Andy Hawes is Warden of
Edenham Regional Retreat House
The quality and fruitfulness of a time of prayer is dependent on the preparation for it. Preparation is the key to many activities in life – from sowing seeds to decorating a room, it is ‘the bit before’ that makes the difference between success or failure. Here the analogies break down because it is impossible to judge whether a time of prayer has been a failure: only God knows that. One always has to have the fundamental trust that any offering of ourselves, no matter how half-hearted or distracted, has a part to play in the economy of God’s grace.
Nevertheless, preparation is vital. Although it is possible to have a sense of God’s presence, and to be in conscious relationship with God at all times or any time, there should be a marked difference of intensity and intention when we set aside a period of time for prayer. It helps to make a comparison with other daily activities. There is a difference between ‘eating on the run’ and sitting down for a meal. The meal demands preparation, and sometimes considerable forward planning. It might be that a meal has little ‘rituals’ about it – cleaning the table, laying the place, setting out the condiments and other elements that enable to meal to be eaten. There is a difference between ‘having a nap’ and going to sleep. Most of us have quite an elaborate and time-consuming ritual before finally turning off the light. There isn’t one reader of this who would expect to sit down for a meal without any preparation and eat, or jump into bed without ‘getting ready’ and expect to fall to sleep.
People expect to pray without any preparation at all and then become disappointed because they have not been fed or felt there has been any rest or dwelling in God. If your prayer time is rubbish, review your preparation. Make sure you slow down, take time to prepare the place and posture. It is important to give time to preparation – it cannot be missed out or curtailed. It is better to have five minutes of genuine openhearted engagement with God than twenty minutes of shuffling about worrying if you turned the gas off. One common complaint is the ‘racing mind’; coming to a time of prayer with the conscious mind still turning over work issues or personal conversations that cling on and remain active.
There is a simple principle that works for many people who cannot still or ‘derail the mind’ from keeping on a certain track: one thought drives out another. This is a practice as old as the Desert Fathers. It is very good practice to have something to read as part of the preparation. I have a book of Daily Readings from the Church Fathers; almost without fail I find that engaging with their mind helps me to clear my mind of the thoughts and concerns that circle it. The reading, which is often shorter than this article, transposes the key of my mind to be more open to the mind of Christ.