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When we think of prayer, usually the first thing that comes to mind is verbal. Praise, petition, intercession and confession. As an autistic person I can find verbal communication difficult, so fortunately contemplative prayer does not require words.
Up until 4 years ago I didn’t even know that I’m autistic. It was an experience on a course at my local church which changed my life. I have always had difficulties with connecting with other people and with being in busy places. By my mid-twenties I had become quite isolated, living and working on a farm and not going out very much. Having been brought up in a Christian family I counted myself as a Christian, but hadn’t really explored faith for myself. The course was all day on a Saturday and actually was a really unpleasant day for me. I didn’t know many of the people there and found conversation difficult. They all seemed to have had such wonderful spiritual experiences and all I felt was a growing sense of anxiety and overwhelm. I found it really difficult when one of the ladies held my hand when she prayed for me. When I finally got home, I broke down and cried out to God “What is wrong with me?”
Within 2 weeks I had read an article about a lady being diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) as an adult and began my own journey to diagnosis. I will always be grateful to God for answering my question and giving me just what I needed at that time. It has been such a relief to better understand myself. I started coming to God as me and not as someone I thought I should be.
This has changed the way I approach prayer. The more I have embraced neurodiversity the more I have realised that as everyone thinks differently, prayer is going to be different for each of us too. I now find myself drawn more to contemplative prayer. In the book ‘How to pray’ author Pete Greig writes this about contemplative prayer. “The experiential, non-verbal, right hemisphere dimensions of prayer actually come more naturally to many people than the verbal rational, mechanical varieties… This is particularly true for children and those who find language cumbersome…. not to mention those who are exhausted, bewildered and burnt out on the brutal world of words and linear activity.”
So, do I have an advantage when it comes to contemplative prayer? Some of the times when I have felt closest to God have been when I have felt too tired and overwhelmed to form words and have only been able to reach out. But we shouldn’t have to reach the point of muteness to have a meaningful experience with God.
Sometimes contemplative prayer is thought of as only meditation. This involves trying to focus on our breathing or a word or phrase whilst gently pushing aside all other thoughts. Some people find this a really great way to create space for God. Autistic people though can struggle with blocking out sensory input, from inhibiting thoughts and stopping our minds from racing. I have found meditation challenging but there are plenty of ways we can experience contemplative prayer in our everyday lives.
There is more to ourselves than just our minds. In Deuteronomy 6:5 it says, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” A good way to show someone that you love them is to communicate it and prayer is our communication with God. It was a revelation to me to realise that we can use our whole beings in prayer and how all parts of us are connected.
As well as our minds being different all our bodies are different too. I see ‘strength’ in the bible passage as our physical beings or bodies. Some people like to use their bodies in prayer, like lifting their hands in worship, dancing or other creative pursuits for God. Our bodies and minds can
bring us challenges and limitations as well as strengths.
Being completely still can be a struggle for me. I have started to let go of the assumption that prayer should be with our hands together on our knees and started to embrace prayer whilst walking, folding washing, milking the cows! Some of my most special, spiritual times are when I
haven’t been in a rush and have been patient and willing to appreciate God’s creative beauty in the natural world around me.
The idea of ‘heart’ is something that I have found difficult. I have heard plenty of times that in order to fully accept Jesus as Lord you need to get that knowledge from your head to your heart. As someone who struggles with identifying my own emotions, I came to believe that I just would never be that kind of Christian. I am also quite literal in my thinking and wondered why a muscle that pumps blood has any influence on my feelings or acceptance of God! Now I have found my own understanding and interpretation of ‘heart’. I imagine it as an overflow from my mind. There is so much more of God beyond what our heads could possibly contain or comprehend. In the end we have to let go. Getting in touch with my ‘heart’ has allowed me to go deeper in my prayer. The ultimate desire in contemplative prayer is to get to a place where we completely forget ourselves, we are so absorbed in God. This is sometimes referred to as communion. To get to this point though we need to discover our own needs, strengths and preferences. Whether we use music, movement, creativity, silence, noise, knowledge, there are so many ways we can spend more time with God.
It is wonderful that we are all so different yet we can all communicate and connect with the creator in the unique way he created us.
Amy Rhodes is a farmer and an aspiring writer. She enjoys getting involved in her local church in Chulmleigh, North Devon.