Dear Donagh,

…. What’s your view of praying on the hoof, if I could call it that?  I go for a walk and pray as I go.  I find it easier than sitting in the one place.  Is it a good way to do it, or am I just giving in to restlessness?  I know I'm a bit restless by nature. Should I just force myself to sit still for 20 minutes or half an hour or whatever?  I know I would find that very difficult, but maybe I should force myself to do it.  What do you think?  Patricia.

Dear Patricia,

Any way of praying is a lot better than not praying at all.  Your way is good, so your question is not about good or bad methods but about degree. 

I think we need different ways at different times in our life.  A way that suited well in the past may no longer suit you today, and what suits you today may not suit you forever.

That said, there are some general points we could make about different ways of praying.

Body and mind work closely together, I was told when I was young.  I'd rather say now that the body is the outer shape of the mind.  Whatever we do to one we do to the other - and also to our spirit, we might add.  Walking is a rhythmic exercise that can bring calm when the mind is all over the place.  Remember the line from the Yeats poem, ‘Prayer for my Daughter’: “I have walked and prayed for this young child an hour.”  In Zen there is a slow meditative walk between sessions of sitting-meditation.  It is called by the Japanese name kinhin.  The instruction given is to be fully present, fully conscious of walking and nothing else.  It is a kind of earthing of the static in our minds.  It is down to earth – the feet are the lowest part of the body.  This is in harmony with the Christian emphasis on incarnation, which is a downward movement.  The Word was made flesh and walked among us.  He even washed his disciples’ feet, a reversal of the master/disciple relationship.  You say you pray while walking.  Why not experiment with making the walking itself a kind of prayer?  We can pray with our hands or our feet just as well as with our minds or our mouths.  One of the Desert Fathers (4th century) said to a monk who had given up praying: “What did God give you two hands for?”  We tend to be over-intellectual – even over-spiritual – about prayer.  Anything that pulls us down to earth could be a big help.  “If you see a young man climbing up to the heavens by his own will,” said another Desert Father, “catch him by the foot and pull him down to earth; it is just not good for him."

I'd like also to say a word about a very different way of praying.  It may suit you at another time. 

Like walking, breathing is a rhythmic activity; when we pay attention to our breathing the mind becomes calm and relaxed.  Take a look at all the pages on meditation in this website over the years – in this section (‘Between Ourselves’) and in ‘Jacob’s Well’.  People usually make a distinction between meditation and prayer: meditation is silent presence to God, while prayer is a conversation with God.  But these categories are not watertight: prayer that was all words (like any relationship that was all words) would tend to become shallow in a short time.  Every form of prayer needs some silence built into it.  Why not experiment sometime with being totally silent, inwardly and outwardly?  Full concentration on your breathing helps towards this.  The mind is like a screen on which all our mental activity is projected.  Imagine a movie screen that wasn’t plain white, but instead had all sorts of shapes and colours printed on it.  Such a screen would distort everything projected on it.  Have you ever spoken with a person who has a mind like that?  They see and hear only their own fixed ideas, nothing else.  We could all be such a person if we never enter deep silence. 

Then, the prayer of words.  Speech must be very near the essence of human beings: we are the creatures who speak complex languages.  A human relationship in which no words are ever spoken would be strange indeed.  So it is natural that our relationship with God tries to express itself sometimes in words.  We know of course that it is also different from speaking with another human being.  We don’t need to impart information to God, so speaking with God is like shaking out all the stuff that is in your mind – so that none of it becomes imprinted on the screen.  In this way we are set free of ourselves: "God brought me forth into freedom" (Psalm 18:19)….

Actions, silence, words.  These are three ways of prayer I have mentioned.  Notice that the Liturgy has all three: actions (walking, sitting, standing, eating…), periods of silence (mostly ignored), and words (readings, prayers, preaching).  All our attempts to pray are like off-shoots of the Liturgy. 

Keep up the good work, Patricia! 


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