“Pray as you can …”

Alison-Christian“Pray as you can, not as you can’t.” For years I misunderstood these words. I thought they were there to comfort those of us who felt inadequate in our fumbling practice of prayer. I heard them as saying, “You can pray when you like, where you like, in any style you like, as long as it works for you.” And of course in one way this is exactly what these words mean. They are saying there is no one way of praying. Don’t let anyone be prescriptive and tell you the way you pray is wrong.

What I did not hear for years in this phrase was the words, “Pray as you can…” or rather I didn’t take them seriously. Then one day I read something and I realised I had been praying really naturally for years. It was just that it was so natural to who I am, so instinctive so to speak, that I hadn’t realised it. What was more was that I realised it was a recognisable school of prayer. I hadn’t made something up. I was praying as thousands of other people have prayed for centuries. I was praying even like people in the bible, but I hadn’t known it.

What we are comfortable with in prayer is closely akin to who we are; our personality types. Some people are naturally spontaneous in prayer; some people like to meditate deeply on scripture; some like a wordless, contemplative style of prayer and others strive to create a deep intimate relationship with God. It is great fun to experiment over the years with different styles of prayer and I believe a healthy diet in prayer includes more than one style because each school of prayer offers a different way of approaching God using different parts of who we are. So in one style of praying we can find ourselves using our imagination. In another we question the biblical text. In another we use our senses more (smell, touch, taste, feel, hearing) and in yet another do nothing (seemingly) but sit quietly and silently waiting on God. But if we come across a style of prayer and it doesn’t work for us we shouldn’t think there is something wrong with us or that we are doing it wrong. It just will never be our preferred way of praying.

But there is one valuable point that we should take on board, whatever our preferred method of prayer is, and that is that some of our less preferred ways of praying do us a great deal of good. “Pray as you can, not as you can’t,” is a great starting point but it doesn’t take on board that we have undeveloped sides of ourselves that have great potential. Stretching those undeveloped muscles by praying in a different way, can really help build up my spiritual life, make me more disciplined and spiritually mature and challenge me to think and act differently. Pray as you can, yes – but sometimes pray as you think you can’t and see what happens.