Friday, August 27, 2010

Ten maxims on prayer.

One of my favorite bloggers, Ilyas Wan Wei Hsien of Torn Notebook, has returned to regular posting after something of a summer hiatus. Earlier this week, Wei Hsien shared ten miscellaneous maxims on prayer which bear repeating:

1. The essentials: pray in the morning and before you go to bed, and say the Jesus Prayer as much as you can in between.

2. Use the Psalter when you pray. It’s been an integral part of Christian prayer from the earliest times.

3. Have a set of prayers and psalms committed to memory. Then you can use them while traveling and other times when you might not have access to any books.

4. Pray prayers that’ve stood the test of time, which Christians of past generations prayed. Use prayers from the Divine Office of the Church, for example.

5. Prayer changes you.

6. Use icons, candles and incense. Make prostrations. Bow. Cross yourself. Get your whole body involved.

7. Pray the Psalms aloud; it makes the demons tremble. (Evagrius paraphrased.)

8. Pray as you can, not as you can’t.

9. It shouldn’t amount to a to-do list. If you just want to sit quietly, light a candle, drink your coffee and just be with God, do that. (Though I think too much of this can breed spiritual laziness.)

10. You cannot pray at all times if you do not pray at specific times. (Fr Jean Corbon, via The Catechism of the Catholic Church §2697)

Reflecting over each of these maxims this week, I've found that my own experience confirms the truth of each. Straightforward and practical, these maxims cover a lot of important ground and could well serve as the basis of a spiritual primer. If I were to add an eleventh maxim, it would be this: it is important to set aside specific times for prayer, but it is also helpful to set aside a specific place for prayer - a corner of one's home or room that is specially dedicated to the task of appealing to and conversing with God.

You may find it helpful, as I have, to reflect on whether and how each of the above maxims relates to your own experience of prayer. In light of your own experience, which strike you as most helpful? On the same token, have you found any to be unhelpful? Finally, has your own experience of prayer revealed the importance of other maxims that aren't included on this list? AMDG.


At 8/30/2010 12:02 AM, Blogger Barbara said...

Frankly, some of the maxims contradict others. Pray as you can and not as you can't is the best with prayer changes you a close second.

There have been periods in my life when prayer was a deep state of silence and stillness that I could not really describe. At other times, I had no taste at all for prayer as I had no taste for other things I had previously loved.

Toss out those lists unless you are quite fervid or part of a supportive religious community. Instead, waste time with God in whatever way is meaningful to you at the time. The suggestions he makes are good in themselves, but must not be taken rigidly. I personally love the psalms, but there are times when I must take a break from them and use some kind of alternate liturgy.

At 8/30/2010 12:33 PM, Blogger Joe said...


Which do you read as contradicting one another?

I don't think the list is meant to be taken rigidly. I agree that some things work well at times and don't work well at others, but I think this list is flexible enough to take account of that.

Variety is important, but structure also matters. I don't think everyone needs to have a rigidly unvarying rule of prayer, but it helps to have some kind of basic structure (with breaks and flexibility included, naturally).

I agree that there can be a value to simply "wast[ing] time with God," but I don't think that doing so "in whatever way is meaningful to you at the time" is enough - we all need some kind of discipline that transcends the passing fancies of the moment. Freeform spiritual eclecticism is just as bad as excessive structure and rigidity. Spontaneity and structure need to be held in balance, and lists like this can offer ways of doing that.

At 8/30/2010 2:24 PM, Blogger Barbara said...

I appreciate your comments, Joe. I see your point. I just find it a bit confining. That could be me.

I am emerging from a period of depression, hence the malaise I mentioned. I found that structure made me feel hostile and tense, but things are changing. I now seek structure, I just find it an uphill battle to implement in any aspect of my life. I am trying to be gentle with myself and patient.

It may be his grammar that disturbs me -- so much sounds like a set of orders: do this, pray that, use this, etc. If he listed what he does in a more informal mode, I would find it less disturbing. I find 8 and 9 seem to contradict his prayer prescriptions.

I find that praying the psalms, as in the Liturgy of the Hours, allows the words to seep into you, become part of you. As someone I know observed, monks who chant the Office tend to speak in the same cadence. It is not something forced. Prayer changes you because prayer is something that happens within you. Over time, prayer allows one to become more at ease and by that I mean intimate with God (lest one be accused of spiritual laziness! ;) ) After time, prayer time is a focused conversation within the context of a life lived in dialog with the Presence.

He does not mention lectio divina or Ignatian prayer methods.

Heck, what do I know anyway?

At 8/30/2010 7:46 PM, Blogger Joe said...


Thanks for the follow-up - I see what you mean; I think a good way to qualify all of the maxims would be to add a clause along the lines of "to the extent that it's helpful for you," or words to that effect.

I appreciate what you say about depression and malaise. I know that it can be hard to find one's way spiritually when the ways we're used to being with God don't seem to work anymore - when that happens, I think that just asking the questions that arise ("What does prayer mean for me now?" or "Where is God for me now?") can itself be a form of prayer, even if the answers are very slow in coming.

While I lived in New York I once took part in a Zen sitting led by Robert Kennedy, a Jesuit priest who is also a roshi. One comment he made that stuck with me was that we need to have some kind of trauma in our life in order to really engage with Zen. I think something similar could be said about our lives of prayer in general - the sense of being lost and having a dark night experience that forces one to reevaluate one's approach can be crucial, even if finding one's way in the midst of it is very difficult at the time.

My basic stance on all of this is that individuals need some kind of structure that works for them personally and is also flexible enough to be beneficial as their circumstances change. Of course, this requires regular adjustment - otherwise, it can be hard for one to know what's really essential and it can be hard to know whether the structures one has set up for oneself are flexible enough.

I suspect the reason that some prayers (the Psalms, for example) have had such enduring influence is that they've proven to work enough of the time for enough people - that doesn't mean they work all the time, but that's where variety can be helpful.

Archbishop Anthony Bloom once said that we're all beginners when it comes to prayer. I find that a very consoling realization - no matter how much living we do and how much time we devote to prayer, we all have more to learn!

At 9/03/2010 10:40 AM, Blogger Michelle said...

It's definitely a thought provoking list -- and has prompted me to think about what I might list as top prayer "sign-posts"!

Given my own practice of regular, scheduled communal prayer with the psalms, I imagine my list might not be so different. And I rather liked the last maxim: You cannot pray at all times if you do not pray at specific times.

I've been reading Evagrius "Praktikos" this summer (in English with occasional peeks at the Greek), which provides a similarly compact collection of practical advice about prayer. It's helpful sometimes to chew over a line or two to see if there is something there for me at this time.

At 9/03/2010 2:04 PM, Blogger Joe said...


Thanks for the comment - I read the "Praktikos" once for a course at Fordham and have been meaning to return to it for a while; hopefully I'll get back to it soon!


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