The Psychology of Prayer

The other day I was listening to one of the breakout sessions from the 24-7 International Gathering in Dublin. It was called “The Shrink and the Monk”. One of the speakers, Roger Bretherton, was a psychologist who studies, among many other things, the psychology of prayer. He shared loads of interesting stuff, but one piece really caught my attention.

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Those who study the psychology of personality often split personality up into five dimensions:

Openness: How open are we to new things? How exploratory?
Conscienciousness: How hard working are we?
Extroversion: How much stimulation do we need from external sources?
Agreeableness: How important are harmony and relationships to us?
Neuroticism: How emotionally sensitive are we?

These dimensions are thought to have a degree of stability over the course of our lives and are largely unaffected even by conversion. An introvert converted to Christ remains an introvert.

And interestingly, these dimensions have implications regarding our experience of prayer, and what makes prayer accessible and enjoyable to us.

Openness: Imaginative and exploratory forms of prayer will be life giving. Painting, music, even types of Ignatian contemplation.
Conscientiousness: You will thrive with set routine prayer times and prayer lists.
Extroversion: Are you an extrovert? You likely will enjoy loud and kinetic prayer times. An introvert? Solitude and contemplation is the way in.
Agreableness: Relational connection to God and to one another will be important to you.
Neuroticism: Your emotions will lead you into prayer, your happiness, your fears.

I think challenges can come when we emphasize particular models and methodologies of prayer that cater exclusively to a narrow band of personality dimensions and characteristics. Consquently, people with strengths in different personality dimensions than those being modelled find the way into prayer difficult, and feel left out in the cold. They wonder why their hearts are not burning within them the way they see idealized by others, and become deeply discouraged about prayer. Perhaps this is part of the reason why prayer mobilization can be so difficult!

One of the graces that the 24-7 Prayer Movementhas brought into my life and the life of GOHOP, is the emphasis on “all kinds of prayer.” Coming up in our two weeks of 24-7 prayer, you can sit in silence and contemplate. You can pray through prayer lists. You can do creative artistic prayer activities. Participate in liturgies. Dance and sing with abandon. Enjoy the community with others or enjoy solitude. We are trying to make prayer accessible and enjoyable to us all.

My little précis is not doing the wonderful teaching much justice, so I recommend that you listen to it yourself, and hopefully find onramps to prayer that are life giving and unique to how God has created you.

The Monk and the Shrink and some other great teachings on prayer.


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