St Paul's Cathedral: Reflections for the second week of Easter
‘Pray as you can, not as you can’t’: Reflections for the second week of Easter
Specially-commissioned reflections by Gemma Simmonds CJ on prayer during lockdown
Prayer is as messy and chaotic as life itself.
They say that nature abhors a vacuum. That certainly appears to be true during the lockdown. Our inboxes are full of well-meaning wishes, funny cartoons, online exercise programs and endless self-improvement suggestions. It’s all a bit overwhelming.
But is there a self-help app to help us pray when we can’t pray? The good news is that with prayer, self-help doesn’t work. The whole point, as St. Paul says, is that we can’t help ourselves, but the Spirit helps us in our weakness (Rom.8:26).
What mostly prevents people from praying is the mistaken conviction that they can’t pray, based on an equally mistaken idea of what prayer is. Surely prayer should be some mystical abstraction that takes us out of the chaotic grind of daily life? Wrong. Prayer is as messy and chaotic as life itself.
A great contemplative writer once wrote, ‘pray as you can, not as you can’t’. That means that we bring to prayer whoever and whatever we are, whether its aching feet or a pounding head, our tiredness or our jumbled thoughts. All we need to do is to offer these to God like the little boy with the five loaves and two fish. So little to feed so many, and yet Jesus made of that a feast for thousands.
Maybe we can’t even find words, or there’s just a tune or a favourite poem or a desperate plea going round in our heads. That will do. Julian of Norwich says that God is grateful when we remember him. If that’s true, then God will also be happy that we turned up at all, even if we don’t get the satisfaction of knowing that we have been swept away in some great mystical rapture. God will be there, even if we’re all over the place.
The Sacrament of the Present Moment: Bodies at prayer
We come with a body attached. This means that our bodies matter when it comes to prayer.
We can’t ignore our body. We are our body, so how our bodies are will affect our prayer. This can be difficult when our bodies are feeling less than well or are full of impulses and feelings that don’t make for quiet contemplation.
The first thing to do is to acknowledge how our body is feeling. When we settle down to pray it matters to settle down physically. Catching our breath is the first step, and it may be that we need to spend a few minutes simply breathing and relaxing into a regular rhythm. This can help us to become aware of tension carried in some part of our body: the knitted brow, the hunched shoulders, the clenched fists.
At the beginning of prayer God invites us, ‘be still and know that I am God’. As we settle into regular breathing and relax physically, we can become aware of sounds around us. Post lockdown it’s possible to hear nature all around us. Just becoming aware of being alive in a world full of life is prayer in itself.
How does it feel to be still and know that we are alive and that God is present even if that presence is a mystery to us? Simply being aware of it, staying in the moment, savouring the sense of it is prayer. One writer has called this ‘the sacrament of the present moment’. A sacrament is a sign which makes real what it signifies. Living in the present, savouring it and holding it before God is real prayer.
Jesus meets us where we are: using our imagination in prayer (1)
Life has got a lot more plain in lockdown. There tends to be a lot less external stimulus.
Without traffic and noise, things have got quieter, nature has drawn closer. Without people and the normal routines of life that bring us close to them our own thoughts have become louder and more insistent.
Perhaps daydreaming or worry has taken over - the luxury or the danger of living more in our imaginations. That’s not real, we say, so it shouldn’t intrude into the serious business of getting on with life.
But St Ignatius of Loyola took the imagination very seriously. He believed that our imagined dreams or anxieties, hopes or fears are the deepest reality of our lives. Often the busyness with which we cram our hours is an escape mechanism from the deep desires or fears that lie at our core. He believed that if we allow ourselves to respond to Jesus through our imagination, we will come to discover our deepest and best desires. It is those very desires that will lead us to God.
In his life on earth Jesus had transformative encounters with people. No one ever left his presence unchanged: blind beggars, Roman centurions, political leaders and harassed parents met him and were changed. Jesus is alive now. Can you spend some of this time directing your imagination to meet him now?
Take time to enter into a gospel story with your imagination, picturing yourself in the scene, and you will find your emotions and desires engaged. The encounter may be unexpected, but he meets us where we are. It’s not a question of forcing things. Relax and allow the scene to play out and let yourself participate in whatever way comes to you. Hear him ask, ‘what do you want?’ This is the moment to tell him.
Speaking to God as one friend to another: using our imagination in prayer (2)
Sitting still in imaginative contemplation of a gospel scene may take some people time and
Something practical: writing or drawing or going for a walk may work better. ‘That’s not prayer’, you may say. Why not, if it leads your mind and heart to God?
Perhaps there’s a letter you want to write to God or a poem. Perhaps you had a moment of quiet and some important thought came to you, or a deep feeling that you know you need to reflect on and perhaps turn into action. Perhaps there’s been some longing that won’t go away or a dream that seemed important. Taking time to sift this, writing it out, drawing it, or using any other medium to make something that seems to symbolise what is at the heart of this feeling or these thoughts, all of this is prayer. It can lead to a deeper understanding of who we are before God and ways in which God is inviting us to grow in faith, hope or love. It’s about getting in touch with our deepest desires, and finding God in and through those desires.
It may be responding to an invitation to dare to take our longings seriously, to get round to something we’ve been avoiding for ages, to forgive ourselves at last for something that has been weighing us down. Whatever it may be, any exercise that helps us to go deeper, to get in touch with our deepest desires, will lead us in the Spirit towards that treasured creature God created us to be.
And what do we do when we’ve discovered these deep desires? We take time to speak to God as one friend to another. It’s the speaking out that can help us to identify God’s presence deep within, inspiring, provoking, encouraging and reassuring. God is at work. The adventure lies in finding out how.
The light and the shadow: Reconnecting with God and ourselves in the everyday
Life can be busy and pressurised, and we can easily lose sight of what’s going on within us, never stopping to take a breath or to assess how we feel. We keep going on automatic pilot, never taking the time to question the thoughts and feelings dominating our inner and outer world. No wonder we become sick and tired, when our bodies and our minds get so disconnected.
St Ignatius taught a way of praying known as the Prayer of Awareness or the Examen. It’s a simple way of decompressing at the end of the day and reconnecting with God. Here is a brief outline of the dynamic it follows:
Relax: become aware of your breath and body, relaxing into God’s presence.
Give thanks: What gives me a sense of gratitude? There may have been little gifts: a sunny day, a loving email or phone call, a problem solved at work, a hug from a loved one, an awareness of the wonder of nature in birdsong, the company of a dog or the beauty of a tree. Whatever the gift, stay with it and savour it.
Ask for light: ask for the grace of a God’s eye view of your day, seeing it with God’s merciful eyes. What does God call to your attention? Stay with it and see where it leads.
Review the day: asking God to highlight what God thinks matters, both the light and the shadow, the gift and the burden. Stay with what stands out.
Talk: have a conversation with God, asking for whatever grace you need, thanking God and talking as a friend, becoming more aware of what has been driving the feelings, impulses and actions of this day and placing all this and the needs of anyone who features in this time before the God of all consolation.
None of these ways of praying should lead to ‘hardening of the oughteries’. We pray best in the way that feels most natural. But one of the greatest helps is to feel encouraged to experiment and explore, perhaps beyond the boundaries of what has felt ‘permitted’. Enjoy giving something suggested here a try, and remember that when we don’t know how to pray, St. Paul (who knew a thing or two about it) reassures us that the Spirit prays within us beyond any words of ours.
God bless, and please pray for me and for all who come to this website.