Tuesday, 10 June 2008

On being men and women of prayer

The always insightful Abbot Phillip of Christ in the Desert Monastery has included a real gem in this week's Abbot's Notebook.

It's a talk from a retreat he gave to diocesan priests, but is pitched in a way to be relevant to us all.

First he points out the importance of being people of prayer - an assumption that we often take for granted of priests and monks in particular but may not always be true! And something that we are all called to be, whatever our state in life, but which isn't an easy task:

"What does it mean to pray personally and intensely? The first thing is that personal cannot mean exactly the same thing with God as it means in a human relationship—and yet it is not all that different.

Probably most of us would think of being personally present with another person as being physically present. I can't imagine that a telephone call, an e-mail or a written letter are nearly as personal as being physically present. Yet more and more relationships in our present age begin with such encounters. Each of us must look within his or her heart and ask: what does being personal mean to me?

For instance, for me personally, sometimes I can begin praying by sitting in front of my computer and writing a conversation with God. I would never do that with one of the brothers and call it personal! On the other hand,I can go and find the brother and talk to him "personally."

So how do I "go and find God and talk to Him personally."

One way, of course, for us Catholic, is to go to the Church and be in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. Surely this is one of the reasons why prayer in front of the Blessed Sacrament has been so important in the contemplative tradition. For us Catholics, the Blessed Sacrament, the consecrated Host, is truly the presence of Jesus: body, blood, soul and divinity of our Lord. So we have a long tradition of "prayer in front of the Blessed Sacrament." Perhaps praying in front of the Blessed Sacrament is the most personal encounter with the Lord other than Holy Communion itself.

Yet many do not live in monasteries and have easy access to the Blessed Sacrament throughout the day. If we want to pray in our homes, then we might pray with a Bible, the Holy Scriptures. We believe that God is truly present in His word given to us in the Holy Scriptures.

For sure we believe that God is always present, in creation, in our souls, all around us and within us at every moment. The Blessed Sacrament and the Bible are special instances of that present. So praying personally can mean that we let ourselves become aware in a special way of God's presence with us and we respond to that presence.

We know full well that when we are with another person all the time, we can begin to ignore their presence or take it for granted. So there is something important about "giving our attention" to another person. How often I have been in stores and a clerk has seen me come it and yet no one"gives me any attention."

It is not always easy to give our attention to another person—not even to God! Sometimes our minds and our hearts are elsewhere and we do not know how to free them. Sometimes we are "preoccupied" with other problems and other aspects of our lives.

Even when we know we can take those problems and those aspects of our lives, sometimes we seem obsessed with them and cannot let them go and hand them over to another person or even to God. Just at a human level, many of us need practice in being really present. This is what I call the intensity of our presence.

So when I talk about praying personally and intensely, it is a matter not only of being aware of the presence of another person or of God, but a matter of giving that other person or God our complete attention. It is in this area of "giving attention" that we can often use various techniques of letting go, of focusing our energies, etc.

We can benefit a lot from such techniques, even while we never forget that focusing our energies is not completely the same as praying or communicating. Such techniques are generally focused more on ourselves than on the other—and prayer and effective human communication are about focusing on the other, listening to the other, giving our attention to the other."

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