The Problem With Books About Prayer

The problem with books about prayer is that they tend to stop us praying. What I mean is, instead of getting down to the business of trying to pray, we spend time reading about it; and the more we read, the more discouraged we often become. This wonderful, mystical adventure the writers promise, where is it? How does this dreary half-hour on my knees or that vacant sitting still on a chair, trying to summon some soul energy, measure up? Where am I going wrong?

17 August marks the anniversary of the death of one of the great English contemplatives, D. Gertrude More; and she had exactly the same problem, though in her case, the books about prayer she found uncongenial were the kind I myself have difficulty with. She did not find formal meditation helpful. Only when Fr Augustine Baker showed her a simpler, older way of praying did she discover that the Lord had been inviting her to pray all her life; and once she discovered that, there was no stopping her. When she died at the early age of 28, she was widely regarded as a woman of singular holiness.

The best advice anyone can give is Dom John Chapman’s ‘pray as you can, not as you can’t.’ Of course, there are some things we may find helpful (see, for example, the pointers given here) but we each have to find our own way. The great adventure of prayer will have its difficulties and its longeurs, but like any relationship, it grows and changes over time until, ultimately, there is nothing left but that great Love which draws us to himself.

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The Prayer of Incompetence and Failure

From time to time someone will ask how to pray ‘better’. When we tease out what is troubling the questioner, it usually turns out that he or she expects something to ‘happen’ in prayer; and when it doesn’t, feels a failure. Of course, something always  does ‘happen’ in prayer, but not always what we were expecting or hoping for. Remember Naaman and his indignation at being told to wash seven times in the Jordan when he was expecting Elisha to come out and perform some quasi-magical ceremony for him? We can be like that in prayer. We want things to go according to our notions, but God has his own ideas and they are rarely the same as ours.

One of the first lessons any of us has to learn is to pray as we can. We need to keep in  mind that God is in charge and rather keener on this prayer business than we are. Our enthusiasm tends to come by fits and starts. Not so God’s. He has been planning this moment of closeness with us from all eternity. That can be an encouraging thought when prayer seems dry and pointless, when all we experience is incompetence and failure. The secret is to keep at it, to go on trustingly with our prayer times. One of the lovely phrases George Herbert used to describe prayer was ‘the heart in pilgrimage’. Anyone who has undertaken a real pilgrimage, walked the Camino de Santiago, for example, will know that temptations to give up crowd in when one is tired and footsore, but one just goes on. So it is with prayer. Incompetence, failure, what do they matter when God has promised us his very self?

Note
There are some simple guidelines for prayer on our main website, here.

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