Learning to Pray: Advice I Learned From Sister Ruth

COMMENTARY: If prayer is not an activity and it cannot be reduced to a ‘technique,’ then how can we understand what the essence of prayer really is?

The English Carmelite Sister Ruth Burrows has written extensively about the temptation to reduce prayer to technique.
The English Carmelite Sister Ruth Burrows has written extensively about the temptation to reduce prayer to technique. (photo: Unsplash)

Editor's Note: This story has been updated. 

In recent months, we are hearing more about the impact and potential threat of AI (Artificial Intelligence) on our society. These are the newest incarnation of fears expressed over the past century over the rise of machines and technology. 

While one might argue over the legitimacy of such technological threats, it is hard to deny the predominance of the “technological paradigm” that flows from the rapid increase of technology and mechanization in our culture.

Secular authors have written about the “technological paradigm” and the recent popes have also spoken about it. Pope Francis writes that “this paradigm exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object. This subject makes every effort to establish the scientific and experimental method, which in itself is already a technique of possession, mastery and transformation” (Laudato Si, 106). 

The issue isn’t as much with technology itself but the mindset it engenders, one that relies heavily on procedure, method and technique to gain control of created reality. 

The French philosopher Jacques Ellul wrote extensively about the problem of the reliance on technique and this technical mindset, most famously in his work translated as The Technological Society. He describes the modern propensity to pragmatically reduce everything to a technique or method as a means to achieve a certain end. It can be seen in economics, organization and administration, and with human technique applied to things such as medicine and human optimization. Techniques are applied in order to insure efficiency and the manufacturing of results. 

Over my years as a priest, especially in doing spiritual direction, I’ve seen how this “technical mindset” has influenced the spiritual life of many Catholics, especially when it comes to prayer. It has become such a part of the social imaginary that we don’t even realize how it can creep into our spiritual lives. 

We’re constantly looking for an easy, foolproof method to grow in our relationship with God. In modern parlance, we find ourselves searching for a “prayer hack” that will help us to optimize our prayer lives. We desire a method or a how-to manual, thinking that if we just follow the steps and stick to the process, we will become experts at prayer.

The English Carmelite Sister Ruth Burrows has written extensively about the temptation to reduce prayer to technique. She says:

“Most of us find it almost impossible not to think of prayer as a special activity in life: an art that can be taught or learned rather as we can learn to play a musical instrument. … We feel there are certain laws governing prayer, and techniques to be mastered, and, when we have got hold of these, we can pray.” 

Prayer here is seen as an activity — like playing golf, cooking a roast or knitting a sweater. We can learn the basic steps, master the technique and gain control over the outcome. 

We search for methods in prayer, but Sister Ruth says we also look for authorities who can teach us the art of prayer:

“Thus we look around for the guru, for the one who has mastered the art and its techniques, and eagerly look to be taught. When we take up a book or article on prayer, we shall probably detect, if we stop to think, that we are looking for the key, the magic formula that is going to put our prayer right, enable us to ‘make a go’ of this mysterious activity called prayer. We may feel that others seem to take it in their stride but somehow it does not work for us and anxiously we look hither and thither for someone who will hand us the secret.”

What lies behind this tendency to reduce prayer to technique? At its foundation, it is a desire to control the outcome of our prayer and exert control over our spiritual lives and, in some way, ultimately over God. This is an even larger temptation in our world wrought on by chaos and confusion. It is a way to grasp for certainty and to bring “order” to our lives. It is a grasping for power (and even a type of magical thinking) in a world where we feel powerless and lacking in agency.

So if prayer is not an activity and it cannot be reduced to a “technique,” then how can we understand what the essence of prayer is? 

Sister Ruth explains that “prayer is not a technique but a relationship; that there is no handicap, no obstacle, no problem. The only problem is that we do not want God. We may want a ‘spiritual life,’ we may want ‘prayer,’ but we do not want God. All anyone can do for us, any guru can teach us, is to keep our eyes on Jesus.” 

It is an encounter with the Living God and an entering into a life-giving relationship with him. It is not primarily about what we do or what we offer, but our fundamental openness and receptivity to the Lord. 

Sister Ruth writes:

“On our side prayer is simply being there: open, exposed, inviting God to do all God wants. Prayer is not our activity, our getting in touch with God, our coming to grips with or making ourselves desirable to God. We can do none of these things, nor do we need to, for God is there ready to do everything for us, loving us unconditionally.” 

To truly enter into prayer, “we must realize that what we have to do is allow ourselves to be loved, to be there for Love to love us. “Prayer is simply letting ourselves be loved by God. It is about being with him and allowing him to delight over us. Sister Ruth again:

“Once we have grasped the true nature of prayer we won't need a lot of instruction about how to comport ourselves. There are no techniques to learn. … All my concern is that God should have what he wants: the chance to be good to me to his heart's content.”

Technique poses a threat to authentic relationships. It prohibits us from truly encountering the other person. It can mediate the relationship and act as a barrier imposed between two persons. In the prayer life it can lead us to “saying prayers” instead of truly praying. It reduces it to an activity, something that we have to accomplish. It can lead us to just “checking off the boxes.” 

There is also a risk of prayer becoming “standardized” — if we all adopt a similar technique then it ruins each person's unique encounter with God in prayer. In addition, it tends to turn our relationship with God into something transactional — we input these prayers and expect a certain result. It can breed a sense of entitlement, and if we don’t get the results we expect, it can breed disappointment and resentment. At worst, it can act as a form of manipulation. 

As we use technique to gain control over our environment, we can find ourselves using technique in an effort to manipulate God. This all leads to the temptation in relying too heavily on a method, or seeing prayer as an activity, and we can end up feeding our ego instead of seeking God.

What lies at the heart of this tendency to reduce prayer to a technique? I believe fear lies at the heart. A fear of failure in thinking that if I adopt this method I will be assured of success in the spiritual life. A fear of the vulnerability that comes with truly exposing our hearts to Christ in prayer. A fear of the unknown and a desire to explain away the mystery of the spiritual life. And ultimately a fear of letting go of control and having to embrace what God might ask of us. 

And this acting out of fear leads to so much unnecessary anxiety and exhaustion. It can breed scrupulosity and perfectionism in an attempt to “pray perfectly.” And when results don’t come (or when they don’t come quickly enough) we become frustrated and disappointed. This can lead to rumination and anxiety. This is the opposite of the rest we are called to find in our encounter with Christ in prayer.

However, I do not want to suggest that recourse to a method is inherently bad. There is a rich part of our Catholic spiritual tradition, such as the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, that adopt techniques to help us to prepare our hearts for prayer. But as Sister Ruth wisely reminds us, sometimes these techniques can be “used as a substitute for prayer. There is the danger of protecting ourselves from God's action by the control we are exerting in striving to be ‘empty and passive.’” 

She continues:

“We must learn to distinguish between making use of a support and of substituting the support for prayer. Keeping our deepest heart exposed, refusing to usurp God’s place by making ourselves the agent, the giver, will mean that, most often, we have no sense of having prayed well or having prayed at all.” 

We must resist the tendency to allow the technique to become a substitute for a true encounter with God in prayer.

In conclusion, Sister Ruth splendidly describes the prayer life we are called to by likening it to sailing on the sea. Fear leads us to want to clutch the wheel and maintain control of the boat, but she says, “we have to be willing to let go of our own criterion of what prayer is and what growth in the Spirit might mean. 

There are all sorts of ways of praying and there are books galore to direct us on them; yet these, at bottom, keep us in the boat. The boat might rock a bit and feel uncomfortable at times; but at least, with our method to guide us, we can man it and have some control. 

Real prayer lets go of the controls, or, more truly, it lets go when they are wrenched away from us — and how often we experience this, even to being tipped out in a squall. Oh dear! Most of us see this as an unfortunate occurrence that must never be repeated; and so we refit our boat and improve our sailing skills to ensure that we have control once more.” 

The adventure of prayer is letting go of control and technique and allowing the Spirit to lead us into the deep! 

Father Bryce Sibley is a priest of the Diocese of Lafayette. In 2010 he was appointed as pastor and chaplain at Our Lady of Wisdom Church and Catholic Student Center on the campus of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette where he served for 11 years. He now serves as associate professor of moral theology and spiritual director at Notre Dame Seminary. 

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