Pray as You Can, Not as You Can’t: Exploring a Prayer Slogan
Pray as you can, not as you can’t.
This was the mantra of the adjunct professor who taught pastoral spirituality when I was in seminary. He said it the first day of class and every day after that. The slogan was meant to give us the freedom to explore. He offered it with no accompanying instruction about prayer, and he assigned no books on prayer. Instead, he assigned novels, and as we discussed the spiritual lives of the characters we reflected on our own spiritual journeys. Or so I’m told. I dropped the class after the first week. My wife, who stayed in it to the end (she’s a fan of novels), has reliably, I believe, reported the goings-on.
Maybe I should have stayed in the class. Because years later, after finishing seminary and a PhD in theology, I became the pastor of a small, rural Methodist congregation in North Carolina. It didn’t take me long in my new role as the church’s spiritual leader to realize I didn’t know how to pray. I hadn’t learned anything about prayer in my church growing up beyond memorizing the Lord’s Prayer. I hadn’t learned any ways of prayer, nor had I learned what prayer is. Seminary tried to teach me ways of prayer, but the soil of my life wasn’t prepared for any of them to take root. And prayer was irrelevant to my PhD work, except that I prayed I would finish. I was a new pastor with a growing sense of my own spiritual poverty.
That’s when I realized the slogan as I learned it—pray as you can, not as you can’t—doesn’t get one very far in cultivating a life with God. At its best, this mantra acknowledges the need for freedom in the life of prayer, giving a nod to the utter uniqueness of each person’s relationship with God. But at its worst, it’s a blank map, an invitation to enter a wilderness with no tips on surviving the rugged terrain, let alone flourishing.
Even worse, this slogan plays into the hands of the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd, leading us to believe that entering a relationship (or discovering the relationship that already exists) with God and flourishing in that relationship requires no engagement with any religious tradition in particular, no attempt to learn the wisdom handed on through practices and institutions that make up a tradition. Pray as you can suggests a make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach to life with God.
As I found myself ill-equipped in the role of teaching others how to pray, of leading others more deeply into life with God, I began to recognize this slogan’s inadequacy. I started asking questions it left unanswered: How do I know how I can pray? How do I know how I can’t pray? What do can and can’t even mean in the life of prayer? How would I know if a certain way of praying was working? What would I look for? What would be the signs?
I later discovered that this adjunct professor didn’t make up the slogan. In its original context, the slogan actually helps to make sense of a life of prayer. Since then, it has become for me a landmark in the wilderness of prayer.
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Pray as you can, and do not try to pray as you can’t.1
This was the pithy advice given by Abbot John Chapman (1865–1933) to the laypeople, monks, nuns, and priests who wrote to him seeking guidance in a life of prayer. Chapman was an English Benedictine monk, abbot, and scholar of early church history. But he’s best known for his Spiritual Letters, the collection of his replies to the queries of the men and women who wrote to him.
The people who wrote to Chapman, unlike those of us who were enrolled in that pastoral spirituality class, were not beginners in the life of prayer. Rather, they had been praying for most of their lives. They were well practiced at what was called mental or active prayer, all the various ways of praying that keep the intellect and the imagination busy—saying rote prayers, reading spiritual books, reciting the rosary, making intercession, imagining oneself in a scene from Scripture after the method taught by St. Ignatius, and many others ways of prayer. These ways of praying were called meditation. Meditation, to Chapman and his interlocutors at the time, referred to devotional activities characterized by mental busyness (unlike the way many of us think of meditation today, having been influenced by Eastern practices).
These people knew how to meditate, but they had a problem. Either these ways didn’t work for them anymore—they no longer produced the feelings of joy and peace they once produced (often called in the classic literature on prayer consolations), or their intellect and imagination literally didn’t work when they tried these kinds of prayer. For whatever reason, these people could no longer meditate. Or perhaps they were beginning to recognize a desire for a quieter, less mentally active way of praying, a simpler way of being with God. Chapman recognized that they were beginning what St. John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul,” that time in the life of prayer when God weans us from the good feelings produced by active ways of prayer and moves us toward passive contemplation.
The difficulty of this change in their experience of prayer was compounded by another, more isolating difficulty—few people understood what they were going through. When they approached their priests or other religious leaders they encountered skepticism and sometimes fear. Indeed, this desire for passive prayer sounded to many religious leaders like a form of prayer condemned by Pope Innocent XI in the seventeenth century that was known as quietism. They were told to try harder and persist in the old ways of prayer.
In Chapman, however, they found a kindred spirit. It was to these people from all walks of religious life that Chapman gave the advice: pray as you can, and do not try to pray as you can’t. Chapman was encouraging those who sought his counsel to let go of ways of praying that were becoming burdensome or impossible for them—the ways they had learned since they were children—and to embrace the way of prayer God was leading them to, even if this made others nervous. It’s in this context that the phrase must be understood in order to see how it is similar to and different from what it meant the first time I heard it in that spirituality class.
First, this advice acknowledges that each of our relationships with God is unique and that the crucial aspect in the life of prayer is our willingness to yield to God’s leading. This counsel was meant to liberate seekers from the shoulds of the past or from the shoulds of other teachers when those shoulds made prayer impossible. As far as I could tell, this is what my adjunct professor valued about the Chapman mantra.
Yet following Chapman’s advice also meant being willing to let go of the familiar, active ways of prayer, even though these ways had easy-to-follow methods that were spelled out in books on prayer. It meant stepping into the unfamiliar wilderness of contemplation. “If you are drawn to contemplative prayer,” Chapman wrote to one seeker, “you are also drawn to a passive form of spirituality, in which God does all, while we wait and wonder. Consequently, give yourself to prayer, when you can, and trust in God that He will lead you, without your choosing your path.”2 We beginners in that pastoral spirituality class didn’t have anything to let go of.
Second, while acknowledging the uniqueness of each person’s spiritual path and thus the utter importance of relying on God to lead, Chapman’s phrase presupposes the necessity of spiritual direction; learning how you can and can’t pray doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s no accident that this advice is offered in letters of spiritual direction, not in an abstract treatise.
When we enter a wilderness, what we need is a guide. St. John of the Cross, in whose tradition of prayer John Chapman stands, taught that when people are entering the dark night of the soul, they need above all else a good spiritual director to help them read the signs. Maybe we are moving from old ways of prayer, ways that are becoming can’ts, and God is leading us to contemplation—simple, loving attention to God as an act of the will and not of the imagination or intellect—which is becoming a new can. Or perhaps we are just depressed or lazy, and we should give active meditation another try. Books, like those of the Johns, can give helpful signposts, but only in a relationship of spiritual direction with an experienced guide can we begin to know in what ways we can’t pray and in what ways we can.
Contemplative prayer, according to Chapman, is “one long act of love—not of my love to God, but of his love to me.”3 In contemplative prayer, we abandon ourselves to God’s work of love in us. For some, this is the only way to pray. It’s prayer the heart desires. Chapman would advise, “Well, then, go with it.”
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I would have been one to write to Chapman. Not that I can’t pray in mentally active ways—I can and do. But for years I have had a growing desire for a prayer that is silent, calm, quiet. Prayer that is simply being with God. The kind of prayer the psalmist writes about: “I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother” (Ps. 13:12 NRSV).
Unlike many of the folks who had to write to Chapman, however, I have Larry, a spiritual director and trusted guide who may not know of Chapman but who leads me in the ways of prayer. Larry’s guidance embodies the wisdom of Chapman’s pray as you can, and do not try to pray as you can’t.
Larry’s clear priority as a spiritual director is to help me be attentive and available to the way God is leading in my life of prayer and not to impose a particular method of prayer. I have been in conversations with others who are in spiritual direction and marveled as I listened to how their experiences are so different from mine. One person said, “My spiritual director has me doing lectio divina each morning. He’s a big believer in lectio divina and requires all of his directees to do it.” Another said, “My spiritual director teaches body prayer, and now, every evening, I have a twenty-minute routine of body prayer.” I also heard a person say, “My spiritual director has me paraphrasing the Psalms in my own words, as a way of making them my own prayer.” I remember thinking: if I paid my spiritual director (which I don’t), I would be getting ripped off, because my spiritual director doesn’t tell me to do anything.
That’s because Larry believes my prayer life—and my life more broadly—is not a problem to be fixed, even when my prayer life is arid, confused, and dark. Sometimes I want him to tell me what to do. But instead, we sit in his office and look at my prayer life together, trusting that there is another there as well, God’s own Spirit, the one whom we are really listening to and the one into whose hands I’m learning to abandon this prayer life of mine.
If my experience in spiritual direction is aimed toward freedom in prayer, my own freedom from the can’ts imposed by others so that I might discover the can God is offering, I have also learned what Chapman knew: to find freedom, direction is necessary. The few days I spent in that class left me wondering: how do I know how I can’t pray, and how do I know how I can? The answer to those questions is spiritual guidance. The best way to make it through a wilderness is to travel with a guide. It’s hard for me to imagine learning to pray without a Chapman or a Larry.
I remember one time in particular I was experiencing something not unlike what Chapman’s questioners were experiencing: I simply had no desire to pray in the ways I had learned. I didn’t want to meditate on Scripture or write in my journal. I had no desire to sit down and imagine myself in a scene of Scripture, no desire to examine my conscience at the end of the day. I began to wonder what was going on. Is this an indication of God’s leading? Am I discovering that these are ways I can’t pray anymore? I also didn’t find myself wanting to sit in silence, simply resting in God like that weaned child at his mother’s breast. In fact, I didn’t want to pray at all. I wondered am I entering a dark night?
I shared this experience with Larry. He knew that two months earlier I had moved to a new congregation and into a new parsonage, so after hearing me talk about my struggles, he sat quietly for a minute and then asked, “Have you found a place in your new house that is comfortable and attractive for you to pray?”
No, I hadn’t. We were still living out of boxes, and the third floor of the house, which we intended to become my study, was a wreck. When I was wondering about God’s sublime activity in my soul, Larry was being practical: without a comfortable, attractive place to pray, of course you will resist prayer.
Pray as you can, and do not try to pray as you can’t. It’s a counsel of freedom, an acknowledgement of uniqueness. It’s a key to free us from the oughts so that we may follow in the ways God is leading. But it’s not an invitation to jump into the deep waters of prayer without instruction. It presumes guidance; it presumes that there are those guides who know the wisdom embodied in the Christian traditions of prayer, men and women who have spent time in the wilderness and who can therefore help us identify the landmarks so that we may thrive in the wilderness.
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Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, one of the pioneers of the new monasticism movement, has written, “Like woodworking or plumbing, the craft of life with God is learned by practicing it in apprenticeship to others who know the way better than ourselves.”4 He could have written: “Like woodworking or plumbing or learning to dance . . . ”
My mother taught my brother and me how to swing dance. Born in 1934, my mother was learning to swing when it first was popular. In the 1980s, when most people had stopped, my mother would play her old big-band albums, and in the middle of the living room she taught my brother and me how to dance. We learned the basic steps and a variety of other moves, the infinite combination of which can make each couple’s dancing unique. Later, my wife and I took a swing dance class together, and often on Friday nights (before we had kids) we’d go to the old armory downtown and dance. The floor would be packed with people of all ages and skill levels. Some arrived an hour before the dancing started for instruction.
Prayer is like that. There are well-established moves and steps that can be taught and learned. There is also an infinite variety of ways to combine these steps and to personalize them. But there was something else we noticed. Sometimes a couple would give up the active dancing, the swinging, gliding, spinning around the floor, and just stand together, barely swaying, her cheek against his chest, his chin resting on her head. Had they forgotten the steps? Had they never learned?
I doubt it. I imagine that if they were asked, they would say, “This is how we have to do it. At this point we can’t imagine dancing another way. Isn’t that OK?” Some people might not understand their experience. Feeling threatened, they may say, “No, it’s not OK. This floor is for swing dancing.”
But not John Chapman. Dance as you can, he would say, not as you can’t. And for those of us who find ourselves wanting to dance this way with God, these are welcome words.
1. John Chapman, Spiritual Letters (London, UK: Continuum,  2003), 109.
2. Ibid., 35.
3. Ibid., 46.
4. Wilson-Hartgrove, The Wisdom of Stability: Rooting Faith in a Mobile Culture (Brewster, MA: Paraclete, 2010), 60.
L. Roger Owens is a United Methodist Pastor in Durham, North Carolina, and the author of, most recently, Abba, Give Me a Word: The Path of Spiritual Direction (Paraclete Press). He received a PhD in theology from Duke University. He and his wife Ginger Thomas have three children: Simeon, Silas, and Mary Clare.