One of the young men at my parish Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Ottawa has enjoyed some of my recent posts on prayer, particularly the one on Making our parishes schools of prayer.
He suggested we do something over Lent, so starting on Feb. 27 the day after Ash Wednesday we will launch our Lenten School of Prayer. We will meet once a week after our Thursday evening 6 p.m. Mass for a light bring-your-own supper and discussion.
We will be reading David Torkington’s Wisdom from the Christian Mystics: How to Pray the Christian Way that I have found so encouraging in re-invigorating my personal prayer life.
My hopes for this Lenten School of Prayer is that we don’t merely talk about prayer and study it, but that our time together helps us to find graces and motivation to engage in prayer with more discipline and fervour.
Over at David Torkington’s website you can find podcasts and blog posts to give you an idea of what we’ll be reading.
In The Essence of Prayer—Gently Trying, he writes:
People are always asking me to advise them what method of prayer to adopt, or more usually to bless the prayer pattern that they have already adopted. Some people fritter away their lives searching for the spiritual equivalent of the Philosopher’s Stone, the magic formula for prayer which will infallibly lead to mystical contemplation, or to whatever other spiritual ‘goodies’ they have set their hearts on. The truth of the matter is there is no perfect means of prayer. There are just different means, to help us keep gently trying, to turn and open our heart to the only One who can make us new. Methods and techniques of prayer are like props. Their purpose is to help a person to keep on loving, to keep turning back to God. If the rosary helps to do this, if the stations of the Cross, or some other devotional practice helps to do this, then that is fine. Others may find the slow meditative reading of the Scriptures helpful responding to them in their own heart-felt prayer, or by using ancient prayers like the ‘Jesus prayer.’ Or by saying prayers from the liturgy like the Gloria from the Mass or even the great Eucharistic prayers themselves saying them very slowly and prayerfully.
No Magic Formula
The important point to remember is there is no magic formula, no infallible method or technique. There are just hundreds of different ways of prayer to do one and the same thing. A means of prayer is good for you if it helps you, here and now, to keep gently turning your heart back to God. What might help you at the beginning of your spiritual journey may be of no use later on. What helps you in the morning might not help you in the evening. What helps you one minute might not help you the next. So please move from one method to another with complete freedom. Remember that these methods are only means. Beware of the ‘here today and gone tomorrow’ gurus who have a fixation about a particular means of prayer which they enjoin upon everybody without question as a panacea. They know nothing about the spiritual life. If they did they would know that methods of prayer change as people change and as prayer develops with the years. Remember the words of Dom John Chapman, ‘Pray as you can, not as you can’t’.
What I have found most helpful is the encouragement to keep gently trying, even if you are beset with distractions, or prayer seems dry or boring. I find if I continue with gently trying, despite distractions, aridity, boredom or discomfort that God brings about some of my biggest breakthroughs. Torkington has refreshed my desire to persist.
In Learning to Pray Takes Time and Practice, Torkington
The recognition of our own weakness is the only way we will come to feel our utter need of God’s help. Building a life of prayer means turning our lifestyle upside down if needs be, to find the necessary daily time for prayer. Prayer is not just a luxury for priests or religious, or people who happen to have spare time on their hands. It is an absolute necessity for everyone who wants to plunge themselves effectively into the mystery of Christ’s life, to be drawn into the endless ecstasy of life and love that unceasingly surges out of the Son towards the Father. We are filled to the measure of our weakness by the Father’s richness. The more we are filled with his fullness, the more we are lifted up out of ourselves in a self-forgetfulness that enables us to pray properly for the first time. The more we are tangibly immersed in the mystery of God’s love, the more we begin to see that all prayer leads to praise, to give glory to him and to lose ourselves in his inexhaustible goodness.
The trouble is we do not believe this, except as a purely academic principle of theology that we scandalously disregard in our lives. We beat our breasts with a sponge, reach for a drink and nibbles, and slump down in front of the television. If we did believe it, then we would scream out for God’s help; we would go to him, find time to open ourselves to his healing power and urgently create space in our lives for prayer. The space and the time we find in our daily life is the practical sign of our sincere acceptance of our own weakness, and of our total belief in God’s power, which can alone help us. You might say you would like to be a concert pianist or speak fluent French or become a scratch golfer, but I will only believe you mean it when I see you practise for several hours a day. I will take you seriously when I see you hard at it, day after day on the piano, or studying French grammar, or tramping around the golf course. You would hardly meet a Christian, let alone a religious who would not say he or she desired to come closer to God, to become possessed by him and to build up a deeper prayer life. But how can this be believed until a person relentlessly practises prayer, day after day The desire is not enough, any more than are good intentions.
Learning to Pray needs Practice
Learning to pray, learning to open ourselves to God, is like anything else: it needs practice and it takes time. There is no accomplishment of any worth that I know of that you can attain merely by desiring to have it. We think nothing of spending hours a day and working for years to get a degree, pass an examination, or attain certain qualifications, and we quite rightly accept as a matter of course that the time we give and the energy we expend is necessary. Somehow we seem to think that prayer is an exception, but believe me, it is not.
Interestingly, part of what makes praying like you mean it rather than rattling off words and checking off your to-do list is that it makes you aware of your need for God, your inadequacy, your utter dependency and that feels awful, like dying, to the prideful “old man,” our fleshly identity. Since we feel what it feels, it can be hard to sit in God’s presence and let His Light shine on that old nature so we can put on Christ, or be clothed upon with Christ. But it’s in those moments that our new nature is being filled with grace, even though it’s only as you go about the day afterwards that you realize that things that used to annoy you no longer do, that you are more genuinely patient and kinder and more aware of the needs of others.
I believe a key to evangelization and mission for our parishes is that they become schools of prayer so as to build a critical mass of people who go regularly into their closets to pray and emerge more docile to the Holy Spirit and where He reveals the harvest is ripe.