BY DAVID TORKINGTON
EN HE was the Abbot of Ampleforth, Cardinal
Hume was invited to Rome to take part in a conference on prayer for Benedictine abbots and abbesses from all over the world. Finding himself the leader of a discussion group, he decided to start the ball rolling by inviting the other members of the group to say as simply as possible what they considered to be the essence of prayer.
One said it simply consisted in having a conversation with God, another said it was more about listening than anything else, and another felt it involved being open and available to God at every moment.
When everyone had had their say and Abbot Hume was about to move on, an abbess from Washington stood up at the back and said, "One moment, you're not getting off the hook so easily, Abbot Hume. What do you say prayer is all about?"
"Well," he said. "I agree with almost everything that's been said, but I would like to add a little word with which to preface every description to prayer I've heard. It's the word 'trying'!"
Prayer is trying to have a conversation with God, prayer is trying to to listen to God, prayer is trying to be open and available to God at all times. Traditionally Dominican spiritual writers have stressed the importance of mind and of knowledge in this process while Franciscan writers have stressed the importance of the heart and loving. The truth of the matter is that it's not a matter of "either or", but of "both and". The Benedictine spiri
tual writer William of St.Thierry put it this way. He said, "You can't possibly love someone unless you know them, but you will never really know them unless you love them." And Jesus would add when you really love someone you love them with your whole heart and mind with your whole being.
So perhaps the best definition of prayer is this, if I may paraphrase the old penny catechism. Prayer is the raising of the mind, the heart and of the whole being to God or as Cardinal Hume would no doubt put it, prayer consists in trying to raise the heart, the mind and the whole being to God.
Now there's no single method of prayer just different methods. That's why whenever you start to talk about individual methods of prayer you will inevitably prove unhelpful to far more people than you will help. One person may find the rosary the best method of raising their hearts and minds to God, while others prefer a well-tried devotional exercise, or set meditation. Others find it easier to talk to God as they would to a friend, or use the Jesus Prayer, or just a simple word, as the author of the Cloud Of Unknowing suggests, to keep the heart's gaze fixed upon God.
One of the most ancient forms of prayer is the slow meditative reading of the Scriptures as practised by the Desert Fathers. They would relish plundering the depths of the sacred texts and the profound experience of being led on by the one who inspired them into the still and silent contemplation of God.
A good spiritual director will know how to recommend different methods and forms of prayer to a person as they pass through different stages and phases of their spiritual development. What may be a great help to a person at the beginning of their journey may be of no help later on. What may be of great help later on may be of no use at the beginning. Good spiritual directors are few and far between and when you do find them they are usually overworked, so the best advice for most of us is to journey on by trial and error if all else fails.
Try some of the suggestions I have made here or in my book a Fellow Traveller's Guide To Prayer. A method of prayer is good for you if it helps you here and now to keep trying to raise your heart and mind to God. The moment it no longer helps you to do that, drop it and seek out another that does. Remember the advice of Dom John Chapman, "Pray as you can, not as you can't."
Methods of prayer are only means to an end and the end is to help you to get to know God more folly so that you can love him more deeply to receive his love in return. Only this love can transform you into the perfect image and likeness of the One who was raised from the tomb on the first Easter day. Then he can live on in and through you so that the world can come to believe. t