Look for attention in prayer

 not intention priest counsels

HONG KONG (SE): “Prayer is about attention, not intention,” Father Laurence Freeman said during a three-day visit to Hong Kong from September 12 to 14. Speaking at retreat days in St. Jude’s in North Point, St. John’s Anglican Cathedral and the University of Hong Kong, the English Benedictine priest said that Jesus was a great one for asking questions. “However, he seldom answered them,” he noted.
He pointed out that when Jesus was asked where he was staying, he simply answered, “Come and see.” He also asked his followers, “What are you looking for?” Father Freeman said, “That question reminds us of our fragilities, it is a challenge to look at the priorities in our lives. This is where we need to pay attention to Jesus.”
Father Freeman said that we need to pay attention to the questions that Jesus asks. “And the attention is extremely important,” he added, “as Jesus describes prayer as attention, not intention. It is an invitation to come and see.” He said that much of our prayer tends to be bargaining with God, trying to get him to change his mind on something. “Some people,” he said, “aim at changing God’s mind, asking him to intervene in human affairs and change some relationship with God. They try to get God’s attention or bargain with him, but in fact, God knows our real needs before they are put into words.”
In describing the importance of prayer, Father Freeman noted, “The way we pray is the way we live.” He used the image of a wheel to describe what he called centreing prayer, where the spokes are the many ways that we approach God, but the hub, or the centre, is the part which remains silent and still. “That is where we find the connection in our stillness to the centre of our lives.”
However, he also noted that the wheel will never move if does not touch the ground. In the same way our prayer must also touch the ground. “Prayer should be grounded in our daily life, the daily experience of ourselves.” However, he noted that because, as St. Paul says, “we do not know how to pray, we must allow the Spirit to pray within us.”
Father Freeman said that prayer must always be directed towards the centre. “As St. Paul said, ‘I live no longer, but Christ lives in me.’ And so we can say, ‘I pray no longer, but Christ prays in me’.”
He said that what he calls centreing prayer is born out of a lay spirituality, as it was conceptualised by a lay person, John Main.
Father Freeman harked back to his school days at a Benedictine college in England. “We had just broken one religion teacher,” he related, “and we got a tall, confident, at ease, natural man with a strong sense of humour, called Brother John, and we knew he was in charge.”
However, the wheel of life does go round, as Father Freeman described how he met him again in his second year at university.
Main was born in London in 1926, to Irish parents in Canterbury. Jesuit educated, he joined the Benedictines as a student for priesthood after World War II, but left to study law at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.
As a lawyer, he joined the British Diplomatic Service in the 1950s, and was stationed in what was then known as Malaya, which was in a state of turmoil and civil war. “One day, he went to visit an Indian monk in Kuala Lumpur on official business. Immediately, he understood he was in the presence of a special man of profound integrity. They talked about prayer.”
Father Freeman said that Main told the monk how he prayed, reflection, asking for forgiveness, making intercessions and, his daily Mass.
However, the monk then shared, “When I pray, I allow it to sink into the silence of the heart. We do this with the spirit, the creator of the universe, who dwells in the human heart in silence and is loving to all.”
The Indian monk advised him, “Just take a sacred word, a mantra, and repeat it continuously, letting go of thoughts and images. Main was fascinated.” Father Freeman added, “The use of repeated words is common in prayer. We should use them in our life journey so that we can interact with the journeys of Christ.”
Father Freeman told the members of his audience that their presence at his talk shows that prayer is important to them. He reminded them, “Prayer is like the wind. We think we are on our way, at a turning point or on the point of a great discovery. But by thinking that we know the way we are following, it can just as easily turn in an instant, becoming totally unpredictable.”
He also encouraged people not to get discouraged. He described how being busy, getting sick or distracted can easily leave prayer as the first casualty. “But remember that meditation did touch you,” he counselled, “we can connect again.”
He added that, strangely, meditation is a way of losing control. Contrasting it to the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, where people are encouraged to relate to God to recover from or heal anger, addiction and things like that just to get control of ourselves, he noted that at the same time, people are trying to touch the presence of God, not sharpen their ideas about God.
“In meditation, we learn to lose control, letting go of the control of the possession of the ego. The challenge is simple, but not easy. We have to put the teachings of Jesus into practice, we have to lose ourselves, then find life,” he went on.
He explained that often we try to deal with crisis by working to control things, but this usually does not work. “We feel helpless,” he said, “and if we do not deal with it we will breakdown. In meditation we can begin to see a new wisdom, a new way of looking at things and a new knowledge emerges.”
He described this as being the point where we begin to pay attention and “attention is itself a freedom,” he concluded.

Father Laurence Freeman, front row, centre, with retreat day participants at the University of Hong Kong.