Holding on

Andy Hawes is Warden of
Edenham Regional Retreat House

Many people think of the practice of prayer as an extension of an intellectual activity. Prayer is a form of thinking. It has words in sentences; it can involve reading the written word. Indeed most books on prayer for ‘beginners’ see words as an essential prerequisite for prayer; advocating Scripture or spiritual reading. Even at the most charismatic end of Christian spirituality where an individual might pray in tongues, it is still verbal, even if in this case it is oral and not silent.

Most people would recognize that the posture of the body is important. It has to be the case that the attitude of our body will help shape the attitude of heart and mind. The search for the right posture is crucial for a time of prayer that is to be a fitting offering – attentive and receptive. But what happens when the mind is in turmoil and the words on the page are meaningless?

What happens when pain and discomfort twist the body? Do we stop praying? What do we do when we are in emotional crisis or paralysed by anxiety or simply worn out?

This is when the prayer of ‘holding

on’ comes into its own. By this I mean the use of something to hold tightly in the hands. Speaking quite personally I have two objects I turn to in my times of ‘holding on’.

The first is a prayer rope. This is made of wool and in twenty-five knots (although they can be up to one hundred). It comes from the Orthodox tradition and is usually associated with the praying of the Jesus Prayer: ‘Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.’ In my more desperate and confused moments I simply say ‘Jesus and Lord.’ I make a deliberate effort to squeeze each knot between my fingers until the sensation is the one that is dominant in my mind.

The prayer rope is especially useful in this regard as it actually gives beneath the pressure of my fingers. In this way I find the real presence of Christ drives out everything else. My holding on helps me to know that Jesus is holding me.

The second is my Rosary. In most instances the Rosary is an aid to ‘mental prayer’; it requires the use of the Creed, the Gloria, the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary. This is sometimes too much to cope with at times of ‘holding on’. In these times I hold each bead very strongly and very deliberately and simply say ‘pray for me’, repeating the same petition with each bead. The unspoken prayer is to Mary asking for her powerful intercession. In the case of the prayer rope, it is always in my pocket; in the case of the Rosary, it is always with my Prayer Book.

There is always something to hand. It sounds simple and it is. I always console myself with the teaching of Jesus: ‘go into your own room and shut the door and your Father who sees in secret will reward you’ [Matt. 6.6]. God sees what we do; he doesn’t only listen to what we say in prayer.