I had the blessing to spend this past Thursday evening with the Young Adult Ministry of Lake County, which met at St. Mary’s parish in Lake Forest. I had been invited to speak about prayer, and at the end of the event, I offered to post some of my notes here for those who would like to follow up on further reading. I should mention that I found the questions from the participants most helpful and illuminating, and that the entire evening was edifying and encouraging.
Before I list the books that I mentioned there, I should give a short explanation about what I said to the group.
Prayer is natural. Human beings were created by God to know Him and have a relationship with Him. This is the most important fact to know about prayer. We don’t have to scramble to find God or to try to get His attention. If we are moved to pray, the Holy Spirit has already been active in us, and we are doing what our natures are made for.
Therefore, if we wish to pray well, we should set about discovering what it is about our lives that inhibits this natural activity. Walking is also a natural activity of human beings, but it is something that we learn to do (mainly by watching other people and then by trial and error). It is also the case that injuries and disabilities can hamper our capacity for walking. When this happens, we do rehab.
We live in a world where prayer is not highly valued. This means that many of our base-line behaviors are hostile to this capax orationis. This is not something new, however, and this is why my favorite recommendation for learning to pray is Evagrius Ponticus, who died in 399 A.D. He is a master of identifying the ways in which we inhibit our own ability to pray, and a great pedagogue for learning how to be healed of this malady.
The final note for today: prayer is an activity primarily of the mind. Therefore much of what is helpful for prayer involves a kind of hygiene for the mind, a scouring out of harmful patterns of thought, and the introduction of good habits of thinking. That said, our minds are connected to bodies, and so what we do with our bodies has consequences for prayer. The shorthand idea here is this: we will pray well when we uproot the vices from our bodies and minds and plant the virtues. I will have more to say on this at a later time.
Here are my recommendations:
The Praktikos and Chapters on Prayer, translated and with an (excellent) introduction by John Eudes Bamberger
The Ad Monachos, translated by Abbot Jeremy Driscoll–also with fantastic notes
Talking Back (The Antirrhetikos), translated by David Brakke
Evagrius Ponticus by A.M. Casiday (contains several treatises)
by St. John Cassian: The Conferences (especially Conferences nine and ten, which can be found online here.)
by Sister Mary Margaret Funk: Thoughts Matter
Father Thomas Keating: Invitation to Love
God’s blessings to you!