A Catholic Monthly Magazine

The Empty Chair Exercise

rom Sadhana,
A  Way to God,
By Fr Anthony de Mello SJ (1931-1987)

I developed this exercise as a result of hearing the story of a priest who went to visit a patient in his home. He noticed an empty chair at the patient's bedside and asked what it was doing there. The patient said, "I had placed Jesus on that chair and was talking to him before you arrived. For years I found it extremely difficult to pray until a friend explained to me that prayer was a matter of talking to Jesus. He told me to place an empty chair nearby, to imagine Jesus sitting on that chair and to speak with him and listen to what he says to me in reply. I’ve had no difficulty praying ever since."

Some days later, so the story goes; the daughter of the patient came to the rectory to inform the priest that her father had died. She said, "I left him alone for a couple of hours. He seemed so peaceful. When I got back to the room I found him dead. I noticed a strange thing, though. His head was resting not on the bed, but on a chair that was beside his bed."

Try this exercise yourself right now, even though at first it might seem childish to you:

Imagine you see Jesus sitting close to you. In doing this, you are putting your imagination at the service of your faith: Jesus isn't here in the way you are imagining him, but he certainly is here, and your imagination helps to make you aware of this. Now speak to Jesus. If no one is around, speak out in a soft voice. … Listen to what Jesus says to you in reply ... or what you imagine him to say. …

If you do not know what exactly to say to Jesus, narrate to him all the events of the past day and give him your comment on each of them.

That is the difference between thinking and praying. When we think, we generally talk to ourselves. When we pray, we talk to God.

Do not bother to imagine the details of his face and clothing etc. This might only prove distracting.

St Teresa of Avila, who frequently prayed like this, says she could never imagine the face of Jesus. She only sensed his nearness, as you sense the nearness of someone whom you cannot see in a dark room but whose presence there is clear to you.

This method of praying is one of the quickest means of experiencing the presence of Christ that I know of. Imagine that Jesus is by your side all through the day. Speak with him frequently in the midst of your occupations. Sometimes, all you will be able to do is glance at him, communicate with him without words.

St Teresa, who was a great advocate of this form of prayer, promises that it will not be long before the person who prays in this way will experience intense union with the Lord. People sometimes ask me how they can meet the Risen Lord in their lives. I know of no better way to suggest to them than this one.  

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