by Fr. Jack McArdle
May I remind myself, and you, gentle reader, what I set out to do in this series. It is an attempt to take a close look at my own life, and discover what insights have helped me the most in my journey. I then offer those to you, in the hope that some of them may also help you.
The title of this chapter is 'Repeating Yourself'. This has to do with a form of prayer that is of the mantra form, where a word or words are just repeated over and over again, until they sink into my subconscious, and become part of me. I have found this to be most helpful, when I got the 'hang' of it. The organ God gave me with which to pray is the HEART, not the TONGUE. It is a question of having a praying heart, rather than a praying tongue.
Jesus tells us that the Spirit is like a spring of living water, which wells up from within a person. In other words, it begins in the heart, and may find, and need expression with the tongue. As someone who has suffered from heart failure for several years now, I appreciate the luxury of being able to breathe deeply. It can be quite distressing to try to be active, while gasping for air with short, shallow breaths. The thrill of filling the lungs right down to the base is a wonderful experience for those with breathing problems.
Prayer of the heart is deep-down stuff. We are familiar with the expression of speaking under one's breath. It is a kind of deep-down whisper that is clearly audible. I must confess to being a sports addict, when it comes to certain sports on the television. I often have to discipline myself, not to get too excited or involved! I tell myself "They're getting well paid to play this game, and, if they can't win out there, there's very little I can do here to help them!"
However, I must confess that, even at my calmest moments, I am whispering "Come on! Come on! Come on!" That's as near as I can get to explaining what I experience as quiet whispering mantra prayer. Come, Holy Spirit! Come Holy Spirit! Come, Holy Spirit! This quiet whisper can go on, almost on automatic pilot, even in the midst of my most active endeavours. I find it ideal for these waking moments during the night, when I'm in the car, or waiting on the kettle to boil! Prayer is about communicating with the heart.
My own best image to represent this is a mother and young baby. The same words, coos, whispers are repeated again and again, and, whether the baby understands or not, they seem to have a calming effect, until the crying stops, and the baby settles. You couldn't imagine the mother making a speech to the baby. "Vouchsafe, I beseech thee humbly to grant onto me one night's sleep". I don't think the baby would understand, and the crying might well continue.
I realise that I am using the word 'mantra' in a very broad and general sense. Rather than categorise it under 'Centering Prayer', 'Contemplative Prayer', etc., I am presenting it as just another way of praying. I can whisper the name 'Jesus' thousands of times. Nothing more than that. My own favourite prayer is 'Spirit and Breath, and Power of God'. Nothing more. I'm not asking for anything, or adding anything to those words. I find this prayer very uplifting.
In fact, I would go so far as to call it a very peaceful accompanying prayer. I could not repeat this prayer and be lonely at the same time. I cannot remember the circumstances when I first began using these words, nor was I ever very conscious of this prayer growing on me, or, indeed, in me. It is only now, upon reflection, that I realise just how central this prayer has become. When I think of some up-coming talk, Retreat, etc., I just instinctively begin whispering this prayer. It serves to 'anchor' me, and keep my soul at peace. Maybe, without this prayer, I might possibly become anxious or preoccupied with what lies ahead.
Singing a word or two to any tune that comes to my mind is another form of accompanying prayer that I find very helpful. I can repeat the words "Praise you" to the tune of any song I choose. After a while, the words seem to melt away, and I'm not actually saying them, but they are being repeated somewhere within my being. I can have great ease and comfort with this kind of prayer, because there is absolutely no effort required.
My generation grew up with what one might call a 'Spirituality of Addition'. More and more prayers and Novenas to more and more saints, and we could build our own Tower of Babel and arrive safely in heaven! (I do not wish to cynically dismiss this, because it produced many holy souls, such as our parents; but it was a tough road, involving a lot of hard work). The kind of prayer of which I speak in this chapter would come under the heading of a 'Spirituality of Subtraction'. It is not that I discard the prayer books and Novena leaflets, but I am willing to allow them decrease as I allow the influence of the Spirit to increase, as He leads me along the path of prayer.
The greatest prayer of all is 'YES'. If I repeated this word in my heart, and ended up saying nothing else, I would have found a sure and certain way back to the Garden. 'YES' represents my whole response to Jesus and to his message. There will always, of course, be room and need for prayers of petition, of repentance, and of gratitude. However, what I am suggesting is that my whole prayer-life can become under-laid with my constant and insistent whispers of 'YES'. Calvary was Jesus saying 'YES' to the Father, which completely neutralised the 'NO' of Adam and Eve. When I put that drop of water in the chalice at the Offertory, I am joining my 'YES' to Jesus to his 'YES' to the Father. At Baptism somebody else said my 'YES' for me, but, now I must say it for myself.
God doesn't send me anywhere when I die. Rather he eternalises the direction in which I now choose to travel. The most important 'YES' in my whole life is my 'YES' of now. When I die, God eternalises that 'YES' by embracing me into the fullness of life and love in the Trinity. 'Yes' is a powerfully significant prayer, because it betokens a decision, a choice. Jesus doesn't ask for discussions, but for decisions. God is totally a God of NOW, and the only 'yes' in my whole life that he's interested in is my 'yes' of NOW. That 'yes' rules out every 'no' that preceded it. I cannot think of a more healthy or life-giving mantra than to just constantly repeat the word 'yes'. The greatest 'yes' of all, of course, is the 'yes' to death, when it comes. Having said 'yes' all my life, it shouldn't be surprising to find that that final 'yes' is very simple indeed.
Space suggests that I bring this chapter to an end. I have very little to add, really. What is important to remember is that there is no end to the little whispers of prayer that fly like arrows towards the Lord. Take your pick of whatever word comes to your heart. Thanks. Praise you, Lord. Holy, Holy.
I learned to walk by walking, and to talk by talking; and so I will become completely immersed in this form of praying by practising it. It is a road to many wonders, a path of many miracles. To watch the Jews at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, or to watch a group of Muslims in a Mosque, one must be struck by the repetitious nature of their prayer…repeating the same words again and again.
I like to imagine Jesus praying this way. As I said before, there are many ways of praying, but I offer you this one as one that really has been a great source of blessing for me. Like anything else, it becomes easier, and more automatic with practice. It is the way of developing a praying heart, where prayer under-girds my every activity. All the other activities and areas of my day must surely be blessed by this accompaniment. "I'll walk with God from this day on". Whispering my mantra is one way of walking with God, of 'learning to live and to walk in the Spirit'. Such prayer becomes as much part of me as my breathing, which, most of the time, I am not aware of.
You find yourself waking up at night with a mantra in your heart. There is no reason to accept that our hearts cannot continue to pray even when we're asleep. I don't pretend to understand the dynamics of this, but I have good reason for believing it. Once we venture down this path of prayer, the Spirit can lead us anywhere, or to any possibilities there are. I bring good-will, and I offer my readiness and willingness to travel, and the Spirit will do all the rest.
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