Tag Archives: prayer

Good Vibrations

Recently, I had a conversation with a Catholic writer on spirituality. In one of her works she had referred to living plants ‘pulsing with silent, invisible energy’ and sensing God’s presence which caused an atmosphere to become charged with ‘vibrations of love’.

This sort of language generally unsettles me. Vibrations are the language of Eastern and New Age spirituality, not the Catholic tradition. And yet… I have learned in my journey as an Aspie that when I come across language that makes no intuitive sense to me, it is often a sign of how my lived experience of the world differs from that of the more typical majority. So rather than write her off as a clear case of someone straying outside the Catholic fold, I asked if she could describe these ‘vibrations’ in a way that could make sense to a person who had never personally experienced them. Even if what she has experienced might not be a ‘majority’ experience, it could still be valid.

She struggled to find the right words, and we went round in circles for a time. Then I asked if it was something like what happens when you put your hand on a refrigerator and feel it humming because the motor is running. She was happy with this analogy.

This got me thinking. Not only have I never experienced ‘vibrations’ in a spiritual context, but also, I seldom sense an ‘atmosphere’ when I walk into a room. Celtic writers might talk of praying in a ‘thin place’ but I wouldn’t know one if I fell through it. Yet many people use this language often enough that it seems to be meaningful to most listeners. Could it be that something akin to synaesthesia is taking place?

The human brain is capable of ceaseless wonders. There are many documented cases where the parts of the brain which deal with two different senses seem to be cross-wired, resulting in written words having characteristic colours or particular sounds translating as tactile experiences. Could it also be the case that the part of the brain which interprets emotions could be cross-wired with the part responsible for hearing or touch? Could a brain which, unlike mine, can take in and process a thousand micro-expressions to analyse a room of human beings, synthesise its findings in the form of an audible or tactile hum, which would then be perceived as a vibration? Might a similar mechanism account for those people who claim to be able detect the ‘aura’ or ‘bioenergy’ of another person? Indeed, I note that the Wikipedia article on Synaesthesia tantalisingly lists a rare form of synaesthesia as: personality-color (occasionally referred to as “auras”) – but without further expansion or reference.

I cannot rule out, of course, that the reason Eastern religions speak of a spiritual energy variously called chi, qi, ki or prana, is because such an energy genuinely exists but is such a subtle phenomenon that science has not yet been able to detect it – no scientist can ever definitively proclaim proof of non-existence except in tightly defined conditions. It is of course possible for an objective phenomenon to exist, but for some humans to be incapable of sensing it – such as color-blindness or ineed Aspie ‘mindblindness’ to emotional signals. I lean towards the idea that this energy is a cultural construct with no underlying phenomenon. But the ‘synaesthesia’ hypothesis raises an intriguing third possibility.

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Laying on of Hands

Ever since I started this Blog, I’ve had an open invitation for others to contribute guest pieces. This is the first I’ve received. – AspiePriest

 By: A. Wolf – Guest Poster

Every so often, our church offers a Healing Service. Last Monday night was one such occasion.

Throughout the service, in the back of my mind, I was wondering what I could pray for when my turn came to go forwards. Whether I could think of anything that would be worthy of asking for. I finally settled on something only moments before I would have to choose whether to go up, or sit this one out: Greater peace with what I believe, and greater harmony and unity with others.

I was surprised to find that my voice was ragged with emotion when I came to offer such prayer guidelines to the visiting priest. I had no discernible reason to feel tension. I’ve always felt comfortable around this particular priest, felt indirect-recognition and great admiration for how his mind works, as evidenced by his style of preaching in weekdays services and the one occasion I have heard him lead a Churches Together service. I’ve received such personalised prayer from him in a previous service, though he was not first to speak before. I already knew, for example, that he favours laying his hand upon the head of the supplicant, slightly towards the back. Except in the case of ministering to a fellow priest, when he opts to lay his hand upon the shoulder.

Such details of who places their hands where when invited to pray for others, flags itself as significant in my mind. When I first received such a service, offered by a visiting priest at the altar rail, he laid his hand gently, but squarely on my head, and prayed simply and sincerely that God would grant me my dearest wish. The sense of potency I felt in such an act made me wish to participate in any future services of the same kind. They have not all gone so smoothly. When I first received such prayer, flanked by two priests, it felt very alien and overwhelming to have the weight of their hands upon me and have them standing so close, attending to my introductory words so closely. In one case, led by a priest-in-training, I flinched at the opening words and ended up feeling worse afterwards than when I arrived.

But never have I doubted the potency of the act, for good if I can align myself to it, or for ill if I find myself fighting it.

I remember only his opening words, for they startled me. ‘Lord, _ seems to know you well,’. The rest blurred into a background haze, and I remember only that they were good words, meaningful at the time. As were the tears silently streaming down my face which I deliberately stopped myself from questioning. Some things are better to simply surrender to the experience of, rather than to mar with analysis. I knew I was letting go of something that was weighing me down, holding me back. That was enough.

In hindsight it was enough to hold in my mind, that a priest thought well enough of my beliefs that he would voice such an opinion. In his opening sentence, he had granted me everything I had asked for; greater peace with my own beliefs, through harmony with his own beliefs and unity with him in that fleeting moment. For myself, the lag time between receiving that gift and realising what I could say to him personally, in gratitude for his words to me and for turning-out on such a cold night to provide this service for us, was such that I could only offer such sentiments to God’s keeping, for I was halfway home by then. And only upon waking the next morning, did I recognise the greater significance of that.

If there is one indicator which I have discovered that unites autistics of all abilities in my limited experience, it is that they will all speak of lack of tactile affection in their early childhood. I freely admit that my pool of direct experience is too small to claim this as a determining factor, but it is suggestive. In two cases related to me by another Aspie, an Aspie of his acquaintance claimed that his was not ‘a huggy family’, yet their siblings stated the opposite. In my own case, my mother related to me that when I was young, I would scream if she tried to brush my hair. Because of this and other factors, she learnt not to intrude into my personal space. I only remember that it HURT when she pulled my hair, trying to untangle it. None of the succession of dogs my family owned were fond of being groomed by her, whereas I learnt to be very gentle with tangles in their coats, and they would sit still much longer for me. One Aspie of a much older generation, relates how frustrated his mother became when beating him had no effect, for he would just tune-out the pain. He developed into an individual who will ignore a scrap happening a yard from him as irrelevant; I by contrast, tense-up at any aggressive tone within earshot, and I still remember the fear I experienced at being smacked merely once in my childhood. In our response to social lack-of-affection, we have developed in parallel to neurotypical individuals of similar formative experiences.

One of the most counter-intuitive things I have ever read on mammalian psychology concerns the development of puppies. It is better that they are handled a lot in their very-early development, despite their protests. They are much calmer under social stress as adults, if they are exposed to high levels of tactile contact while their stress-threshold is yet to be determined. Perhaps this is what was lacking in our own nurture: That by not being in a puppies-in-a-basket, in an all-paws-and-tails situation, our brains did not automatically form social protocols and therefore prioritised different things to develop. I’m not saying that we were raised wrong, I’m saying we were nurtured differently. Our protests were heeded in early life, and we can find it difficult to integrate into a social community which has a different values for what to ignore and what to pay attention to, than what our early nurture taught us to expect from interaction. The opposite attitude to infant-nurture would theoretically produce an individual just as far from the mean-average.

According to modern science, there is a threshold of social cues caused by overcrowding, that causes a grasshopper to metamorphose into a locust in response to a rise in their personal serotonin levels. This shift between their intrinsic solitary and gregarious biological survival options is so dramatic, that they were once thought to be separate species. It makes sense to me, that the comparatively complex social nature of mammals allows infants pick-up on cues as to how sociable or independent they need to be to survive, in the species and local circumstances they are born into. Human society is an order of magnitude more complex, and therefore there is a lot more diversity in the development of our protocols for solitary and gregarious survival states; depending on local culture, the life experiences of our parents, and our perception of our own circumstances. To be autistic, is therefore simply to be labelled as significantly different enough from the average, as to struggle to relate to it.

Yet the human brain retains plasticity into adulthood. We can out-think the hand we were dealt and adapt, through personal choice to change and seeking the circumstances which will support that growth. With enough passion to change, someone who has never progressed beyond drawing stick-men can continue their journey to become an artist, though they may not catch-up with those who for whom drawing is their lifelong passion. The same is true of social awkwardness in Aspies. It is only lack of experience in this area that makes us so gauche. Through practise, through making mistakes and learning from them, any individual can learn anything if they are internally motivated to do so. Our lag-time in emotionally responding as a well-adjusted gregarious individual would, is likely caused by our over-prizing of our independence and difference from others. Yet we do not have to give up what makes us different, only choose to value also, what makes us the same. Being Aspies unites us, but being human unites all of us. Late development is still development, as pure and true as if we had learned it in the cradle.

Worthy Celebration

Some say that there is a special poignancy to praying the Office of Readings in the small hours of the night. I haven’t tried that often, though I did once visit a Cistercian monastery and joined the monks for 3 am prayer. Did it enhance my experience of prayer? No.

I guess for the typical human being, where praying is as much about the emotional side as the rational side, there is a daily rhythm which shapes the emotions and affects the way praying is received. That doesn’t work for me.

A monastery is the acme of liturgical prayer, a community designed to prioritise the worthy celebration of the Liturgy of the Hours, day in, day out. For the likes of us secular clergy, we don’t have the luxury of a day relatively free of apostolic work, or a community to chant the Office with us.

Cardinal Sarah has been in the news recently for his quotes on not using an electronic device to pray the Divine Office and not taking photos of the liturgy. I can see what he is getting it. What would be the most perfect way to celebrate the Sacred Liturgy? It would be to perform the prayers with serene recollection from a worthy book set apart for this function alone.

But… saints have been added to the calendar since my breviary was printed. When I prayed the office of the Korean Martyrs on 20 September, I prayed the psalms from my breviary, but found the Proper Second Reading on my iPhone. One of my altar Missals is annotated in pen to remind me to mention St Joseph in the Eucharistic Prayers. Another has the Proper of St John Paul II glued into a blank page. The most perfect way of celebrating the liturgy would be with newly updated volumes, but these do not exist; so I am forced to choose between two kinds of perfection – production quality or completeness of content.

I do recognise that there is something lacking in using an electronic device for prayer – only a few weeks ago I made a conscious decision to use my breviary book more often in preference to the electronic options available, knowing that the electronic glow does create a different “feel”. But there are also times on dark evenings when a self-illuminating tablet disrupts the atmosphere of my chapel less than the impact of putting on the electric light to read from a book. And I often switch to “flight mode” during prayer lest I am distracted by incoming messages.

There are days when I race through one or more hours of the Divine Office because I am trying to squeeze it in between pastoral duties. If I were free to choose, I wouldn’t pray that way; but once I have committed myself to the needs of my parishioners and the activities of my diocese, I do not have total freedom – I am beholden to needs and demands not of my own making. The Gospels make it clear that I honour God less by neglecting the needs of others to pray more fully, when I have an opportunity to attend to the present needs of persons in distress. This also means there is a trade-off between attending to God in the liturgy, and serving God in my neighbour. My ordination vows to pray five rounds of the Divine Office each day were made prior to me entering any pastoral context where those rounds must be accommodated to ministry not entirely under my control.

Must every liturgy aim at “maximum worthiness”? I recognise that there are “protocol occasions” when every gesture must be carefully calibrated, when we mean to communicate something to God and to the congregation present by ensuring that every hierarch processes in the proper order, every saint takes their chronological place in a litany, and each vestment belongs to a matching set. Yet a loving couple will dress in their finest for a black tie dinner while being comfortable slobbing casually in each other’s company for the exact some reason – the love between them. Are there not times when the love that flows between God and us makes it just as appropriate to pray very casually as it does to use liturgical bells and whistles?

I will also plead guilty – sorry, Cardinal Sarah – to sometimes taking photos while concelebrating on a sanctuary. I never use a flash, and I keep my camera discreetly hidden until I need to use it. I only do so at ‘low’ times in the Mass, perhaps when a new priest is receiving his vestments, not when I am meant to be speaking words of concelebration.  Why do I do so at all? Sometimes my position gives my a unique vantage point which enables me to get a shot of a key moment. That photo is intended to be used for evangelisation, promoting the work of the church – not for the satisfaction of my own personal photo album. So I do this out of love for God who commands me to share the Gospel, as well as love for my neighbour who will be enhanced by recieving it.

Cardinal Sarah argues that the purpose of the liturgy is for me to engage in an intense listening to God, demanding my undivided attention. I don’t know how that works for typical human beings, but I know that for me, as an Aspie, I don’t usually sense God speaking to me during liturgy. And on those rare moments when I believe God has inspired a thought, it’s usually about the content of some upcoming sermon or personal dilemma, which needs to be set down in writing as soon as that particular liturgy is over.

For me, going to liturgy is rather like being the paralysed man at the pool of Bethzatha – maybe someone receives a touch of God’s presence, but it’s not me. I haven’t quite been a Catholic for 38 years, but it’s coming close!

How to Pray?

How should I pray?

The disciples didn’t know how to pray – they asked Jesus to teach them, and were given the Lord’s Prayer. The Catechism acknowledges that we still don’t know how to pray, and St Augustine wrote a Letter to Proba on that subject, too.

I’ve blogged previously about what my prayer life is like. Some people clearly experience prayer as a conversation with God – even if God isn’t saying very much. In general, my prayer life is a one-sided transmission, interspersed by the very rare “oh, where did that thought come from?” which I have learned to recognise as a nudge from God.

Many people live inside noisy heads plagued with doubts about their goodness and acceptability to God. I’m sure they find it helpful to make regular “acts of faith” or declarations of who they are in Christ in order to combat this destructive noise.

But I’m not those people. This is about MY personal relationship with God, so it must be coloured by the way I connect with God.

At the same time, it must be led by the Lord so rooted in general and personal revelation.

In general, because I live out of my head without emotional distractions, I don’t need to make repeated acts of faith and “overcoming” doubts. But I do recognise that spiritual warfare is like hand-washing, a hygiene routine needed daily. Even if I could live perfectly, the acts of others would still open new spiritual wounds allowing evil spirits fresh permission to influence my life and my projects.

I have my own daily needs. There are people and projects I ought to pray for because they are under my responsibility. And of course, many people specifically ask me to pray for them.

There are many books suggesting ways to pray. American Linda Schubert’s Miracle Hour format is very popular, and English mystic Elizabeth Wang has some very simple and comforting advice on “How to pray.”

How, then, should I pray?

The Lord’s Prayer is the Lord’s teaching on how to pray so should shape all my prayer, at least as a framework. What’s below is simply a template, to remind myself of the different things I could and should do when I enter into a time of prayer. If it helps you, feel free to use it too.

  • WORSHIP – enter God’s presence and Honour Him
    • Declare truth – e.g. Creed
    • Sing
    • Tongues
  • God’s WILL – “What do you want me to do today?”
    • Renew my surrender to Jesus as Lord
    • Chat to God about what’s on my mind
    • Grace for today’s projects – ask Gifts of the Holy Spirit
    • Time to listen – read Scripture, Meditation
  • My NEEDS
    • Call on Holy Spirit
  • The NEEDS of others (be SPECIFIC)
    • Family
    • Close friends
    • Godchildren
    • Assignments
    • Prayer requests
  • REPENT of my sins
    • Speak out the breaking of spiritual bonds
  • FORGIVE others and break spiritual bonds
    • Speak out the breaking of spiritual bonds
  • PROTECTION
    • Offer up sufferings
    • Holy Michael / Guardian Angel
  • WORSHIP
    • Thanksgiving
  • ENTRUSTMENT TO MARY
  • SAINTS of the day

Pathways of Prayer

“If in my life I fail completely to heed others, solely out of a desire to be ‘devout’ and to perform my ‘religious duties’, then my relationship with God will also grow arid. It becomes merely ‘proper’, but loveless.” (Benedict XVI)

How does being an Aspie shape the ways I do, or don’t, pray?

When I was a very new Catholic, I was keen on praying the Rosary. Why? Because it was an explicit request of Our Lady of Fatima that we should do so daily (and if Medjugorje was genuine, three times a day). I don’t think I was ever particularly good at meditating while saying the Hail Marys – I have a one-track mind and it doesn’t do well at sustaining meditations while saying Hail Marys in “inner speech” (though I am quite capable of daydreaming during Hail Marys).

Now, 30 years on, I pray the rosary more as a duty than as a pleasure, and always conscious that Blessed Paul VI wrote that the rosary without meditations is like a body without a soul. Usually I just do the set prayers and use the rosary structure to make a sacrifice of time to the Lord (God, I am going to pray for 20 minutes and to stop my mind wandering, I am going to make you an offering of 20 minutes of prayers said). Less often, I will set aside the Hail Marys and spend the period just meditating on the mysteries.

Lectio Divina doesn’t come easily, either. The first time I read a passage of Scripture, I will suck it dry of the different perspectives that can be seen by an educated theologian without recourse to a Commentary. After the first pass, there is rarely more to be gained. I can read in vain waiting for one line to jump out at me. And I dread the kind of a group exercise where participants are encouraged at a certain point to ‘speak out the line which spoke to you’ – what is the point of that? If each person gave a quick summary of what the line was saying to them, that would be enriching for me. But to know that a line means something to someone without knowing what it means – that’s an exercise in prolonging the agony, especially when I have no ‘anointed’ line to throw into the mix.

The Divine Office is mostly poetry, but not the sort that rhymes or scans. I suppose a Catholic with an active ‘feeling centre’ will make an emotional journey as they pray the Office, being drawn into the highs and lows of the psalmist . But for this Aspie, they are words to be said, words to be said every month on a repeating cycle. Most fresh meanings were sucked out of them many years ago and so, like the Rosary, saying these words becomes mostly a means of dedicating a chunk of time for the worship of God.

I enjoy saying Mass. Probably the technical performance aspects appeal most – am I making the best use of the variety of options in the Missal? Am I singing the parts that should be sung? Above all, there’s the satisfaction of doing the thing Jesus told us specifically to do. Even when travelling, I find myself strongly motivated to say Mass every day, even when other forms of prayer feel tedious.

My favourite way to pray (the Office, Rosary or informally) is in a small group of two or three, where the accountability stops you getting distracted but recitation by a single voice can add emotional weight to the words spoken, without resorting to the drone needed when multiple voices are saying a Psalm or a decade of Hail Marys. I also enjoy charismatic worship, both singing worship songs which rhyme and scan, and singing in tongues (a spiritual gift God granted me more than 20 years ago).

I am well aware that there is a common pattern of lifelong development faced by people who pray, going through dark nights of the senses and of the soul, where prayer brings no consolation. For me, since about the time I was ordained, prayer has felt like sharing a house with a Dad who works nights – I know he is around but we tend not to bump into each other, he just leaves me the occasional post-it to find on the fridge door!

I don’t want to be the kind of rigid priest who performs devotions out of duty and experiences only aridity. Yet in this state of darkness the options seem to be a choice between arid prayer and no prayer at all. I’ve written already about how I prize principles over consequences,  and for that reason I will be drawn to practice forms of prayer ‘required’ by ordination promises or private revelation. Yet if I were trying to go by consequences, I am hard pressed to find a form of prayer with positive consequences right now. I wonder how prayer works for other Aspies?