Prayer - Like It Is

Delia Smith FAITH Magazine July-August 2006

Morning by morning he wakens me to hear,
to listen like a disciple.

(Isaiah 5 0 : 4)

There is a much-used modern phrase comprising five words: ‘tell it like it is’. What it attempts to do is cut through the complexities of a subject and fast-track to the bare bones of what the truth really is.

The following is a humble attempt to try to tell prayer ‘like it is’, something that in truth is very simple and straightforward but tends to get sidestepped as somehow being beyond the realm of the ordinary person and something that requires special gifts. This is a subtle—albeit unintentional—evasion of the truth. So it’s important to re-examine prayer from time to time and try to rediscover its enormous simplicity.

In the catechism prayer is described as lifting up the heart and mind to God. So in that sense we as Catholics are all praying—and that’s good—but there’s something that goes beyond this and that is making a strong commitment to spending a substantial amount of time alone in stillness and silence in the presence of God. In this sense it’s when a person moves beyond being a committed Christian and a follower of Christ to becoming more of a full-blown disciple.

The dictionary describes a disciple as someone who is a ‘personal’ follower of Christ and the teaching of Vatican II claims that all are called to this: ‘the highest reason for human dignity is our vocation to communion with God’. From the outset we (every human person) are invited to a close familiarity with God.

We only exist because God’s love created us and continually sustains us. Nor do we live fully and truly unless we freely acknowledge that love and commit ourselves to Him. The question here is do we as individuals have that close familiarity? One thing is sure: that we were all called to this, to discipleship, to being a personal follower and to have a close familiarity.

We are told in the gospels that the disciple John was closest to Jesus, so it’s not surprising that the fourth gospel, which was inspired by him, provides us with a blueprint of what that closeness actually is, not just specifically during Jesus’ lifetime but for ‘all who accept him and believe in his name’. The word ‘all’ means us living here and now. In chapter six we hear the word ‘all’ again in these words from Jesus himself:

‘It is written in the prophets they will all be taught by God and to hear the teaching of the Father and to learn from it is to come to me’.

No punches pulled here then. ‘All’ (us again) will be taught by God himself, and to hear his teaching and to learn is to come closer to Jesus. We may well feel that’s a bit tricky 2000 years on, but later on in chapter fourteen Jesus explains that after his death and resurrection, in his risen life he will ascend to the Father but will send us his Spirit to be with us for ever.

The word used is advocate, from the Greek word parakletos—but a better modern word for this is counsellor or supporter. So this promise of being taught by God Himself continues for ever, and we can each have access to the Spirit, who not only counsels and supports us in this close familiarity but will himself teach us one-to-one and lead us in the fullness of truth.

Not much complexity here then, pretty simple really. Ours is not to reason how, but simply to believe in the promise ‘to hear the teaching of the Father is to come to me’ and to set about doing just that.

But first let’s look at what’s involved. How are we to ‘come to him’ and be close to him? The simplicity of this, as with everything in relation to God, is mirrored in ordinary human life. Is it possible to have a close familiar relationship with anyone if you don’t spend time with that person? Of course not. An intimate relationship requires time and it can’t in any way be time given while you are doing other things at the same time. There will have to be exclusive one-to-one time, because that’s what being close to someone is all about.

The next very human part of this is that you may well not feel like it. No matter, it’s not about how you feel and has nothing to do with human feelings. You will be distracted because that’s what the human mind is all about and you can’t just switch it off. You may be bored, the time may drag and, yes, you may even nod off. But the important thing is that you are there for Him with all your human frailty. Which may seem a problem to you but isn’t to Him. The important thing is you are doing what he asks over and over in the scriptures: come to me.

What will be happening in your very deepest being is beyond the mind and the intellect. You may well not be able to believe and trust that God is working, but that actually isn’t important. He will be working and your trust will grow and very soon you will know.

Those who say oh, but that kind of prayer is not my thing are actually spot on. It’s not anyone’s thing—it’s totally and utterly God’s thing. The way he communicates himself to us in scripture is again very human—the tender loving father who runs out on the road to greet the son who abandoned him, or the besotted husband and lover who lures his unfaithful wife out into the desert to ‘speak to her heart’.

God’s thing is to give himself to us utterly, gradually and imperceptibly to heal our wounded lives, and through those who will receive him reach out to the broken world —like the leaven in the dough that gradually works its way right through. Of course there’s nothing new here, we’ve all heard it a million and one times before, and it has been written about since time began, but the world is still in dire need of disciples who will ‘come away’ from the daily grind ‘to a lonely place and rest awhile’.

All you need to do is make a strong commitment to give your time. Start with 20 minutes a day for a year and make a real commitment to this, then move on and give more time to this, the most important relationship you will ever have.

Discipleship involves two other ingredients—being close to the scriptures and receiving the Eucharist as often as possible. As Therese of Lisieux said: "expect nothing of yourself but everything of God" then you will not be disappointed and you will discover that he does indeed keep his promises.

Faith Magazine

July - August 2006