I grew up thinking spontaneous verbal prayer was the only one way to pray because of the Christian tradition my family comes from. I struggle with spontaneous verbal prayer because of my communication difficulties so I’ve always found prayer challenging.
When I was in my 20s I went on a retreat prior to baptism. It was run by two semi-retired Anglican ministers in a beautiful village in North Wales. They introduced me to different ways to pray including methods that involve the senses and allow silence. I immediately liked them, but didn’t learn them well enough to be able to use by myself. Later I began to see different ways to pray at the Baptist church I joined in Wales. Evening services often had prayer activities that utilised various creative methods. I enjoyed these, but again I didn’t learn them well enough to use on my own. I find it hard to generalise new information to different situations. So, doing something in the context of a service is completely different from using the same method at home on my own. I didn’t know how to choose a method, when they were appropriate to use, or how to fit them into my day. I found it very confusing so stuck with what was familiar.
Thankfully this has all changed. The first significant thing was being diagnosed with austism spectrum disorder. I learned that there was a reason why communication so often goes horribly wrong. And I realised that other people don’t find talking and communication so hard. The second significant thing is that when I returned to belief in God, I didn’t just jump back in where I was before. Once I was sure Christianity is true, I started over from the beginning learning about different traditions. This helped me see the wide variety of ways people pray and worship, and that no one way is necessarily better than the others. I also realised that prayer is the foundation of relationship with God; it is communication but it doesn’t require words. I had a chance meeting with someone on a train who told me about Christian meditative prayer. He explained enough for it to make more sense, and to be clearer how to use it than I’d previously been able to understand. I decided to just do it and stop worrying about doing it “right”. From that day, I’ve been allowing more and more silence in prayer. I no longer think I need to use words all the time because I realise prayer is communication that doesn’t rely on my ability. The form or method of prayer is more for our benefit than God’s, because He understands perfectly and knows all our intentions. This realisation gave me permission to start evaluating how and why I do things and looking for ways that work better for me.
I often find using words is like praying in a foreign language. It creates a barrier between me and God because translating thoughts into words and trying to tell if I’m expressing myself clearly forces me to focus on myself instead of Him. I’ve begun using pre-written prayers that express what I feel or mean, this helps because someone else has done the hard work. I sometimes use physical or gestural methods, I like ways that engage the senses such as sight and touch. Most of all I like silence. This new approach has led to a deepening relationship with God that is unimpaired by autism.
It isn’t as easy as that of course. I often slip back into habitual old verbal methods that don’t work for me, and I get tied up in an anxious knot trying to express something important and knowing I’m not managing to say what matters. When that happens it’s easy to feel cut off from God. In reality I’ve got caught up in myself and have stopped looking to Him. I’m trying to rely on myself instead of trusting Him and remembering that He is a loving Father who delights in His children. Learning to trust God is probably the biggest lesson I’m learning through changing the way I pray; slowly learning to rely on Him instead of myself even in communication.
I am going to spend some time looking at prayer in a series of posts. I want to explore more of what it is and why it’s essential, ways to do it, why it can be so hard, what listening in prayer means, and look at ways my autism impacts the way I pray. Please leave a comment if there is an aspect of prayer you’d be interested in reading about.
This is part one of an eight part series on prayer.