On Prayer

Brenda Rockell
Sunday, 11 September 2005

Play Meaning of Life DVD excerpt ‘Oh God you are so Big.’

It’s funny, but how far is it actually from how we learned to pray, or from the songs we learned to sing?

Here’s another model of prayer:

from Luke 11.

‘Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’ He said to them, when you pray, say Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
as we ourselves forgive
everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.’

The book of Luke has at least seven references to Jesus going off by himself to pray. Sometimes up a mountain, sometimes to a deserted place. Matthew and Mark also refer a number of times to Jesus’ private prayer life. John’s gospel has a number of instances of Jesus praying aloud, for others. The book of Acts begins with the disciples, uncertain but faithful, meeting together in constant prayer, waiting for the coming promise of the Spirit. And we read that the new believers ‘devoted themselves to …the breaking of bread and the prayers.’  The letters of the New Testament refer to prayer as something central and assumed about the life of faith.

I notice two things about the passage I read from Luke. Firstly, that the disciples wanted to be taught to pray. It wasn’t something they already knew. Secondly, the prayer Jesus teaches is very short. There aren’t many words. And yet he was known to spend entire nights in prayer. What was he doing the rest of the time?

I have had the experience recently of feeling the necessity of prayer…the recognition that prayer is the single most important dimension of my work here at Cityside and in my life generally.  And combined with that is the experience of other people suggesting to me that Cityside needs more prayer.

I also notice that in myself, and in the lives of others I know well, one of the first things to go away when one’s theology hits the rocks is an active prayer life. It’s understandable…if I’m unsure who/what/where God is, if I’ve dismantled my image of God as a supernatural Santa Claus who intervenes in events to make the world better for me and others, if my experience of life continues to include suffering even when I pray for healing, then why would I pray? How would I pray? It starts to feel banal and selfish to come to God in private or in public with a list of wants, or even some words of praise.

Furthermore, if the only language I have for prayer includes words and images that don’t fit any more with my understanding of God and the world, then what do I have left to pray with? It can often feel like the things of the Spirit, or the feelings in our hearts, or the ideas we’re grasping towards have no words, no language to do them justice.

Compounding all this, if I’m frustrated with the church, and the ways words are used to manipulate, or abuse power, then corporate prayer can feel at best like unwanted instruction. Or, public prayer can be filled with vacuous and meaningless statements that are part of our culture of extempore prayer…the ‘just really wanna’ prayers. Group prayers can sometimes seem suspiciously like the mere exchange of personal opinions and ideas in a spiritualised form. Prayer can be a passive aggressive substitute for someone saying directly what’s on their mind.

And yet, aware of all this, I still come back to the scriptures that show Jesus engaging in long periods of prayer, by himself, and with his disciples, and to the early Christian communities, which were communities of prayer and sharing.

And to these famous verses, from Romans 8: ‘Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.  And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.’

I think that we need to be praying, dare I say we must, as people of faith, be praying. Our life together, and our personal journeys, should be soaked in prayer. If you’re someone who’s content with your current ways and modes of praying, and find prayer rewarding, and prays often…then great! Go on doing what you’re doing.

And yet, for many of us, renewing and nurturing a life of prayer may mean learning to pray again. Learning to pray in some different ways to how we were originally taught – in some cases some ancient and traditional ways.  Prayer is on the one hand very simple, but on the other hand, God is mysterious, Other, sacred, and divine, and so it’s helpful to be able to draw from the centuries of experience of those who have gone on the journey before us. And those verses from Romans are reassuring in this, because we know that even though we don’t know how to pray as we ought, we know that God not only wants us to pray, but prays in us and for us and through us, even as we grasp after the idea of prayer.

I am not a disciplined pray-er, nor someone who has wonderful experiences of God in prayer. My connection with God doesn’t often feel intimate. I’m not naturally contemplative, and as an extrovert, I’d much rather spend time with my friends in a group than off on my own with the invisible, mysterious, ineffable God. But I’d like to share with you anyway some tools, some ways of praying that I am learning.  And as I’m struggling along trying to put them into practice, I invite you to try them too.

Firstly, here are some definitions of prayer and descriptions of prayer that I have found helpful…more helpful than my default, which is ‘talking to God.’

How about this one: ‘recreation of the soul in God’…I like the word recreation – it implies rest, enjoyment, and also being made anew…and I like the word ‘in’ God, rather than ‘to’ – it implies that God is already all around, we are in the midst of God, and we simply need to open up in a particular way to experience this ‘recreation.’

The following are some words from some nuns in the UK:

‘this is what I’m learning – it is enough just to be there for God. I don’t try to do anything or even be anything…’

‘and that is what my prayer is, just being with the Lord, however that may be – it may be resting or wrestling’

‘you just remember that God urgently, longingly and lovingly desires to communicate him/herself to you. You just sensitize yourself to God, or rather let God sensitize you, which is probably best done in silence, and then just notice the change.’

‘Prayer is a relationship. Sometimes in a relationship you are going to talk and sometimes you are going to be quiet and just be with each other.’

‘I wait upon God, in the expectation that his Spirit will silently grow.’

The thing I notice about each of these descriptions of prayer is they’re about being, rather than doing or saying, and they are about waiting, and letting the initiative in the prayer come from God, not from us. The prayer described here has more to do with being receptive to God, than with telling God things.

I find it helpful to identify four different, overlapping ‘categories’ of kinds of prayer… contemplative, kinaesthetic, liturgical, and verbal.

The latter, verbal prayers I shan’t say much about, because they are the ones we’re most familiar with anyway. In verbal prayer we talk to God, either silently and inwardly, or out loud, on our own or in a group. We may say some words of praise or adoration, or thanksgiving. We may say some words of intercession or petition. We may confess, or plead, or simply chat to God, as to a friend. I have nothing against verbal prayer. Sometimes it’s exactly the thing. It’s just that we’ve been sold it as the only kind of prayer, when there are others.

Contemplative prayer involves simply resting in God, without thought, without agenda, in silence, letting the very centre of my being grow still, and letting God quietly shape and transform me in my depths. Often, in order to achieve the stillness, people use a sacred word or phrase to focus on, or they observe their breathing in and out. Some use icons or other images to focus their mind, others play music that enables them to enter into a deep state of quiet. As every day thoughts, plans, memories, reflections and mental commentaries on the experience rise to the surface they are simply put aside, and attention is returned to the breath, or the sacred word or image. This kind of prayer relies on the trust that we are in God, that God is present with us, and that all we need to do is give God space and permission and God will engage with our deepest selves, below the level of our every day thoughts and activities. 

One of the most important things to know about this form of prayer is that the effects of contemplative prayer are experienced in daily life, not primarily in the time that the prayer is happening. It is not helpful to engage in contemplative prayer actively seeking a sense of peace, or an experience of God – these things may come, but they are not the goal of the session. A good length of time for this kind of prayer is about 20 minutes…with some kind of alarm or something to mark the end, so you’re not constantly looking at the time.

Kinaesthetic, or bodily prayer is just that, prayer that is expressed physically rather than mentally or verbally. This can involve lighting a candle, incense, singing or playing music, or going for a walk. The actual act of walking, begun in the awareness of God, can be prayer without any accompanying words or thoughts. Simply moving through God’s world and noticing, really noticing, the environment, its sights and sounds, and the feeling of movement in the body, can be a form of prayer. The other night I came to the Labyrinth for the first time in ages…it was great…the sense of stillness, the music and candles, and just meditative walking, and the bread and wine. It’s definitely worth taking the time to come and experience it – first Sunday of each month, at 7pm.

I find drawing a really helpful form of kinaesthetic prayer. I draw how I’m feeling, or a scene or series of scenes from the Bible, or a dream I’ve had, and my choice of colour, composition, and where I am in the picture, or the relation of people and objects in the picture…these things communicate with God, and allow God to communicate with me. My pictures aren’t artistic – stick figures mostly. Sometimes I draw God into the picture…either where I feel God is in relation to a situation…or as a prayer or hope, where I would like God to be.

Other body kinds of prayer can include using the body to express devotion – standing, bowing, kneeling, prostrating. My first experience of this was in Taizé, where I took the risk of lying flat on my face before an icon of the crucifixion. There’s something about adopting a certain physical position that enables the heart and spirit to communicate and experience things on a different level. Other rituals and symbolic acts are also prayer, such as throwing wood or stone into water, setting fire to something, planting something, cooking something, and so on…

And then liturgical or poetry based prayer. I find that often my own words aren’t adequate to a situation, or they feel too flat or prosaic. I think that other people’s written prayers can capture the essence and heart of what I would like to pray, in words that are beautiful, or somehow take flight in ways that mine don’t. There are heaps of books out there with prayers and poems…and devotional websites such as the sacred space one. And of course there’s the biblical book of psalms, and the Lord’s Prayer, as traditional sources of praise, confession, etc.
It can help to write out a prayer, say it slowly, change words or phrases if you want, pause between words and lines to let them speak, and then wait in silence for a while to see or hear what thoughts or ideas emerge.

These kinds of prayer that I’ve just described, with the exception of some verbal prayer, are not primarily about changing the world, or trying to achieve something. They are not about getting something we want or need, or having a situation in our lives, or in the world at large, work out in a particular way. There is a place for this kind of prayer – we engage in it most Sundays here, but it’s not the only kind of prayer. Contemplative, reflective, kinaesthetic prayer is about intimacy with God, a sense of touching the sacred, of listening to God’s heartbeat, a healing and reorientation of the soul, taking an image or promise of God deeply into the self. And sometimes, what emerges is a new perspective, an answer to a question, a sense of the next step, an unburdened-ness, and a deeper engagement with the world.

I think it is also possible to engage in meaningful intercession – prayer for others – in more contemplative ways. I remember something Derek C said one Sunday morning as a lead into prayers for others…that intercession involves bringing someone else into the circle of my relationship with God. That is, as I sit with God, in the quietness, I can choose to let someone else into that space too…to open out the ‘me and God’ loop to embrace the needs of another. I don’t need to be articulate about their situation…it may be enough to say their name, or imagine them, to feel for them and give them to God, who already knows all they need.

In some ways, non verbal prayer is harder and riskier than prayer that’s entirely about me speaking, because the wager is that God is real, able to be touched and engaged with. When I come to God only with my words I stay in control of the prayer process…and if God isn’t really there, or doesn’t really listen, I don’t need to notice because I have filled the space with myself. Contemplative prayer on the other hand, trusts and assumes that the Other – God – is not only real, but wants connection with me, and will become present as I create the space. I think that this is one reason I find it hard. I feel confident when I can wrap the world in my words…but there is a frightened place within me that worries that if I sit quietly, I will discover that there is only absence – either God doesn’t exist, or doesn’t want to communicate with me because I’m not spiritual enough. It is that risk I take whenever I choose these other forms of prayer…I invite you to come on that journey with me.

So now, to close, let’s sit in five minutes of silence, followed by the Lord’s Prayer. (I’ve put on overhead the more familiar version, from the Anglican prayer book, which is based on Matthew’s gospel, rather than Luke’s.)

In the stillness, I invite you just to choose a word or phrase that you want to sit with today, and focus on that word, letting other thoughts pass by, along with any noises or distractions.

God…we trust that you are here, and that you wish to meet us in the depths of our selves. We give you this time…and ask you to sit down with us, as we sit down with you, in the silence.