James worries that time is running out to spend time with Peter Calvay, the Hermit. He realizes that the end of the week is approaching and he needs the hermit to give him some practical advice about prayer before he leaves for home. As soon as Peter sits down, James rushes in without any preliminaries. Peter smiles. He obviously anticipated James’ request.
“Let me give you my blueprint for prayer. It is so simple to remember that you can carry it around in your head and you can refer to it whenever you want. Simply translate the two words that we have already used, the Our Father into Latin, and there you have my patent blueprint, Pater Noster. Now every single letter of this mnemonic, or if you like memory-jog. will remind you of a different part of your daily prayer. The first letter P stands for Presence. A for Adoration, T for Thanksgiving, E for Examination and R for Repentance. I will explain how each of these letters can lead us into prayer first, before moving on to explain how each letter of the word Noster can be used to do the same later. Even though I do not like to talk about methods of prayer any more than most people, but on the other hand we are human beings, and so I believe some sort of reminder can be extremely helpful, especially for beginners.
How do we get to know God?
“Before I go any further, perhaps I should explain the general idea behind the blueprint. I said the other day that prayer is learning to open oneself to God’s love and learning how to love him in return. Now this is all absolutely true, but how do we start to love a person we have never really met? When we first start to pray we feel a thousand miles away from God, and all talk of loving him, as we understand the word ‘love’, just does not add up. However, a start has to be made, so prayer begins with the object of getting to know God, because it does not make sense to talk of loving someone you do not know. The first question is, therefore, how do we get to know God?”
It was quite obvious that Peter was asking a rhetorical question, so James made no attempt to answer even though Peter seemed to pause for a long time. Peter continued, as if James had admitted that he had no idea.
“How do we get to know anybody? We may play golf with them, have a game of tennis with them; we may go out for a meal, or even invite them to spend their holidays with us; but in the end we will only get to know someone by sharing a conversation with them. We only get to know a person by talking to them, and what is more important, listening to what they have to say. There is no other way. Getting to know God is no exception to the rule. This is why all prayer must begin by holding conversations with God, but most important of all, by listening to what he has to say. As we get to know him more deeply, love will gradually begin to spring up and grow rapidly, but there has to be many conversations or, to be honest, monologues, at least to begin with. They can all seem rather cold and even stereotyped initially. However, that will all change in time if we are prepared to keep at it.”
Time for Prayer?
James asked Peter how long these conversation sessions should last? Peter suggested that a good start would be a full fifteen minutes a day and it is imperative that this time is not split up. Peter continued.
“Once you start to give in to yourself in this matter, you will be down to ten minutes before you know where you are; then it will be five minutes, and you will be back to square one in no time. Now, you cannot just down tools and begin to pray; you need a little time to prepare yourself, unless you are praying first thing in the morning which is for most people the best time. At other times you will need some sort of countdown to help you drop out from the hectic life that is so often forced upon us, to prepare to turn on and tune in to God. Just as different athletes find their own rituals, we need to find our own. It may simply be lying down for a rest, reading some spiritual or inspiring book, exercising, going for a swim, listening to music, or whatever helps to relax us. This is all part and parcel of what I call the ‘asceticism of the heart’ that is going to help us enter into a sort of time-free zone when we begin to pray. It is here that we can first begin to enter as fully as we can into the present moment, by ridding ourselves of anything from the past or the future that can draw the attention away from fixing our gaze fully upon God.
“Whenever you watch any sport at the highest level, you cannot but be impressed with the dedication of the participants. It is the quality of their single-mindedness that draws the attention. The moment they begin their preparation, it is as if they enter into a time-free zone where they are able to put everything out of their minds in such a way that they can live and act fully in the present. If they allow anything from the past to disrupt their concentration, then it is instantly dismissed.
How to begin Praying
“When I am ready to begin, I like to start with the words with which St Benedict first taught his monks to begin the Divine Office. ‘God, come to my aid, Lord, make haste to help me. Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.’ Amen.
“Now begin with the first letter P. This stands for Presence. The first thing to do is to make an act of faith in the presence of God within you. You probably will not feel a thing – you might feel as cold as an iceberg, but that should not make any difference. Feelings can be a great help in prayer, but they can be terribly deceptive, and they do not change reality. Whether you feel it is Christmas Day or not does not make the slightest difference to the truth if it is Christmas Day. God is present at the centre of your being; the Kingdom of God is within you, whether you feel it or not. There will be moments when the realization of this presence will burst in upon you and flood your whole consciousness, but there will also be long periods when you feel absolutely nothing and you will feel like giving up – not only prayer, but everything to do with religion. This is one of the reasons why I stress keeping rigidly to the time set aside. You see, at the best of times we are a self-centered lot and there will always be the tendency to pray ‘when the sun is out’. While the weather is fine, we will want to pray for longer than the allotted time, but when it clouds over, we will do our level best to pack up as soon as we can, if we have not avoided starting in the first place.”
Do not feel you have to use churchy language
James interrupted. “One of my problems is that I become lost for words and then distractions come, and before I know what is happening I find my mind is deluged with a thousand-and-one distractions from the world I have left behind, or from the world I am shortly to return to, or I slowly float away into cloud cuckoo land.”
Peter understood what James was trying to say. “In general I would say that we ought to aim at being as simple and straightforward as possible in the words we use. Do not forget what I said yesterday. Christ taught us that God is our Father, even our Dad, so there is no need to speak to him in fancy phrases or highfalutin language. You may remember he criticized the Pharisees severely for doing this. Use your own words whenever possible and do not feel you have to use churchy language; speak to God as you would speak to a highly respected friend to whom you can tell everything. This can be difficult for beginners, but they can always start with someone else’s prayers, gradually transposing these words into their own. There are many books that can be used in this way. However, never lose sight of the ideal which is to get rid of them as soon as possible and as soon as you are able to pray in your own words.
“One thing I think is most important to get straight from the start: you must be absolutely honest with God. Nothing short of total frankness is called for when you start to pray. Do not forget that God knows you through and through, even before you open your mouth. You may soft-soap others but you cannot fool God. If you feel like a dehydrated prune, say so; if you would rather be sitting in front of the television, admit it; if you would sooner be reading a fast-moving thriller, why pretend you would not? Words are not so difficult to find in prayer if you try to speak simply, honestly, and are prepared to admit exactly how you feel from the word go.
The physical posture of the body
“The next letter is A and stands for Adoration. To adore means to lose oneself in the unfathomable, to plunge into the inexhaustible, to find peace in the incorruptible, to be absorbed into the immeasurable, and to give one’s deepest to that whose depth has no end. Although it is important to begin by realizing the closeness of God’s presence, that is only one side of the coin. On the other side of the coin, never forget that the One who is close to us, who inhabits the very centre of our being, is the Utterly-Other, the All-Holy and Transcendent God. In his presence every knee must bow; we must totally prostrate ourselves before him. At the beginning of prayer I think the physical posture of the body is most important, as long as techniques for relaxation and concentration are not identified with prayer itself.”
James asked what posture we should adopt in prayer. Peter replied that he did not want to lay down any hard and fast rules, but he did want to emphasize the importance of making the body work in order to keep the mind active and attentive.
“If you slouch over the kneeler in front of you, or snuggle into the most comfortable chair available, do not be surprised if you find yourself daydreaming or falling asleep. If you are kneeling or sitting, or using some other posture, I think it is especially important to learn to keep your body in a state of disciplined relaxation.”
Peter could see that James knew what he was getting at, so he did not labour the point. Before going any further Peter suggested that they stop for lunch.