by Fr. Jack McArdle
While wanting to avoid getting too technical, I hope to share some ways of praying that you may find helpful. Remember that prayer is really what God is doing when I give him time and space. I remember training swimmers years ago, and there was one young lad there, and I was convinced he had what it takes to beat the best. It was very frustrating, because he was so involved in other sports that it was almost impossible to get him to come to the swimming pool. I eventually had to give up on him, and it will never be known what he might have achieved.
Let us look at one insight into prayer, for a few moments. I knew a young doctor, who was married with two young children, and they were the centre of his life. Imagine the shock when he discovered that he had cancer, and he was not going to get better. This caused him great anguish, but, when he finally came to grips with it, he took some practical steps to meet the situation. He had visualised himself spending a lot of time with his children, as they grew up, and he had every intention of being there for them as they struggled with their adolescent and teenage years. He would be there when they moved into their independent and interdependent years. Now, he realised that this was not going to happen, so he decided to do the next best thing. He got a tape-recorder, and he filled a C-90 tape with everything he wanted to say to them, in the hope that, after his death, they might listen to this from time to time, and it would help to guide them.
It was extremely touching. It was obvious he was speaking from his heart, and that he meant every word he said. What he had to say was practical, and very reassuring. He told them that he would always be there for them, that he would always look after them, and that he had every confidence they would grow into mature responsible adults. That was several years ago, and those children are now in their late teens and early twenties. I know, for a fact, that they do listen to the tape on a regular basis, and it has been a steady guiding hand for them, as they grew up. I also confidently expect that they will continue to cherish that message for the remainder of their lives. They consider themselves fortunate indeed, to have had this constant reminder, and assurance, and they continue to get great motivation and inspiration from it.
I mention this, because, in many ways, it reminds me of Jesus, and the message he left with us, the night before he died. In St. John's gospel, chapters 13 to 17, we have the equivalent of that C-90 tape the young doctor made for his children. Jesus would be killed the following day, so he spent several hours with his apostles, during which he gave a message for them, and for all of us, for all time. He said he would always be there for us, that he would continue to look after us, and that we would never be alone. He prayed that we might take seriously what he had said to us, and that we might live up to all his hopes for us. He promised that his Spirit would never leave us, and he assured us that his Father loved us as much as he loved Jesus himself. He gave advice about love, and he spoke of the marks that would show that we belong to him.
I honestly believe that, if, like the children and the tape, we were to read these chapters from time to time, we would really come to know and understand the mind of Jesus. That would be a powerful help when we come before him in prayer. The gospel is now, and I am every person in it. I have my own evil spirits, my own form of blindness, my own hungers. By reading a short passage from the gospels, and reflecting on it for a while, I will be amazed at how my relationship with Jesus will deepen. One of the big advantages of this is that my prayer becomes a response to something Jesus says or does. In other words, he has the initiative, and my role is more that of responding to him, than running the show myself. I would strongly recommend that you get yourself a copy of the gospels, if not the whole Bible. There are little pocket editions available, and I know people who read a little, without drawing attention to themselves, as they get into bed at night, take a coffee break at work, or sit in a parked car. It takes but a few minutes, and it is a habit that is so easy to develop, but it is one that produces powerful results.
I remember, some years ago, there was a great interest among the young in the teaching of Chairman Mao-si-tung of China. In some circles, those times, it was the 'in' thing to carry Mao's Little Red Book in a pocket, and to read it at bus stops, in doctor's waiting rooms, or anywhere there were a few idle moments. You see, what I'm speaking about on this side is not necessarily something that everyone does, or is generally accepted and expected. Prayer is too important to have fixed and definite ways, without scope for how the inner Spirit might prompt you. There can be wonderful freedom in prayer, just as people with a romantic soul can discover endless ways of telling another that he/she is important to them. I think it important that I dare to be different, if I am to grow into any kind of spiritual freedom.
Mount Palomar is down in southern California, and there is a huge telescope on top of the mountain. It is known that if a photo-sensitive plate is put in the scope, and the lens are opened to outer space for ten seconds, and the negative is then printed, there will be at least ten bodies from outer space in the photo. If another photo-sensitive plate is used, and the lens are left open for ten hours, there will be thousands of bodies from outer space in the photo. I think of prayer as something like that. The more I am open to the Lord, the more of his light will I reflect.
Another image for prayer is to look at the beach as the tides comes in. The beach is me, and the tide is the Lord. The tide is the actor, the prime mover, and the beach gets acted on. The incoming tide will make a profound change, as the beach will be smoothed, and cleaned, as all the loose rubbish gets caught up in the water. The beach will certainly change, but it is the tide that causes the change. If the beach resisted change, it would have to jump up and down, and form a wall of resistance to the incoming tide. Real prayer can be risky, because I may hear something I don't want to hear. Jesus came to comfort the afflicted, but he also came to afflict the comfortable! It is, therefore, rightly said that the better form of prayer is when I stop talking, and listen to God speaking.
Just as some people are endless talkers, and they bring that with them when they come to pray, so others are, by nature, good listeners, and they have a great gift for listening. They help more people by simply listening to them, than many of the others with all the talking. Who is speaking, and who is listening is very important in prayer. If I switch on the radio here beside me, I am sure that there are many people talking, singing, entertaining, but I'm certainly not listening. God is always saying something, if I take time out to listen. He, of course, is always ready and willing to listen, should I wish to share some worry or problem with him.
The human heart can actually become a prayer room, an Upper Room, if I choose to allow this happen.
Mary, Jesus' mother and mine, is more than willing to take up residence there, so that Incarnation can happen all over again in me, and that, in turn will lead to Pentecost for me. That is why I should always ensure that I get in touch with my heart, right at the beginning of prayer. God's Spirit is in my heart, and, like Mary, Jesus is being formed within me. One of the images I find useful, when at prayer, is to try to enter into the thinking and feeling of a mother, who is pregnant, and who is deeply happy about that fact. As she sits quietly on her own, she gets in touch with what is happening within her. She is very conscious of a new life developing there, and she responds to every stirring of that new life. That's a good image for prayer, where I can go downstairs, get in touch with a new life stirring there, and, all the while, I need only say "Yes, Lord....Yes, Lord". Like Mary, I am saying 'Yes', so that the Spirit can work in me, and through me.
In this kind of prayer, rather than doing anything myself, I am keeping in touch with what God is doing, and I am giving my whole-hearted consent to that work. Another image is that of a deep deep well, with bubbling living water down in the depths. The well, unfortunately, is filled with junk, old car wrecks, and garbage. I go downstairs, get in touch with this, and I hope and pray that the water, which is the Spirit of God, may rise to the top, lifting all the rubbish to the surface, and dumping it over the side. This, again, is the proper work of the Spirit, and my role is to give permission, to allow this happen. Prayer here is but another example of me looking on, contemplating God at work, and saying my 'yes' to that.
When I was growing up, I knew that my parents loved me. I wasn't very good at showing appreciation, because it is so easy to take such love for granted. God loves me, and, when I spend time with him, when I give him time and space in my day, it helps a lot if I am conscious of being loved. The saint is not the person who loves God, but the one who is totally convinced of being loved by God. Prayer is a special way of receiving and returning that love. On a sunny day, I go into the back garden, and sit in the sun; I sit in a deck chair, stay where I am, and the heat of the sun reaches me. If I get a sun-tan, that is what the sun does, when I show up, and make myself available.
Another image that can help in prayer is to go downstairs into my heart, and use my imagination to see what is going on there. I can imagine a house, with dry rot in the walls, and the timber of the windows. There is a large rubbish skip, and the walls are being stripped back to the brick, and all the damaged cement and timber is dumped into the skip, ready to be disposed of. The walls are going to be freshly plastered, and the timber is being replaced. This is an image of the Spirit at work, clearing away the wreckage of the past, and renewing my own inner self. "I make all things new", says the Lord. God removes what is not healthy, and he strengthens what is weak. He touches the areas in need of healing, and he renews my inner spirit.
In Zen Buddhism, for example, prayer involves sitting still, and letting the muddy waters settle within, and, when that has happened, becoming aware of a pearl of beauty and great price that is there, but was not visible in the muddy water. In Christian thinking, that pearl is the Holy Spirit, and when I am quiet, and let the muddy waters settle, I can be much more conscious of that inner richness. There is another image, from my early childhood, that I find helpful. I remember the days I spent making turf in the bog. As the men dug out the turf, it sometimes happened that a log was uncovered, which had lain there for many years. This timber would be very tough, and very seasoned, and, if placed in an open fire-place, would burn for hours.
I sometimes imagine the surface cracking open, and many logs being raised to the surface. These represent the hurts, the memories, and the fears that are buried in my subconscious, under the floor-boards of my heart, as it were. As they are brought to the surface, the hurts and the memories are healed, and I can get rid of them. All of these images help us to be conscious of a constant activity going on in our inner spirit, and, in prayer, we get in touch with that, and become aware of it. Jesus was constantly inviting his apostles to come aside for a while, far from the pushing crowds, to spend some quiet time with him. Those were times of prayer for them, and they can be for us, when we choose to go aside, and spend some time with him.
In an earlier chapter, I made a clear distinction between being religious, and being spiritual. This difference is most evident in prayer. Religion could be called a spirituality of addition, where I pile on more and more prayers, and hope that they will lift me out of the quicksand of my own selfishness, and, eventually get me into heaven. This is human endeavour at its most evident. Spirituality, on the other hand, is a spirituality of subtraction, where I do less and less, and the Lord is free to do more and more. I am not suggesting that I do nothing, like the man whose beard went on fire, and he prayed it might rain! Of course, I do something, like going aside, like taking time out, like calling into a church. What I am saying is that the results that come from that is what God does. I just keep showing up, and will not stop until the miracle happens. And it will happen, as God begins to do things for me beyond my wildest dreams, and things begin to happen that I myself could never effect, by myself.
Let us look again at the story Jesus told about the two men who went up to the temple to pray. One delivered a long monologue on how good he was, and how much better than others he was, while the other just fell on his knees, and asked God to forgive his sins. One was preoccupied with what he was doing for God, while the other was asking God to do something for him.
One day Jesus visited the house of Martha and Mary. Martha was busy in the kitchen, preparing a meal, while Mary sat at Jesus' feet, listening to him. Martha was annoyed, and asked Jesus to tell Mary come and help in the kitchen. Jesus defended Mary, and said she had chosen the better part. Now Martha was a good person, and someone had to prepare the meal. The mistake Martha made was that she began with what she was doing, and, if she had time later on, she probably would have come out to spend time listening to Jesus. On the other hand, Mary, having listened to what Jesus had to say, and having spent time with him, would probably have gone into the kitchen and prepared the meal then. Again, it is a question of beginning with myself, or beginning with God.
I have already said that there is a vast difference between praying and saying prayers. I hope I have stressed that difference enough by now. Saying prayers can be boring and uninspiring, and I can easily get fed up, and abandon all attempts. One of the special blessings of recent years has been the growth of prayer groups. This is a gathering of people who come together once a week, for an hour or more. During that time, their prayer can vary from singing, to reading the Bible, to sharing some experience or insight, usually finishing with prayers of petition for intentions presented at the meeting. Periods of silent reflection form an important part of each meeting, and, quite often, there is a cup of tea available afterwards, when they can continue to share and enjoy each other's company. There is a community dimension to this kind of prayer that is very life-giving.
This is not a book of prayers, but I would like to conclude this chapter with an outline of a simple guided meditation, something you might like to try sometime. First a quiet place, where you are not going to be interrupted. Sit in a comfortable chair.....close your eyes....take your time....make sure you are relaxed and comfortable....take a moment or two to get ready. If I go out after a shower of rain, I notice a pool of water in one place, and other areas are quite dry. People are like that. Try to be relaxed so that God's love can soak right into the core of your being. Become conscious of your breathing....in.....out......in.....out..
OK...now, imagine going down into yourself with one of those breaths, and stay down there. Look around. You are on a beach....a beach that stretches for miles....fine white sand....gentle waves coming almost as far as your feet. Take your time to get into the scene. Look up into the sky, notice the seagulls.......squat down and fill your hand with the fine sand, and let it run through your fingers..... Stand up again, and look down along the beach....there are people walking towards you....Keep them in sight....notice how they seem to grow in height as they approach. They are about fifty yards away now....something's begun to happen.....The main group have dropped back, and only one is walking towards you......It is a man....deep tanned skin......trimmed beard....long flowing hair.....Yes, it is the Lord....It is Jesus...and he is walking directly towards you. Just remain as you are, where you are....let him approach you. You see his face now, and the one thing that strikes you is the smile....a bright warm glowing smile......He is almost in front of you now, and then he stops, and holds out a hand....."Come to me.....I will give you rest......I have loved you with an everlasting love.......I have carved you on the palm of my hand....fear not, be not afraid....I am with you...........I will never leave you...."
Jesus invites you to walk along the beach with him....on over towards the nearby rocks, where he sits down, and invites you to sit beside him. He looks you straight in the eye, and says "I am always delighted to meet you, and to spend time with you. Even when you forget, or have no time for me, that's OK, I understand, because I know your heart, and I know that you are good. I will never ever condemn you, or reject you, even when you are very hard on yourself. I will always be there for you, when you turn away from the pressures, and come aside. I don't ask you to make any promises to me, but I would be truly happy if you believed my promises to you. That's all I ask for, is that you trust me, that you believe me,....because when you do that you are showing that you know I love you...and that's what matters. I came to love you, and all I ask is that you accept my love, and, through me, you will come to know my Father's love....and we will give you the Spirit who will be with you always...always...through every situation, even to the end of time........"
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Come 'Ere Till I Tell You copyright © Fr. Jack McArdle. All rights reserved.