Fr. Chris Rupert brings a systematic mind to prayer. Photo by Michael Swan

Jesuit taking a scientific approach to prayer

  • January 18, 2012

PICKERING, ONT. - Believers in every religion and through every century of human history have done something they can’t quite describe, justify or do without. They pray.

They may meditate, contemplate, recite, babble or immerse themselves in silence. They may seek solitude or seek company to pray with others. They may follow the rules of a liturgy, improvise or seek a simple, direct encounter with God.

Prayer can be rote execution of routine, woven into the fabric of daily life. Or it can be a unique, creative leap into transcendence. Prayers may be led by a spiritual master, immersed in custom and culture or reach for an unconstrained, individual expression of the spiritual.

There are thousands of definitions of prayer. As a behaviour, it has been studied by neurologists, psychologists, anthropologists, sociologists and political scientists. The results of prayer have been judged by atheists, priests, preachers, philosophers, elders, sages and children.

Jesuit Father Chris Rupert brings a systematic mind to the subject. His PhD combined Scripture studies with statistical modelling and social sciences. For the last 30 years as a pastor, theologian and retreat leader, now at Manresa Jesuit Spiritual Retreat Centre in Pickering, Rupert has thought scientifically, systematically and precisely about what people are doing when they pray.

“When people get a sense of God in prayer, it depends on their social situation,” Rupert told The Catholic Register in a wide-ranging discussion of his research. “If my life situation changes, prayer will change.”

Since the 1990s, Rupert has been applying a social psychology model for group behaviour to prayer. Developed in the 1980s by Harvard University psychology professor Robert F. Bales, the SYMLOG system accounts for the roles people assume within groups.

SYMLOG stands for a “SYstem for the Multiple Level Observation of Groups.” It places people along an axis from dominant to submissive and on another axis from friendly to unfriendly.

When Rupert entered the Jesuit novitiate in 1959 he had to analyse his own personality according to the medieval four humours — choleric, melancholic, sanguine and phlegmatic. Typically, three quarters of the young novices would class themselves melancholic.

Figuring out what type of personality the novice tended towards was an aid in spiritual direction. As psychology became part of everyday thinking, more and more religious turned to classifying themselves as introverts or extroverts when analysing their prayer.

Rupert found static classifications of personality type inadequate. He turned to SYMLOG for a more precise way of describing prayer.

“There’s no slotting into types here,” he said. “A type is something that is fixed. This is social circumstance. I may choose my social circumstance according to type, but I find that for prayer social circumstance washes out the effect of type.”

It can even wash out the effect of gender.

“Women tend to live a different lifestyle than men, so their prayer is different,” observed Rupert. “But if a woman is living the same lifestyle as a man, her prayer will be the same. That was a surprise for me.”

As Rupert taught people classic Ignatian prayer techniques he began to think about the way expectations and terminology were predetermining how people experience prayer.

“The question I ask myself in my examination of conscience determines often what I get out of it — or what I don’t get out of it,” he said.

In the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius people are instructed in the “examin” to review their entire experience of the day and ask themselves when they encountered consolation and when they found desolation. Consolation is not the same as happiness or satisfaction. Desolation is different from sadness and disappointment.

By consolation, St. Ignatius meant an awareness of agreement between the situation and one’s own emotional reaction. Great sadness at the death of a friend would be an experience of consolation. Desolation is a disconnect between emotions and the situation. Laughing at the funeral is an experience of desolation.

Many people find the language of consolation and desolation difficult. Rupert will start people off with a simpler concept.

“Where today did I get the most comfort? Where did I get the most discomfort?” he asks.

Rupert acknowledges a danger in focussing on comfort. It could turn the whole exercise into a self-indulgent system for perfect hedonism. If things tend in that direction, Rupert will start asking about their sense of God’s presence — when did they feel gratitude to God, a desire to be free of resentment or a willingness to accept God’s will?

The trouble is that people are much more used to thinking of their experience in terms of efficiency, happiness and profit. Prayer should move people in the direction of ultimate questions about a purpose in life and our participation in the life of the Trinity.

“At each stage in prayer, things can go disastrously wrong,” said Rupert. “Prayer can be devil worship too. If I’m cultivating resentments, cultivating being independent, cultivating a my-way-or-the-highway attitude — I’m pretty much in league with the devil.”

By looking at prayer systematically, using the insights of social science, Rupert hopes to unlock the secrets of how prayer goes wrong and how it goes right.

“Prayer should help one find a sense of God’s presence. If it doesn’t, what are the causes?” he asks.

Rupert figures it may take a couple of years to put his filing cabinet full of notes into a readable book. But he’s after a rational, scientific explanation of the central mechanism of a life of the spirit.

“Prayer is always an encounter. I encounter God through myself, through others or through my environment,” he said.

There’s nothing odd about trying to be precise about prayer, he said.

“For some people that would be the case,” he said. “I find it very helpful in teaching people to find the type of prayer that works for them.”