As church people we talk a lot about prayer, less about contemplation. For many of us, though, prayer is something we find hard to come to grips with, especially in the busyness of our lives today. We may think it is easy for, say, the nuns we watched in ABC-TV’s The Abbey, to pray, because that is all that have to do! How do we fit prayer into our busy lives? Why do we need to pray?
What is prayer and why do we pray?
Some will think these are silly questions – of course we know what prayer is, because we’ve always done it and do it still. I only ask the first question, because the answer is important for the answer to the second question – why we pray. One of my favourite teachers on prayer, Mother Mary Clare, was a contemplative nun and a member of the Sisters of the Love of God, an Anglican community in Oxford. Mother Mary Clare wrote, in the introduction to her terrific little booklet Learning to Pray:
Prayer is the gateway to the vision of God for which we were created. It is the means of free and conscious intercourse between the creature and his Creator and it expresses the union between the two. It is the art of spiritual living and will be incomplete if it includes only the art of the presence of God without the necessary complement of the practice of the presence of man.
So, prayer is the way God has given us so that we can be in relationship with him, and so that we can be in relationship with our neighbours:
One of them, a lawyer, asked Jesus a question to test him. “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And Jesus said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:35-40, ESV)
We pray because we love God, and because we want to be more and more Christ-like.
I’d offer this thought to you about prayer, again from Mother Mary Clare:
Prayer is essentially a love affair with God, not schemes or techniques or ways of prayer, but the most direct open approach of each of one us as a person to God our Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier – beyond all methods or ideas.”
Because prayer is a love affair, that means prayer is a two-way thing. When we love someone, anyone, we want to speak with them, but also listen to them. And because we love them, we listen deeply and carefully. Prayer is no different, and no less challenging, because God, to whom we’re seeking to listen is not physically present in front of us.
There are a couple of things I’d like to say about where prayer comes from, what it is, and how we ‘do it’.
Prayer comes from God, and is the action of God in us. God gives us both the desire the pray, and the means to pray. Paul, in the Letter to the Romans explains:
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words (Romans 8:26, ESV).
For the Christian, our prayer is a great privilege, a participation in the life of the Holy Trinity – we pray because the Holy Spirit prays within us. Our job is to be in touch with the movings of the Spirit within us, to make space, time and give value to God’s call to us to pray.
How do we pray?
There are probably as many answers to that question as there are people. Your prayer is your personal relationship with God, and will be different because you’re different to anyone else. Your prayer will reflect the priorities you place on the various elements of your life, your temperament, your values, your inclinations, your place in life – the list could go on for a long time.
In our Anglican tradition there are, classically, two broad elements in our prayer life: the prayer of the church and private prayer. We often treat them as separate things, but in reality they’re very much linked, and one flows into the other and nourishes the other.
The prayer of the church is something we participate in when we attend worship, but which continues each day and all day. It is primarily liturgical prayer – the Eucharist and the Daily Offices (Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer). Our weekly worship each Sunday links us with the prayer of the wider church, and reminds is that we are truly the Body of Christ and thus joined with sisters and brothers throughout the world and throughout time.
Those who pray the Daily Offices continue the prayer of the church, reading the psalms and canticles, studying the Bible and praying for the world. Anyone can pray the Daily Offices, and it is a wonderful reminder that we are linked to the church.
Our private prayer, which we do in the circumstances of our lives, is obviously linked to the prayer of the church, because we’re linked to the church. We can’t separate the two out. Private prayer consists of a lot of things, and can’t be reduced to techniques or schemes. However – some things seem to work better than others for most people.
Setting aside time for God is important. Metropolitan Anthony suggested that your time for prayer should be guarded carefully – take the phone off the hook, tell your family you’re praying and need not to be disturbed, go somewhere you won’t be bothered by others. Setting aside space can be important for some people – like me! This can be as simple as perhaps having a quiet space in the house or garden where you can go.
Allowing sufficient silence is also important. The still small voice of God is difficult to hear in the babble of the world around us. The myriad ‘voices’ of radio, television, newspaper, the Internet, advertising all shout at us and distract us from hearing God. So, an absence of noise and distraction in important.
Time, space and silence are not only important to hear the voice of God, but also because they require us to make an effort, and we thus place a value on praying. This is being intentional – doing something because it is important and valuable to us.
Prayer is bringing what is in our heart to God. The ACTS acronym is a useful reminder – adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication are all important parts of prayer, but so is simply sitting in the presence of God. Metropolitan Anthony described this sort of prayer in the words of an elderly man: “I look at him, and he looks at me, and we are happy.”
Prayer can be hard
There’s no doubt prayer can be hard. The prayer of the church is usually not so difficult for us, because it is something we participate in more or less actively. Our personal prayer, though, requires a bit more effort. There are lots of books written on difficulties in prayer, and there are lots of reasons for difficulties. One of the most common, though, is that we let the ongoing prayer of the Spirit within us get covered up by things that seem important, but are really not. Another common problem is that we try to force our prayer into a ‘scheme’, or expect it to be like everyone else’s.
To finish this meandering article, I’d like to offer a quote from Thomas Merton. Merton writes about the work of the monk in this quote, but his observations apply just as much to us as to the monk:
This age that by its very nature is a time of crisis and of revolution and of struggle, calls for the special searching and questioning which is the work of the monk in his silence, his meditation and his prayer. For the monk searches not only his own heart, but plunges deep into the heart of the world of which he remains a part although he seems to have ‘left it’.
In reality the monk withdraws from the world only in order to listen more intently to the deepest and most neglected voices that proceed from its inner depths. The way of prayer is not a subtle escape from the Christian economy of the Incarnation and Redemption. It is a special way of following Christ, of sharing in his passion and resurrection and in his redemption of the world.
This is precisely the monk’s [the Christian's] chief service to the world, this silence, this questioning, this listening, this humble and courageous exposure to what the world ignores about itself both good and evil. The monk [the Christian] who is truly a man of prayer, and who seriously faces the challenge of his vocation in all its depth, is by that very fact exposed to the emptiness, to the lack of authenticity, to the quest for fidelity and truth and to the lostness of modern man.
Colin Thornby, January 2009