I have come across a number of people during my retreats and seminars on prayer, who in spite of their sincere efforts are not able to pray. They seem to have come to the dead end in their prayer life and say, “I cannot pray”. Here I have suggested a few concrete steps to experience prayer and pray always whenever possible. Hopefully those who read this article may obtain some respite from their problems in prayer.

On the outset we need to keep in mind that we are not isolated parts – spirit, mind, emotions, senses, body – in the manner we function; we work as an integrated unit. What affects any part of our being affects all of our being. Whether we choose to do it consciously or not, we often effect changes in different parts of our being for various purposes. The intellect, in and beyond every formulation by which it seeks to express its thought, is in search of the Absolute. The will no matter in what way it seeks fulfillment, is always an expression of the unquenchable thirst for the Divine. In every human love there is a reaching out towards the Infinite, a desire to transcend itself, to make the total surrender of self. Every attempt to deny this tendency, to confine human life to the finite and the temporal, is doomed to failure, because it is in a way fighting against nature and against the Divine within (cf. I Cor 6.19). That is why prayer, when confined only to doing something with images and fantasies, or intelligently playing with our reflections, brings no change or makes no difference in our life. Ultimately when we understand prayer as doing something we fail to pray. Prayer should be life itself.

I offer here a simple solution through various levels of prayer, to experience prayer throughout the day with our whole being without confining prayer just to the normally assigned hours or time. Here I offer a classification:

i) Active Prayer during Prayer; ii) Active Prayer outside of Formal Prayer; iii) Passive Prayer during Prayer; iv) Passive Prayer outside of Formal Prayer. This classification is not to be taken as watertight compartment, one level separate from the other. It is only a help to pray always without any limits.

Active Prayer During Prayer
This is a reference to our active role during prayer. Reciting vocal prayers, reading, making considerations, reflections, using images and imaginations, figures and forms; the various body awareness exercises for concentration and recollection, all these are various activities during prayer. Here we are actively involved and we try our best to use the time – may be singing, praising, thanking, imagining, and gazing at a statue or image with loving awareness of God. Our exterior (five senses) and interior sense faculties (fantasy, imagination, memory, intellect and will) are active at prayer. This type of prayer is the first step towards God and may last for long years. We do not say that at the later stages of prayer we need to abandon this way. Yet, when the Lord introduces us into the passive prayer this ‘active’ way should be gradually abandoned. This requires spiritual discernment and spiritual direction. At times we ourselves are not able to decide whether activity of the faculties during prayer is to be stopped. That is why a spiritual guide to judge correctly at the juncture between active and passive prayer is an absolute requirement.

Passive Prayer During Prayer
In this stage of prayer, we abandon ourselves to God and remain passive. Here no imagination or fantasy meditation is actively entertained. No function of exterior or interior faculties is predominant. We attend on God. This type of prayer is also called contemplative prayer or prayer of quiet. We do not understand nor do we attempt at understanding what actually happens in the depth of our soul during this time. We experience peace, joy, love, goodness and serenity deep within us. Such a deep experience is rarely expressed in words. God Himself operates on the soul as if He were a doctor operating on a patient who has surrendered himself. This stage of prayer occurs in the absence of grave and deliberate venial sin. We may feel that we are totally idle and do not do anything during such prayer and feel that we are wasting our precious time. St. John of the Cross, the 16th Century Carmelite mystic warns those who do not understand the real nature of this type of prayer and try to squeeze ideas and images at this point:

“It is sad to see many disturb their soul when it desires to abide in this calm and repose of interior quietude, where it is filled with God’s peace and refreshment. Desiring to make it retrace its steps and turn back from the goal in which it now reposes, they draw their soul out to more exterior activity, to considerations, which are the means. This they do, not without strong repugnance and reluctance in the soul. The soul would want to remain in that peace, which it does not understand, as in its rightful place. People suffer if, after laboring to reach their place of rest, they are forced to return to their labors. Since these individuals do not understand the mystery of this new experience, they imagine themselves to be idle and doing nothing. Thus, in their struggle with considerations and discursive meditations they disturb their quietude. They become filled with aridity and trial because of efforts to get satisfaction by means no longer apt. We can say that the more intense their efforts, the less will be their gain. The more they persist at meditation, the worse their state becomes because they drag the soul further away from spiritual peace. They resemble one who abandons the greater for the lesser, turns back on a road already covered and wants to re do what is already done. The advice proper for these individuals is that they must learn to abide in that quietude with a loving attentiveness to God and pay no heed to the imagination and its work. At this stage, as was said, the faculties are at rest and do not work actively but passively, by receiving what God is effecting in them. If at times the soul puts the faculties to work, excessive efforts or studied reasoning should not be used, but it should proceed with gentleness of love, moved more by God than by its own abilities”(St. John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel II,12,vii-viii. Italics ours).

Long period of time passes without our knowledge and awareness of what has been happening during this prayer. Such a prayer is really energizing. Consequently without our knowledge we know how to enjoy life with God. This experience strengthens us to accept any situation and condition without panic and resistance. After such prayer spontaneity is experienced and serenity is felt in our life.

Active Prayer Outside Of Formal Prayer
Actively finding God in all things is nothing but praying. Psalmists in the OT generously found God everywhere (cf. Ps 8; 19; 46). This consists in elevating our senses, heart and mind to God in all our activities and experiences. ‘Active prayer outside of formal prayer’ is the education of our senses and faculties to find God’s presence everywhere. We need to educate the external sense experiences: sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell and elevate them to God. In everything we do, we can find that mysterious and loving presence of God hidden in the immediate objects of the senses. God is everywhere and we need to look for Him. Look, but really look, as if for the first time at the face of a friend or foe, a leaf, a tree, a bird, a stone, the behaviour and mannerism of the people around you. Really see them and hopefully you will see them as they are, not as you had been seeing with your mind clouded with prejudices and judgements. This attitude becomes a spontaneous and effective prayer. The remembrance of God in all our daily activities itself is a kind of prayer that elevates us in our life. Whatever we do, we do for God and raise our whole being to Him at every moment of our life (cf. I Cor 10.31). This type of prayer happens when we are aware of the mysterious loving presence of God around us. We live in communion with Him throughout.

Passive Prayer Outside Of Formal Prayer
God’s purgative work need not be limited only to prayer. The Saints and mystics often speak of ‘passive purification of the senses and of the spirit’ during prayer. But the reality is that when prayer becomes life and life becomes prayer, the purgative activity of God can extend also to our daily life and activities. It could happen when we really do not have interest in any thing we do, when we feel over all lethargic, when no interest, no enthusiasm is experienced. Can we attribute this state to passive experience of prayer outside of formal prayer? In fact quite often it could be God who purifies us in such a way that we do not enjoy the thing we do. Purification is elevation of our hearts to God even when we do not enjoy doing a particular work. Doing a work with satisfaction is normal and perhaps even enjoyable. When nothing happens and we are in deep crisis regarding what we do, it signals God’s purifying process in our soul. On such occasions we need to see God’s hand in faith. We need conviction that God is leading us towards a direction where we do not like to go. This is what we call spiritual darkness and emptiness. This darkness and emptiness is the result of God’s closeness and nearness. If we are “aware” of this state it will be of immense help to our spirit. We can train ourselves to be just there without great expectation of satisfaction and fulfillment. We accept even this “not enjoyable” or “not satisfying” state as coming from God. This attitude spontaneously becomes a prayer uttered in total faith. And on other painful and difficult situations we can see the hand of God purifying us. Jesus himself experienced this type when he cried to God “My Lord, My Lord why have you forsaken me?” yet he abandoned himself into the hands of the Father “Into your hands Lord I commend my spirit”.

The Deepest Centre
The centre of our life is God. “Though God be everywhere present, yet he is only present to thee in the deepest and inmost central part of thy soul. The natural senses cannot possess God or unite thee to him: nay, thy inward faculties of understanding, will and memory can only reach after God, but cannot be the place of his habitation in thee. But there is a root or depth in thee, from whence all the faculties come forth, as lines from a centre or branches from the body of the tree. This depth is the unity, the eternity, I had almost said the infinity of thy soul: for it is so infinite that nothing can satisfy it or give it any rest but the infinity of God” . To reach this centre we need strength from God. God is love and the strength to reach this centre is also love. The journey to God is initiated and ended through love. Every moment we live in prayer is a moment of conversion to God. At every level of conversion we are in union with God in prayer. The deeper our journey in passivity and darkness of understanding, the more penetrating will be our rapport with ourselves. Thus, we become more and more authentic in our life and prayer. In this progressively interior journey to our own centre, we become focussed away from ourselves and directed towards God. St. John of the Cross writes:

“The soul’s centre is God. When it has reached God with all the capacity of its being and the strength of its operation and inclination, it will have attained to its final and deepest centre in God, it will know, love and enjoy God with all its might. When it has not reached this point (as happens in this mortal life, in which the soul cannot reach God with all its strength, even though in its centre – which is God and His communion with it), it still has movement and strength for advancing further and is not satisfied. Although it is in its centre, it is not yet in its deepest centre, for it can go deeper in God” (St. John of the Cross, Living Flame of Love 1,xi).

It is only through the perfection of love that we are able to advance in prayer. Communion with God should be a combination of ‘life and prayer’. When prayer is an isolated activity from life, it does not effectively pronounce a relationship with God. When love is lacking, however great may be the satisfaction or fulfilment in our prayer, it cannot in anyway establish a mature relationship with God. Both life and prayer must be saturated with love. Love is the tonic for both life and prayer. That is why we generally refer to relationship with God as ‘prayer life’.

Ultimately prayer is allowing God to lead us, carry us and direct us. The sole guiding principle in this journey of prayer is “Love”. Love permits us to find God as a concrete reality in our daily life. When we allow love to dominate us, we are merely there to witness its various effects (cf. I Cor 13). For all our sicknesses ‘love’ is the cure. Prayer in fact purifies our lower quality of love and allows higher love to gain prominence in our life. When we really pray and allow God to lead us in faith we not only love but we become “love” as God Himself is (I Jn 4.16). In this connection St. John of the Cross gives us a very concrete reminder as to how we need to train ourselves for prayer life:

“I should like to persuade spiritual persons that the road leading to God does not entail a multiplicity of considerations, methods, manners, and experiences – though in their own way these may be a requirement for beginners – but demands only the one thing necessary: true self denial, exterior and interior, through surrender of self both to suffering for Christ and to annihilation in all things. In the exercise of this self denial everything else, and even more, is discovered and accomplished. If one fails in this exercise, the root and sum total of all the virtues, the other methods would amount to no more than going about in circles without getting anywhere, even were one to enjoy considerations and communications as lofty as those of the angels” (St. John of the Cross, The Ascent of Mount Carmel II,7,viii; italics ours).

This reminder helps us to grasp the centrality of prayer – seeking God, who is love and the fulfillment of all our longing. This seeking can be a reality not through methods and considerations, but through concrete acts of love. When love becomes concrete we allow others to increase and we decrease. This is possible only through self-denial and surrender.

Prayer is a march towards union with God. Union is the eternal thirst for the absolute, transcendent state, the one Reality, the eternal Truth, which cannot be expressed, cannot be conceived but can be experienced through God’s own help in the depth of our being. God-experience is the ultimate aim of every human activity. God-experience is the goal not only of all religions, but of all human existence – whether we like it or not, all of us are continually attracted by this transcendent Truth. That is why we spontaneously desire to be alone in prayer not understanding what exactly is the reason for the depth of our longing. It is an inexpressible yearning.

We should never abandon the set hours of prayer, neither should we confine prayer only to those fixed hours. Everything we do should be prayer or an outcome of prayer. It ought to be a silent march towards the unfathomable mystery of God. This march is confirmed through the quality of our life. God is love (I Jn 4.16) and this love is discerned in and through prayer. Love of God is manifested and perfected in our love towards our neighbour (cf. I Jn 4.19-21) through concrete acts of charity. That is why Jesus said to his disciples: “If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in His love. This, then, is what I command you: love one another” (Jn 15.10&17).

We know that prayer has the power to move God. This does not necessarily mean that our prayer has changed God’s eternal and unchangeable will. We ourselves are changed through our prayer; God is not. Our changing is an indication that we have prayed well and we are on the sure road to growth in spiritual life. Therefore, prayer is so vital that if neglected it is certain to cause great damage to progress in our spiritual life. St. Paul writes to the Ephesians: “So stand ready, with truth as a belt tight round your waist, with righteousness as your breastplate, as your shoes the readiness to announce the Good News of peace. At all times carry faith as a shield; for with it you will be able to put out all the burning arrows shot by the Evil One. And accept salvation as a helmet, and the word of God as the sword that the Spirit gives you. Do all this in prayer, asking for God’s help. Pray on every occasion, as the Spirit leads”(Eph 6.14-18).

Prayer is not just saying something, or reflecting on some passage, or using a method or technique eastern or western or imagining things and persons. When prayer becomes life and life prayer, we begin to understand prayer. Then perhaps we shall never repeat the statement “I cannot pray”. We can pray through our senses, through our body, through our spirit; we can pray through creation, through the various events of life and through our very life. Prayer ought to be an integrative experience as it was in the life of Jesus. For Jesus everything that happened around him was prayer.

Finally what we need to understand is, the less we pray the less are we likely to live the risky, challenging life that the Gospels urge us to; the less of a challenge there is in our life, the less are we likely to pray.