Alongside the communal prayer of the Office, the English Benedictine tradition also stresses the importance of personal prayer.
The whole organisation of the monastic schedule is to create the time, space and silence that is vital to grow in the life of prayer. Pope St John Paul II writes:
“the call to holiness can be cultivated only in the silence of adoration before the infinite transcendence of God. We all have the need of this silence, filled with the presence of him who is adored. All need to learn a silence that allows the Other to speak when and how He wishes.”
Orientale Lumen 16
Prayer is our relationship with God. But before we can become truly aware of God, we need to become self-aware. All relationships demand a sharing of ourselves, and without knowing ourselves, we can only share superficially.
When we spend time alone in personal, silent prayer, we inevitably become more self-aware, better at relating with others, and more able to listen to the prompting of the Spirit.
Where does our personal prayer tradition come from?
Our personal prayer tradition mainly comes from the English mystics like the author of The Cloud of Unknowing and from Dom Augustine Baker (1575-1641), a Welsh monk of our congregation whose teachings have been transmitted in the book “Sancta Sophia” (Holy Wisdom).
The author of The Cloud of Unknowing speaks of prayer as a moment of love – we cannot know God with the mind, but we can reach him with the heart and the will. It’s a matter of setting ourselves in His presence, often with no words at all. Each monk at Worth spends at least half an hour a day in personal prayer. This is a very special time with God, and there can be no uniform guidelines. As Abbot John Chapman, the founder of our monastery, wrote: “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.”
Focusing our attention on God
If we are finding it difficult to still our minds and focus on God’s presence then we can link a simple prayer to our natural rhythm of breathing in and out. The author of The Cloud recommends a single syllable word such as ‘God’ or ‘Love’. However, many people will find a longer invocation more suitable such as a phrase from the psalms: “Be still and know that I am God”, or “God, come to my aid; O, Lord, make haste to help me”.
As we give our attention to God, it is not easy to know that God is giving His attention to us. But we don’t need to get concerned about this. We can simply keep faithful to our desire to open ourselves to God and keep our attention on Him, knowing that God wants to relate to us. God is already holding us in His hands and gazing on us with love. The Benedictine monk, Cardinal Basil Hume once said that we do not get better at prayer with time, but our desire to pray gets stronger.
God is calling each of us to develop a unique and personal relationship, to become His friend. Having become more aware that we live in His presence, we can be more truly ourselves before Him – with all our hopes and fears, joys and sorrows.