Where to start?

Prayer is simple, but not easy.

Prayer is simple because, like God, it is right under our noses.

It is not easy because we are not simple.

When we want to pray, where do we start? When we sit down to pray our mind shoots off in a hundred different directions, worrying about what we ought to be doing, planning the shopping, thinking about the next bit of work, remembering something that happened earlier, thinking about how to pray properly, remembering some past hurt or loss, thinking of something to remember to do later, making a mental list, thinking how to make myself a better person, trying to sort out my life. It is never-ending. No one has taught us how to pray, in any case, so we’re a bit stuck to know where to start. We don’t even know what prayer is.

We think we are failures or stupid. We feel useless and weak, and guilty and ashamed for being useless and weak. The most competent people feel like this when faced with prayer. Let me assure you: you are not a failure and stupid, useless or weak; it is normal to struggle and wonder where to start. (Or, if you are useless and weak, then let me assure you: you are normal; each of us is useless and weak when it comes to prayer!)

People think that we need to do something special in order to pray, in order to be in touch with God. This is untrue, and it is crucial to understand this, though it is something you must have some experience of in order to know and believe it properly, and knowing may take a while. You do not have to do anything special; you do not have to be anything or anyone special. You do not, as the poet Mary Oliver says, have to be good; and if we are to apply this to prayer, this means you neither have to be a good person, nor do you have to be ‘good at’ prayer. God is right here, and always has been. There is nothing that stands in the way.

So, then… Where to start? Well, my contention is this. If God is right here, and always has been, then we will all have experiences of God. Research into religious experiences suggests that the majority of people have had a strong or overwhelming sense of a presence or of oneness with the world. Maybe you have had an experience like this. Maybe it has changed your life or is an experience that you sub-consciously refer back to as a kind of touchstone of reality. Maybe you have gone your way and forgotten it. These experiences are important: it is important to remember; it is important not to forget, not to file them away amongst the other photographs and memories of occurrences that happened once-upon-a-time, but are then-and-there and therefore there is no point in dwelling upon them now

Not everyone has experiences of this kind, but most of us, most days, have experiences that touch us momentarily. This morning, walking in the street where I live, I see two goldfinches fly down and start pecking amongst last year’s fallen leaves and twigs looking for the seeds they like to eat. I stop to watch them. They look so beautiful and alive, and they remind me of the happiness of some days in my childhood. I see how, from one perspective, they are living off scraps; but when I look longer I see that this is how all of our world is, that everything goes round, that they are not scraps, but particles of life in this form at this moment. I feel my poor old heart creak open and I feel love, love for those little, beautiful finches, and love for myself. And then I come home.

There are experiences that are common to human being: a moment of love, the first signs of Spring, the turn of phrase in a piece of music or writing, your pleasure at the smile of a child, and the ache in your heart at her sleeping face, compassion at the pain of a loved one, a moment of silence or stillness, a flash of feeling really alive, the pleasure of walking, looking up at the sky or the stars, feeling relaxed and unguarded with friends over a meal or a drink, the first cup of tea sitting up in bed… Or, perhaps, it is seeing a starving child, a plane plough into a skyscraper, a mother scream at her 5-year old, a lonely, elderly neighbour, an ethnic execution on television, the wrinkles on your knuckles… The list is, literally, endless. These are moments when there is a little pause, when we are struck by a realisation or are reminded of what matters to us, which are not about getting and spending, and which touch us in our depths. We all have moments like these and, rather than trying to learn some technique or to read a book, I think this is the place to start in prayer and with God.

So now, if you care to, think back to one of these moments. Start with something good. It might be an experience from a few moments ago, from last week, or from way back. It might be a special moment or a commonplace occurrence. It might even be a word or phrase from this page that struck you. Whatever, whenever, choose one such moment and think back to it. Some people have vivid imaginations and clear recall, so maybe you can see this clearly in your mind’s eye and remember where you were and what you were doing, what else was going on and what it was that caught your attention. Others of us do not have that kind of imagination and see fragments of an event, with certain things highlighted, or get more of a felt sense of a situation. The way in which you think back to your moment is not important, but that you let yourself remember is what matters. Give yourself time to gather the moment, waiting patiently, with openness and inquisitiveness, for it settle and solidify and become clear in your mind…

There’s another step which is key to what this writing is about. As you are remembering, also notice how this makes you feel, and notice where in your body you feel it. Notice not only the emotion of the moment, but the physical sensations in your body. When I said above that “I feel my poor old heart creak open and I feel love,” I did feel this in the centre of my chest as a kind of softening. Indeed, it is not possible to put into words accurately what I felt, but I know where I felt it and I know what it felt like. I can go back to that moment now and feel it again. And feeling it again I connect with the moment more deeply and with how I was affected by it. And, I suggest, I felt connected with God then, and I feel connected again as I think back.

Stay with the experience of the memory of this moment a while longer. Feel into your body and let the sensation of the experience inhabit you (or allow yourself to inhabit the sensation of the experience). Where exactly are you feeling the sensations of this experience? What does it feel like? If you were to ‘listen’ to your body, to the sensations of the memory of this moment, what does it ‘say’? Or perhaps it is enough simply to stay in the presence of this experience, to allow the sensations to be there, with no meddling, no enquiry, no need to make sense of it.

And then a further movement (but don’t make it too quickly). Bring God right into the sensations in your body of this moment. What sense is there that this is an experience of God? What does it say about God? What is shown about God or by God?

I hope you see where I am going with this. If we want to pray, the place to start is with our own experience – the places where we already have an inkling of the life in us that is God – and that place is in reality our own bodies.

Follow up post: Sitting.

2 thoughts on “Where to start?

  1. My Dear Julian

    I am sorry I have taken so long to send you any comment about ‘Where to Start’.

    I was very taken with it when I read it first. Have read it since, and again just now.

    And as a person who finds it hard to sit still

    finds it hard to be quiet

    is suspicious of the notion of a ‘spiritual’ realm

    has long struggled to pray with any sense of integrity

    repeatedly stumbled over the commonly held understanding of prayer as something verbal

    a person who is, in short, is prey to all the distractions that you outline in your first paragraph (and some more besides)…

    I find the place from which you start a hopeful and encouraging place, and would want to read on.

    However, (and I own that this may well be to with my own retarded-ness in this area) I have a sense of going forward a fraction too quickly, and that what for you is plain sailing, may be a bit more difficult for me, and maybe others too.

    This is quite hard to write about. I will try. But it would (as always) be better to be talking about it.

    One way in which I feel you may be going a wee bit fast is around the sense that you perhaps talking about several sorts of things as as they are the same thing (maybe they really are all one thing but my sense of them is that they feel different.)

    So, there’s the common-sense, ordinary world, experience of ‘sensation’. For me, this is different from the sort of sensation you describe in your vision of the finches. Sensation in this ordinary sense will take us directly to sex, and food, light and dark, the whole gamut of the sensory. This is not, of course, a world apart from the world you are describing but it is, I think, prior to it. And my hunch would be that most people most of the time never stray much beyond it. (This may be especially true of men.) But then as you say at the start of para. 4, ‘the majority of people have had a strong or overwhelming sense of a presence or a oneness with the world.’. Yes indeed, (although is it really a majority and not just many?), and this built on, I think, the categories of experience that are prior to it. For instance the simple business of being able to hear.

    Here’s a true tale: A senior NCO who likes to tease me about his irreligion (sometimes he is verging on the hostile) says ‘If you played music like this in Church I’d come.’ Here he is connecting the physical sensation evoked by music with the spiritual realm…he is flagging up the way that this is for him a spiritual experience (though I’m not sure he’d want to call it that). For this to happen he has to be able to hear the music, and then do something with that hearing, or allow something to be done with it. What is that next stage called? What is it?

    I think what I am wondering about here is whether you might move from your intro. to the incident with the finches, paradoxically. more quickly. Your subject is sensation, so take us to sensation without delay. But unpack it a bit.

    I think with you and the finches there is a seeing part, there is a part that is to do with gesture (in this case you stop), there is the whole business of memory or reminding that takes you to days in childhood, there is thinking that is provoked in you, and there is the context in which all this happens (this morning in mid Feb). These, and maybe more too, are the discernible components of a significant experience. It is not in any way a simple sensation, but one made of all those parts. And those parts on their own, might not ring up the same degree of significance if you had not the disposition to combine them or experience them together in the way that you do.

    It may be that lots of people do not experience them together.

    So, starting here, may perhaps be starting a bit to far up the scale.

    It risks turning off those who do not have this faculty, or who are not assured in it.

    (Will they be reading the book? Yes, I think so/hope so.)

    The synthesis of experiencing that seems to implied in what you describe is perhaps what the Fisher King is about or part of it. Praying may be going into the wound. Why are women so much more given to prayer than men? (Are they? I think they may be, but you will know better than I).

    And again and again I do poetry courses where men are in a tiny minority. Poetry takes us to similar sorts of region I’d say. And men can’t or will not go.

    In short. I welcome and long for a praying located somewhere other than the verbal.

    You are going that way.

    Please carry on, and tell me if I have misunderstood you.

    I think I desperately need to understand that praying is not about pretending to be someone I’m not. You are going that way too. VG.

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