Amidst our heady discussions on the nature of the Church, and moral questions, it may be a welcome break to think about a subject which is to my mind of more fundamental importance.
I was triggered by some work published in the Social Psychology Quarterly at the end of 2010. The social psychologist, Shane Sharp from Wisconsin-Madison University, had undertaken a study of the extent to which people used prayer to handle their emotions.
He interviewed at depth a group of people who were involved in really difficult relationships. While I hope that no one reading this is in a similar position, many might agree that what he discovered is little different in less dramatic, everyday, prayer.
One beneficial experience was the opportunity to vent strong emotions, especially anger. One might hesitate to do this directly to the object of the anger. So prayers can be a way of obtaining relief and getting the emotion under control. Of course there can be occasions when the anger should be expressed directly, and prayer can be a cop-out here.
Prayer also involved the individual looking at himself or herself from God’s point of view. Since we tend to see God as loving and valuing us, this can increase our consolation and sense of self worth. In addition, the quietness and thought which goes into prayer can itself be relaxing and calming. “The experience isn’t that much different from a conversation with a close friend or a parent.”, says Sharp.
We may feel that this description is superficial in the sense that it only describes natural outcomes: the same effect would be present whether or not God existed. (Although Sharp emphasises that actual belief in God and prayer as a real experience must be present.) But it caused me to think a little about my own prayer life.
Having recently been faced by severe illness in my own family, one might have thought that the answer would be an increase in intercessory prayer. In fact the opposite happened. Since every prayer had to end with “not my will but yours be done”, it seemed best to cut a corner and simply accept God’s will on the grounds that he knows what’s best.
This doesn’t, I hope, mean that I have abandoned intercessory prayer. But I have concluded that it is us who need it rather than God. In making such prayers we are acknowledging our dependence and trust in God. And, as we know, there is much exhortation to intercessory prayer in the Gospels – starting with the Our Father. Incidentally I am strongly inclined to intercessory prayer directed at Our Lady. I maintain that this is because she has answered so many of my causes. My wife maintains that it is because if I really need help with something I instinctively ask a woman to sort it out. There may be some truth in that.
I do place a great deal of faith in the Holy Spirit. But I am very suspicious of any view that what I decide after prayer and thought is mandated by the Holy Spirit. That is the high road to self deception and fundamentalism. But I am confident that I make very much better and more objective decisions when my prayer to the Holy Spirit has been made. It is hard not to level up to oneself and the truth of a situation when one is invoking the Spirit’s help.
With age, perhaps, I find contemplative, or apophatic, prayer becoming easier. Putting oneself simply into the presence of God and then just being silent there, is very consoling. But of course I have to be wary of becoming distracted, and so finding that my mind has wandered to pastures new.
Everyone is different, or has different needs at different times. For example, although I strongly approve of contemplation of the Blessed Sacrament and the use of the rosary, neither of these figure largely in my prayer life. But I would certainly value knowing about how all of you experience prayer. I would hope to learn more about it from such an exchange, and perhaps to develop new avenues to prayer as a result.