Peter stopped talking, sat back in his chair and closed his eyes, remaining silent and quite motionless for a good thirty seconds before he began to speak. He started by drawing together several texts from St John’s Gospel. He repeated them slowly, unconsciously injecting into them a meaning born of long years of personal prayer.
“No one can come to the Father except through me. If you know me, you know my Father too. Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? Anyone who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I shall love him and reveal myself to him. Make your home in me, as I make mine in you. Separated from me, you have no power to do anything.”
Peter was able to put such depth of meaning into the words that it had an almost hypnotic effect on James. He closed his own eyes automatically and a deep stillness came over him. Peter paused before repeating the texts again, more slowly this time. When he repeated them for the third time James no longer noticed the way in which he delivered them, but their meaning bore in upon him with an impact that he had never experienced before.
“Somehow I needed the long pause that Peter left after the final repetition to mull over the content of the texts. They came alive for me in a new way.”
Then Peter began to pray, in words which were in complete accord with James’s own feelings. “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.”
Peter made this prayer three times and again he lapsed into silence. When he spoke again it was to use words of praise, thanks, and adoration. After another lengthy pause, he began to repeat individual phrases from the texts he initially quoted.
“Make your home in me, as I make my home in you.” Then, after a short pause, “Separated from me, you have no power to do anything.” He repeated these two phrases several times, once again punctuated by pauses of varying lengths. A profound stillness came over James during the experience and it remained with him for the rest of the day. When Peter finished James thanked him. There was nothing else he could say or wanted to say. After a brief pause he told Peter that he now understood what he meant, but his voice sounded flat and hollow.
Learning to listen
When Peter then emphasised that we have to learn to listen, to become more deeply aware, James responded by saying that we have to learn to read too!
Peter agreed, “You are quite right, James. I think one of our problems is that we are bombarded with literature from all sides every day of our lives, so that we have acquired a habit of reading at a breathtaking pace just to keep abreast of what is going on. Our only concern is to glean the relevant facts from what we are reading and to move onto something else. If we apply the same technique to the way we read the Scriptures, then we are going nowhere. It will not enable us to come to know Christ more deeply. We should read the Scriptures as we would read good poetry, endlessly going over it to plunder its content. People with an artistic temperament may like to use their imagination more fully in prayer, and they should be encouraged to do so. In fact everybody who finds it helpful should be encouraged to use their imagination.”
When James asked Peter what he meant, Peter described how to set the scene in detail before actually starting to listen to the words of Christ.
How to use the imagination in Prayer
“For instance, for the short meditation we have just shared together, you may find it helpful to recreate the scene of the Last Supper in your mind, picturing the Apostles preparing the table, seeing Jesus coming into the room, watching him move, looking at his face when he speaks, noting the expression. The same sort of scene-setting could be used to build up an atmosphere before you meditate on another Gospel text. The Passion of Christ, for instance, would lend itself to this method of praying. Do not just think of what Christ went through; go back in your imagination and place yourself in the event. You are amongst the soldiers at the scourging, one of the crowd during the carrying of the Cross, an onlooker at the actual Crucifixion. You see everything as it happens, you open your ears and hear what is said, and then you open your own mouth and begin to pray.”
When James questioned whether that emotional approach is out of date nowadays, Peter answered emphatically that there is no such thing as an out-of-date method of prayer if it helps to recreate the genuine spirit of the Gospels and leads a person to get to know and love Christ more deeply.
“I know many people who could have made great headway with prayer if they had not rejected certain traditional methods of meditation because they thought they were old-fashioned. I do know what you mean though. Many fifth-rate meditation manuals, particularly in the last century, made a nonsense out of this particular approach to prayer by writing oceans of pious sentimentality that made one feel ill-at-ease in their company. Certainly, this approach does not appeal to everybody, but it can be very helpful to some.
The Word made Flesh speaks of love
“The Word was made Flesh so that people of flesh and blood would understand and see God’s love made tangible. Christ’s death was a brutal and painful reality through which the Word made Flesh speaks of love in a way that is intelligible to all. To neglect the Passion as a primary source of Christian meditation and prayer is to neglect the most important manifestation of God’s love that ever happened. We are not blocks, we are not stones, we are not senseless things; if we are afraid to be moved emotionally because it is not in fashion or not trendy, then we better start by praying for a little of the humility of the child, if we ever hope to enter into the Kingdom.”
“Dear, dear,” said Peter looking at his watch. “Time is getting on, let me make some other suggestions that would be suitable for use in the time you set aside for meditation.”
“Use the Psalms, especially the Psalms that you feel speak to you in a special way. Take them, read over them slowly, meditate on them, ruminate on them in the way I have described. Do the same with religious poems and hymns. There are many profound and beautiful hymns that we only glance at briefly every now and then when we sing them in church. Hymns like ‘Lead, Kindly Light’, ‘Abide with Me’, ‘Rock of Ages’ or ‘Come, Holy Spirit’. The hymnal can be a rich source of material for meditative prayer and I would especially recommend many of the modern folk hymns. I think the music is of varying quality, but the words are often both scriptural and profound.
The Liturgy and private prayer
“The Liturgy itself is an endless source of food for spiritual thought. An excellent way to introduce someone to meditative prayer is to encourage him or her to use the Eucharistic prayers. It is amazing how few people do this but used in this way these prayers can be of immense value. Use them in exactly the same way as you would use the scriptural texts. Start at the beginning, read a few sentences at a time, put them into your own words, make them your own. Repeatedly pause in silence to let the meaning penetrate. Express the way you react to them in prayer. As you exhaust one phrase, move on to the next. Remember, there is no hurry, there is no pressure to get through them; you have a lifetime before you. One of the advantages of using the Eucharistic prayers in this way is that without realizing it, you are moulded into the mind and mentality of Christ’s own prayer. There are many other liturgical prayers that you can use for personal prayer too. The Gloria, is an excellent example. I always recommend it to people because it immediately takes them out of themselves. The focal point of the prayer is God, his Glory, and this is the end of all prayer, as is man’s whole existence. I believe the use of the liturgical texts for private prayer is important as it helps to build a bridge between public and private prayer. Too often they are accepted as two entirely different departments of Christian worship.
The great Jesuit liturgist, Josef Jungmann once said, “The Eucharist should so form us that the whole of our lives becomes the Mass, the place where we continually offer ourselves through Christ to the Father to receive what we then share with the neighbour in need”.
If you examine carefully the suggestions for Prayer that I have given you, you will see that it embodies the essential ingredients that make up the profound liturgical structure of the Eucharist. By using it daily, a person will be formed by the prayer of Christ himself, which is sacramentally celebrated in the Mass and spiritually in the believer’s daily prayer.”
James looked at his watch. Time was getting on. Peter immediately agreed that there was not much time left and began to summarize what he was trying to convey.
“If we would only look around, there is an abundance of material that we can use for meditation. The Scriptures should take pride of place, but there are many other sources that mirror and reproduce in different ways the authentic spirit of the Gospel. To begin with, no two people will find the same methods helpful because people are all different. This is why my suggestions are designed to be an extremely flexible outline that anyone can adapt for themselves. And this is why I have made various suggestions, knowing that many will be of no use at all, but some will.”
James then spoke honestly. “My big problem is that although I may try and meditate on some of the most profound truths of the Faith, they just leave me cold, when I know they ought to be dynamite. Somehow they don’t get through to me. It is as if I have built a barrier around myself.”
Peter answered. “That is precisely the case, but I am afraid I will have to leave this until next time. As you know Daisy is waiting for me to milk her and she can become a little soppy if I keep her waiting.”
When Peter had left, James went into the church to pray.
David Torkington will be reading this series on Radio Maria England in the Autumn of 2020. The program will be broadcast by DAB radio in the north of England or worldwide via internet radio or on this site