Since our theme of Lent this year is prayer, an article on the recent month of accompanied prayer with a prayer guide or ‘soul friend’ can perhaps be sneaked in to the Connections theme of friends.
It’s been said the longest journey you will ever make is the 18ins from your heart to your head. This seems particularly apt to me when it comes to attempting meditative prayer. I’ve been comforted by the assurance we should “pray as we can and not as we can’t”. For me prayer then, if it happened at all, had often been a head thing, ego-centrically making lists of things for God to change his mind about, sometimes from the comfort of my bed.
Meditative prayer, by contrast, is more about God changing us through the quiet saying of a mantra. This, united with the gentle rhythm of the breath helps us avoid distracting thoughts, words and images.
Although this has often been seen a more Buddhist than Christian it has a long tradition in the Eastern Orthodox Church with the Jesus Prayer. Some have learnt to maintain this practice throughout their
waking lives, follow Paul’s call to pray without ceasing. Rowan William’s, talking about contemplation in general, has said “it is very far from being just one kind of thing Christians do: it is the key to prayer,
liturgy and ethics, the key to the essence of a renewed humanity”.
In the West the tradition was revived by John Main in the 70s and the World Community for Christian Meditation: WCCM. My prayer guide Caroline lent me a short book called ‘The Simple Way’, by Lawrence Freeman, who continues John Main’s work. This helped me understand not just the practice but some of the theology behind it.
It might be wondered how this could be counted as prayer at all. Some Christians see it as a dangerous self-indulgence, quoting Jesus to “use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do”.
At first sight it can seem to be simply about mindfulness, learning to be attentive in the present moment. However, how can we be really be present to God if we are not even present to ourselves? If we are
continuously self-absorbed by our own regrets of the past or anxiety for the future. Indeed, this is something we need to learn, to “practice the presence of God”. It seems to be about being attentive to God but without intentionality, i.e. without having prior expectations or any instrumental purpose. It’s a purification, like a Lenten cleaning of the inner space.
It’s also incarnational, it’s grounded in the body and the breath, the same word in Hebrew as Spirit (Rauch). Rowan Williams has talked about it in
Trinitarian terms. When we get anxious in prayer, we need to remember it’s not something we squeeze out with effort, but something that happens when we let “God be God in us”. We breathe the Holy Spirit into body, mind and soul, so that Christ may breathe out “Abba Father”. As the cliché goes it’s “letting go and letting God.”
There seems to be a paradox here, it’s both very simple and very hard. It’s not an escape but a co-work of love, and patience with God. My prayer guide assured me when it comes to mediation, we are all beginners. She also said it’s helpful to be in group, such as the ‘Mindful Space for tired souls’ that has started up at Cotham.
I personally find it hard going and it’s not something I’m naturally inclined to. I’m not sure my head has moved into my heart by much, perhaps a few millimetres. However, I feel I need to practice my ‘heart muscles’. I am reassured though, when I attempt to meditate, to be reminded that God is closer to my soul than my own breath and heartbeat.