Come Holy Spirit - Help Us To Pray
This book is dedicated to the many
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.
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.
Dom Benedict Heron, OSB
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
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.
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 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
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.
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
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
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.
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.