PRAYER: The Empty Chair (an exercise in prayer) by Anthony de Mello

The Empty Chair (an exercise in prayer) by Anthony de Mello

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.

The Empty Chair

(From Poems for Pilgrims)

This short poem was inspired by a story told by Father Anthony de Mello SJ.

The old man propped up on his pillows,
Has been bed-ridden for many years.
At first it was agony and blazing anger,
Depression, frustration, red hot tears.
An active life cut short in cruel fashion,
Confined to the cell of his hospital room.
No clever aids to expand his tiny world;
Condemned to such a suffocating tomb.

And yet today, he sits at peace, serene:
Smiling warmly at friends and caregivers.
A vision of joyful, dear-bought wisdom—
An inspiration even—with plenty admirers.
This crippled man has a special power;
He makes no secret and will gladly share:
He is a praying soul, communing with God—
His power and technique—the empty chair!

A simple chair is placed across the room.
And drawing upon imagination’s feat:
When he is alone as often times he is,
He invites friend Jesus to take the seat.
He smiles at Jesus who looks fondly back;
Each wrapped in the other’s warm gaze.
No fancy, intrusive words are needed.
Both happy to go on and on for days.

“He smiles at me, and I smile at Him!”
Words, books and beads are relegated.
Two lovers enjoying mutual affection;
Spirit grace tangible and celebrated.
Prayer doesn’t come any simpler or
Powerful as life enhancing medicine.
Some may scoff but others will agree:
By their fruits you will discern them…

The empty chair has power to transform
All who would risk the time to spend,
Gazing at the One who died and rose;
Seeing in His eyes their truest friend.
Dare we realize the grace on offer?
Or is the real issue within our heart,
That our busy lives are too unconfined
To be crippled enough to make a start?


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