Pray as you can, not as you can’t!

My journey in prayer has gone through the ups and downs of life and I have discovered different methods and styles of prayer that have served different stages of my life. As a child, I was introduced to set prayers by my parents who taught me basic prayers.

Nov 03, 2023

As I was contemplating - Fr Gerard Steve Theraviam
My journey in prayer has gone through the ups and downs of life and I have discovered different methods and styles of prayer that have served different stages of my life. As a child, I was introduced to set prayers by my parents who taught me basic prayers. My parents would pray nightly with me and read from my Children’s Bible — and that task sometimes fell to my not-yet-Catholic father when my mother was on night duty as a nursing sister. This was my foundation in prayer and I remember later when I was older and had to pray by myself, I would sometimes be awakened by bad dreams and realise I had fallen asleep without praying, but my fears would go away when I prayed.

In secondary school, I discovered the Bible and prayed with it daily, something that I was introduced to in my non-Catholic school, thanks to the School Christian Fellowship and a group of classmates that started a weekly Bible study group. Spontaneous prayer was also something that my Protestant friends introduced me to. In my late teens, I was introduced to Charismatic prayer and this featured strongly in my life, especially when I was discerning about the priesthood. (Interestingly, many of my contemporaries in the seminary then had also had a Charismatic leaning although that wasn’t a feature I saw in later generations I taught.)

When I entered the seminary, I was introduced to many other methods of prayer and it almost seemed too much to digest at once but I was encouraged to experiment and see what worked. In this period, the Liturgy of the Hours became a mainstay and the Psalms have ever since been a powerful source of prayer. I was also introduced to discursive meditation, allowing my mind to work through the Scriptures through Ignatian meditation as well as Lectio Divina. Yet I also aspired to what I saw then as ‘higher’ contemplative forms of prayer as I looked at St Theresa of Avilla and St John of the Cross. I wanted to be floating on the clouds of ecstasy but came to realise that prayer is hard work and often dry and difficult, and found myself sometimes in despair and desperation. Yet I battled on for I had already ‘tasted’ fleeting moments of the touch of God in prayer and I longed for more! I learnt from St Mother Teresa that it is more important to be faithful than successful, and that applies to prayer as well as other aspects of the Christian life.

Slowly, I found myself being led to a quieter, contemplative spirituality. This was nourished by Taize prayer, with its repetitive chants punctuated by silence, as well as short Scriptures. Creative prayer with poetry and art has also helped. Later, there was an introduction to Christian Meditation when Fr Laurence Freeman OSB, as well as other priests from the World Community for Christian Meditation (WCCM), led the retreats for priests in Peninsular Malaysia. This strongly resonated with me and has been an important part of my prayer life, with an overall sense of peace even though distractions may sometimes affect me.

Interestingly, WCCM has sometimes been looked with suspicion as Fr John Main learnt to meditate from a Hindu swami. He was then a colonial officer working in Kuala Lumpur around 1955 and had some dealings with Swami Satyananda of the Pure Life Society in Kuala Lumpur who taught him how to meditate in his way, yet insisting that he would have to meditate as a Christian. This guidance was over a period of 18 months and the practice took root in John. Fast forward, John returned home and joined the Benedictine order, later being ordained a priest. John expected to continue and intensify using the form of meditation with a mantra that he learnt in Malaya and practiced regularly but when he mentioned that approach to the novice master, he was told that this was not the Benedictine way. With a spirit of obedience and detachment, he relented. Some years later, now a priest, on being asked by a student who had spent time in India and wanted to see how his experience fitted with Christian tradition, John gave him the book by Augustine Baker, Holy Wisdom: A History of Contemplative Tradition. On re-examining the book, he discovered the ancient writer, John Cassian (360-425), whose Conferences he read and discovered key similarities to the meditation with a mantra.

Recognising that this form of prayer had deep roots in Christian tradition, he returned to the form of prayer learnt from the swami. For him it was a ‘coming home’: reconciliation between his experience of Eastern meditation and his own Benedictine tradition. Soon he began to teach this form of meditation to others. Sadly, Fr John died in 1982 but his work has continued through the efforts of Fr Laurence Freeman OSB who was his student and partner in mission, as well as the World Community of Christian Meditation, a global spiritual community united in the practice of meditation in the Christian tradition which is also active in Malaysia.

Perhaps for me, the lesson here has been not to judge anything negatively just because it comes from another tradition but to rather, appreciate the fruits that it produces. The Spirit blows in ways that we cannot understand. There is more that we share with other traditions that perhaps we realise. And for those who struggle in prayer, never give up! Pray as you can, not as you can’t! Remember that at different seasons of our lives, some things will fade and others emerge — even ways of prayer. Yet all types of prayer lead us to encounter God, even if my prayer is a shouting match at God or just arms lifted up in silence and surrender.

How to Meditate by Fr John Main

Sit: Sit down. Sit still and upright. Close your eyes lightly. Sit relaxed but alert.

Say: Silently, interiorly begin to say a single word. We recommend the prayer-word MARANATHA. Recite it as four syllables of equal length.

Listen: Listen to it as you say it, gently but continuously. Do not think or imagine anything spiritual or otherwise.
Return: If thoughts or images come, these are distractions at the time of meditation, so keep returning to simply saying the word.

Persevere: Meditate each morning and evening for between twenty and thirty minutes

(Fr Gerard Theraviam is the Parish Priest of the Cathedral of St John the Evangelist in Kuala Lumpur, as well as the Spiritual Director to the World Community for Christian Meditation, Malaysia.)

Total Comments:1

Carmen Gomez
An interesting concept to spend time in prayer. Will try this meditation for my spiritual development. Thanks