Prayer is relaxing with God

Our 1st Reading and our Gospel today (Isaiah 35:4-7 and Mark 7:31-37) are all about the way God can open the ears of the deaf, but this is not just about those who are physically deaf, for most of us are more than a bit deaf when it comes to communicating with God, and so the first thing we need to do when we pray is to ask God to do just that, to open our ears, our spiritual ears, to what he is saying to us. Then we need to avoid a hasty response, to be prepared instead to sit and listen and ponder, rather like Our Lady, who having heard from God that she was to bear Jesus in her womb “pondered these things in her heart”(Luke 2:19)

The problem is that we tend to think that prayer is talking to God, even talking at God, as if God were someone we want to complain to on the phone, only it takes ages to get through and then we are not sure that the person at the other end is really listening. But, of course, prayer is not like that at all. Prayer is much more like being with a very good friend. We don’t need to talk much, because  our friend -God knows what we need before we ask; but we do need to listen, or we’re like a bad friend going on and on about ourselves and not being prepared to listen to what the friend wants to say to us.

I would however go further than this, because although thinking of God as a friend is very important – Jesus said “I have called you friends”.(John 15:15) – it still leaves us thinking about God simply as a person, and nothing more. It’s because of this that I get people asking me “How can God possibly listen to the millions of people who are praying to him at the same time?” The answer is that God is not like us, even though we are in some ways like him. He allows us, indeed wants us, to call him Father, to think of him as someone who cares, rather than some thing; but if we leave our thinking about God at that point, we are stuck when it comes to prayer, and particularly silent prayer – what we call meditation or meditative prayer.

This is why so many people find the idea of spending half an hour in silent prayer so hard. Let me put it this way. If I asked you if you found it hard on a sunny day to sit looking out at the sea for half an hour, or to sit in a beautiful garden for half an hour, or to go for a walk for half an hour, you would think me crazy. You might even exaggerate and say “I could spend all day sitting on a beach, looking at the sea”  – meaning that this kind of relaxation is something that you look forward to as a holiday treat, rather than as a burden. You might even say, especially if you have a busy life, that it gives you time to think through things.

As I was preparing this Homily on this theme, a song came into my head from the musical “Salad Days”. Perhaps God was speaking to me through these words? The phrase I want to share goes like this (SINGS) “I sit in the sun, and one by one, I collect my thoughts and I think them over…” That, I thought to myself, is what prayer is like. So, as I said at the beginning, prayer isn’t thinking of endless words to say to God, but nor is it trying desperately to hear words from God. It is simply being with God, as one might sit in the sun and think things over. But what then should we do with these thoughts? How can we hear God speaking in the great mixture of thoughts that you and I have spinning around in our heads?

We need to be careful here not to turn prayer into a sort of terribly serious self-examination. Sometimes, just to sit and think and know that God is with me can be enough. Sometimes just letting my mind wander is the thing to do. I call it waiting on God, but waiting without desperately straining for some answer. The answer, the thought from God in the midst of all my thoughts that helps in some way, is probably much more likely to come when I am not desperately trying to hear it. But sometimes there are situations where we do need an answer, so what do we do then? How do we hear then what God might be saying to us?

Well If I am having a walk in the sun and see someone fall over, that’s easy. I might have two thoughts. One might be “I am too busy I will just walk on” and the other would be simply to run across to see if I can help.  We all know which one is from God, don’t we? On the other hand, If I am annoyed with someone and feel like really being rude to them next time I see them – and that happens doesn’t it – then I know that thought is not from God. But now it begins to get difficult, doesn’t it. I may know what God does NOT want me to do, but what does God want me to do in this or any other similar situation? How can I hear what he wants?  Should I just be meek and mild and put up with their stupid behaviour and say nothing? Sometimes that might be best. Or should I challenge their behaviour but just with a joke or some light remark? Maybe. Or should I actually show how angry or upset they are making me, without actually losing my temper? That can be a hard choice to make, but sometimes might be the right one – the one from God.

There is so much more I could say on how we can be helped to work out which answer is right, and some of this I will share next week, for this has only just touched the surface of how we may more easily listen to God ad hear what God is saying to us. There are ways to help us be more relaxed in the presence of God – from saying the Rosary to using practices that are now called “mindfulness”, as well as many other different recommended processes in which we practise the presence of God. The Church does not have one model of how to pray, for many Christians have prayed in different ways down through the Centuries and shared their ways with others. Above all, I would say. Just sit in the sun with God. That is a good place to start.






Homily on Floating in God

How sad it is when some people think that prayer is zapping requests to a faraway God. Of course God accepts any kind of prayer, so he doesn’t ignore those who zap, but true Christian prayer should aim for something quite different; for, as St Paul says : In God “we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28) I say this because more prayer is one of the things all Christians should think of doing during Lent – our 6 week period of preparation for Easter. But if “more prayer” means simply bombarding God with an even longer list of people and things we want to pray about, I fear we’ve missed the point. And the point is, that we don’t have to persuade God to listen to us, what we have to do is to learn to listen to God. God is always with us, but often we block God out, if we spend too much time talking AT God and not enough time listening.

Our Gospel today (Matthew 6:2-34) reminds us all how often we worry about things. And the more we have got, the more we seem to worry. I have pointed out many times before how the Media feeds on this very human tendency, giving us more and more details of the latest war or disaster or gloomy prophecy about the future. Now I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be concerned about such things, but if that concern just turns into worry, we have somehow got onto the wrong track, haven’t we? As Jesus says “Can any of you, for all (your) worrying, add one single (month) to your span of life?” True prayer then should be a turning to God to help us worry less. It should be a resting in the presence of God. To say to ourselves, and thus to God, as in today’s Psalm “In God alone is my soul at rest.” (Psalm 61:6)

There are several different ways of doing this. Simply being at Mass is one. We allow ourselves to be immersed in the sacred words and actions, assured that God is especially close to us. We do not have to think of words to say, or things to do, we simply open up our life to God. So Lent might be a time to think of going to a weekday Mass somewhere, as an additional time of prayer, perhaps getting to Church a bit before Mass begins, or staying a little after Mass ends, or joining in with others in the silent prayer of Adoration. Sometimes, in the midst of our worries, we may say, as in our 1st Reading (Isaiah 49:14-15) “God has forgotten me”, but then we must repeat to ourselves, maybe many times, God’s reply “I will never forget you.”

Some of you may have heard me before using the swimming analogy. Think of yourself as floating in a warm pool or a calm sea. Let the water support you. Let the troubles of life soak away. No wonder Baptism is one of the great symbols of the Christian faith! This isn’t escapism, because used properly such relaxation into God empowers us, and helps us to live more effective lives. Translated into prayer in daily life, this surely means each of us finding a way (apart from Mass) of floating in the presence of God. It is, of course, what the trendy modern world means by “Mindfulness”, although they fail to see God in all this. But we believers have an older word – “Meditation!”

There are as many different ways of doing this as there are different people. For some, the repetition of familiar prayers – such as the use of the Rosary – is a way that works for them. For others, a quiet reading of a passage from the Bible, not so much to study it, more to let God speak to us through it. Others may use music, or just the beauty of the natural world, or a photo or an object – a candle, an Ikon – a crucifix. But always as Christians this must be done not simply to think about ourselves, but to open ourselves up to God. That is why without the Mass, such things can just become self-indulgent.

Let’s finish today with a practical demonstration. Today’s Psalm is a particularly good choice. Let’s read it aloud quietly and prayerfully and having done so, let’s keep some silence and just float in the words that remind us that God is with us. Don’t worry about distractions – thoughts in our mind or noise from around us – just move back into the words, perhaps repeating the same phrase over and over again “In God alone is my soul at rest.”

Here is the full text :

In God alone is my soul at rest.                                                                                                                              My help comes from him.                                                                                                                                  He alone is my rock, my stronghold,                                                                                                                     my fortress I stand firm

In God alone be at rest my soul.                                                                                                                             For my hope comes from him.                                                                                                                            He alone is my rock, my stronghold,                                                                                                             my fortress, I stand firm.

In God is my safety and glory,                                                                                                                               the rock of my strength.                                                                                                                                         Take refuge in God all you people.                                                                                                                       Trust him at all times.                                                                                                                                             Pour out your hearts before him.                               

In God alone is my soul at rest.

Mindfulness & Positive thinking

They say that people who go to church regularly tend to live longer! There are lots of theories on why that is, that nobody can prove either way because what happens to us at Mass quietly, gently, without us realising it, each time we are here, is not easy to understand. I watched a programme on the TV a week or so ago, and I wondered if there are any clues to be gained from the evidence it presented.  The person who fronted the programme was a Doctor who admitted that he was an obsessive worrier, and that he therefore found it difficult to sleep. We then saw him having a brain scan which showed exactly why this was the case, the right side of his brain, compared to the left side, was overactive, and his negative thoughts were stronger than his positive ones. He tried two courses of treatment. Both were things he had to do for a short time every day, and as he did them I thought “Wow, this is what happens to us when we go to Church or pray.”

The first was that he was taught to spend 10 minutes every day practising “mindfulness”. All he had to do was to sit quietly somewhere and just breathe slowly and concentrate on his breathing, turning off, as much as possible, all active thinking. The second was a daily dose on a computer looking at images of faces, and training his brain to find the one face that was smiling rather than the others that were not. In both cases he was surprised at how quickly he got better at doing both things day by day. What surprised him more was that when they did the brain scan some weeks later, the changes in his brain were quite remarkable, and he was sleeping much better.

Now why do I say that this is what Christians do when we pray or go to Mass? Perhaps I should have said that it is what Christians ought to do when they pray. Thinking positively is what our faith is all about. Practising positive thinking. Looking for the smiley face rather than concentrating on the gloomy ones. The priest says “Lift up your hearts”. The whole Mass says – yes there is suffering, yes there are challenges in life – but do not be afraid – God (the power of goodness and love) is near. It is what Jesus teaches us in the Lord’s Prayer as we saw in our Gospel today. God is a Father, his name is holy, his kingdom will come, our sins and failings will be forgiven. St Paul says it too in a famous passage, “What ever is true,  what ever is noble, what ever is right, what ever is  pure, what ever is lovely, what ever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. (Phillipians 4:8)

That is what we are urged to do as Christians. To share the sufferings of the world, yes, in prayer and action, but to affirm how much good there is too ; to “give thanks in all circumstances.”  (1 Thess 5:18) Julian of Norwich, writing in the 14thC having lived through the Black Death which killed a 3rd of the people in England, could say “All will be well  That’s positive thinking for you.

Then there is the practice of “mindfulness”. Sadly many Christians are not aware of the various ways in which the Church down the centuries has taught us the prayer of what we call “meditation”. The first way is to use familiar words repeated over and over again in the mind or on the lips to override our worries and fears, and help us grow closer to God’s love. The Eastern Church practises it in what is called the Jesus Prayer – a form used by us Western Catholics too nowadays. I used to use the traditional words, but now urged by my Confessor I use something shorter and simpler, just  “Remember, I am the Lord”. The Rosary is a bit like this, though sadly all that counting makes is less effective than it could be. Some people say “But how can it be prayer, repeating the same words over and over again?” The point is that you are not meant to mean the words, only to use them, familiar as they are, to quieten the mind and its active thoughts, and just come closer to God. I know quite a few people who use it if they cannot sleep, provided you don’t worry about losing count! It is rather like some who confess that they start to pray at night but fall asleep. I always say – To fall asleep praying…  sounds good to me!

Or we can simply use our own breath, as the man did in the TV programme. Just sitting quietly with God. It’s one of the reasons we have these silent times of what we call “Adoration” in many churches, where the Blessed Sacrament is exposed as a visual focus. Or we can come into Church at another time, or practise being quiet with God at home. We just sit quietly with God. Yes, it can be difficult, as our minds wander, but when they do, we just bring ourselves gently back into the silence, so that the active side of our brain can have a rest. Music, by the way, just singing a familiar tune – ignore the words unless you know them by heart – can also produce the same effect.

So what the secular scientists are discovering about the brain, we religious people have practised all along!