When Grace said "...", I thought "..."

I really enjoyed reading Grace’s blog on prayer experimentation during Lent. I was surprised by how much I identified with, even though I’m neurotypical and Roman Catholic. So welcome to “when Grace said…, I thought…”! Here “Grace” both refers to Grace the person, as well as the grace of God that pours out to me through Grace’s questions.

A bit about me

To contextualise everything below: I’m a cradle British-Sinhalese Roman Catholic PhD student. Most of my writing for SCM has been from my perspective as someone with psychosis, as it severely impacts my faith life. I cannot attend Mass (or enter religious buildings of any denomination) safely most of the time and have dispensation from the Sunday obligation. I’ve never been able to attend a physical SCM event. I also struggle with prayer a lot (though perhaps differently to Grace).

When Grace asked, “what is the point of prayer?”, I thought…

Grace is very adamant that she wants to know why we should pray. This felt like a stark question and one that I have spent some time pondering on. I am dependent upon being prayed for and view my whole life on earth as a prayer: both for myself, as well as causes and people I care about. Prayer is all I’ve ever really known and done. So how can I articulate to someone else how or why I pray, given it’s so ingrained and embedded in my spirituality? All I can do is share my favourite definition of prayer – and one that makes sense to me – which comes from St Teresa of Ávila:

“Mental prayer in my opinion is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us."

It’s that loving secure gaze where you know you are in the presence of someone who truly knows and ‘gets’ you. It can involve words but doesn’t always need to. It’s an elevated form of connecting with God – and isn’t the whole aim of the Christian spiritual life to get to know God and eventually become one with Him to some extent?

That said, this is not something I have always experienced myself – particularly as my prayer style has changed drastically since 2010 (when I developed psychosis). I lost the ability to pray using words that weren’t set prayer: that weren’t the Mass or Anglican evensong, or the prayers used in the rosary, e.g. Our Father, Hail Mary. I literally cannot pray aloud or even think silently in words. Coming from a denomination so focused on words, I feel irreverent and like I’m not praying at all. As someone drawn to mysticism, sometimes I like to pretend I’ve just attained a heightened understanding and am practising contemplative prayer – but I know that’s not really the case.

When Grace said, “‘pray from your heart’ and ‘let the Spirit guide you’…What does that mean?”, I thought…

Sometimes it is very easy for us to overthink what prayer is and what all these lofty phrases mean. To me, ‘pray from your heart’ is similar to St Thérèse of Lisieux’s “Little Way” of spiritual childhood. Thérèse talks of being unable to do big gestures for God, and that all she can do is do little things like scattering flower petals before Him; yet He delights in that. So, for me at least, “pray from your heart” or “let the Spirit guide you” means trusting that whatever you are taking before God is exactly what He wants to hear from you. It doesn’t matter if it’s a thought or a prayer about needing distracting from repetitive strain injury! (I would actually go so far as to say that, at a deeper level, our thoughts are the same as our prayers – but perhaps that’s a different conversation!)

When Grace said “[Jesus’ mom] is pretty cool and all, but why do I need her to pray for me?”, I thought…

The temptation is to go into a Shakespeare-worthy soliloquy on why the Virgin Mary is such an important figure and consequently a great intercessor. The thing is, (a) I’m not one for evangelising at all (let alone with conviction!) about Roman Catholicism, and (b) I’m not convinced it’s actually needed in this case.

Rather than make the case for Mary as Theotokos and Mediatrix, I’d just point to Mary as mother. Not even all “Holy Mary, Mother of God” mother: just plain and simple mother of us all. Those of us who have had good mothers (or good maternal figures) in our lives develop a natural affinity for them. We want to tell them good things in our lives, and them to console us through rougher times. Justifiably or not, Mary is exactly the same for us within the wider Church: she is a female ear we can turn to and depend upon.

Before 2010, I always went to God or Christ, side-stepping saints and Mary as intercessors; why was Mary needed if I could go direct to the Trinity? Yet when I experienced three years of concentrated abuse (of different kinds) during my undergrad from people from the two main genders, it rendered me unable to approach God or Jesus. My whole faith in men was so shaken that I couldn’t even say/think their names in prayer. This might just be my experience alone, but whenever I approach Mary, I feel her loving and safe maternal presence. She is there, she listens, and often smiles or gives answers – which is more than God or Jesus have ever done for me. Rightly or wrongly, I can’t approach males in or for prayer (a true sticking point in a male-priests-only denomination), but Mary is always there: steady, safe, and dependable. As she said in the apparition at Guadalupe, Mexico:

“Do not be troubled… am I not here, who am your mother? Are you not under my shadow and protection? Are you not in the folds of my mantle, in the crossing of my arms? Is there anything else you need?”

Written by Shanika Ranasinghe. Shanika is a Roman Catholic final-year music PhD student at Royal Holloway, University of London.