A small group of us were taking part in a discussion that soon turned to the subject of prayer. One friend remarked, sadly, that she was not praying as she ought. “Why do you think that?” I asked.
“Well,” she explained, “I’m lying on my bed. I ought to be sitting up.”
I was amazed! I found my friend’s attitude particularly sad since she was going through treatments for cancer which left her almost constantly fatigued. This was a woman who had spent decades as a member of a religious order! Somewhere, some time, someone had persuaded her that in order to pray “correctly” she needed to follow the example of Teresa of Avila who had allegedly sat up straight as a ramrod when she prayed. (Obviously, Teresa didn’t levitate then, but I kept that observation to myself.)
As it happened, I too had been struggling with a prayer issue: how to “do it right.” I felt unable to master the rather new “centering” prayer. This became a gnawing concern until I was given a spiritual director who was able to calm me with a different piece of advice from Teresa: Pray as you can, not as you can’t. Even so, it took years before I could be fully convinced that I was not praying the “wrong” way!
As time passed, I began to question the prayer practices of my favorite saints. Take Saint Francis of Assisi: I could find nothing about how he prayed. What was clear was that he kept his thoughts continually on Jesus, reading about him and his teachings. Admiring him, loving him, imitating him.
I read Thérèse of Lisieux’s autobiography several times. Thérèse too simply gazed constantly on Jesus. This was the Person she loved above all others. She confided to her sister that she “loved him madly!” and addressed him in the familiar form of tu, not the formal vous. Fully aware of her littleness, she thought nothing of falling asleep during the required prayer time.
Teresa of Avila is the first woman to have been named a Doctor of the Church, an honor given chiefly in recognition of her teachings on prayer and growth in the spiritual life. In her autobiography, Teresa writes this about prayer:
As I see it, contemplative prayer is simply an intimate sharing between friends. It’s about frequently taking time to be alone with the One we know loves us. If the friendship is to endure, the love must be honored and tended.
How very simple! The purpose of our life – our spiritual life – is to be fully engaged with Christ: looking at Him, listening to Him, being with Him in our daily activities; sharing with Him our hopes, our regrets – all that will let Him know we’re fully connected to Him as we would be with our dearest friend. We don’t need to rely on what others say about their prayer, which is an entirely individual matter. A growing friendship comes from a two-way conversation where we listen with the ears of our heart to what God tells us.
If we notice that we are gradually changing for the better, that we’re becoming more loving, patient, non-judgmental, and generous, then we know that God is hearing us and is acknowledging our desire for him. Then we’ll know that, in spite of our concerns, we’ve actually been praying the right way after all.