Jesus Youth Prayer: How was it Formed?
When Jesus Youth gather together, how do they pray? Generally, there are two major styles in use. One is (mainly) a free flow of spontaneous prayers and songs. The second approach is to use an organized format that has come to be known as ‘Jesus Youth Prayer’. Spontaneous prayer is quite natural to the movement. But the latter organized prayer evolved slowly. People often ask, what is the need for such a formal pattern and how it came about. For me the evolution of Jesus Youth Prayer has been a personal journey of reflection and discovery on how we can pray in a group.
My thoughts go to one particular prayer meeting in a school, a couple of decades back. Fifteen or twenty school kids had gathered together. On the request of one of their teachers, I had gone there to help them. My plan was simple: a couple of simple songs leading to a time of prayer, a brief time of thanksgiving, a short Bible refection, and conclusion. A few minutes into the meeting, I realized that they were not used to spontaneous prayer. They knew only organized patterns of prayer. A decade of the rosary would have been easier for them. I started asking myself – for a fresh group of youth what is a comfortable pattern of prayer.
A few months later I had another disturbing group experience. I was in another city, where there was a very good young professionals’ prayer group. These were quite active leaders in the movement. The prayer meeting started with a couple of songs and then the person leading the group asked everyone to close their eyes, and his instructions or ‘monologue’ ensued: ‘the Lord is here, he loves you, let’s come into his presence, like he visited the house of Zacchaeus…’ – he was going on monotonously. This was supposed to be a group adept at spontaneous way of praying. But it ended up with an over-dose of talking by the ‘leader’. I could see how boring the whole prayer session was.
An opportunity for trying out a different pattern of prayer came in the year 2000. A bunch of active Jesus Youth came to me with a request. Most of them were former Full-timers with much formation and mission experience. With their commitment days over, they wanted to form a group and they were asking for guidance to get going. Their goal for the weekly gathering was to grow in prayer, reflection and fellowship. Those who came to me with the request specially mentioned prayer – ‘we want to go beyond spontaneous prayer, but we are not thinking of merely traditional prayers’.
This request to animate a grown-up youth group posed a good challenge for me. Every week I prepared a one-page prayer format. Each prayer started with the sign of the cross, the prayer for guidance ‘Come holy spirit’, and Glory be. This was followed by a responsorial psalm, Bible reading, a time for spontaneous prayer and conclusion. And, how did it go? They found this a good way to begin a time of deep reflection and fellowship. A prayer format with some structure and a lot of freedom helped them to move on to deeper levels of sharing.
A time for further fine-tuning came later, when about 60 Jesus Youth leaders from Ernakulam area decided to meet regularly for 6 months for a monthly gathering and training. It was called “Resource Foundation Program”. We tried some new approach to study of the Bible and the Church documents. When we came for the first planning session, there was a common suggestion for the prayer styles in this training to be different. Here again a modified group-prayer format was tried out. It was found to be a good platform for spiritual deepening. Thus, step by step different prayer formats were tried out.
Why the need for some pattern for group prayer?
In the Renewal, prayer is mostly ‘spontaneous prayer’ – led by a leader. Usually this has been a welcome change for a lot of people especially the youth. Traditional prayers are most likely read from some ‘book’ and repeated and/or recited. But in this new style, you pray from your heart. Though at times for a new-comer this could be a big ask, when you get used to praying in your own words and others praying spontaneously with you, it becomes an extremely deep spiritual experience. Combined with songs and some other dynamics, this becomes a good Jesus Youth prayer meeting.
Then, is it not enough that we go on with this spontaneous pattern of prayer? Why is there a need for introducing another pattern? Well, many of you would have seen occasions when such a “free prayer time” runs into problems. I pointed out a couple of my own experiences earlier. In a group, if the majority is reluctant to pray, or is not creative in its approach, the prayer session becomes dry and boring. Now-a-days in many groups, the ‘leader’ goes on with instructions tending to talk too much. He or she goes on with a ‘monologue’ and it ceases to be a prayer time. Then again, many people complain that repeating the same prayer week after week can make the whole meeting a very shallow exercise. In short, prayer meetings that get started with much enthusiasm, has people slowly dropping out as it becomes boring.
Over the past so many centuries, the spiritual masters of the Church have tried out so many beautiful modes of prayer, which has ensured perseverance as well as growth in holiness. So the new Jesus Youth attempt was to have a balance between the new spontaneity and the rich traditions of the Church’s prayer life. And its result? A 7-step prayer pattern that we now call Jesus Youth Prayer, combining the Charismatic and traditional elements of prayer. (To be continued)