PRAYER: Helps and Hindrances
Posted by: Bishop David Walker
PRAYER: HELPS AND HINDRANCES
Bishop David Walker
- Lifestyle / Disordered life.
The principal contrast here is between a life which is lived from within, and one that is dominated from without. In the former case, the person deliberately introduces into life the things that will assist it, whereas in the latter, life is dominated by what comes from without, i.e. it is what others do which determines what happens in our life.
- Recollection / Lack of attention.
Recollection is the cultivation of the presence of God in one’s life. It is achieved by constantly turning the heart to God throughout the day, so that the heart is gradually, more and more, focused on God. It doesn’t just happen naturally, but requires a constant effort on the part of the person. Attention is an essential element of prayer. A recollected life fosters such attention, whereas a life where the mind is left to wander freely will not foster it. The latter will leave the person prone to distractions at prayer.
- Simplification / Over-involvement
Being over-involved in activities in one’s life does not create a good situation for prayer. When one is too busy the interior life is caught up with the concerns of that over-involvement. The person who is too busy has many things vying for the heart’s attention, and often God doesn’t get a high priority. Even when the work done is for God, one can be so preoccupied by the work, that one gives little attention to God. Simplification of life is the other side of the coin of over-involvement.
- Leisure, relaxation / Weariness: physical, emotional
The spiritual life is not removed from the physical and psychic aspects of human existence. The consequence of this is that weariness of any kind will affect the way people pray. Emphasis on action and service sometimes creates a situation where leisure and relaxation are seen as the symbol of slackers, of those who are not pulling their weight in a very demanding situation. However, the contrary is true: those who work and serve need leisure and relaxation to be able to continue in their work and service. Prayer is the foundation and motivation of Christian work and service, and whatever threatens prayer is threatening the things which flow from it.
- Nourishment / Lack of Nourishment
Prayer needs to be nourished, i.e. the heart needs to be fed with things that will more easily turn it to God. If the heart is to mull over the fundamental Christian truths, then it must be exposed to presentations of those truths. This is achieved through reading, sermons, prayer days etc.
- Prayerfulness / Act of Prayer
The final goal of prayer is not to be good at a particular act of prayer, but to lead a life which becomes a prayer. It is the way we live which reveals the quality of our prayer life. Life itself is the greatest prayer. It is the great act of adoration and thanksgiving which we offer to God. The individual acts of prayer simply contribute to this fullest and most perfect expression of human surrender to God.
- Seriousness / Lack of seriousness
No one will deny the importance of prayer in the Christian life. But many of us who affirm its true priority do not live it as a priority in our life. We can claim that prayer is important to us, but the real test is what happens in practice. Every believer needs to take prayer seriously, because this is an essential activity within the Christian life.
- Flexibility / Rigidity
It is necessary here to distinguish between rigidity and consistency. Consistency in prayer means a faithfulness to one’s practice of prayer, a commitment to prayer that endures throughout life. Rigidity refers more to an inability to allow change within one’s prayer life, a refusal to adopt different forms of prayer or to pray differently according to the particular situation. Consistency, as commitment to prayer, is a necessary component of the prayer life. Rigidity, on the other hand, is an attitude best removed from the lives of those who pray. The opposite to this rigidity is flexibility, i.e. the ability to adapt one’s prayer form and prayer time to changing situations and personal circumstances. To attempt to continue rigidly with practices which we perform in normal times can lead to frustration and guilt, and do damage to our spiritual journey rather than promote it. A rigid approach to prayer makes it less natural, and makes it more difficult to be integrated in to one’s life.
- Confidence / Lack of Confidence
” One deserves to be heard and to receive a response, to the extent that he believes that God watches over him and can grant it.” (John Cassian) “I am the foundation of your praying. In the first place my will is that you should pray, and then I make it your will too, and since it is I who make you pray, and you do so pray, how can you not have what you ask for?” (Julian of Norwich). And again, “Some of us believe that God is almighty, and “may” do everything; and that he is all wise, and “can” do everything; but that he is an love, and “will” do everything – there we draw back” (Julian of Norwich). Our tradition is very constant in teaching that we should have confidence when we pray.
- Perseverance, Courage / Acedia
The life of prayer is one of the most demanding of goals, and it requires that one persevere with great courage. It is clear that the journey to God is not all plain sailing; that as one draws close to God great demands are made on one’s faith, and it takes great courage to go on. . The desert fathers identified the reality which made such perseverance difficult and they named it “acedia”. Acedia is the vice of the monk; it saps the monk’s energy and makes it difficult to persevere in the monastic commitment. It is a spiritual lethargy, which makes spiritual activity difficult, and which can undermine our efforts to pray,
- Guidance / Lack of Guidance.
St Bernard said: “He who is his own master is the disciple of a fool.” We need help in the life of prayer. John Cassian used to say that “the traveller who does not know where he is going will have all the weariness of the journey but never get there.” I think we could paraphrase that and say that the traveller who knows where he is going but does not know the way will have all the weariness of the journey but never get there” Access to someone who is experienced in prayer, even though it may not be frequent, is something that will be of great assistance to those who pray.
- Patience / impatience
“The good spirit says be holy; the evil spirit says be holy now.” What the good spirit recommends takes time and patience; what the evil spirit says demands an impatience and instant gratification which is the enemy of a real life of prayer. The pursuit of quick results, the expectation of instant success is a major obstacle to the life of prayer.
- Faith / feeling
The acknowledgement of God’s presence in our prayer is more a matter of faith than feeling. Faith that tells us that God is always present. God is there even when we don’t feel the presence. St. John of the Cross says that God shapes us by the feelings of presence and the feelings of absence. The underlying presupposition here is that God is always present, but how that presence is manifested is different. Feeling has a place in prayer, but it is by no means the ultimate guide to the value of our prayer, nor to the presence of God in it.
- Appropriate passivity / excessive activity.
The balance of activity and passivity in one’s prayer life is an important aspect of the spiritual journey. There is a time for activity and a time for passivity.
- Freedom / Clinging to past experiences.
One of the most basic demands of the spiritual journey is that we be free to journey. It is so easy to become comfortable in the way we live spiritually, and not to be willing to step out of this rut and move on in the journey. This can happen in prayer. Freedom to go on, to be open to new ways of praying, is essential for the life of prayer. To cling to past experience is an obstacle to future growth.
- Prayer: growth / Prayer: problem solving.
It is a traditional practice to take one’s problems to prayer. However, while the practice is good, it should not dominate prayer life. In prayer we need to do a variety of things. There needs to be time for just being with the Lord, for fostering that basic relationship which is the framework within which all else takes place.
- Good time /Bad time
It can happen that we tend to fit our prayers into our life whenever a space occurs, rather than providing positive occasions for prayer. If we leave prayer to take what is left over in our busy day, we often find that we are tired or tense, and can do very little. It is better to find good time in our life, time when we are fresh, can concentrate, and give ourselves uninterruptedly to God.
- Companionship / Individuality
While prayer is a very personal and individual thing, it also has an important social dimension which can support it. At times, Christian spirituality has focussed too much on God and the individual person to the extent that the social nature of our relationship with God has been played down considerably. To go one’s own way, to over stress individuality in prayer, is not only to lose an important help to prayer, but also to cloud the very nature of the spiritual journey itself. Excessive individuality in prayer can breed isolation from the community, and lead to departure from it.
- Understanding / Information
Because one has information about prayer it doesn’t follow that one understands prayer. While understanding is meant to be the outcome of information, it does not always result from it. Information is more likely to lead to understanding when there is consistent practice of prayer in a person’s life. Then the information can be applied to the reality, and be assessed in terms of it. The practice is’ the important thing, the information is ancillary. Consistent practice of prayer will help turn information into understanding.
- Pray as you can / Pray as you want to
In the life of prayer there is often a clash between realism and idealism, between what we actually can do at this time in the here and now, and what we would like to be able to do. It is important to realise that while ideals have a place, to live in the ideal world is not appropriate unless it coincides with the real world, which it rarely does. One must always base one’s prayer on reality, on what can be achieved at this time. We must act according to the graces that we have, not according to those which we would prefer, or which other people have. What other people have cannot be the standard for our prayer.