21st October 2023
Michelle Eyre offers
Praying: the Art and Science of Improving your Prayer Life
When you pray, do you find yourself coming more into contact with the things that drive you, helpful and unhelpful?
The inspiration for this post was an exciting coming together of two different approaches to life.
One was in reading the ancient writings of John Cassian, who was one of the Desert Fathers and Mothers living in Egypt in the 4th century.
The second inspiration was the Nobel Prize winner, Daniel Kahneman.
It's a book full of modern wisdom, built on scientific understanding.
The process of silent prayer, particularly of contemplation, which Cassian and many others write about, leads us to a deeper understanding of ourselves.
When we take time out for silent prayer, we become more aware of all that is going on within ourselves.
We become more familiar with the churn of our thoughts and emotions.
Kahneman makes the point that we are often largely unaware of these forces.
It is therefore important to slow down and think analytically about them.
This article draws on the Bible and the science of Kahneman and others, and offers some practical suggestions for living a more prayerful life.
Trust is required when we adventure into prayer, and when we relate the findings of science to our faith to gain greater understanding.
Sister Ruth has been living and praying for more than 40 years at Malling Abbey, an Anglican Benedictine community.
She explained that when she first entered community novices were told not to read books on prayer.
The belief was that God would teach them to pray.
God did teach her, is still teaching her, and will continue to teach her to pray.
However, I would suggest that she had two things that helped her.
The first was her commitment to learn to pray.
Secondly, she had an environment that was conducive to prayer.
Occupational science describes motivation as coming from our will.
Basically, you are motivated to do things because of your values, interests and beliefs.
If you've had problems sticking with a routine of prayer before, this doesn't mean that you are ill-disciplined, or ran out of motivation.
Your supply of motivation is open-ended.
So we do have sufficient motivation to deepen our prayer lives and to keep going with prayer?
A practical tool to uncover your motivation is to ask yourself the question 'Why pray?'
You might at first come up with answers like,
'I pray because the Bible and church teaches it', or 'Prayer is what Jesus did - a lot'.
But why did he pray?
Contemplative prayer is sometimes known as prayer of the heart.
John Cassian, a Desert Father from the 4th century, asked the question 'Why pray?' and concluded that the answer was 'in order to develop purity of heart - and love'.
Cassian knew that we needed to be vigilant in our Christian lives, and this is backed up by science.
Daniel Kahneman talks about a process called 'priming'.
For example, if you see a picture of a bathroom and then you are asked to complete the word SO_P, you're more likely to say SOAP than SOUP.
This priming has troubling consequences in relationship to money.
People who are 'money primed' - see images of money on TV, become more selfish.
They are less likely to help others and more likely to give less to charity.
So the impact of all the media stories about a slide in the economy and the dangers of Brexit is that we are all less likely to give money to charity.
This is not something that affects only Christians. It affects all of us.
Listen to God calling you to deepen your relationship with himself and to grow in love.
Become more aware of all that is going on within your mind, and offer that to God.
You may wish to spend some time with God.
This is an edited version. The full article is avaiable, on request
This article came out of a workshop at the Oxford Festival of Prayer led by Director Michelle Eyre.
She thinks that as we pray we become more aware, which gives us more opportunities for choosing what is helpful to us.
There are also lessons we can learn from ancient Christian wisdom and modern science, and tools we can use in developing our practice of prayer.
Michelle Eyre is the Founder and Director of Discovering Prayer.
She's had an unusual career - a dancer, a nun, an occupational therapist, and a manager.
Michelle is an oblate of the Anglican Community of St Mary the Virgin, Wantage.
She has spent over 20 years learning to incorporate some of what she learned when she tried out being a nun into her daily life.
She wants to share the treasure that she learned in the community in a way that is accessible to everyone who would like to explore prayer.
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