This is a slightly longer version of an article I wrote for Exeter Cathedral’s monthly magazine, the first in what is hoped to be a regular feature focusing on the prayer lives of members of the Cathedral community. All Bible quotes are from the NRSV.
There are as many different understandings and types of prayer as there are different people. I suppose my underlying understanding is that prayer is an intentional turning towards God, which can be expressed in many different ways. My own prayer practice is contemplative prayer, but more on this later.
I can’t separate my prayer and my faith. My childhood included a smattering of Methodist sunday school, then RE lessons and assembly at my Church of England school. I didn’t take faith seriously until a turning point at university, when I experienced God’s friendship mediated through human friendship. I attended fairly low evangelical and charismatic CofE churches, while also being aware that I was drawn to the eucharist. Iona was a considerable influence, as a ‘thin place’ nurturing community, as was Lee Abbey, the place I first heard teaching on silent prayer from resident hermit Sr Carol CHN.
Another turning point came when I went on a mission, and rejected what I saw as manipulative emotionalism and ‘whipping up’ into evangelistic fervour. I was plunged into the spiritual desert, where faith was dull and practice an act of will, and I wondered whether the journey would ever seem easy again. Short answer: no, but that’s OK!
Then in my mid 20s I went on retreat for the first time, to the Community of St Mary the Virgin in Wantage, Oxfordshire, and to my terror God called me to try out the religious life. It has always been a call to: “…present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds…” (Romans 12:1-2) Twenty years later – including two years at Wantage, a breakdown, one year at Mucknell Abbey in Worcestershire, and various explorations with friends, prayer groups, spiritual guides, priests, and directors of ordinands – I have come to understand that God is calling me to contemplative prayer, which doesn’t need to be in the context of a religious community, and to being not-ordained priest and so abiding with the main body of the church.
Over the years, I have maintained weekly presence at the Eucharist, and on and off a personal daily practice. Sometimes this has been daily office based on the psalms, sometimes lectio divina (meditative reading of the bible and other texts), and latterly silent prayer.
I have found that prayer is a virtuous circle: praying at all makes me want to pray more. If I listen to my mind, there are many excuses and more pressing matters. If I listen to my heart, I acknowledge a deep yearning and desire for God, and rediscover the simplicity of knowing that prayer is what I have to do. It is about resting and wrestling. Both: “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” (Isaiah 30:15) and saying with Jacob after a night of wrestling with the angel at the ford of Jabbok: “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” (Genesis 32:26)
I currently have a daily practice of a period of slow reading on prayer, prayerful theology, or occasionally poetry, followed by 20 minutes of silent centering prayer. I think it important to take on a practice that is manageable and can be increased, rather than over-ambitious and discarded. I aspire to a second 20 minute slot, but am challenged by the freewheeling nature of freelancing work. The context is trying to live a simple life free of the rat race and consumerism. Ideally I will become more and more open and attentive to my place, the small things and their ‘thisness’, and to other people, their joys, sorrows and depth; and cultivate better relationships with self, people and planet, as well as with God as the ground of being. Failure is my constant companion!
Centering prayer is a form of contemplative prayer that recognises we cannot grasp God. God is beyond comprehension, and therefore I wait in attentiveness and openness to God’s presence and action, and allow God to draw me into encounter. This shapes my practice of intercession too: wordlessly bearing the world and its needs to that threshold and holding them up for healing.
Then God also makes Godself known through creation and incarnation. At other unexpected moments, I find that if (if!) I continue attentive, I might catch a glimpse of God in other people. Or the world is transfigured – whether ivy leaves rimmed by frost, the back of my hand, an apple, or sunlight streaming onto the West window and stonework during the reading of the Gospel on the second Sunday before Lent – and for a moment becomes transparent.
I suspect the desert journey, the wrestling, and the resting, will continue until death. It is a journey taken alone, yet I am not alone. I am grateful to have been blessed with many companions along the way, and grateful for many faithful pray-ers across the centuries who have written down their wisdom for others. So I will end with two of the books that have helped me:
- Thomas Keating “Open Mind, Open Heart” – an introduction to centering prayer
- Esther de Waal “A Seven Day Journey with Thomas Merton” – a retreat programme based on Merton’s writings and photography for personal or group use over seven days or weeks