What is our first thought at the mention of the word, “prayer”? For Episcopalians, it may be the Book of Common Prayer. Or we may think of our childhood or even adult practice of kneeling at bedside just before sleep. Perhaps it’s a prayer of thanksgiving at mealtime.
Prayer may be pervasive in our lives, or quite elusive. It may feel as natural as breathing; or we may feel awkward, struggling with words. Or, prayer may be something we relegate to church and its clergy, or we reserve it for emergencies.
In his book, Wishful Thinking, Frederick Buechner begins his section on prayer with this observation: “Everybody prays whether he thinks of it as praying or not. The odd silence you fall into when something very beautiful is happening or something very good or very bad…. The stammer of pain at somebody else’s pain. The stammer of joy at somebody else’s joy. Whatever words or sounds you use for (when reacting to the meaningful moments) in your own life. These are all prayers in their way. These are all spoken not just to yourself but to something even more familiar than yourself and even more strange than the world.”
Whether we identify with prayer as words, postures, silence, or sighs, our experiences with prayer are likely reflected in shifts in ourselves and in our relationship with God. As a young person, I loved praying. I remember summers in the mountains of West Virginia surrounded by God’s creation. My prayers flowed easily inspired by a heartfelt love of God and deep gratitude for the beauty of nature that fed my soul every day. But my life was not to be lived on a mountaintop. Hard lessons of adolescence soon followed, accompanied by disillusionment and questioning. As a young adult, the faith of my childhood had become more of a memory, and prayer an infrequent practice at best.
I returned to church in my early 30s, newly divorced, a single mother. I didn’t see myself as really returning, more as visiting. I wasn’t seeking God on any conscious level. I was merely accepting an invitation from a neighbor, responding out of curiosity, or so I comfortably thought. But once in church, I had even greater curiosity – why did I feel so uncomfortable in this place? Soon after, when a priest invited me to explore that discomfort in spiritual direction – something I’d never heard of – I probably surprised both of us with my immediate, “Yes.”
But, when the priest invited me to pray as part of a daily discipline, my response was just as immediate, “Oh, I can’t do that!” Eyes welling with tears, I tried to explain, “I don’t know if there is a God, and if there is, I don’t want him to know about me. I’m afraid of him – I don’t think he would accept me, and I don’t trust that he would want what I want.”
I wonder if this priest who had just become my spiritual director wondered as much as I did what was I doing there! Undaunted, he gave me verses of scripture from Paul’s letter to the Romans 8:38-40 – not to pray, but simply to repeat as a mantra:
“… neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Repeating a mantra was something I could do. And I repeated it over and over and over again. It became a lifeline, then a bridge, then a deep yearning for relationship with God.
In Wishful Thinking, Buechner also writes of confession: “To confess your sins to God is not to tell him anything he doesn’t already know. Until you confess them, however, they are the abyss between you. When you confess them, they become the bridge.”
I think a very similar statement may be made of prayer. My mantra became a bridge to prayer. Prayer became a bridge to a deeper and deeper relationship with God. Now, some thirty years later, I experience prayer as an on-going journey of relationship with Spirit – the sacred mystery of the presence of God.
There are many pathways in prayer to travel. We are all invited to explore and discover what might be for us new territory in prayer. As Thomas Merton once said, “We do not want to be beginners [at prayer] … but let us be convinced of the fact that we will never be anything but beginners, all our life!” How could it be otherwise? As in all aspects of our lives, we can only begin where we are and take the first step, and each succeeding step from where we stand in the moment.
For some, the Book of Common Prayer or some other prayer book, may be the most comfortable starting point – such books offer a wealth of prayers and practices we might explore. We might consider reading and praying a Daily Office – Morning Prayer, Noonday Prayer, Evening Prayer or Compline – as a path for bringing prayer more intentionally into our lives. If that might seem daunting, we might simply choose a prayer from our prayer book, allow a moment of quiet, and then repeat that same prayer or a new one each day. Praying with a prayer book can be done alone or in companionship. It is helpful to experience and notice the gifts in each approach.
Praying Together/Sharing Prayers
Praying with others is a beautiful experience, whether with prayer partners or a prayer group, praying as a family, or when visiting those in difficulty. Prayer draws us closer to God and closer to each other as we share the concerns of our hearts and the celebrations in our lives. Hearing each others’ prayers, praying for each other, being open and vulnerable in trusted confidential relationships help us to also understand how to be more fully present to each other – not to “fix” or “do” anything, but simply to be a supportive presence.
My son, Ryan, was very ill his seventh grade year. I was deeply concerned about his physical health and also his faith given this difficult time in his young life. When we talked of his faith and his prayers, he was very clear and had total confidence that he would recover fully, that it would just take time. And his prayers were not for himself, but that no one else would have to suffer from his illness. My prayers were for him, while his were for others. Understanding my son’s prayers and his complete confidence strengthened my faith and guided me as to how to be more present to him.
Contemplative prayer and centering prayer are practices to deepen our relationship with God. We no longer have our lists of prayers for ourselves or others or the world, rather we seek the experience of simply being in the presence of Spirit. Thomas Merton is quoted as writing to a Sufi he was corresponding with, “I have a very simple way of prayer. It is centered entirely on attention to the presence of God and to his will and his love. That is to say it is centered on faith by which alone we can know the presence of God.”
Certainly in contemplative and centering prayer, and truly in all forms of prayer, we need to allow time for silence and listening. We need to allow ourselves to hear our own words and possibly be changed by them, and allow space to receive any words Spirit might have for us. As Søren Kierkegaard noted, “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.”
Prayer as Living
Henri Nouwen writes, “When you recognize the festive and the still moments as moments of prayer, then you gradually realize that to pray is to live.” In those moments when we walk gently with love for creation, for each other, and for ourselves – when we see all as gift from God, all as of God – our prayer is our living and our lives are our prayers. Some days these moments may feel sparse if they exist at all. But with attentiveness, we can seek them, as Anne Morrow Lindbergh writes, “Arranging a bowl of flowers in the morning can give a sense of quiet in a crowded day – like writing a poem or saying a prayer.”
In spiritual direction, I invite individuals to notice those moments in their days when they are aware of the presence of Spirit, aware of a quiet moment of grace, aware of a new understanding, or fresh perspective, or immense gratitude in their lives. We all have those moments, and we mostly tend to rush by them, moving on to the next moment, next appointment, and next task at hand. Living in prayer is noticing and acknowledging with thanksgiving God’s presence in our lives. In Meister Eckhart’s words, “If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough.”
Whatever else – just pray
Jesus encourages us to pray and to persist in our prayer. Pray in good times and bad, delight and defeat, in faith and in doubt, in times of vision and times of despair – let prayers flow out of the realness of life. Anne Lamott calls us to this in her book, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. She writes in her direct, refreshing way, “’Help’ is a prayer that is always answered. It doesn’t matter how you pray – with your head bowed in silence, or crying out in grief, or dancing. Churches are good for prayer, but so are garages and cars and mountains and showers and dance floors. Years ago I wrote an essay that began, ‘Some people think that God is in the details, but I have come to believe that God is in the bathroom.’”
However we pray, wherever we are, God is with us. Let us pray.
Thoughts on Prayer
“For prayer is nothing else than being on terms of friendship with God.” –Teresa of Ávila
“Spirituality without a prayer life is no spirituality at all, and it will not last beyond the first defeats. Prayer is an opening of the self so that the Word of God can break in and make us new. Prayer unmasks. Prayer converts. Prayer impels. Prayer sustains us on the way. Pray for the grace it will take to continue what you would like to quit.” –Joan D. Chittister
“Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.” –Mahatma Gandhi
“You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works.” –Pope Francis
Sources and Resources
Buechner, Frederick. Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.
–Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1973.
Eckhart, Meister. Whom God Hid Nothing: Sermons, Writings, and Sayings. Berlin, Germany: New Seeds, 2005.
Fox, Matthew. Meditations with Meister Eckhart. Santa Fe, New Mexico: Bear & Company, 1983.
Lamott, Anne. Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. New York: Riverhead, 2005.
Lindbergh, Anne Morrow. Gift from the Sea. New York: Pantheon, 1991.
Nouwen, Henri J. M. With Open Hands. Notre Dame, Indiana: Ave Maria Press, 2006.
–The Only Necessary Thing: Living a Prayerful Life. New York: Crossroad, 2008.
Pennington, Basil. Centering Prayer: Renewing an Ancient Christian Prayer Form. New York: Doubleday, 2001.