Prayer has many faces22 May 2022
Thankfully there is nothing complicated about prayer. It is simply an encounter between ourselves and God.
When I was a young Jesuit in training, there was a wonderful Jesuit Brother in our Melbourne Community named Jim Madden. He had been the refectorian for something like 27 years, which meant that he was responsible for setting and cleaning the dining room tables for more than 120 Jesuits three times a day. Rarely did I see him without Rosary beads in his hand, constantly moving through his fingers and leaving their visible imprint for the rest of his days. Indeed, he knew the birthdays of every Jesuit in the Australian Province – in excess of 300 in those days – and he prayed the Rosary for every one of them on their birthday. One year the 10 Jesuit novices, who had moved to Sydney for their formation, sent Jim a birthday card on his own birthday – 29 September – signing themselves by the dates of their birthdays. A lovely twist – and Jim knew exactly who they were.
I tell this simple story because I am a firm believer that prayer and simplicity go hand in hand. That great 20th century mystic, Thomas Merton, even said that ‘if you want to pray, you are already praying’. In July 2010 I was privileged to participate in a Prayer Conference in Brisbane, a prayer expo unique in revealing the rich diversity of prayer experiences in the Catholic tradition. Frequently throughout those days the various speakers reminded us that prayer is fundamentally about relating to God. We need to keep it simple. While cartoonist Michael Leunig has called it a do-it-yourself ritual of connection, we should not forget Paul’s words to the Romans that ‘when we cannot choose words in order to pray properly, the Spirit himself expresses our plea in a way that could never be put into words’. (Romans 8:26)
Prayer is an encounter
Prayer is an encounter, not a performance, as our Jesuit Tertian director Fr Frank Wallace would often remind us. Above all, it is an adventure in intimacy. It has been described most aptly as ‘letting God love me’. My task in prayer is to notice God’s love and to stake my life on those memories.
If we look on life as a journey from God to God, then prayer is our fuel for this inner journey. As friendships are always a work in progress and can never be taken for granted, so it is prayer that sustains our friendship with God and makes it grow. Put simply, it is living gratefully and expressing that gratitude in mind and heart to God.
My own style of prayer will depend on where I am and what energy levels I have. If I am up early in the morning and travelling to work somewhere, my prayer in the car or in the air might be the famous but simple Jesus Prayer: ‘Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me a sinner’. There is something soothing for the heart in repeating those words ‘Jesus’ and ‘mercy’. They make the heart mellow and grateful. As a variation, if I can shorten these words to some mantra like ‘Come, Lord, Jesus’ and align them with the rhythm of my breathing, the power of the Holy Name can take over and give me new life.
When I have more leisurely time for prayer – for example, early in the morning before some physical exercise and breakfast – I often like to use a prayer method from my own tradition known as ‘Ignatian contemplation’. Simply, it requires us to use our imaginations and insert ourselves into the various Gospel scenes with Jesus. In asking for the grace of an intimate knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, I am no detached spectator in this prayer. My focus is on the person of Jesus and I pray that I might grow in friendship with him as I enter these Gospel scenes alongside him.
For example, we might find it helpful and powerful to imagine ourselves walking with Jesus and those two slow learning disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24. As the four of us crunch our way along the dusty track leading to Emmaus, we are silent with Jesus as we listen to the two disciples recounting their story of disorientation and disillusionment about the events of Good Friday and the resurrection to follow. We then have the chance to hear Jesus speak and paint a big picture of salvation history to help us understand why he died and rose again. He is the consummate teacher, and we are in awe that he can teach with such authority. Having heard his story, the two disciples won’t let him go and invite the two of us to share a meal with them. We watch Jesus breaking bread and blessing it, and we notice the faces of the two disciples light up with instant recognition. Jesus our companion becomes our host. The meal is fascinating, and when we rise to go our separate ways, we hear the two disciples on fire with what Jesus has told them and bursting to share it with their colleagues still huddled together in fear and anxiety in the upper room.
Where two silences meet
In keeping it simple, prayer can be utterly wordless, of course, as we simply while away our time with God. The great Benedictine Cardinal Basil Hume once said that ‘one of the high points of prayer is where two silences meet: God’s silence and our silence. No need for thoughts and words to get in the way’.
Is there any way I can gauge the success of my prayer? Patrick O’Sullivan SJ offers us one interesting criterion, namely: ‘How do I behave at table? . . . Attentiveness is a fruit of prayer’. Prayer is no navel-gazing exercise. If it makes me more attentive to the needs of the world around me, my prayer has been successful. In the words of the Pray 2010 Conference, it will send me to others as a more alert God-bearer.
In all my prayer, both public and private, wordy and wordless, I take great comfort from John’s words that Jesus invites us to make our home in him as he has made his home in us. (John 15:4) While it has many faces, prayer is always a happy homecoming.