Hi Donagh, I was at a retreat last year and the priest was telling us how to pray. It was all about imagining scenes from the Gospels and putting yourself into them and talking to different people there. I told him that wasn’t the way I prayed but he said this is the way to do it. Ever since then I feel uneasy about praying and I'm not sure I'm praying at all. I used to say an Our Father and then just sit there knowing I was close to God. Then at the end I would pray for my family and my friends and for everyone. Now I don’t know what to do, I try to do a bit of what he said and a bit of what I used to do, but I end up completely restless. It has no attraction for me any more. What's the right way of praying? Thanks for your website, I found it just the other day. Lena
Dear Lena, Thank you for your email and welcome to the site!
The way you used to pray sounds great to me! But that's not the point. The point is that it was your way and it was working. You are not the first person I've met whose way of praying was disturbed by the interference of a director. I believe we should be great experimenters with ways of praying, and not bother much about other people's ways (except to see what might be interesting). The trouble with many spiritual writers and retreat-leaders, especially in the past, is that they imagined that their favourite way was the only way. But Jesus said, "In my Father's house there are many dwelling-places."
Here is what Johann Tauler (a disciple of Meister Eckhart in the 14th century) said about the matter. "Do not go adopting other people's methods or spiritual exercises; that is blindness. Our various ways to God are as different from one another as we are ourselves. One person's spiritual meat is another's poison, and the graces we are given vary in many ways, to fit the needs of our particular constitutions and natures. So leave other people's practices alone. Imitate their virtues, if you like: their humility, their gentleness and so on. But when it comes to external observances, follow your own particular vocation. Concentrate on knowing what you yourself are called to do, what God is asking of you, and do that."
And here is what his teacher Meister Eckhart said. "I will tell you how I think of people. I try to forget myself and everyone and merge myself, for them, in unity." He means he merges himself in God for them. This was also the solution that St Thérèse of Lisieux devised for herself. She had been asked by so many people to pray for them that it was becoming impossible for her to remember them all. So she just said, I put all these people in my heart, and I give my heart to God; that's enough. Otherwise her prayer would become just a long litany of names.
Mde Guyon, the 18th-century mystic, wrote, "The Spirit of God needs none of our arrangements and methods; when it pleases Him, He turns shepherds into prophets: and, so far from excluding any from the Temple of Prayer, He throws wide the gates, that all may enter; while Wisdom cries aloud in the highways, 'Whoever is simple let him turn in here' (Proverbs 9:4)." And her mentor, Bishop Fénelon, wrote, "The one who prays perfectly is never thinking how well he prays."
In the same vein Thomas Merton said, "Many poets are not poets for the same reason that many religious people are not saints: they never succeed in being themselves." And a Rabbi (whose name I forget; let's call him Eleazar) said, "At the Judgment God will not ask me, 'Why were you not Abraham? Why were you not Moses?' but 'Why were you not Eleazar?'"
If I quote all these people it is not to put forward a model but to reassure you that you are not alone in the way you pray, or used to pray. Go back to your own way with a good conscience. And, if you please, include me in your prayer…