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Pray as you go: when life becomes a prayer

Emma Holland describes how Ignatian spirituality can help us draw closer to God

This article was published in the January to April 2023 edition of Rapport magazine.

If you’re anything like me, you might dread anyone asking the question ‘So, what’s your prayer life like?’ – a little cringey at best and probing at worst. You might slip into a mild panic or feel a frantic need to prove yourself to the questioner. Of course this gets even worse when we work in ministry! My own prayer life began as a child, growing up at Lee Abbey Devon. Held in the love of my family and the Community, with beautiful creation around me and creative services and activities, it was fairly easy to experience the love of God and commune with him in myriad ways. Since then, however, I’ve often found my own prayer life becoming either overly structured – at times even forgetting to let God be God – or a little bit haphazardly thrown together. Certainly St Paul’s words, ‘Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances …’ (1 Thess. 5:16–18) always seemed incredibly unattainable and a little intimidating to me. How on earth are we supposed to pray without ceasing?

A few years ago I came across a quote that seems to supplement Paul’s words with gentleness:

‘Keep your soul in peace.
Let God work in you.
Welcome thoughts that raise your heart to God.
Open wide the window of your soul.’

St Ignatius of Loyola

These words and the spirituality born of their author have offered me much solace over the years. When I became more immersed in Ignatian spirituality and the prayer exercises and tools offered, it was as if I was introduced to prayer personified: a companion or guide to meeting with Jesus in the deepest, most natural way. I was hooked and couldn’t wait to get back to prayer each day. I have gradually come to realise that the instruction to ‘pray continually’ is not quite so impossible and that life itself can become a prayer.

Prayer from a shattered man

So where did this spirituality come from and who was this man of prayer? Perhaps you picture a pious, quiet and humble hermit who lived in a cave and only spoke to God … Well, the cave part is correct but only eventually and only for a little while! Íñigo López de Loyola, born to a Spanish noble family in Loyola in 1491, was a proud, womanising, ambitious soldier with dreams of becoming a great military leader. But God had other plans. In 1521 Íñigo’s dreams became as shattered as his leg after being hit by a cannonball on the battlefield in Pamplona. Íñigo was forced into a convalescence with only a Bible and the lives of the saints to read. He was inspired by them as God began a deep work: Íñigo began to take notice and pay attention to his daydreams and thoughts, learning to discern where they came from. Were they from God or subtly born of his own ambition – even if they appeared to be pretty good, even noble, pursuits?

While Íñigo lived in a cave he composed his spiritual exercises. Ignatian spirituality has touched the lives of countless people around the world and facilitated encounters with God in powerful ways for almost 500 years. Who would have thought that God continues to work through unlikely people such as Íñigo?

God in all things

People often refer to this way of praying as ‘finding God in all things’. Ignatius emphasised the use of imagination in prayer: of enhancing an encounter with Scripture, the Trinity, and particularly moments in the life of Christ – by engaging all your sensory gifts from God, to let God work in you. Another hallmark of Ignatian spirituality is noticing the inner movements of the spirit, recognising which thoughts and feelings have their origins with God and which don’t – much like Ignatius during his recovery. In a nutshell: discernment.

Exercises such as Lectio Divina were a key part for Ignatius but the crowning exercise has to be the Examen. Most people familiar with this know it as a review of the day. However, it is much more than that. It is a prayer to pause and become aware of where God has been at work, and conversely where the enemy might have been lurking and working. Ignatius encouraged use of the Examen sometimes three times a day. It can also be done after a significant time or event in one’s life.

An everyday spirituality

The exercises can be done as a 30-day experience and I had the privilege of completing these spiritual exercises in summer 2022 at St Beuno’s Jesuit Spirituality Centre in North Wales. It was 30 days of structured prayer, silence, scripture with lots of imagination and contemplation; no phone, no music, no books but many – many – jigsaw puzzles. A sacred situation indeed. It turns out that 30 days is in fact no joke! Praying without ceasing becomes a reality. One key aspect is that you are accompanied by a spiritual director, which is an important component of the spirituality itself. With my spiritual director’s help I discovered the depth of the kindness of Christ in a new and almost tangible way.

But what happens if you can’t head off to a retreat centre for a month to try and conquer the challenge of silence? No problem. The spiritual exercises are supposed to be adaptable for anyone. One of the biggest joys of my life has been directing Pray As You Go, a daily podcast and app – running since 1 March 2006 – that seeks to create a digital home and companion for this spirituality. Every day for 10–13 minutes, you’re invited on a journey of practising noticing the movement of God. Pray As You Go uses a variety of worship music from around the world to deepen the experience.

What about you?

As someone from our Jesuit spirituality team puts it: ‘There are as many ways of praying as there are people in the world’. The invitation is for God to work in you … to lead you into where God wants you to be; for God’s relationship with you to unfold. As we’ve seen, so much of Ignatian spirituality and prayer is about paying attention, noticing the movement of the Spirit in every moment, as far as possible. When was the last time you recognised God’s life-giving activity in everything around you – every plant, animal, breath, human …?

Where will you notice God in the coming days and weeks? How is God trying to nudge you? Praying without ceasing might sound like a daunting prospect, but as we become aware that God is breathing life into everything, a gratitude springs up within us: a sudden realisation that he is in our midst, always – much like the disciples on the road to Emmaus who only recognised Jesus in the breaking of the bread, yet he had been with them the whole time. Perhaps it is at this point, in this recognising, that life becomes a prayer.

So next time someone asks you, ‘What’s your prayer life like?’ you could throw this question back at them: ‘How is your life becoming prayer?’ I leave you with the consoling words of wisdom from St Ignatius, once again:

‘Keep your soul in peace.
Let God work in you.
Welcome thoughts that raise your heart to God.
Open wide the window of your soul.’

St Ignatius of Loyola

Emma Holland

Ignatian Examen

  • Take a moment to settle into a prayerful space. You might like to ask the Holy Spirit to provide a holy lens on this time of prayer.
  • Now, begin to call forth the events of your day or significant event.
  • Is there a particular moment drawing your attention? You might like to ask the Lord why you are being drawn to notice this specifically.
  • Do you notice a moment that sparked a lightness of heart? An experience of consolation, prompting you closer to God and his goodness? You might like to give thanks for this …
  • Is there a moment you recognise that brought a heaviness? A moment of desolation that made you feel drained or weighed down, perhaps far from God? You might like to talk to God about this a little more …
  • Hold all these things now before the loving Lord. Is there anything further to be said? You might like to also ask what you feel you need as you move forward from here.

Emma Holland is the Director of Pray As You Go, a daily prayer app and podcast that’s been helping the world to pray every day for 17 years through scripture, reflection and music. Emma is also a worship leader for Holy Trinity Brompton Church in London and has a heart to help people find their own rhythms of prayer and worship.

Join Emma at Lee Abbey Devon

Pray as you go

20–24 March 2023 (Mon–Fri)

‘Keep your soul in peace. Let God work in you. Welcome thoughts that raise your heart to God. Open wide the window of your soul.’

St Ignatius of Loyola

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