Bringing prayer into shape


13 Dec 2023

Our prayer lives should not be static but nurtured through study and encounter with God.

I am no good at languages. When I have travelled overseas, I have been able to lean on the crutch that is English. Knowing there will likely be someone around who speaks enough of it. Expressing, however reflexively and briefly, frustration when I cannot be understood. I find myself with a growing sense of shame that I cannot speak any language but this one.

In Portugal for World Youth Day in August 2023, I felt initially mild embarrassment at by monolingualism. By the time we gathered for Mass with one and half million people, it had reached that sense of shame. There were so many languages present, so my disappointment was not that I could not speak with any person in particular, but that I was not more fully open to the possibility of difference.

Different languages, and I can recognise this even from my position of profound ignorance about them, are patterned differently. There are not just different words for the same thing, which is how we often think about translation, but rather words stretch and bend, encompass different things. The use of words and the structure of sentences suggest different orientations.

I have been reflecting on the nature of language in my prayer recently. I have been undertaking some study in scripture as part of a theology degree. My sense of scripture is expanding. As it does my prayer is going in new, and deeper directions. I am finding myself drawn by context and the meanings that might be found in texts based on learned commentary. Significantly, I am praying with scriptural texts with a greater awareness of the way language works in different contexts. The way Hebrew is patterned, and Greek too.

Meanings that seemed settled are reopened. An approach that seemed digestible for my contemporary context becomes a little, or a lot, more complicated. The person of Jesus starts to emerge in new ways given what we can know of his context. The rich layering of Pentateuch texts, their development from oral traditions and use of illusions in Hebrew. The precision of the language of St Paul, the way his words fit together in Greek, different to how they connect and work in English.

There is a risk in bringing this learning to prayer that times of prayer become extended study sessions. That would tend to minimise the relationship with God and make the ‘prayer’ less about God and more about my cerebral interests.

The richer, deeper possibility is carrying that learning lightly and allowing it to shape my engagement with prayer so that I am open to knowing God more deeply. An intellectually engaged faith and an affective relationship with God are not antithetical but mutually supporting. In our religious education, formally and all through our lives, we should give attention to both.

That mystic and spiritual guide, St Ignatius of Loyola was keen on the importance of preparation for prayer. The late medieval, almost Renaissance courtier in him new the power of being prepared for encounter. For those beginning their day with prayer on the scripture, Ignatius suggested considering the text before bed and having some ‘points’, some key ideas, insights or experiential openings, precisely so that the cerebral work would be done, and prayer had the best chance of being an encounter with God.

The importance of preparation extended to the prayers’ physical placement at the beginning of the prayer time. Ignatius suggested standing before the place of prayer and recognising God’s presence already in the place. God waiting to greet me as I come to pray in this moment.

As I prepare to pray with scripture, I can come to be aware, too, of the way that God is waiting to meet me in the text which is helping me to encounter Him. I am often surprised by what comes out of a piece of scripture, a new dimension or point of entry based on something I have learned about the text, or about the way God moves in other parts of my life. Prayer can be a time of surprise and creativity. The affective imagination can and should be brought to the engagement with text.

The text of scripture should come alive in prayer. But this coming alive need not be, and ought not be, unhinged from the tradition that has held the text. Preparation helps. Being aware of the ways in which ancient language works, the ways early audiences would have understood the text, the underlying motifs and illusions scholars see, all of this can help give life to the encounter with scripture and so with God. A way of developing that complex, rich, exciting encounter with the One revealed in scripture.

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