. If this is how we might sometimes pray, then it seems reasonable to assume that other people who choose to do these things may also be praying, whether or not they would name it as prayer. It is the engaging in the activity not the correct naming of it that is key. Its not all those who say “Lord, Lord…..”etc
In my experience when people begin to consciously use these ways of praying without words, their prayer life & spiritual well-being often take off quite dramatically, and prayer becomes an enjoyable & deeply nourishing experience that they look forward to. Not least because common to all the answers is that people are doing things they enjoy. We have here an exciting vision of humankind actively engaging in nourishing their relationship with God by praying through doing things that are pleasurable.. What could please a loving God more, than seeing human beings enjoying nourishing their relationship with Her/Him. Religion would be better served affirming people in their natural joyful pray & aiding them to deepen it, rather than trying to teach them something that they find difficult..
I recently read a book entitled ‘The Art of Rest’ by Claudia Hammond in which she writes about a global survey, ‘The Rest Test’, completed by 18,000 people across 135 countries in which they were asked to name the three activities they find most restful. They were accessed through two BBC Radio shows, one on Radio 4 and the other on the World Service. Rest clearly means different things to different people, and I think the survey left people to define it as they would, but respondents who said that they felt fully rested had well-being scores twice as high as those who said that they needed more rest. So, however you define it, rest appears to be good for us.
Two things in the survey stood out for Hammond. First, “the top 10 activities in the list are all often done alone, as if we need to escape from people in order to rest”. Secondly, many of the activities named “bring about some kind of change in our awareness, we adjust our focus & our chattering minds begin to quieten”.
The top 10, with the % of people choosing the activity as 1 of their 3 choices is:
1 Reading. Almost 60%
2 Being in the natural environment. Just over 50%
3 Spending time alone Just over 50%
4 Listening to Music Just over 40%
5 Doing nothing in particular 40%
6 Walking Just under 40%
7 Having a bath or shower Just under 40%
8 Daydreaming Just under 40%
9 Watching tv Just over 35%
10 Meditating or practising mindfulness Just over 20%
I am struck by how much the top 10, with exception of No 9, mirror the answers people give as to what they’d do and where they’d go if they needed to pray but couldn’t use words or enter a religious building.
I wonder if by ‘rest’ people are alluding to what the Judeo-Christian tradition would refer to as ‘.Sabbath’ time ? I wonder if people often choose to spend this time alone, because they are seeking the Divine, the Other, although again they probably wouldn’t consciously use that language ? I wonder if their change in awareness, adjusting of focus, and quietening of their chattering minds is much different from Sister Wendy might have called contemplative prayer.
If there is some truth in these reflections, then there is a lot more praying going on than we realise: God is more graciously active in peoples’ lives than we could have dreamt.