Speaking with God
An Introduction to Christian Prayer
If you’ve never seriously prayed to God before except when you wanted something out of him, it’s understandably difficult to get started. Inevitably our first attempts at entering into some sort of ‘conversation’ with him can seem to be rather cold and even stereotyped to begin with and more like a monologue than a dialogue. However, that will all change in time if we are prepared to keep at it. One of our main problems is that we get lost for words and before we know what has happened we find our minds are deluged with a thousand and one distractions. Before we know what’s happening we’re floating away into a ‘cloud-cuckoo-land’ of our own making – dreaming of our next summer holidays in the south of France or working out how to find the money to go there.
That’s why it’s important to aim at being as simple and straightforward as possible in the words we use. Remember what Jesus taught – namely, that God is our father, even our loving dad. That’s why he told us to call him Abba, so there’s no need to speak to him in fancy phrases or highfalutin language. “Oh God we beseech thee in thy infinite goodness, vouchsafe to thy humble servant…”- you know the sort of thing I mean. Remember Jesus criticized the Pharisees severely for doing this. We ought to use our own words whenever possible never reverting to that olde worlde churchy language, but always trying to speak to him as to a highly respected friend to whom we can tell everything.
Naturally this might be difficult to begin with. If it is we can always start by using someone else’s words, their prayers, gradually transposing them into our own. However, it’s important never to lose sight of the ideal, which is to get rid of them as soon as possible, – as soon as we are able to use our own words.
One thing is absolutely necessary from the start and that is to be completely honest with God. Nothing short of total frankness is called for when we start to pray. Don’t forget that God knows us through and through even before we open our mouths. We might be able to ‘soft-soap’ others, but we can’t fool God, so why try. If you feel like a dehydrated prune you should say so, if you’d rather be sat in front of the television admit it, and if you’d sooner be reading the paper or a fast moving thriller why pretend you wouldn’t.
Words aren’t so difficult to find in prayer if we only try to speak simply and honestly and are prepared to admit exactly how we feel from the word go. Now I can’t tell you or anyone else exactly how to speak to God, because we’re all different and prayer is so personal anyway, but it might be of some help to describe how I have tried to speak to God over the years. Let me introduce you to a formula that I’ve used for my Morning Prayer for many years now. I first mentioned it in my book The Hermit, but since then I’ve changed it a little and with further use I’ll no doubt change it again and so will you if you choose to make use of it. It’s what I call a ‘memory – jog for prayer’ and I think you’ll see the idea behind it at first glance, ‘though I’ll run through it briefly to give you some idea of how I use it.
A memory-jog for Prayer Based on the two words – PATER NOSTER
Presence – Adoration – Thanksgiving – Examination – Repentance
Needs – Offering – Silence – Transformation – Evaluation – Resolutions
As you can see the memory-jog is based on the Latin translation of the first two words of the ‘Our Father’ – PATER NOSTER. Each letter can be a daily reminder of what should be an essential ingredient of every authentic Christian Prayer.
The ‘P’ is a reminder to place oneself in the PRESENCE of God. You see the Holy Spirit or the love God, who Christ sent on the first Pentecost day repeatedly, surges out from him. His purpose is to draw all, who choose to receive him, back into the sea of otherworldly love that is fully embodied in the Risen Christ, in whom we are all destined ‘to live and move and have our being’.
That’s one more reason why the fish became a symbol of a Christian in the early Church. You see the love of Christ became for them what the sea is for the fish, the living environment outside of which they could not exist. St Augustine takes this analogy one step further substituting a living sponge for the fish to show that we are not only surrounded at all times by the love of God, but are penetrated through and through by his all pervading presence. This loving presence is the supernatural environment in which we can grow, becoming ever more perfect human beings.
Although these are some of the profound thoughts with which I try to occupy my mind at the beginning of prayer, I rarely experience anything. Much more often than not I have to accept in faith what Christ continually experienced and what I’d like to experience one day for myself. Nevertheless I pray that the presence of God will become more and more real to me, as it was for Christ, not just while I’m at prayer but throughout the forthcoming day and every day.
Nevertheless, meditating on these sublime truths brings me physically, or at least metaphorically to my knees in adoration of the ‘All Holy and Utterly Other’, who has chosen to draw me into his own life and reside within me as he resides in Christ. That’s why the letter ‘A’ reminds me to spend a few moments in quiet ADORATION.
The letter ‘T’ in it’s turn reminds me to make my THANKSGIVING, to give thanks for what I can all too often take for granted.
However it’s not enough just to thank God for what he has done for us, we need to thank him for something further. We need to thank him for what he has done and is doing for everyone, just by being what he is. Take your favourite psalm or hymn of thanksgiving or praise, like the ‘Gloria’ for instance. Then, recite it slowly and prayerfully and you’ll find you are taken out of yourself, out of your world and into God’s world, where you praise him, thank him, and give him glory just for being God. You’ll find that the further you enter into his world the more you’ll forget yourself and the world where you only thanked him for what you got out of him. Then you’ll come alive, more alive than ever before, if only for a time in the world where you want to be for all time.
Thanking God for being God leads into the heights of pray where praise, glory and thanksgiving become as one, and we become more at one with the God in whom we live and move and have our being.
However the thanks that he really wants to receive more than anything else cannot be given in words alone. You see he wants us to do all that is within our power to enable him to strip away all and everything in our lives that prevents him possessing us as fully as he would wish. That’s why the next letter ‘E’ for EXAMINATION OF CONSCIENCE is a reminder to pause for a few moments to ask God to show us everything in our lives, what has been keeping him out. Particularly those things we have done or failed to do since our last examination of conscience.
Then it’s time to move on to the next letter “R” for REPENTANCE. This will help remind us to make an ‘Act of Repentance’ for how we have failed in the past. A formal act of repentance or contrition could be used, but a sincere expression of personal sorrow, in our own words, would be better still. Then we could end by what has traditionally been called ‘a firm purpose of amendment’. If we don’t intend to try better next time round it’s ten to one that there was something seriously wrong with the sorrow that we expressed a few moments before.
The second part of the memory-jog begins with the letter ‘N’ as a reminder to pray for NEEDS, our own needs and the needs of others. Most of our actions are limited by the world of space and time in which we live, but prayer isn’t. You see we are only able to pray for anything or anyone in the first place, because, whether we realise it at the time or not, when we pray we pray in with and through Christ. It is only because we are taken up into him and into the continuous vortex of love that unites him to God that our prayer has a value that it wouldn’t otherwise posses. Padre Pio was praying at his bedside when one of the community burst into his room by accident. “Sorry to interrupt your prayer”, the brother said. “Not at all”, said Padre Pio, “I was just praying for a happy death for my father”. “But your father died 10 years ago”, said the brother. “Yes, that’s right”, said Padre Pio.
Prayer then takes us up into another dimension that enables us to reach out to all who are in Christ, whether they live in the past, the present or the future. That’s why all the great prayers end up “through Christ Our Lord”, or some similar phrase.
Although praying for others may seem to be the poor cousin of other spiritual exercises it’s certainly not the case. Praying for others helps us to forget ourselves, and opens us to receive, for it is in giving that we receive without even realizing it.
Now this memory-jog not only reminds us to pray for others, but to join with all who are in Christ in doing what God created us for in the first place. His plan is not just that we should be drawn up into Christ’s life, but into his action, into the offering of himself, all that he was, all that he did, and all that he is doing now, in an enduring act of unalloyed selfless loving. So after praying for others the next letter ‘O’ is a reminder to join with them in “OFFERING” ourselves in Christ to our common Father.
This is how we can all become priests, because only we can offer ourselves, no one else can do it for us. However, only he can make that offering effective through us.
The morning offering that my mother taught me was to show me how I could enter into Christ’s self offering every day of my life. This is how I could become, as she put it, ‘a little priest’ turning ordinary commonplace things into something precious, as Rumplestiltsckin turned straw into gold. Now the more all and everything we do, is offered to God the more we are open to receive from him. Once again it is in giving that we receive and in giving to God we receive the love that only he can give, the love that enables him to posses us from within, to transform us into the perfect human beings for which he made us.
Now after making this offering its time to pause for a time in SILENCE. So far we’ve been doing all the talking. Now its time to be still, to rap ourselves in deep interior stillness, so that we can become docile and sensitive to the action of God, as he penetrates us more and more fully. Gradually, what we believe is happening by faith alone will become experiential, enabling us to feel something of the fullness of love permeating our inmost being.
After this profound ‘Spiritual Communion’ the letter ‘T’ for TRANSFORMATION is a reminder to pray that the love possessing us will gradually transform us into the sort of Christ-like people that God originally created us to become. Then, as this is being brought about we will begin to love God as he did, with our whole hearts and minds and with our whole being and then our neighbours as ourselves.
The next letter ‘E’ is a reminder to make an EVALUATION of the forthcoming day to assess everything that we intend to do and to anticipate everyone we expect to meet. This will enable us to prepare to do everything, and behave towards everyone, in the most Christ-like manner possible.
The letter ‘R’ is a reminder to end the memory jog by making a few RESOLUTIONS. It might be to do humdrum tasks that we keep putting off, like changing the sheets on the bed, putting air into the car tyres, defrosting the freezer, or something more important. There’s always that friend or relative who is sick or in need who we should ‘phone, or write to, or even visit for a few minutes. Alternatively, perhaps we might need to make a resolution to apologize to one of the family, a friend, or someone at work for the way we behaved towards them the previous day.
Perhaps we could end with the most important resolution of all. That is to make the forthcoming day a day when we try as best we can to enable God’s love to draw us up not just into the life of Christ but into his action. You see it is only in him and through him that we will be able to love God, as we should. There is no more perfect way of doing this than by offering him all that we are and all that we do, but most of all, by offering him the way we have tried to serve him through the neighbour in need, with whom he identifies himself.
Despite the time given to silence in this formula for prayer, we’ve still been doing most of the talking. However for prayer to lead us on to generate the quality of love that will alone permanently change us for the better we must learn to listen. That’s why the next thing we have to learn is how to listen, so return to “How to Pray” to access “Listening to God”.