August 18, 2008

Learning to Pray

Here's part of a comment left by Jake on one of yesterday's posts:
one of the things that I remember really puzzling me was "how do you pray". How do you get/ try to get connection to the divine. this was never really explained.

This goes to the heart of what I worry about with "religious education" for both children and adults. It can be very hard to know how to learn spiritual practice in a way that can be owned and portable. It's easy to find a way to learn the data of the faith; it can be learned through a trustworthy director or it can be studied on one's own. It's easy to learn the words of the Our Father or Hail Mary, but to learn how to pray, that's another story. There are lots of books on prayer, many of which are nonsense, but they will seldom tell you exactly what to do in order to pray.

I think this is partly because the concrete details and methods of prayer and spiritual practice depend a lot on personal temperament and state of life. In the course of my baptismal vocation I have lived as a lay secular, a lay religious, a lay secular again, a lay religious again, and finally as a religious cleric. My prayer life has shifted along with that. The course of this active religious life and ministry has made me a little more extroverted than when I was younger, and that has been reflected in my prayer as well.

I began to learn to pray through a mentor, and I think this is a good method with a lot of support in the tradition. Early on in my religious life I made friends with a brother who was really into the Centering Prayer method, and he taught it to me. From there I was led to read The Cloud of Unknowing, St. John of the Cross (especially, early on, The Ascent of Mount Carmel) and finally the prayer conferences of John Cassian. These have remained my principal teachers from the tradition.

Teachers of prayer are few and far between though, so someone who desires prayer has to be a "self starter" for sure. In this case I would recommend the use of a simple method to encourage the prayer of the heart and mind, beyond, beneath and above verbal prayer. Lectio Divina, Ignatian style discursive meditation on passages from the Gospels, or Centering Prayer are all fine choices. Run with the one that seems to grab the heart at first glance. There is enough written about all of them, so it should be easy for anyone to find something to read. Commit to a certain time and place for prayer each day, and do whatever rearranging has to be done to be faithful to it.

The best contemporary introductions to the basics of the spiritual life I have ever come across are Beginning to Pray by Archbishop Anthony Bloom, Celebration of Discipline, by Richard J. Foster and Thoughts Matter and Tools Matter by Sr. Mary Margaret Funk.


ben in denver said...

I took a "Prayer and Life" workshop a couple of years ago offered at my parish. It was developed by a Capuchin, Fr. Ignacio Laranaga, and taught by Fr. James Doran, OVM who became aquainted with the program while serving in South America. The program materials have not been available in English for too many years.

Not only did the workshop help me with my prayer life, it really strengthened my relationship with the Virgn Mary.

While Fr. Doran was in Denver he was able to train several facilitators to offer tis program in both English and Spanish. It anybody has access to it where they live, I would recommend they look into it. It goes into great detail in the how to pray.

Jake said...

This post has inspired me allot. I didn't know about many of the authors/techniques you mention. I think allot of people who are flirting with Buddhism and other Eastern religions are essentially searching for direction in prayer. Our own traditions seem to get forgotten.

Samuel said...

Excellent books cited. I found the Liturgy of the Hours to be particularly important in deepening my prayer life. It is instructional in practice, rather than instructional by discussion.

A book I found to be an excellent instructional book is "Into The Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation" by Martin Laird, OSA.

It will teach one to pray via Centering Prayer and it is well grounded in ancient practices. Provides citations of many excellent classical works on prayer by including important wisdom from those works.

Anonymous said...

Open yourself and seek the Lord. Seek His way and His will. You will be His time. Consistency is a must. I love the Liturgy of the Hours and have found it one type of prayer which is helpful and leads me toward another more contemplative place.

Recently the Lord spoke to me, just two days ago, in fact. He speaks and reveals to me, not new words or new ideas, but opens me to the ideas with new eyes/ears/mind. As I worry much, he implored me simply to take those worries and instead of fretting, turn the thought to a prayer. Not a new idea or thought but perhaps I was just more ready for it. And what a joy it is.

He speaks to us in barely negligible ways, but be open to Him, and you'll find joy when you find He's there.