Prayer. A simple word, 6 letters long.
“Prayer is an aspiration of the heart.” – St Therese of Lisieux
“Prayer is the inner bath of love into which the soul plunges itself.” – St John Vianney
“Prayer is the place of refuge for every worry.” – St John Chrysostom
“Prayer is being on terms of friendship with God, frequently conversing in secret with Him who, we know, loves us.” – St Teresa of Avila
I could probably go on and list countless more quotes on what prayer is. In my own spiritual journey through the years, prayer has also come to mean many different things to me. At times, prayer is conversation with the Lord. I share with Him about my experiences throughout the day, about my joys and sorrows, my dreams and disappointments. At other times, prayer is silence and presence, just quietly sitting and being with the Lord. Sometimes, prayer is recollection – trying to remember and discern the different times in the day when the Lord was present. Prayer can also be listening – meditating on the Scriptures and listening to what God is trying to tell me. Prayer is also experience, going for walks and strolls with the Lord, aimlessly, spontaneously, open to whatever happens and trusting that God can and will use creation to speak to me. Often, prayer is all of the above and more.
Over the years, I have come to realise the futility of trying to define what prayer is. After all, if prayer is the bedrock of my relationship with God the Almighty – who is infinite and eternal, how can it possibly be confined or limited to a simple, human definition? Yet, the task often falls to us mere humans to try our best to say something about our relationship with the Divine, and so it goes. Thus, if I must, I would describe prayer as journey – a journey of discovery.
Some of you may have recognised the allusions to The Hobbit by J.R.R Tolkien in the title of this article. I am a great fan of Tolkien, and The Hobbit was my introduction to the writing of this master storyteller. The Hobbit told the story of one Bilbo Baggins, the titular protagonist of the story (which, if you still have not read, shame on you). A not particularly adventurous hobbit with a streak of wanderlust, Bilbo proved to be quite the anti-hero. He was never particularly brave, yet possessed a courage that belied his size. Quick-thinking but not particularly wise, generally just but not always morally upright, prone to turn his back on his comrades but ultimately loyal; Bilbo the hobbit was a mess of contradictions – in other words, he was very similar to the average person. Somewhat reluctantly yet also with a tinge of excitement, he set out on a journey from the comforts of his home that would forever change his life, and indeed, the fate of the world. Eventually, through many adventures, he would return to Bag End (his home) a changed hobbit, but essentially, the same Bilbo Baggins.
One could view Bilbo’s journey as a journey of growth and self-discovery. By leaving Bag End, he discovered the adventurous side of himself that he always suspected he had. In rescuing the dwarves from the spiders, he demonstrated both his loyalty and his courage, surprising even himself. When tensions rose between the dwarves, the elves and the men from Laketown, Bilbo stole the Arkenstone to prevent war and to urge for peace. In doing so, he revealed to himself his own moral compass of right and wrong, his sense of justice. In refusing to be rewarded for his contributions to the quest, he showed his selflessness. And finally, at the end of the story, there was something beautiful and fitting about Bilbo returning home to his little insignificant and unassuming part of the world, a spot of tranquillity and rest, despite so many changes having taken place.
I saw many similarities in the growth of my own spiritual life and Bilbo’s journey. It began with the habit of sitting quietly before the Lord, either in the Chapel or in the Adoration Room, coupled with the regular, structured prayers of the seminary. Before long however, I started feeling restless and distracted, bored even. And I wondered to myself, “Had my love for God waned? Did I no longer love Him as much as I used to?” The restlessness persisted and I entered a period of great spiritual dryness, of desolation. Deep within, I could sense that there had to be something more, but I did not really know how to get “there”. It was only at the encouragement of my spiritual director that I began to try other ways to pray. I started taking long walks in the evenings. Aimlessly I would set off, spontaneously I would decide whether to turn left or right, or to head straight. Often I would find myself in unfamiliar surroundings, alleyways and backstreets that I never would have discovered ordinarily, little parks that I never knew existed. Sometimes, I would find myself amidst a great human crowd, most of them rushing home or to some other destination. Always I would try to be conscious and aware of my experiences and my feelings. “Perhaps God was trying to say something to me in what I saw or felt.” And He was. Different experiences triggered different thoughts and insights. All these served to revitalise my prayer life. It helped me discover the adventurous and spontaneous side of myself that I had perhaps suppressed over the years. And then, an amazing thing happened. As I walked and walked, one day I suddenly felt an inner stirring to stop walking and to sit. To go back to the Chapel and to sit. With that stirring came a sense of peace. And so I did. I rediscovered the part of myself that also enjoyed just sitting there and waiting upon the Lord. There…and Back Again.
Today, I pray quite freely and spontaneously. Sometimes I go on walks, sometimes I just sit before the Lord. It has worked well for me so far, and more importantly, it has helped me to reconnect with parts of myself that I may have forgotten, parts of myself that God had created but that I may have neglected. In discovering about myself, I have also discovered who God is to me. But what makes the journey exciting is that I know that there is so much more to be discovered. So maybe the only advice I can give to all those who struggle with their prayer life is this: be open to try whatever method or way that might work for you, but always, try to pray.
By Br Justin Yip