25 May 2020


Fr Kevin Alban is the Prior Provincial in Britain, and writes the quarterly Carmelite News.

Prayer as Friendship: what difference does it make?
In my last reflection, I explained that when we look at prayer as an expression of friendship with God, it means that we can say whatever we want, in whatever way we want to say it. This freedom of expression and of content creates a space within us. It is a space which is safe because we are not worried by what we are saying nor by how we are saying it. There are friends, maybe one special friend, to whom we can speak in complete openness, and this produces a feeling of great security and safety within us.

Very often I have had the following experience: someone asks to speak with me to get advice or help. They then spend the next 10, 20 or even 30 minutes telling me all their problems. I say very little, maybe a nod, an um or an ah. Then as the “conversation” draws to an end, the person says something like, “Well thank you very much. You’ve been a great help.” I haven’t said anything at all, or very little. What has happened, and it’s very important, is that person has found a space to express themselves. It doesn’t matter really what I said. They were able to talk though their problem and felt better for it. That’s what prayer can do for us when we feel that safe space and able just to chat with God about our problems. 

Of course, you may say, God knows our problems, feelings and fears already, so why bother to tell him? That’s true from God’s perspective: he does know everything. But it’s the good it does us to verbalise our feelings and problems that is important. This approach finds a parallel in the technique called “echoing” in counselling and therapy. The counsellor or therapist repeats back to us what we have told them: “What you are saying then, is….” is the phrase that’s often used. The counsellor or therapist isn’t only checking that they have understood their client, but also letting the client hear what their words sound like on the lips of another. It can help us focus and reflect on what we have said. Telling God what he already knows, as it were, helps us to be attentive to and concentrate on what we are experiencing. 

In this respect, the lack of prescribed method is also important here. We do not have to possess a “prepared script” of what we want to say. Most of our daily conversations would look pretty disjointed and incoherent if we were to transcribe them on paper. “Rambling” would be a good way to describe most of our interactions! This is what we can do with God without any inhibitions or embarrassment. Prayer and meditation are not sleek, well-organised conversations, or worse, monologues. They are meandering and circular discourses – rambling with God. 

Our sense of security and safety are also relevant here. Some of our friends, and many others besides, sometimes get impatient when we witter on aimlessly, jumping from subject to subject. Not so God…. He doesn’t mind rambling or wittering. That’s so comforting and so reassuring. 

There are other consequences here of great importance. When we are able to focus on and attend to our experiences with God, then this reveals our weaknesses, slips, negative attitudes and bad behaviour to us. Perhaps we even recognize our… sin… to use an unpopular word. I don’t mean a sort of morbid self-absorption or narcissistic introspection, but just the realisation that we don’t have all the answers and that we make mistakes. Prayer reveals our incompetency to us in a very honest way. Prayer reveals our need for God.

The realisation that we have been unthinking and unkind can be a learning experience and help us to show compassion and understanding to others. We realise that our own self-centredness is often at the root of interpersonal difficulties. We also realise that our own vulnerabilities are part of who we are. This learning process can, paradoxically perhaps, help us to accept and live with unkindness and heartlessness from others. Since we are unaware of the impact of our actions on others, we can appreciate better that those who treat us badly are not conscious of their actions and attitudes. This realisation can also help us to be more tolerant and understanding of others. It can take the sting out of the frictions and tensions of daily life. 

Ultimately, prayer brings us face to face with the challenge of establishing a relationship where our incompetence and thoughtlessness are not the product of psychological or personal problems. Rather we are confronted with the “other” whom we do not really know. Our challenge in prayer is relating to somone who by his very nature we cannot truly understand. Even if the image of God as friend is, I believe, a very helpful one, God is not just a friend like another friend, he is beyond our human friendships. I don’t mean that in a When we pray what we do not know, then the real search begins.