Prayer in the Workaday World
Today, the conditions of noise, rush, activism, and lack of privacy in which people have to live can make it difficult to pray. People end up so distracted that the common complaint is that there is no time to pray; yet an increasing number of people want to. Finding a way to pray will mean finding also a measure of independence within the distractions. A way of doing this is to adopt the Christian principle of the “mixed life” in which prayer and action are blended. St Augustine advocated this way of prayerful living to Christians in his day, and St Gregory the Great, who lived in distracted and violent times, preached to mixed congregations on the merits of blending prayer and life. The primary aim is to maintain the prayerfulness of the whole of life: a prayerful stillness in which one is conscious of God’s presence when life in the background is buzzing with distraction.
An Appropriate Moment
Such a spirit of prayer will only emerge if there are set times that make it possible. Each person needs to find an appropriate moment for sustained prayer, when he or she can be alone with God, and without distraction. The fact that people differ in temperament and circumstance means that nature of an appropriate moment will vary: hence the ideal of the “mixed life”, which is adaptable and flexible.
Find your appropriate moment: morning, evening, or during the day. It can vary from day to day. Then you may discover a sense of God’s presence that makes ‘drudgery divine’, as George Herbert saw it, and a growing conviction of your participation in the priesthood of Christ as work is offered in a spirit of prayer. Here we consciously express the unity that exists between work, worship and prayer. All that we do, all whom we meet, we will offer to God in the prayerfulness of the whole day: but only because a spiritual discipline is being maintained, with an appropriate moment each day for prayer.
Words and Praying
The underlying principle of the spiritual life is not just a matter of how to pray. There is need for what is called – to use the technical terms – ascesis or asceticism, which means ‘training’. What the Desert Fathers, those masters of prayer, have to say about this is found in St John Cassian’s Conference 14. It is called On spiritual Knowledge, and in it he confers with Abbot Nesteros. The abbot tells us that spiritual knowledge is twofold: first practical, brought about by an improvement of morals and purification from faults, and secondly theoretical or contemplative, consisting of the contemplation of the things of God, and the knowledge of most sacred thoughts.
Anyone who wishes to arrive at the deep knowledge of the things of God and insight must pursue first with all might and main the improvement of morals and the purification of virtues. The practical knowledge can be won without the contemplative, but the contemplative cannot possibly be won without the practical. In other words it is a waste of time for anyone to expect to attain to the vision of God who does not shun every stain of sin. It is the pure in heart and they alone who shall see God.
This practical perfection depends on two things. First, a person must know the nature of his or her faults, and the cure for them. Next, he or she must find out the order of the virtues and form his or her character by striving for perfection in them. If we have not
understood the nature of our faults or tried to eradicate them, we cannot hope to gain that understanding of the virtues which is the second stage of our practical training, or that insight into heavenly things which is that contemplative knowledge.
Put simply, this practical training, ascesis, means the voluntary denial of things – even if they are good in themselves – in pursuit of a greater union with God. The Desert Fathers were called ‘ascetics’ because they led an ascetic life. It witnesses to the fact that there can be no authentic Christianity without self-denial. The call to repentance that echoes throughout the Gospel implies an ascetic self-denial: one intimately tied up with sin and its roots in us and, therefore, with our union with God.
How to Pray
How to pray can be divided into three simple divisions: Words and Prayer; Thinking and Praying; and Silence and Prayer. Everyone uses words as a medium of prayer. They will continue to be a vehicle of prayer, and some may not move beyond what is technically known as vocal prayer into other ways of praying. Others will find that, in addition to words, another vehicle of their praying will be thinking – what is termed meditation – and, for some people, silence will be a medium of their praying, the way of contemplation. ND
An edited extract from
Prayer in the Workaday World
by Arthur Middleton (Gracewing)