The most common question I’m asked as a Jesuit (besides “What’s a Jesuit?”) is: Can you teach me how to pray? While many people have less time for organized religion, they are more hungry for contact with God. Plus, whether they’re religious, spiritual but not religious, or spiritual and religious, most people tend to think that they don’t pray “right.” People sometimes think that everyone else has a lock on prayer. All everyone else does, they think, is close their eyes and they’re instantly flooded with a sense of God’s presence. They’re the only ones who struggle.
I’m here to tell you that kind of thinking is—to use some theological language—baloney. Everyone—from the pope on down, or from the pope on up—struggles with prayer. Prayer can seem dry at times, fruitless at others, boring at many junctures. So what’s a believer to do?
Begin with remembering that no prayer is better than any other. You like to pray rote prayers like the Lord’s Prayer (aka the Our Father) or the Hail Mary, and feel close to God doing that? Great. Enjoy reading Scripture and imagining yourself in your favorite scenes from the Gospel? (That’s called Ignatian contemplation.) Fine too. Like to pray and simply imagine yourself worldlessly, and without images, in the presence of God? (That’s centering prayer.) Terrific. You feel closest to God in worship services surrounded by other believers? Also terrific.
Prayer is the conversation that happens in the context of a relationship with God. It’s intentional one-on-one time, and, just as in a relationship, there isn’t a “best” way to connect. Is a dinner out better than going to a ball game, when it comes to being with a friend? There’s no “best” way to pray. Whatever works for you, whatever helps you best relate to God, is best.
But even though people want more of a connection with God, they have less time. Plus, with fewer people connected to organized religion, growing numbers of believers don’t feel they have as many resources to help them in their spiritual quests.
For example, up until the 1980s, many Catholic parishes sponsored regular weekend retreats for women and for men. Of course some parishes still do, but the droves of (especially) men who used to fill up the rooms in retreat houses have dwindled. Also, with fewer priests and sisters around, many people feel that they have fewer people with whom they can discuss their spiritual lives. That doesn’t mean that you can’t talk to a trained lay spiritual director—they are among our most talented spiritual guides--it’s that fewer priests and sisters, as well as the closing of parishes and retreat houses, mean fewer resources for spiritual guidance in general. Less time, fewer priests and sisters, shuttered retreat houses and parishes closings have meant a sea change in the way that many people can find out more about prayer.
So churches have to be creative. These days, at least in the Catholic world, parishes offer day-long retreats, evening classes on spirituality, and even online tutorials on how to pray. Some people turn their noses up at the newer offerings. Learning about prayer from a YouTube video? Doing an online meditation? But nothing should be beneath us when it comes to bringing people to God. Like Jesus of Nazareth, we need to go where people are, anticipate their needs, and speak to them in ways they can understand.
So I was happy when last year my publisher agreed to try something innovative. We’re calling it an “e-retreat.” A retreat, as you may know, is an extended period of time with God in prayer. Most often they are conducted at “retreat houses,” large buildings in sylvan settings. But an increasing number are being closed these days—the Jesuits in the New York area just closed two of them--since people find it tough to find time to, as Jesus said, “withdraw” from the trials of daily life to find time to pray. But while the demand for retreat houses may be on the wane, the demand for God is on the rise. It’s a good time, then, to find new ways of helping people pray.
After much conversation, the “e-retreat” turned into an introduction to prayer, and an invitation to do a retreat, using the technology of the e-reader. Things have moved fast technology-wise (which is a crashing understatement), so the e-retreat (called Together on Retreat) was able to combine a variety of new media to replicate the experience of an actual retreat.
There is text of course, which teaches the reader (or retreatant) about ways to pray, offers three passages from the New Testament focusing on Jesus’s ministry by the Sea of Galilee, with a brief reflection (just like you would get on a retreat), and includes photos of the Holy Land and (here’s the new technology part) even incorporates videos—questions and answers about prayer, and videos of the Sea of Galilee to help you imagine yourself there. And as on a retreat, there are reflection questions to help you process your prayer. The only thing missing is someone sitting in a room with you helping you unpack your experiences in prayer—but I try to anticipate the most common questions about prayer in those embedded videos.
One challenge that publishers doesn’t face with a print book was the challenge of designing it for the surfeit of e-readers available. In the end, we decided on an enhanced version for e-readers that could support videos (iPads, Android phones, etc) and a basic version with text and photos, for simpler e-readers (Kindles, Nooks, etc.)
So far people have been incredibly positive about it—especially those who (a) couldn’t imagine going on a retreat; (b) couldn’t imagine learning how to pray; and (c) people who could imagine both things but couldn’t afford either the time or money for a retreat.
The experience of creating an e-retreat was a good reminder that no medium whatsoever should be beneath us when it comes to bringing people to God. It wasn’t beneath Jesus of Nazareth to use the simple medium of the parable to explain what God was like, even if it meant talking about simple stuff like seeds and trees and plants and bushes and birds and clouds, and everyday events like a woman sweeping her home, a man plowing a field or a generous father welcoming home his wayward done.
Anything within our grasp can bring people to God—whether it’s a peapod or an iPod.