Lent Course 2009: Prayers for Lovers

Alone with God

For God alone my soul awaits in silence

Psalm 62:5

The essence of a relationship is what happens when we close our front door. We may be supported by social conventions of expected behaviour and by ritual; but what matters, ultimately, is what we bring in vulnerability to the beloved.

This aspect of prayer is the one which gives most people most difficulty and was the trigger for this course; but the central problem, similar to that which we experience in erotic love, is that we are led both to expect too much too soon and to expect that what we experience will correspond with some general expectation. We are snared by a spurious 'gold standard'. So let us imagine ourselves as fresh, young lovers, looking at the adult world for the first time.

If we return to the initial position of the lover and follow the usual - but by no means only - steps, we will not go far wrong.

1. Place & Time

Thinking about the beloved is not something we would only undertake casually, satisfied with the odd thought passing in and out of our consciousness; we want to concentrate on savouring the essence of the beloved, according it reverence and thinking of how we can combine our essence with it to further the relationship.

We frequently associate thoughts with places and times. So it is with prayer:

2. Content

As we have often noted, the essence of what we do should be its proper balance. Most of us will want to establish a blend of three elements:

We might want to think of these as the contemplation of the beloved, the history of our love and the celebration of it in poetry and prose.

There are a wide variety of prayer books and scripture reading cycles; we should work out what is appropriate according to the time we have. Some people adopt the formal structures of Morning, Evening and Night Prayer as set out by the Church of England both in traditional and contemporary language, inserting Lectionary readings and this is a good starting point, in full or edited, until we have the confidence to edit for our own purposes.

3. Process

Although we might move between different machines and stimuli in different order every time we make a visit to the gym, most of us will find that we fall into a routine, not least because, for example, it is logical to take a dip in a pool after vigourous exercise rather than before it; and we usually start with the more simple and less demanding and then work our way through to the more demanding and more complex.

The following process, then, is by no means absolute but it is so commonly practised that it has the virtue of being tried and tested:

  1. Assemble all the materials for the period of prayer;
  2. Sit carefully and allow for a few minutes of silence  in the ante chamber to prayer; for some of us this few minutes will be enough to rid us of distractions but for others it will not; don't worry. For most of us it is better not to try to 'fight off' distractions; let them work their way through from full flow to a trickle. For most of us they will never completely stop. There will always be some 'interference';
  3. Use a formal structure of written prayers and Scripture;
  4. Either:
    • Enter a period of silent prayer followed by personal prayers; or
    • Say personal prayers followed by a period of silence;
    • End with a formal or extempore prayer bringing a proper close to the communications.

The balance of these elements may depend upon the time of day: most of us will want to use our morning prayer to acknowledge God above all else and to fit ourselves to do his will in the course of the day whereas we will probably need time in the evening to examine how well we have done. If this is so, then we are likely to have a much longer period of silencer in the evening than the morning.

4. Silent Prayer

As has already been indicated, this may either precede or succeed our own personal prayers. The choice largely depends upon whether we want to use the silent time for self examination before we articulate our own prayers or whether we want to articulate our prayers as a precondition to shutting out the world.

As a general rule, the more practised we are in prayer the less time we need in formal prayer and scripture reading before our minds are as at rest as they reasonably can be from external distractions. There are, however, no set rules. If we find that we are subject to constant interruption by the world outside, we might spend more time at the beginning in the ante chamber; but sometimes the world outside needs to be confronted in our silent prayer; sometimes there are issues that cannot and should not be denied because, as we have noted earlier, self examination is an integral part of praying

Some people find it helpful to contemplate a picture or hold a physical object in their hand, others want to drain all earthly sensation.

The first approach - contemplation, uses the object of fixation to help us to put the world outside its 'frame' and to clear spiritual ground. We are not 'paying to' the object but praying with its assistance, just as we might read more easily with a magnifying glass or hear more clearly with a hearing aid.

The second approach - meditation - demands a degree of perseverance of which most of us are not capable and we should therefore not expect 'results' unless we have applied ourselves to the task with great care over a long period. To begin with, we can try to use a short prayer and repeat it until we achieve a degree of tranquility; if we get this far we will have done well. The objective is to establish such a state of tranquility that the Spirit within us brings our love of God to the surface, so that we become aware of it and can therefore communicate it. Here the language is very difficult as some people think of this kind of meditation as going 'into' themselves but if we think that the Holy Spirit is our core, it might help to think of that presence being brought towards our human surface. Simultaneously such a state will allow us to be open to God's communication with us

As we draw to a close, this is a good time to remind ourselves of some of the things we have been saying throughout the course, relating them to silent prayer:

5. The Essence of Love

Praying to the beloved is remarkably similar to human loving:

And when we do, we will know the meaning of love.

6. Questions & Exercises

  1. Compare the relationship with God with a relationship with the beloved;
  2. Share resources such as prayer books and Scripture reading cycles;
  3. Discuss the challenges and rewards of silent prayer;
  4. Share your experience of the numinous;
  5. Evaluate the course.