A new life of prayer

POST BY JHellings

My time so far in the noviciate has had a Tardis–like quality: it seems in many ways to have flown past, but equally I can’t believe how much we have managed to squeeze in.  Life seems fuller, yet simpler, on the inside of the noviciate.

It has been a period of settling in and finding routine, but also a time of change. We’ve built on some strong foundations and there is a good buzz around the place. People are putting their whole selves into the work that we do, including, as an example, some fantastic effort by the two novices who lead on music for our liturgy and prayer. The musical side of things is very much outside my comfort zone and so I particularly appreciate their efforts to make it accessible and simple.

As you can imagine, prayer plays a central part in our life here and it has also been the focus of many questions people back home have asked me. They wonder how it is possible to pray so much and for so long. Is it difficult? What do you pray about?
We have personal prayer for 45 minutes every morning as well as 15 minutes of communal morning prayer, from the Divine Office, on weekdays. We also have mass every day and two periods (lunchtime and bedtime) when we do our Examen. In the evening we spend half an hour on personal prayer and another on spiritual reading. All in all, it probably works out as 3 hours a day of prayer.

My own way of praying has changed since I came into the noviciate – not only in terms of time but also type. Previously, I relied heavily on the excellent ‘Pray as you go’ website and, otherwise, would look to find a few minutes here and there over the course of a busy day to check in with God. Prayer is now a much more central part of my life and I’ve discovered some important techniques and approaches to prayer, which would have also been useful ‘on the outside’.

In the first few days, as part of our ‘first probation’, we were introduced to many ways of praying. This included a form of prayer that I latched on to immediately – taking each word or short phrase of a scripture passage and reflecting and exploring the meaning of it and also any connecting thoughts that flow from it. It is a form of imaginative prayer, but one that relies more on words than images – something that I found works much better for me.

At first, I had some very fruitful prayer time reflecting on the image in Psalm 1 of the tree “that is planted by water streams, yielding its fruit in season, its leaves never failing”. I could see myself, through the noviciate, pushing out roots deep and far into the water of life that is God’s grace and being nourished and strengthened. I focused on this one image, over and over again, over the period of a few days.

However, I then began to struggle a little. The Examen is another prayer that is central to Jesuit life when we reflect on where God has been in our day, how God has called us and how we have responded. Through that daily reflection it dawned on me that all my imagining of growing deep and broad roots – all the spiritual training I could do – was downplaying the central and essential role of God in this process. I was focused solely on my own efforts, which of course totally misses the point. The Examen prayer had enabled me to identify an emerging problem and then correct course.

Sometimes in life we can try too hard. During this first period, and from good intentions, I’ve tried to always be active, to always try and keep myself busy. But this is not always the most fruitful approach. I’ve sensed, through my Examen, the need to pause a little and this has brought in a third type of prayer, focused on stillness and simply being with God: being conscious of my breathing, focusing on different parts of my body or individual sounds around me and then just entering into the silence.
Of course, as I am learning, the answer is to find balance in the type of prayer I use and to be guided by God.  This has been one lesson of this first month, but probably the most important so far is avoiding the belief that I always need to be doing something. There is enormous value, real value, as I am learning, to simply ‘being’ – creating the space to let God be God.

This post was first published on the Manresa Amigos blog of the International Jesuit Noviciate in Birmingham