The interior adventure
After nearly 12 years of following Jesus I've learned a lot about the pursuit of God. I've had so many seasons of prayer that have had so many different flavours, and the adventure never ceases to lead me to beautiful places. Prayer must be an adventure! It is the means by which we seek after God, in which we perceive the risen Christ within ourselves. The more I've studied who God is, the more I realise that his radical, transcendent accessibility is so inherently within myself, the more my prayer life has flourished without the pressure of external 'list giving' prayer (which can be helpful, especially earlier on in the adventure of discipleship!) and the more I've appreciated contemplation, meditation and soaking! I just thought I'd take an opportunity to share with you my own prayer life, highlighting my own favourite ways of exploring the depths of God, especially as sometimes prayer can become so superficial for me that I've had to explore the vaults of wisdom of those saints that have gone before me. Maybe you are in a difficult or stale place in your prayer adventure? Maybe you are just looking to expand the ways that you pray? I hope some of these might be helpful to you!
The Jesus Prayer
I know that for some of us, our faith means that we are free from repetitive styles of prayer, and for me this was a liberating truth in my own earlier discipleship. As time has passed however, I have realised that sometimes rambling on at God has been a superficial endeavour for me, and often I find myself talking at God just for the sake of it. Sometimes I also just don't know what to pray for, or I'm in a mood where I just don't want to pray (shock horror!). In these times I get the Jesus prayer out, which is less a piece of liturgy and more of an opportunity to centre on God. It's a traditional prayer of the eastern monastics, and it's very simple:
Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner
These monks will repeat this until they mean it. It allows for time and space to contemplate our own sin (those things that are not born from Love), and seek mercy from Christ. It doesn't stop there though, it develops. Once we have spent time meditating on our own shortcoming, we can reduce the prayer to:
Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy
Here we now have the opportunity to contemplate the places our universal life needs the mercy of God, whether global injustice or local poverty, and we can intercede for the mercy of God on our world. We can then reduce this to:
Jesus Christ, Son of God
In repeating this phrase, we can meditate on the function Jesus has in our life and in our world. I won't talk about this too much, because it's your adventure and not mine! However we can then reduce this prayer one more time to:
This allows us to just meditate and contemplate him in Love, with no other agenda but love.
The tradition of centering prayer is an ancient practice in the western monastic tradition that I have grown to love, and similar to the Jesus prayer in its practice. I will choose a sacred word, either a name or title of God, or one of his characteristics, and I will make this an anchor, repeating it, focusing on it, allowing God to speak to me about it. This may be 'Love' or even just my own breath (which is the unspoken pronunciation of the sacred YHWH name) and I will simple repeat this, offering it to God and allowing his divine action to take a hold of my mind and imagination. This opens doors and can lead to silence, but the word as an anchor allows us to return to the word if our mind wanders to the shopping list!
Another really exciting method that I use is Apophaticism, which is contemplating God through negation. Our language will always fall short of describing God, and anything we can say about him in language is beneath what God is actually like, so sometimes it's helpful to free ourselves from our own conceptual constraints of God in order to enter into a place of pure presence. This ancient practice has been employed from everyone to John Chrysostom to Thomas Merton to Richard Foster and is absolutely stunning in its profundity, but can be difficult and requires some time and discipline to become beneficial, but once I got it, it's been one of the most helpful ways of exploring God.
The idea of apophatic prayer is to begin by ascribing a characteristic to God. For example: 'God is Father'. You then allow your mind to build a picture of God as father, allowing your imagination to paint what this looks like for us and our own experience of God as father. After a while, we negate this by saying that 'God is not Father because God is more than Father', and equally allow our imagination to explore the implications of this negation. We finally negate the negation and can meditate on the idea that 'God is not 'not father'. In this we have reached the end of language and concept and can meditate on the mystery of God who is more than we can imagine! This can be complicated, but is better described here.
My final exercise in prayer is another ancient Benedictine practice that involves especially the Gospels. Sometimes we can view the Gospels as a text to dissect and retrieve theology from instead of the living word of God that can be experienced as a present reality. In Lectio Divina, we use our imagination to enter into the Bible as if we are experiencing it first hand. We read the stories bit by bit and try to live them out in our imagination. We can allow the narrative to speak into our lives today by not only living in the text, but then allowing the text to become incarnate in our own life and experience, speaking into our own situations. A full description can be found here.
I hope some of these are helpful to you! They have been for me, and of course I hold them loosely. Prayer is an adventure to embark on, and is not constricted to any of these! I hope that you will give some of these a go for yourself, although you may not enjoy them at all! But allow this to give you permission to explore prayer; it's a beautiful world of possibilities and experience that transforms us into mirroring his glory!
Georges Kesrouani (14 August 2017)