Questions and Answers
Questions About the Why and How of Prayer …
Can prayer really change anything?
Yes it can change you if you are prepared to give it a chance. You see in the Christian tradition the word prayer is used to describe how a person tries to turn their attention towards God, then tries to remain open to him for long enough to receive the selfsame love that animates him, so that human love can be suffused with the divine and brought to perfection.
How can you pray when every time you try a thousand and one distractions prevent you before you even get started?
The truth is that prayer can only be learnt because of the distractions that you think are preventing it. If you’ll bear with me I’ll explain what I mean. No matter what means of prayer you choose, you’ll inevitably find that in even five minutes you could well have fifty-five distractions or more and as many temptations too, to pack it all in to do something more worthwhile. But if you resist that temptation and keep trying to turn away from those distractions you are in fact praying, even though you may feel you are wasting your time.
Put it this way, if you freely choose to turn away from what you would like to think or fantasise about in order to turn your attention back to God, you are in effect practising selflessness, and that is of the very essence of prayer.
If you have 50 distractions in five minutes, for instance, it means that you’ve acted selflessly 50 times, and taken the first steps in acquiring a habit of acting selflessly that will enable you to behave selflessly towards other people outside of prayer. There is no more important lesson that anyone could ever learn. That’s why a mediaeval mystic called Angelo of Foligno called prayer the “Scola Divini Amoris” or the school of divine love.
Whatever form prayer takes then it always provides the opportunity for practising selflessness, as most of the time is spent in turning ones attention away from distractions and back to God, or to use the biblical word in practising repentance. However, genuine Christian prayer is much more than this, because God is always turned and open to us radiating the most powerful energy in heaven or on earth, which is love. The very moment therefore that we freely choose to turn and try to remain open to him in prayer, his love automatically begins to pour into us. This is the beginning of the transformation of a weak human being into the person we were meant to be.
But isn’t there a danger that prayer can become too self-indulgent?
On the contrary the more we pray the more selfless we become. This enables us to be more loving more caring and more compassionate too. Then we can become better fathers and mothers, better brothers or sisters, better employers or employees, better neighbours and generally better people to live or work with.
How can one person’s prayer help other people?
The longer a person is able to remain open to the action of God then God can, not only enter into them, but through them enter into the people for whom he or she prayed. In other words when we pray for someone in need God answers that prayer not by bypassing us and acting independently, but by acting through us. This means that the more perfect a person is the more effective their prayer, as God acts through them with greater ease and efficiency than through a person saturated with selfishness.
That’s why whenever there’s news of a person of genuine sanctity people flock to them for their help and for their prayers. Intuitively we know that when we are all furred up with selfishness and sin the love of God cannot flow into and through us with the speed and efficiency that we would wish.
There’s nothing magical about prayer. The more a person’s spiritual arteries are purified of the selfishness that furs them up then the more perfectly the Divine can work through the human. This is how prayer enables God to work through us to reach out to those for whom we pray, and even for those we have not prayed for, whom he chooses to reach out to through us.
What are the best means or methods to help a person to keep their attention fixed on God in prayer?
Ways, methods or techniques of prayer are only means to an end and should be used as such. There are no perfect means, just different means for different people at different stages of their spiritual journey. What helps a person at the outset of their journey may not help them as they get into their stride. What helped them when they were going downhill with the wind at their back might be of little use when they are struggling uphill with the wind in their face. What helped them in the spring might not help them in the autumn of their life.
If you want me to make suggestions then I can only direct you to my trilogy on prayer and my book “Inner Life”, where I have tried to present the main means and methods of prayer that have successfully helped others over the last two thousand years or more. However above all else remember the famous words of Dom John Chapman “pray as you can not as you can’t”!
Questions About the Why and How of Mystical Prayer …
I used to belong to Charismatic Renewal, but I no longer find it helpful because all the fervour that I used to feel before suddenly fizzled out. I feel I can't pray any more. What's going on and what am I to do?
You are a classic case of what happens to someone who prays seriously, not just at the charismatic meetings, but regularly and consistently each day in private. Believe me not all charismatics do this. Those who do will in time always come to the same predicament in which you now find yourself, which is at the threshold of the mystic way, though you probably don’t believe it at this stage. Those who don’t pray seriously and consistently apart from the charismatic meetings will go on for a lifetime seeking nice feelings and spiritual goodies, which will have to be their only reward, because they will go little further in the spiritual life. They will never journey on into the ‘Dark Night’ where they will be purified for the profound union that they desire more than anything else. Although you don’t feel it you are already in the ‘Dark Night’.
The whole point of this new predicament in which you now find yourself is that you are now being offered the opportunity of becoming a spiritual adult. In other words you are being given the opportunity of learning pure selfless love. This is the love that goes on giving when nothing seems to be received in return. It’s the sort of loving that will make you into a far better person, a far better husband or wife, priest or religious, and enable you to receive and experience a quality of love that you have never experienced before.
How am I supposed to pray when first enthusiasm has evaporated and prayer is full of dryness and aridity?
It is now imperative that you journey on come what may into what at first seems a strange new world. This means giving exactly the same time to prayer as before, but now a different form of prayer should be employed. Go to “The Mystic” and “Inner Life” where I’ve detailed the new forms of prayer that will help you now. It will save me repeating myself.
Now let me explain why I believe you find yourself in your present predicament. For several years, you’ve been trying to raise your heart to God by using your mind, your imagination and your memory to meditate on the scriptures. This enabled you to come to know Christ more deeply so prayer became progressively easier. At the same time you found both spiritual and secular poetry moved you deeply, and prayers, hymns and some of the psalms filled you with a spiritual satisfaction that you’d not experienced before. Digesting and assimilating them gradually led you on and into what has been traditionally called ‘acquired contemplation’ when all you wanted to do was to set aside all previous forms of prayer to be still before and simply gaze upon God.
Then after several months of this intoxicating prayer everything suddenly changed overnight leaving you in a strange and unintelligible world that was not of your choosing, or at least that’s how it felt.
However this strange new world is actually of your choosing. You see you have been choosing to raise your heart to God and you’ve been doing it for long enough for God to take you seriously. All he has done is to accept what you have been offering and he has drawn your heart, or your will, towards himself as powerfully as you allow him. The result of this is that you feel an ever-deepening yearning for God whilst at the same time feel unable to pray as you did before.
The reason for this is because in accepting your gift God has begun drawing your will towards himself in such a way that it can no longer function as it did before. All you experience is a strange and vague sense of longing that pursues you inside and outside of prayer that you cannot explain to yourself or anyone else for that matter.
Simultaneously you will find that you have lost control over the inner faculties that helped you to pray so well before. Instead of helping you to pray they now hinder you by generating more distractions than ever before that pick and paw at your mind from the inside.
You may run away if you choose, but you cannot return to the prayer that helped you so much in the past, nor to the fervour that enabled you to revel in the religious rites and ceremonies that now regularly leave you flat. So it’s ‘make your mind up time’, and it’s the most important ‘make your mind up time’ in the whole of your spiritual life. St John of the Cross said that ninety percent give up prayer at this point – because they don’t understand what’s happening and there doesn’t seem to be anyone else who does. What is needed now is a good spiritual director who knows by personal experience how to guide you foreword, but it seems that there are precious few of them about. There are many who are able to help beginners, mainly because they are beginners themselves, but most of them have little idea of how to help people, who are led into the contemplative way.
They assume that their inability to pray is due to some sort of spiritual or psychological blockage and make wrong recommendations accordingly, and can do considerable harm to the unwary. If you simply cannot find help follow the instructions given in “The Mystic” and in the latter part of “Inner Life”. In the meantime, if you want to get some idea of how the experience of God’s love begins to make his presence felt to the person, who has persevered in giving without receiving, read the extract from “The Prophet” and “Receiving from God”.
In the “Dark Night” God purifies a person by presence and absence by light and darkness, in his way and in his time, for in the “Night” we become ever more passive and he becomes more active. The Transforming union that we desire above all else is primarily his work not ours.