Prayer - The Meeting with Christ
Apologies for the length of this page, but it is necessary: it is a sad truth that many people, even practising Christians, understand little about prayer.
Certainly, we know the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary and the 'Glory Be'. We participate in the Mass and know how to light a candle, with a brief “Lord, look after my mother who is in hospital”, or whatever our need might be.
But when was the last time your priest actually taught you about prayer, about what it is, and how it actually works? Our priests are often too busy running their parishes, attending meetings and visiting those in need. They find themselves having to be a cross between a manager and a social worker.
So what might they teach us, if they had the time?
Perhaps to start with, that we do not pray to change the mind of God. We cannot persuade him to do something that He would not otherwise have done. God is perfect and unchanging. It is ourselves that need to change. Our hearts and minds need to become closer to the heart and mind of Christ.
How do we do this? What effort is necessary to achieve it? In a way, there is nothing we can do. The actual work of prayer, the active part, is the work of the Trinity, resident in our soul. St Paul is our trusted guide to prayer: he tells us in his Letter to the Romans that ‘we do not even know how to pray, but the Spirit prays within us, deeper than words, and the Father, who knows all that happens in that secret place, knows exactly what he means.’
The prayer of the risen Son to the Father is always taking place, and the Spirit is the flow of love between them. It is by the working of the Holy Spirit that we can be drawn into that prayer, to somehow participate in it. We need to realise that prayer is something which is going on within us all the time. Our tragedy is that we are unaware of it.
So a good prayer life, in a sense, depends on us doing less, rather than doing more. We need to remove the obstacles which stop us realising that prayer, the divine life, is always going on within us.
Our minds are a little like an old-fashioned radio. Turning the tuning knob alters the receiver to pick up different frequencies. Our minds are busy tuning into one wavelength after another, our thoughts like brief snatches of radio content in between the hiss and crackle of static. Occasionally we find a radio station which seems to engage us, but our receiver seems to want to frustrate us. Either our tuning keeps falling away, or the signal is not steady, and we end up looking for something else.
Each of the radio stations we pick up has its own wavelength, but what we do not realise is that behind them all is God’s wavelength, a wave so long and slow that it would probably seem like a straight line to us.
Prayer is about learning not to seek out the other frequencies, but instead reducing our mental activity until we are only aware of God - in whom ‘we live and move and have our being’.
This is why the Benedictine tradition places such emphasis on silence and contemplation, but as part of a balanced prayer life, which includes vocal prayer, lectio divina, attending Holy Mass and receiving the sacraments. The actual content of Jesus's teaching, and not just his example of silent communion with the Father, is important.
Although Jesus regularly took to the hills to avoid the crowds, seeking silence to be in the presence of his Father, when he came down from the hills there was dramatic content to his life and teaching. He told wonderful stories using timeless images - of water and wine, oil and salt, forgiving fathers and lazy servants. In the three years of his active ministry he fearlessly confronted the religious authorities of his time. He wept, and laughed, and showed righteous anger. He finally allowed himself to be falsely tried by the very world he had come to save, and accepted terrible suffering and death. To be truly Christian is not to rise above the 'illusion' of suffering via cool and calm meditation. Instead it is to enter onto the path of suffering, to accept our own, and to lovingly share that of others, and in doing so become part of the mysterious process by which our world is redeemed.
So perhaps the image of the old-fashioned radio is inadequate. Our prayer life is more like the process of creating an oil painting. Before the artist can set to work on the canvas, it must first be prepared with layer after layer of gesso, a combination of chalk and binding medium, which produces a finely textured and absorbent white surface upon which the subsequent layers of oil paint can be applied. Without it, the oil paints would not sit properly on the canvas, and would not show their intended colours.
Our time spent in silence and contemplation is like applying these layers of gesso. Sometimes an artist will apply more than ten layers, with time taken for each one to dry before the next one is applied. The result is a smooth and calm white surface, but it is not be enjoyed for itself - it is merely the receptive surface for the great drama of Christ’s life, passion, death and resurrection, in which we all need to play our part. Christian prayer is not just about meditating into a state of blissful peace, but rather picking up our cross, and entering into Christ’s death, allowing our sinful nature to die, to await our becoming a new creation when the time comes.
So whilst silent contemplation is a very valuable spiritual practice, it must be balanced by participation in the life of the Church, the continuing body of Christ in our world. Participate deeply in the sacraments - regularly attend Mass, go to confession. And when it comes to your time of personal prayer, using those essential layers of spiritual gesso which you have built up by contemplation, allow God to start applying the layers of oil paint which will conform your heart and mind to His.
In the Benedictine tradition this is done by 'lectio divina', or sacred reading. St Benedict starts his Rule by urging us to listen with the 'ear of the heart'. The Word of God contained in Scripture needs our full and undistracted attention. We need to be still and silent in order to catch it - in fact, St Benedict asks us to 'incline the ear of the heart', as if leaning in towards somebody, to catch something they are quietly telling you.
Take a short passage from Scripture, for instance 'Remain in me, as I remain in you' from John 15:4, and read it slowly and prayerfully until it is not simply in your mind, but in your heart. Try to be aware of the passage throughout the day, hear the voice of Christ saying the words to you, and invite the Lord to reveal its deeper meaning to you. Not only does this regular, prayerful reading of Scripture lead to a deep familiarity with the Jesus of the Gospels, but it will also lead to silent contemplation of Christ's presence and prayer within you - the whole point of prayer. It has been said that you start by reading the words, and end with the Word reading you.
Our goal is to experience of what the psalmist sings:
O Lord, you search me and you know me,
you know my resting and my rising,
you discern my purpose from afar.
You mark when I walk or lie down,
all my ways lie open to you.
Before ever a word is on my tongue
you know it, Lord, through and through.
Behind and before you besiege me,
your hand ever laid upon me.
Too wonderful for me, this knowledge,
too high, beyond my reach.
O where can I go from your spirit,
or where can I flee from your face?
If I climb the heavens, you are there.
If I lie in the grave, you are there.
If I take the wings of the dawn
and dwell at the sea’s furthest end,
even there your hand would lead me,
your right hand would hold me fast.
For a more detailed description of this essential form of monastic prayer, see this article by Fr Luke Dysinger, OSB: