The phrase ‘pray as you can not as you cannot’ isn’t terribly well known to a lot of people, but to those who do know it and use it as a literal guide to prayer, it can be an absolute lifesaver.
The phrase originated from a monk at Downside, John Chapman, Abbot in the 1930s, and is as relevant today as it was then.
As with many words and phrases that seem almost overly simplistic, the real strength in many ways lies behind the words, both in terms of intent and freedom.
The Need for Prayer
For many people, understanding that the need to pray, let alone having the freedom to explore what prayer means to them, can be a lifelong process in its own right.
For people in 12-step recovery, this process or journey can be complicated further by a degree of pressure to pray in particular ways, not always overtly religious, but carrying quite fundamentalist overtones.
These overtones are not always only about prayer, but also about God or the nature of God as well. This pressure can come from other people in AA, from sponsors, from groups or from society at large.
However, the flip side of this, is that people in recovery normally reach a point when they start to search for something.
This search may not always be obvious or conscious but does at some stage become apparent as a real quest.
Hopefully, this search is eventually recognised not so much in terms of what someone is looking for, but as a real need to connect to one’s inner world in some sense.
Like all needs, the recognition that it comes from within is of paramount value and often needs to be fostered and nurtured in different ways.
Quite often the biggest threat to this need is other people’s insistence on how an individual should pray, or what they should or should not believe in.
This problem is of course not unique to AA or 12-step recovery but does carry an extra dimension.
People in AA are conscious of their need to get sober and stay sober, and their awareness of the nature of their spirit or soul will grow stronger in time, as part of their need to stay sober.
The World of the Spirit
Giving people the freedom to be themselves, and to discover for themselves the reality of their own life is perhaps the ultimate freedom that there is.
It is also a freedom that needs to be fought and won for in many areas of life, especially in AA and 12-step recovery.
People in AA get very excited about how other people should live their lives and are often very quick to give advice both asked for and un-asked for.
Sometimes this advice is good, sometimes not so good and sometimes disastrous.
When it comes to prayer and the nature of God, giving advice or trying to direct another person carries much more dangerous long-term consequences.
The main consequence is that it erodes the freedom people need to be able to explore for themselves what their inner world means, and more importantly what it does not mean to them.
Whilst the world of the spirit may seem a bit of a vague term, it applies to that inner world or inner voice that people have inside them, that transcends their emotional, mental, sexual, and physical realms that make up a human being’s life.
Many people try and define the nature of such a spirit or inner world. Sadly, most people who need to try and define it have little or no real experience of it in their own lives.
These people who have experienced a connection to that inner world in a real and meaningful way do understand the need to give other people that same freedom.
Why Prayer Matters
If anyone is to have the freedom to explore what their inner world or the world of the spirit means to them, then they have to have the freedom to explore what the term prayer means to them as well.
Without wanting to get into definitions of what prayer and meditation mean, the important point is that they are both means of communicating with one’s inner world.
It is this freedom to explore how to communicate that is at the heart of this phrase, and the necessity to have the freedom to explore it.
The nature of prayer is of course an immense and in many ways complex subject.
Complex because so much of it is either ritualised, comes from other people or comes from books etc.
It is also complicated by a belief system in many people and religions that there is somehow a right way to pray and somehow a wrong way to pray.
This idea of a right or wrong way to pray or meditate, of course pretty much sets up everyone who tries it to fail, not least of all because it simply is not true.
What it does do is set up an external validator of what is going on internally within someone, which inevitably leads to a breakdown of the truth, the whole process.
Learning to Trust Yourself
The reality of having the freedom to discover what prayer means to oneself is both a practical and a spiritual necessity.
Practical in the sense that there are hundreds of different ways to pray and meditate, and any individual is going to feel more comfortable with some than others.
Comfortability with a process is more likely to lead someone to trust the process.
A lot of the truth about having the freedom to discover how to pray and meditate for oneself is really about having the freedom to be oneself.
Many people who have developed some type of real connection with their inner world, realise that this spiritual direction of themselves is their true self, their true nature.
It is not at odds with any other part of their identity or self, it unifies their entire being.
This sense of internal unity can only really come from having the freedom to be open to this reality, where ever it comes from and whatever it may mean.
Whilst this is a different journey for everyone, what can unite people, especially in 12-step recovery, is the recognition that this is perhaps a core need for people and that it is about freedom.
Perhaps today’s world teaches us that the need to preserve freedom, both internally and externally, is as acute as it has ever been.
When it pertains to one’s inner world, one’s spirit or soul, then the freedom to pray as you can, not as you can’t is perhaps one of the few absolutes that should be etched into people’s consciousness.