Here are the notes from our first session at New Leaf School for Christian Living about prayer. I apologize if they’re not all in the most grammatically correct language, as they were my notes. I also apologize for any formatting issues.
- Practical suggestions and cautions
- Contemplative Stance: Meditation is less about method than about outlook. You want to develop a contemplative stance, which ultimately leads to compassionate action.
- Amount: 20 minutes is the common suggested starting amount of time because at least half of that will inevitably be us just trying to get out of our thoughts.
i. Don’t try to put yourself on a “higher level,” because this is a journey inward. There are no shortcuts. If you’ve never even spent 10 minutes in silence, trying to do an hour will likely just result in anger and fatigue.
ii. Imagine you’re on a river. You want to rest on the bank of the river and as your thoughts pop up, place them on a boat and watch it float down the river.
iii. Resist the urge toward “mental prayer” and intercession (during specific times of silence, not always). If something arises that you feel you ought to pray for, notice it to intercede for at another time after silence.
- Alone or in a group? I suggest doing it in a group when possible. Helps motivate us and discourage us from quitting early if we don’t “feel it.”
i. Caution against always needing to “feel” good after or feel good to even begin. St. John of the Cross warns that praying this way may even discourage us at the beginning because it may not yield tangible results or uplift our spirits. Obviously we want to be careful of mistaking the means (silence) for the ends (experience of God) (some people can’t sit but need to do walking meditation), but generally the advice is to patiently keep returning to prayer.
- Psalms: Read them as much as possible. Memorize a couple, or read the same one or two every time you sit down to be silent, and listen for a word or phrase that sticks out. Use that as your mantra. Or just repeat the Psalm over and over (probably a short Psalm). The Rosary is common as well. Even if you’re not doing silence, always read at least one Psalm whenever you sit down to read the Bible. (Certain Psalms are appropriate for different parts of the day, i.e. Ps. 91 is night prayer, Ps. 148-150 are traditionally the Psalms used at the end of the Lauds (Morning) Office) (1st office of the day really).
- Liturgy: If really interested and want more directed prayers, get a copy of the Short Breviary, which details the different Psalms and readings followed by some Benedictine abbeys.
i. Caution about too much written prayer: don’t let it replace just being. Psalms are ideal, or even short prayers, but from experience don’t just let reading a Psalm once substitute for silence. The goal is to embody the Psalm/prayer, not just read it.
- Breathing: Breathe “In” one word, phrase, or syllable, breathe out another, i.e. In: Lord Jesus, Son of the Living God Out: Have mercy on me a sinner. A simple, oft-used is the “Sacred Name” prayer, YHWH, because it matches the breathing of the human body. Or just repeat the name of Jesus, over and over, which was long thought to be the most immediate route to experiencing God.
- Taize music is great also. Some people don’t like the use of music, thinking it can pull your mind and attention, but I think certain music is wonderful. Taize is simple, peaceful, and repetitive.
- Lectio Divina: the simplest way to do this is have a someone read a Psalm or passage 3 or 4 times, slowly, and listen for a word or phrase and keep repeating it in silence.
- Walking Meditation: Demonstrate. Very slowly, deliberate steps, each step either a breath or phrase. Again, repetition. Become aware of what is.
- Fasting: My closest experience of God this summer came during a personal silent retreat in the desert while fasting. I’d taken Communion the morning I left to go on the retreat and prayed to let that sustain me. Disciplined fasting and prayer (on a regular basis) does something unique in us.
- Jesus’ time in the wilderness begins with temptation and trial ends when the angels come and attend to him. This is a scary endeavor. Even as we progress and are able to be in silence, certain things will continue to pop up. It’s essential to notice these things, as they are the issues we need to deal with outside of our meditation. The recurring questions and boats we keep having to set sail are our core issues. But becoming aware of what is is how we move forward.