September 29, 2020

Chapter Two: Prayer

Preachers occasionally comment that it is permissible for them to preach “down the road” – to talk about something they haven’t yet seen or exhort their congregation to levels they haven’t yet achieved.  When I write about prayer, I’m definitely writing about a “down-the-road” view, not a retrospective of all I’ve achieved myself.  That’s been true of all the posts in this series on Chapter Two of the Christian Life, but it’s especially true of prayer.  Consequently I will mostly be sharing quotations from people a lot farther down the road than I am.

What is Prayer?

Can we agree that prayer is fundamental to the life of faith?  It’s more fundamental even than humility or obedience or work, because it is partly through prayer, and the grace that God accords us in prayer, that we begin to grow in all the other virtues.  We’ve already commented that the Christian life is not something that we live by our own strength but is the natural growth of the branch on the vine.  Prayer is the daily renewing of the connection of branch to vine.  Prayer is our dinner table, classroom, and porch swing conversations with God.  Prayer is speaking, and it is listening.

Having agreed that prayer is fundamental, those of us who want to pray well, in a manner pleasing to God, may then ask “How?”  As far as I can see, there are many different ways to pray, and it would probably be a good thing if we don’t argue about which are better and which are worse.

Composed Prayer Versus Spontaneous Prayer

Composed prayer – previously scripted words recited with reverence to God – certainly seems to be biblical.  The Psalms are prayers used by both Jews and Christians to address God.  Jesus gave us the Lord’s Prayer as a model, and all Christians have prayed it, in their own languages, as Jesus gave it to us.

The prayers of our fathers and mothers in the faith are inspirations to us.  They give us words when we don’t know what to stay; they inspire us to pray for more than we might have thought of in our narrow understanding.  They are no substitute for a more personal communication with God, but they are a part of our heritage.

The mystical writers who see the spiritual life as a ladder assign the prayer of prepared words to the lower rungs.  Meditation, contemplation, the prayer of quiet, the prayer of union are later stages.  Yet periods of aridity come to all, even the saints, when meditation is empty and unreal or even distasteful, the mind wanders, the heart is earth-bound, and spontaneous prayer is difficult or even impossible.  Then verbal prayer becomes a support for the flagging spirit, a frame for our vague and reluctant reaching toward God.  The old prayers, beautiful and true, composed by people who have understood the struggle and found victory, used over and over by praying hearts, have acquired a sort of patina.  They speak to God, and also to us, disciplining our irresolution, informing our imagination, directing our will, inducing a reverent awareness from without, when the inner doors appear to be closed or lost.  (Elizabeth Gray Vining, pp.21 and 22)

Composed prayers are like the conventions of daily life.  Conventions make interactions with other people easier; they give us things to say and ways to be polite and respectful.  They are especially important when we don’t know what to say but don’t want to seem uncaring, or when unity is more important than individuality.  Conventions – and composed prayer – are therefore wonderful things, but true intimacy, with people or with God, won’t grow if there are only conventions and no spontaneity.

Spontaneity characterizes the prayerful meditation of those who frequently contemplate God in private.  Those who are deeply involved with contemplation have high regard for the church’s prayers, and they use them regularly in the manner prescribed by earlier generations.  Their personal prayers, however, are spontaneous, rising directly to God without external prompting. . . .

[A] little word of only one syllable is enough. . . .  In pain or terror, we do not use complete sentences, and probably not even an actual word of one or two syllables. . . . We break out in a loud and shocking scream.  Perhaps we will shout, “Fire!” or “Help!”

In the same way that little shouts and gasps catch the attention of bystanders, a little word, spoken or thought, bursts upon the attention of God. . . .  Short prayer pierces heaven. . . .Though I highly recommend brief prayer, there is no limit on the frequency of prayer.  Pray in the dimension of the Spirit, never stopping until you find what you are seeking. (The Cloud of Unknowing, from Chapters 37-39)

So we may use composed prayers, we may pray spontaneously – but what can we do when we are in the depths, without words and even without knowledge of what to pray for?  We can at least say this:

O Lord, I know not what I ought to ask of thee; . . . I am silent; I offer myself in sacrifice; I yield myself to thee; I would have no other desire than to accomplish thy will.  Teach me to pray.  Pray thyself in me.  (Francois de la Mothe Fenelon)

When and How Often to Pray?

Should we have set times for prayer, or should we strive to pray at need throughout the day?  The most basic answer is this:

Pray as you can, don’t try to pray as you can’t. . . . The only way to pray is to pray, and the way to pray well is to pray much.  (Dom John Chapman)

Excellent advice, but I do think it’s good to have a time and a place to pray, especially as we are training ourselves into the new habits of the resurrection life.  Prayer is not easy, and we delude ourselves if we think it is.  Prayer is contact with the living God, and most contacts of that sort in the Bible result in the person falling face downward in terror.  Our flesh, our habits, our constructed selves do NOT want to expose themselves to God, because they know on some level that such exposure will result in their death.  They invent excuses and manufacture reasons to get away.  The flesh’s chief weapon in shielding itself from prayer is busy chattering.

How difficult this is!  When we sit down for half an hour – without talking to someone, listening to music, watching television, or reading a book – and try to become very still, we often find ourselves so overwhelmed by our noisy inner voices that we can hardly wait to get busy and distracted again.  Our inner life often looks like a banana tree full of jumping monkeys!  But when we decide not to run away and to stay focused, these monkeys may gradually go away because of lack of attention, and the soft gentle voice calling us the beloved may gradually make itself heard. (Henri Nouwen, pp. 27 and 28)

This inner stillness is an essential part of prayer, since prayer is even more profitably listening than it is speaking.  And in most of our lives, stillness is not just going to happen on its own.

We simply need quiet time in the presence of God.  Although we want to make all our time, time for God, we will never succeed if we do not reserve a minute, an hour, a day, a week, a month, or whatever period of time for God and him alone.  This asks for much discipline and risk taking because we always seem to have something more urgent to do and just “sitting there” and “doing nothing” often disturbs us more than it helps.  But there is no way around this.  Being useless and silent in the presence of our God belongs to the core of all prayer. (Henri Nouwen, p. 98)

How to Begin to Pray

We can begin anywhere, with any kind of prayer.  The Book of Common Prayer, in its catechism, gives these types of prayer:  adoration, praise, thanksgiving, penitence, oblation (or offering ourselves), intercession, and petition.  Any drawing nearer to God is good.  He promises that “Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you.”  (Jeremiah 29:12)  But one good place to start, one discipline that helps us work through the temptation to pray only selfishly, is commanded by Jesus in Matthew 5:44: praying for our enemies.

If you wish to learn the love of God, you have to begin by praying for your enemies. ( Henri Nouwen, p. 35)

If you have no words to offer for your enemies – and sometimes we are too hurt to be able to pray well – here are some you may borrow.

Merciful and Loving Father, We beseech Thee most humbly, even with all our hearts, to pour out upon our enemies with bountiful hand, whatsoever things Thou knowest will do them good.  And chiefly a sound and uncorrupt mind wherethrough they may know Thee and love Thee in true charity and with their whole heart, and love us Thy children for Thy sake.  Let not their first hating of us turn to their harm, seeing that we cannot do them good for want of ability.  Lord, we desire their amendment and our own.  Separate them not from us by punishing them, but join and knit them to us by Thy favorable dealing with them.  And seeing that we be all ordained to be citizens of one Everlasting City, let us begin to enter into that way here already by mutual Love which may bring us right forth thither.  (Prayer for Our Enemies, 16th century England)

What If We Are Driving Ourselves Crazy about Prayer?

Instead of approaching contemplation compulsively, discover how to love God joyfully with a gentle and peaceful disposition of body and soul.  Wait patiently for God.  Be courteous.  Don’t tear into it like a hungry dog, no matter how eager you may be. (The Cloud of Unknowing, Chapter 46)

This has to be said. We don’t want to approach prayer like a dog in a feeding frenzy. We sometimes try so hard we get a little nutty. The danger then is that we will give up altogether on trying to be closer to God.  Let me finish with a marvelously sane piece of advice.  Anthony Bloom, author of Beginning to Pray, tells of a conversation he had with an elderly woman.

The old lady said, “These fourteen years I have been praying the Jesus Prayer almost continually, and never have I perceived God’s presence at all.”  I said, “If you speak all the time, you don’t give God a chance to place a word in. . . . Go to your room after breakfast, put it right, place your armchair in a strategic position. . . .Just sit, look round, and try to see where you live, because I’m sure that if you have prayed all these fourteen years it is a long time since you have seen your room.  And then take your knitting and for fifteen minutes knit before the face of God, but I forbid you to say one word of prayer.  You just knit and enjoy the peace of your room.”

She didn’t think it was very pious advice but she took it.  After a while she came to see me and said, “You know, it works. . . .  I got up, washed, put my room right . . .then I settled in my armchair and thought ‘How nice!  I have fifteen minutes during which I can do nothing without being guilty!’ and I looked round and for the first time in years I thought ‘Goodness, what a nice room I live in.’ . . . I remembered that I must knit before the face of God, and so I began to knit.  And I became more and more aware of the silence . . . I had no need of straining myself, and then I perceived that this silence was not simply an absence of noise, but that the silence had substance. . . .  All of a sudden I perceived that the silence was a presence.  At the heart of the silence there was He who is all stillness, all peace, all poise.” (pp. 92-94)

Why Do We Pray?

“O God,” I said, and that was all.  But what are the prayers of the whole universe more than expansions of that one cry?  It is not what God can give us, but God that we want.  (George MacDonald)

“I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time—waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God—it changes me.” (C.S. Lewis)

Sources:

The quotations of Fenelon, Chapman, the 16th century prayer for our enemies, and George MacDonald, as well as the direct quotation of the author herself, are from Elizabeth Gray Vining, The World in Tune.  Wallingford, PA:  Pendle Hill Publications, 1954.

Anonymous 14th century English author, The Cloud of Unknowing, Bernard Bangley, ed.  Brewster, MA:  Paraclete Press, 2006.

Henri Nouwen, The Essential Henri Nouwen, Robert A. Jonas, ed.  Boston, MA:  Shambhala Publications, 2009.

Anthony Bloom, Beginning to Pray.  Mahwah, NJ:  Paulist Press, 1970.

Comments

  1. “Being useless and silent in the presence of our God belongs to the core of all prayer.”

    I love Henri Nouwen. You have so many great quotations about prayer here, Chaplain Mike. Nouwen, Lewis, MacDonald are all becoming great buddies of mine. 🙂 Now if I can only yield to grace the way they did…

  2. Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

    I’ve something to add regarding composed prayer, especially the kind that is part of some sort of “daily office” or “divine office” or “liturgy of the hours,” etc. Since it’s something that’s being done by many members of a given community (even if they’re not all physically together), it can create a sense of being part of greater Church and foster a sense of unity with Christians you don’t even know. At least that’s how it works for me. As Steve Brown said regarding praying the psalms, sometimes we need to learn how to mean “we” when we pray “I” and “I” when we pray “we.”

  3. Reading composed prayers are definitely much more beautiful than listening to a quick, sloppy, spontaneous prayer where every other word is a fumbling, “and uh, Lord Jesus,” or “Father God,” where the person has taken no time to think about the holy God they are approaching. Not that they aren’t trying, but too often (and I am guilty as well) many are trying to get out the door to beat the Methodists to the buffet.

  4. Christiane says

    From the 1300’s A.D., St. Birgitta of Sweden:

    “O Lord, make haste and illumine the night.
    Say to my soul
    that nothing happens without Your permitting it,
    and that nothing of what You permit is without comfort.
    O Jesus, Son of God,
    You Who were silent in the presence of Your accusers,
    restrain my tongue
    until I find what should say and how to say it.
    Show me the way and make me ready to follow it.
    It is dangerous to delay, yet perilous to go forward.
    Answer my petition and show me the way.
    I come to You as the wounded go to the doctor in search of aid.
    Give peace, O Lord, to my heart. ‘

  5. AWESOME! – I think you quoted all my favorite writers!

    • I don’t know who your favorites are, Brian, but another good seminal source on prayer that wasn’t mentioned is Andrew Murray. Have you read his “With Christ in the School of Prayer”?

  6. I know it may not be conventional, and some may not call it prayer, but in my personal prayer life it is more about expressing emotion without words.

    I have often thought, in the case of a deaf person who has never been taught human words, how would they pray? I think with emotions.

    If you sense that because of your own depravity you are not wise enough to know what to ask for? pray with emotions. Trust the Holy Spirit to translate.

  7. levels they haven’t yet achieved / all I’ve achieved myself/ quotations from people a lot farther down the road than I am.

    I can’t even read furthur than this…because I am already feeling burdened with the “Christian Life”. I am sorry but this is Christian muscle building that is beyond me. My life has been an example of needy ‘failure-pants’ who either has Christ or nothing and the words like ‘achievement’ and being ‘furthur down the road’ are way beyond my abilities. I have failed to even live up to the beginning of your exhortations…who will help me?

    • The Christian life begins in failure, Mark, and insofar as our own strength is concerned, ends in failure. We are called not to achievement in our own strength — I’m sorry if I’m still not making that clear — but to faith in God’s strength. He is strong enough to save us and to sanctify us. As Chaplain Mike wrote in his post on transformation, we may not see the results of sanctification in our lifetime, but we are called to have faith that spiritual growth can happen and is happening. May God grant us the grace to cooperate with and not obstruct the process of spiritual growth.

      • Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

        Yep. Spiritual formation is a journey, often in the form of the cliched “two-steps-forward-one-step-back” sort of way. I wish I could remember where I first heard this analogy, but often times our faith journey like driving on a dark road with your headlights on. Those lights don’t let you see very far down the road, but it’s enough to keep you on the road and not crashing into something.

    • “Christ died for the ungodly”.

      If you are ungodly, Mark, then Christ died for you.

      “He will certainly complete the good work He began in you…”

      Whether you cooperate…or not.

    • Mark – wanted to let you know I thought what you wrote resonated with me as an example of a thoroughly Biblical prayer in and of itself. While I think that dicipline and strengthening are part of Christian growth, they’re discipline in trusting and being molded by God and finding his strength in our weakness, not in performing or achieving or climbing ladders. Hope you don’t mind if I take some of your heart’s cry as my prayer for myself (and for you).

      • Well, sg , I agree with you, and thanks for all the comments. My dilemma with the post concerns the phrasing and the theme which is a lesson on how to pray that takes on a very palpable sense of ‘prayer is work’…there are ‘levels to achieve’ , ways to accomplish it that can be judged as good or not so good. It takes something good, that can be a gift, to something that is akin to sit-ups and how my abs look. It is a subtle difference most of the time, but wow, what a difference, at least to me.

        I am stealing an excerpt of ‘Judgement and Love’ from Mockingbird Ministries…a part written by John Zahl..

        “The dinnner was delicious and over dessert we started to talk about God. I kept quiet and let my roommate do most of the talking, especially when the conversation turned to personal devotion. The advisor soon began exhorting him on the importance of prayer, especially prayer in the morning. Perhaps foolishly, I offered that I liked to pray in the shower and that maybe it would be a good idea for my roommate to do likewise. The advisor immediately dismissed my suggestion and told me, “David, we’re talking about a different level here.” It seems almost silly now, but the comment crushed me. I left the house feeling ashamed and confused.”

        The way we present these things is paramount if it is not to appear like the judgemental feel of the advisor…admittedly difficult, but ultimately devastating if done wrong. Just my opinion though:)

        • Thanks for your well thought out reply, Mark. I know what you mean: spiritual life cannot be reduced to steps or procedures, and I realize that these articles I’ve been writing could seem to be promoting that very mistaken view of relationship with God. The language I’ve used rubs you the wrong way, and I can understand that, too. But at the same time I do believe that what I’m saying resonates with some people who may understand it differently than you do. Our relationship with God is — in some ways — similar to our relationship with a spouse. The ideal in both cases is free, effortless love and grace. But over the years dry periods come when that free exchange isn’t possible, and then effort and discipline are temporarily necessary. The question is what types of effort and discipline are good and helpful and what types are bad. Godly people over the centuries have had things to say about helpful disciplines, and I wanted to share some of their thoughts with people who need to hear them. If what I say is oppressive or unhelpful to you, please toss it aside. Not everyone needs the same thing at the same time.

          By the way, I think praying in the shower is great. I spent years with no running water and no hot water, and I think I offer sincere thanks to God every time I get in the tub. Those men talking about a “different level” sound a bit gnostic to me. I’m not sure that I can justify why I think Elizabeth Gray Vining and the author of the Cloud of Unknowing are NOT gnostic — perhaps just by the charity that flows through their words and the fruits of their lives as far as we know them.

          Thanks for not giving up on the topic. I need to hear what you have to say.

          • Thanks Damaris, and I had to laugh at your commenting that my reply was ‘well thought out’..unfortunately, I am more impulsive than I would like to be and not as well thought out as I would want to be. And I appreciate your comment very much and hope my disagreements are not taken too seriously.

            I love the quotes on prayer that you give at the end from MacDonald and Lewis. I love McDonald for his fantasy and poetry etc.

            I do have difficulty with the concept of effort and discipline as you present them, but my hope is that those who employ them are doing so knowing that God’s free, effortless love and grace are not dependent upon how well they perform them or whether they perform them at all. But that is my view, that the gospel is the power of God and leads to the things that we hope for in relating to God. But it is not easy for any of us, I grant:)

  8. I am a lapsed Catholic (now attending a Baptist Church), but I am still very much attracted to St. John of the Cross, Teresa of Avila, etc and find good prayer and meditation advice from them as well as more recent Catholic monastics like Merton. I recently read a book by the Jesuit James Martin which had some great guidance on prayer. I find this article very helpful and will refer to it often.

  9. David Cornwell says

    Many years ago, a few times, I found myself in a room full of preachers who were praying. I think they were praying for revival. Everyone was kneeling and everyone was praying at the same time, out loud, and loudly. I know they were praying to God and I hope God could listen to that jumble better than I could. I never did like it and always felt stressed and confused afterward. Even if I wanted to pray in that atmosphere there wasn’t any way I could to it. I usually left in just a few moments after realizing what I’d gotten myself into.

    The first times this happened to me was when I was very young and immature (about 17). This didn’t teach me anything positive.

    Thanks for this post.

  10. Ah… wonderful stuff. And you referenced “the Cloud of Unknowing” which I like to take with me when I go on silent retreat, just to read small pieces before I sit in quiet….

  11. No mention of Centering Prayer that comes from the book Cloud of Unknowing. The method is taught mainly by Thomas Keating

  12. For those who like St. John of the Cross and The Cloud of Unknowing, as well as for those who are in a dark or desert place in your prayer life right now, I highly recommend Fr. Thomas Green’s When The Well Runs Dry. Buy it. Read it.

    “How long will your time of darkness last? How much longer are you planning to live?” (Fr. Green)

  13. DAVID RHIND says

    For a month now i have your blog in my favorites .I often find a lot of inspiration in here.I was wondering if any one knows anything about the picture of the person praying at the top of this post.I bought this picture about five years ago and i have it hanging in my kitchen .any help would be appreciated.Thanks david