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Come Holy Spirit - Help Us To Pray
by Benedict Heron OSB

Part 1

This book is dedicated to the many
kind people who have supported
the writing of it with their prayers.
Without their prayers it would certainly
never have been written.


There are many people I need and want to thank in connection with the writing of this book. I thank Bishop Ambrose Griffiths, OSB for his very kind Foreword and Charles Whitehead, President of the International Catholic Charismatic Renewal Council, for a not less kind notice on the back cover.

Very warm thanks are due to my publishers, Gerard and Toni Pomfret of New Life Publishing, who could not have been more helpful and encouraging in every way. They also made valuable suggestions for improving what I had written.
Special thanks are due to Joan Lewington, who patiently deciphered my difficult handwriting and typed the text, as well as rendering help in many other ways.
My sister, Joanna Gent, and my brother Giles provided peaceful and welcoming homes in beautiful surroundings to which I escaped at times to get on with the writing, free from other calls on time and energy. My brother also tidied up my style and helpfully challenged some of the things I had written.

Talks with Father Augustine Hoey on prayer, helped me to clarify my thoughts and provided encouragement. Peter Tyler successfully helped me to overcome my hesitations in connection with the chapter on Listening to God. I also found valuable their writings on prayer. To these two people and to so many others who have shared with me about their life of prayer, I must give thanks.

Many thanks are also due to my monastic community, who have allowed me the freedom to develop my healing ministry, and have supported me in many other ways.
I also want to thank everyone at Holy Trinity, Brompton and the Alpha course. Their vibrant faith and ecumenical openness have been a source of inspiration to me.
Finally, a very big thanks to all those kind people who prayed for the writing of this book. I have been aware of being upheld by their prayers. In a very real sense the book is not my book but our book. It is only when, by the grace of God, we get to heaven, we shall fully know how much we owe to the prayers of others.

Dom Benedict Heron, OSB

January 2000


At a time of crisis in the Church we naturally ask where we are going wrong. Various solutions are proposed but they all have one thing in common. Unless they are supported by sincere and persevering prayer they will never renew the Church. We need to recover our confidence in the value and effectiveness of prayer and give it a much higher priority in our lives.

I remember once listening to a sermon which emphasised how hard it was to pray and I felt thoroughly depressed. I had the opposite experience when I first attended a prayer group and heard other people praying. Only then did I realise that prayer could be joyful and full of praise and thanksgiving. As you read this book you will enjoy a similar gift as Father Benedict Heron shares with us so much of his personal experience. He avoids the assumptions and theory of other treatments and writes in easy everyday language with an almost conversational style. He has the knack of bringing out familiar phrases like "Thy will be done" in their full and very demanding import. And just when we think we could never emulate him, he admits his own shortcomings with disarming honesty.

Everyone must pray as they can, and not force themselves into a particular mould, but certain threads are common to all prayer. We are unlikely to progress very far unless we make a serious attempt to listen to God as well as speaking to Him. Many find this difficult but chapter five gives a convincing and balanced treatment illustrated with personal anecdotes. Intercession is vital for the renewal of the Church and many other needs, but an effectiveness depends on our faith and persevering commitment. All prayer is hampered by a failure to repent of our sins and a lack of awareness of the false gods and collective sins characteristic of society today. If instead of being aware of these evils, we are undiscerning and indulgent in our selection of television, films, and books, we will face great obstacles when we come to pray.

There is a wealth of encouragement and guidance for everyone in this book. In order to make it accessible to all certain aspects of prayer which are less generally applicable have been treated in an appendix. But what we will all carry away with us is a deep conviction of the importance of prayer and a realisation that this is the key to the future growth of the Church.

Bishop Ambrose Griffiths

January 2000


Let me start by trying to say what this book seeks to do and what it does not. This book is not a learned study on prayer. I would not be the right person to do that. Nor does this book seek to cover every aspect of prayer. There will be gaps. There is also a fuller treatment of the prayer of intercession. This book seeks, God willing, to help those who read it to pray better. If it does that I will be more than satisfied.
I had given a series of seven talks on prayer to our Cockfosters ecumenical prayer group. Some of those present kindly said they had found the talks helpful and encouraged me to try to turn the talks into a book, and my publisher, New Life Publishing, also kindly encouraged me to do so. So the seven talks form the basis of the book, although there have been a considerable number of additions in the process of writing.

Prayer is a glorious adventure. It is not always easy, indeed there can, normally will be, desert or difficult periods at times. Prayer is for me a joyful struggle. At times the joyful aspect dominates, at the other times it is largely a struggle. However, the adventure of prayer is always immensely and wonderfully worthwhile.

Prayer is not the most important thing in the Christian life. The primacy belongs to love, as St Paul reminds us in 1 Corinthians 13. The two great commandments of Jesus are about love: "And he said to him, 'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind'. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets'."

St John of the Cross, quoted in the Catechism (1022), says that "at the evening of life, we shall be judged on our love." The division between the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 is based on love of the neighbour. "Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats on his left" (Matthew 25: 32-33). However, there is normally a very close connection between love and prayer. For many Christians growth in prayer is of fundamental importance for growth in love of God and love of our neighbour.

Nevertheless, Jesus also stressed the importance of prayer: "Then Jesus told them a parable to pray always and not to lose heart" (Luke 18:1); He frequently went aside to pray on his own: "In those days he went out into the hills to pray: and all night he continued to pray to God" (Luke 6:12); and He prayed in Gethsemanie and on the Cross. For many Christians growth in prayer will be the royal road to growth in love. In Great Britain, as in most of the First World, the number of people who are regularly attending worship in a Christian Church is in general declining, sometimes quickly, and the relative absence of the younger generation in many churches is normally only too obvious. Numbers is not everything, but this decline in numbers is accompanied by a decrease of Christian influence on the population as a whole, which is increasingly influenced by materialism, secularist standards, violence, and sexual laxity. Surely every Christian should be deeply concerned by what is happening.

It is my conviction that the neglect of prayer is largely responsible for the spiritual weakness of many Christians, the tepidity of many Christian groups, the declining numbers in so many churches, and the ineffectiveness of much Christian witness and outreach. Indeed, I would say that there is a widespread crisis of confidence in the value and effectiveness of prayer among many Christians. Hence my efforts in this book to encourage the practice of prayer, and hopefully to help people to pray or pray better. I believe that the task I am seeking to undertake is of absolutely vital importance for the Church today, however small may be my contribution to it.
I write as someone who has been a monk since 1946, a Catholic priest since 1954, and I have been deeply involved in prayer groups since 1972. None of the above makes any sense at all if you do not have real confidence in the value of prayer. I pray that the Holy Spirit will, use this book, despite my limitations, to encourage and help others to pray - and indeed to share my enthusiasm for the glorious, if sometimes difficult, adventure of prayer.

I am a Roman Catholic, but in my life of prayer I have been helped not only by Catholics, but also by contacts with and the writings of Anglicans, the Orthodox, Quakers, Pentecostals and other Christians. The life of prayer transcends denominational barriers. So I hope that this book will be of help not only to some Catholics, but also to other Christians, and that it will make a small contribution to the desire of Jesus "that they may all be one".

Chapter One: The Holy Spirit, Our Spiritual Director

When and How Should we Pray?

The short answer and the final answer to that question is when and how the Holy Spirit leads us. Authentic prayer is the work of the Holy Spirit within us, although of course we have to co-operate with the Holy Spirit. So if I deliberately decide without due reason to watch a soap opera on television instead of going to Church on Sunday, then I cannot blame the Holy Spirit.

It needs to be said that the Holy Sprit will guide no two people's life of prayer in exactly the same way, for we are all unique people with a unique relationship with God. Moreover the Holy Spirit will not guide someone in prayer in exactly the same way this year as last year. We have an ongoing and developing relationship with God.
God wants us to live in a Christian community, not as isolated individuals on our own. So the Holy Spirit's guidance in prayer will take into account the communal aspect and setting of our life of prayer. Thus, for example, the Holy Spirit will normally guide Catholics to go to Mass on Sunday, following the practice and discipline of their church.

The Holy Spirit should be our Spiritual Director, although of course it can be, and normally is, helpful to have a human spiritual counsellor with whom we can share. Thus much that I write in this book should be seen as hints about the life of prayer, to be accepted or left aside as the Holy Spirit guides and as it is found helpful or not. Obviously it is good to be in touch with the wide Christian tradition of prayer and spiritual life, for the Holy Spirit guides many people in much the same way and the Holy Spirit also guides to some extent through the wisdom and experience of other people. However, in the end our personal relationship with God is fundamental.

A former Abbot of Downside, Abbot Chapman, used to say: "
Pray as you can, and not as you can't". I think that there is a great wisdom in that advice. Do we not all find that certain ways of praying help us and others do not? That if we try to pray in one way it flows and that if we try in another way we are 'blocked'! So, for example, there is nothing to be gained by following advice to pray the 'Jesus prayer' for half an hour each morning if all that happens is that we become irritable, discouraged, or fall asleep. If we find ourselves "blocked" when we try to pray in a certain way that is normally a sign that the Holy Spirit does not want us to pray in that way, at least for the time being.

So may I ask you, reader, to accompany your reading of this book with prayer to the Holy Spirit, so that your Spiritual Director may show you what at this time is for you, and what is not and perhaps never will be.

Come Holy Spirit!

Chapter Two: Time Given to Prayer

Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart "(John 18.1). St Paul tells us "to pray without ceasing". (1 Thess 5. 17). Does this mean that we should always be saying prayers? I think not. If the surgeon was repeating the Our Father throughout the operation, the operation would probably go wrong. I think that the instructions of Jesus and St Paul are a call to move towards a contemplative living in the presence of Jesus or God such as we find in the lives of many mystics and saints, not a call to be saying prayers all the time. For example, St Teresa of Avila and Brother Lawrence, the author of The Practice of the Presence of God, remained closely united to God in contemplative prayer in the midst of intense activity. That would also be true of many other saints.

However, if most of us are to move towards a contemplative living in the presence of God, we need to set aside sufficient time to give to prayer on its own, not just praying while we are doing the ironing or driving through London. We need to set aside time to concentrate on prayer.

Now comes the crunch question: How much time should we normally set apart for prayer daily, weekly? Obviously, the right answer to this question will vary enormously according to our personality, our vocation and our circumstances. A new Christian who has only just started praying may find a quarter of an hour per
day right, while this would be totally inadequate for a monk or pastor. A busy mother with a job may not be able to set aside much time daily for prayer, but of course Jesus will fully understand this and He will bless her life of prayer if she does what she can. An invalid lying in bed all day may well be called to spend hours a day praying; this could be her or his special form of service and ministry, it may be the occupation which gives meaning to her or his life.

Nevertheless, I want to suggest that the time given to prayer by most Christians in our country, and in many other countries, is woefully inadequate, and that this goes a considerable way towards explaining why in general our numbers and influence are seriously declining and why we have largely lost the younger generation. A Christianity which has to a considerable extent lost contact with Jesus, with God, through lack of prayer is a dying Christianity - and that is what we can often see around us.

By contrast, in those places where there are fervent praying congregations, we often see expanding, sometimes rapidly expanding, churches, for example in London Holy Trinity, Brompton and Kensington Temple. In the capital of South Korea, Seoul, there is the Pentecostal congregation founded by Dr Cho which has 750,000 members. Dr Cho tells his congregation that he expects them normally to spend between one and two hours in prayer every morning before they go to work, and his church has acquired a mountain to which many members of the church go for prayer and fasting, normally for three days. On the Catholic side, there is a charismatic community in Manila in the Philippines which arranges a weekly all-night vigil of prayer which is attended by about a million people.

I am not suggesting that one can automatically transfer what is happening in South Korea or in the Philippines to London or Paris. I am suggesting, however, that what is happening in those places should give us a powerful and salutary shock over the question of prayer, the time we give to it, and the importance we attach to it.

Let us face it. Many Christians who go to church on Sunday will only give about five minutes to their daily prayer, and those who do not normally go to church on Sunday may well say no prayers most days. How can we hope to maintain a living relationship with Jesus, with God, based on only five minutes regular daily prayer? The average person in this country, we are told, spends 27 hours per week looking at television, so much of which is worldly tripe. Which is going to win, the long hours of television or the few minutes of prayer? No wonder that moral standards decline, while drug abuse, sexual immorality, violence, selfishness, greed and dishonesty increase.

Delia Smith, the well-known cook, was suggesting for Catholics, Mass plus one hour's personal prayer daily. Obviously not everyone can get to Mass daily, but her suggestion surely shows us the sort of way in which we should be thinking. St Francis of Assisi said that it sometimes took him an hour to get through to God in prayer, no wonder that so many five-minuters never really get through to God.

When we say the Our Father we say "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven". If we really mean what we say, we are telling God that we want to spend as much time (not more) in prayer as He wants. I think that many of us need to examine our use of time and energy. How much time do I spend each week looking at TV, listening to the radio, reading newspapers etc. and how much time do I spend in spiritual reading of the Bible and other spiritual books and praying? Have I got my priorities right, am I using my time and energy as God wants?

Do not misunderstand me. I am not against all television, radio and newspapers. We need to keep in touch - there are some excellent television and radio programmes, and we do need some relaxation. But have we got the balance right? Very often, surely the truthful answer is "No". I often meet people who tell me how their prayer life has deepened considerably since they got rid of the television set - although not everyone is called to do that.

Some people will say that they do not have a regular time of prayer, but pray when they feel like it. I think that experience teaches many of us that if we only pray when we feel like it we normally do not do much praying - the devil sees to it that we do not very often feel like praying. Of course it is an excellent thing to pray when we feel like it, but not only then.

A serious life of prayer normally requires that we set aside an adequate amount of time daily to give to prayer, which we do not drop unless there is a real reason for doing so. We need if possible to choose a time when we are not too tired and are less likely to be interrupted. For most people that will probably mean the early morning, and it may often involve getting up half an hour or more earlier. For some people last thing at night may be the best time for prayer, I think that every Christian will surely want to start and end the day with prayer, but I am not alone in finding that if I try to prolong my prayer before going to bed I frequently drop off to sleep in a chair. Ask God to guide you in your choice of prayer times and to give you the strength to be disciplined - but not too rigid. When love is really calling us to do something else we should drop or shorten our prayer time without scruples or hesitation. Our spiritual life will not suffer if we drop or shorten our prayer time at the call of God but it will suffer if we drop it or shorten it for the wrong reasons.

Sometimes we may need longer periods of prayer than is possible in our daily routine. Perhaps once a week or once a month we should set aside a longer period of prayer. Once when I was following a spiritual directors course in another monastery, I was often able to spend two hours in prayer in the afternoon, and I found that two hours was, so to speak, more than twice one hour - I seemed to go quite a bit deeper.

A number of people come to our and other monasteries for a retreat for a few days or even just one day of recollection. These longer periods of prayer are proving a real blessing for so many people.

I notice on re-reading this section I have said nothing about prayer vigils at night - perhaps because I have never been good at staying up praying through the night! When I last visited Holy Trinity at Brompton they were announcing a prayer vigil from 10.00 p.m. to 6.00 a.m. in the morning, and the Benedictine nuns of Tyburn in London organise regular prayer vigils through the night.

Obviously these prayer vigils can be very helpful times of prayer, but do not feel upset or guilty if you like me are someone who would just drop off to sleep and disturb the others with your snoring! Not everything is for everyone.

I can imagine some readers of this section saying to themselves that this monk has not a clue what life in the real world is like. Many people, they will say, have to face so many calls on time and energy that all talk of longer daily prayer sessions is totally unrealistic. To which I reply that I know quite a number of busy people working in the world who manage to spend over an hour a day praying. I think of a medical doctor with a regular job who used to get up at about 5.00 am to have enough time to pray at length before going to work. Of course, I do not expect everyone to be able to do that. But if some people can do that, perhaps others could increase onsiderably their hurried five minutes.

There is a further consideration. Increasing the time given to prayer often increases the quality of activity, indeed our activity can gain much more in quality than it may lose in quantity. And often it will not lose in quantity because being more Spirit led we shall go down fewer blind alleys and make fewer mistakes. I know two priests who independently, when some years ago they were faced with mounting demands on time and energy, responded by doubling the hour they were accustomed to spend daily in private personal prayer: they felt that was the only way in which they could fruitfully cope with the increased demands and pressures.

At the end of this section I simply ask the reader to pray about what I have written, to see whether there is anything in it for you. I know that people can use prayer as an excuse for avoiding unwelcome activity, and I know of course that some people are by temperament and vocation more Marthas than Marys. I thank God for the Marthas, and for all the ways in which I personally have been helped by them. I will end this chapter by repeating the quotation of St John of the Cross: "At the evening of this life, we shall be judged on our love" - not on the amount of time we have spent praying. But more praying will frequently result in more love, indeed sometimes in very much more love.

Copyright © 2000 Benedict M. Heron OSB

Book Order Information

This Version:
28th October 2001


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