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Archbishop on Prayer

Monday 1st March 2004

Thoughts on prayer from the Archbishop, originally for the Diocese of Chichester in 2004.

The disciples said to Jesus, 'Lord teach us to pray.'

Jesus said, 'When you pray, say 'Our Father in heaven ... '.

One of the primary tasks of any prayer is 'How do I let God be God? How do I empty my mind and heart – not so as to confront a kind of void, but so that the personal presence of God can come in?'

If all prayer is trying to listen to God we have to remember that the God that we are seeking to meet is a person, and we come into a personal presence. And that means of course, that praying is about a great deal more than words in the same way that personal presence is about a great deal more than words. The Word of God – the way God communicates – is by being God, by being himself; so one of the primary tasks of any kind of prayer is 'How do I let God be God?' 'How do I empty my mind and heart, not so as to confront a kind of void but so that the personal presence of God can come in? And words are part of that but only a very small part.

The difficult thing of course, given that our minds are usually like cartoon characters racing round in small space at top speed, is how do we slow down? how do we come to be where we are? to settle in our bodies, in this place, and be quiet and still enough for God to rise within us like water in a pool. Because our usual ways of operating are so hectic, so chaotic, then we do need disciplines; and that's why, throughout the history of the Church, as in other religions, there are ways of making your self present, making yourself still. In the Eastern Christian tradition especially there's been a great deal of thought about that: making sure that your breath is regular and steady, making sure you're in a position – sitting or kneeling, or indeed standing some people find – where you can settle your weight properly, where you can feel your breath, rising and falling. It's as simple as that really. So my basic method (personally) is to settle myself (sitting, with my back upright) to take five or six deep breaths very consciously, in and out, with the word 'God' in focus, and then just relax into that bit by bit.

Now the mind and the ideas keep racing and every minute or so you have to keep drawing yourself back and remind yourself what your doing. So my image for a lot of this work is that you need an anchor, something to hold on to, to pull on, and that's where words come in. For people who are very practiced and advanced it seems to be possible to go into the silence, into the prayer, without too much of that; for amateurs like myself (and I guess most people) you need a bit more than that: you need words that will carry you, that won't suggest too many ideas but will just represent some of that still, personal, 'thereness' of God in the middle of it all. So, in the Eastern Christian tradition which I've found very helpful here, as you relax into it, as you breathe in and out, you just say very quietly, 'Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner'. And you go on saying that, easing yourself into silence. It's a well tried form of words, and it's served Eastern Christians well – its carried them in prayer – over many centuries. They use it in conjunction with something a bit like a rosary, a knotted prayer rope, and you just repeat that prayer as you finger the knots on the rope.

But of course others find that other words work for them: St Francis of Assisi used just to say 'My God and my all', or just the name of Jesus repeated over and over again. But sometimes people find that a word or phrase from a hymn, a psalm or a chorus carries them – 'Jesu lover of my soul', just hang on to it; go on saying it until it becomes as natural as your breathing. Sometimes people think that if you do that ideas and feelings will flood in. Well, they may or they may not frankly, but what you want to flood in is not the words or the feelings but the personal reality of God. So that I think is the task – anchoring somewhere, stilling, making sure that your body is comfortable but not slumped, alert but not tense. It can be done – with breathing, with these words, with finding a place that makes sense. And it's surprising how that can work in so many different environments; you don't have to be in church, a holy place, though it helps to be in a place with associations.

That of course leads on to another thought about prayer – it's never something you do on your own. Christians are always trying to pray in such a way that it is Jesus, by the power of the Spirit, who is doing something in them. So its not you. You're putting yourself in the stream and letting your self be carried along. And therefore praying with others really does help; it really is part of the authentic thing that you're doing not just an extra. So that if you have a group of people praying in silence you don't have six people facing their own personal brick walls, you have a shared attempt to come into the life and action of Jesus Christ, and as you do it, as you try and settle down, whether you know it or not a common activity is being shaped – something that you're all doing together – and actually sometimes that really does register. If you're in a group of people who are focused in that way, you're aware of it being not just you. You will feel it if you visit a monastery, and go and pray in the early morning with a group monks or the nuns and realize that praying is not necessarily easier than it might otherwise be but you are being held, swept along in something.

Sometimes people see contemplation like this as a selfish thing but that's completely the wrong way round – looking at the negative of the picture almost. What's happening when people try to contemplate, or grow in contemplation, is two things.

The first is that, according to the New Testament, as St Paul says, 'It's not me who's alive, it's Christ alive in me'. So, to do what I'm meant to do – to be Jesus Christ in the world, to reflect his love and his promise – I need to get bits of myself out of the way at least, to put them in a new light. And that will mean of course suppressing some of the instinctive ways that I normally try to get on top of situations – by chattering and acting, planning and projecting – so that far from being selfish contemplation, silence and prayer is actually a way of making me more profoundly unselfish, focused on something else, someone else. The second aspect of what this is about is our belief that we are made in the image of God. What are we for as human beings? Well, at the end of the day, we are 'for' simply enjoying God. And the life of virtue and love between ourselves, the struggles we get involved in for the sake of justice and the welfare of other people – all of that is finally so that everyone should have access to the same joy in God. So, to put myself in the way of learning more of the joy of God is (once again) far from being selfish; it is a contribution to what humanity ought to be turning into. For some people that contribution is made in active service, but for others it is this sometimes quite testing and draining service of becoming so transparent to the love of God that it touches and kindles the people around me.

One of the bits of advice that St Teresa of Avila gave to her nuns a few hundred years ago was that it might help you to have a picture of Jesus in your pocket – to remind yourself that what you're trying to open yourself up to in this process is the personal life of Jesus Christ, and therefore a picture or a small cross (again something to anchor you, something to pull on) can be extremely important. You're not seeking to be absorbed, to merge into something. You're trying to let a real personal life of love – the love of Christ – come alive in you. And so we can never dispense with that personal side. Now St Teresa of Avila was writing about that because she wrote in an environment where some people said you've got to get beyond the prayers and the images, into the darkness of God. To which St Teresa replied, 'well yes, that's fine, you're right, but the only way you do that is in the company of Jesus'. You have to hold on to that because in prayer you don't just disappear into God, but you come in and with Jesus, so as to share his personal relationship with God the Father.

And I think I'd say that's where our use of the Bible in prayer can be crucial. Particularly reading something like St John's Gospel or may be St Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians where you have this very powerful sense that what's going on in the Christian life is that you are being given words, the words that Jesus speaks to the Father, and that Jesus's words and love are always what always surrounds and upholds and fills you in the process of prayer.

© Rowan Williams 2004

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