“Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1b). This heartfelt request of the disciples still resonates within us today. Their desire to know what it means to pray and how to pray is also our desire, yet we often find that having a rich prayer life eludes us. Prayer is more than conscious thought or organized activity. It is multifaceted at its core: urgent yet slow; delving deep yet reaching out; and layered with past, present and future. I don’t believe we can create prayer; rather, it is the moment of intersection of the Holy Spirit and our soul that seeks to be in communion with our God.
First and foremost, prayer is itself a gift initiated by God to which we are invited to participate. In response to this invitation, we find a yearning to embrace and call out the name of our God and be in relationship in spoken and unspoken dialogue with the divine. Therefore, to write about prayer as a spiritual practice is only to skim along the edge of this fathomless deep, and simply point out the places where we might wade in, toes sinking into the soft silt and letting ourselves become accustomed to the call and response of prayer in all its marvelous point and counterpoint of weight and buoyancy, light and shadow, energy and calm. Given the richness of prayer, it’s not surprising that it can be difficult to grasp its fullness or know where to begin when attempting to incorporate prayer as a new spiritual discipline.
Three dispositions toward prayer
Over time, I have noticed three broad dispositions toward prayer. The first is an attitude that prayer is best confined to corporate worship (offered by the “professional prayers,” such as pastors), but is not engaged in regularly outside of worship or perceived to be a “productive” activity. This disposition was illustrated clearly for me one Tuesday morning many years ago when I walked into a church office looking for the associate pastor. I asked the volunteer manning the desk if the associate pastor was busy and if could I see her. She replied, “She’s not busy, she’s just over in the sanctuary praying.” Insert long, awkward silence here. I did not, for the record, interrupt the pastor’s prayer time. This is not a judgment on the volunteer, but it is perhaps a convicting moment for the church whose promise to nurture and encourage one another in faith includes teaching and equipping our members in the ways and importance of spiritual disciplines, such as prayer, which is integral to more than just our worship services.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, we find those people for whom all of life is prayer that deeply shapes and informs the rhythm of each day. This disposition is rarely an innate quality, but has been developed and given thoughtful attention over many years, and likely began with simple words, inward sighs and unvoiced yearnings; therefore, this prayer-full life is also available to each one of us.
Finally, there is a disposition of cautious approach, wherein there is a drawing toward prayer that is couched in slight mystification and uncertainty about the prayer discipline itself. This last category, I believe, includes the majority of Christians. Even lifelong churchgoers have confessed to me that they simply “don’t know how” to pray. And that makes me wonder: As pastors and spiritual leaders, are we guilty of taking it for granted that parishioners not only know how to pray but are doing so regularly beyond Sunday morning?
Challenges to prayer practices
Developing any regular spiritual practice is not without its challenges, and this is particularly true of prayer. The first challenge (alluded to previously) is that prayer is perceived to be either a non-productive or a self-centered activity. The second challenge I routinely encounter is the “delivery system,” which involves the idea that prayers have to be said a certain way and using certain words, otherwise they are rendered unacceptable. Related to this is the misconception that we have to pray for a prescribed period of time or with particular intensity to “activate” our prayers. Another frequent obstacle is the notion that “God is not interested in my small life and its problems when there is so much tribulation in the world.” In other words, people don’t want to bother God with their prayers. Lastly, there is the volume fallacy – a belief that the sheer number of prayers is key to swaying God’s will, and if not enough people are praying, the prayer will fail. If none of the above is an issue, this usually is: “I don’t know how to incorporate a prayer practice into my daily life.” And thus, our prayer lives are undone by logistics and self-sabotage almost from the beginning. While this article is too brief to respond to each challenge in depth, suffice it to say, we are the stumbling block, not God. God desires our prayers and has placed no restrictions, prerequisites or “quality control” measures on how we are to engage in prayer.
In her personal account of a yearlong experiment in learning spiritual practices, Jana Reiss’ book “Flunking Sainthood” lifts up the difficulties we everyday saints face in our attempts at living faithfully. It’s informative reading on many levels, but perhaps most compelling is her openness about failed attempts at various prayer practices. There are many things at play in her successes and failures, just as there will be with ours. We have to find the prayer practices that resonate most with us (otherwise we will not do them); we have to be patient with ourselves as we learn; and we have to remember that in delving into new (and perhaps intimidating) prayer practices, we are encouraged to seek guides such as pastors or spiritual directors. We can, however, begin to explore these practices on our own, and there are a few simple ones with which to start. Remember that “simple” does not in any way imply they are not full and rich practices in and of themselves.
Practices of prayer
For those who struggle with where to begin, the practice of praying the hours may be a useful starting point. Born out of the Jewish tradition of praying at set times of the day (see Psalm 119:164), this practice was later incorporated into Catholic, Orthodox and Anglican traditions. The design of this practice is to prioritize prayer and allow it to shape our days so that prayer is not an afterthought or obligation, but essential in forming a grateful and worshipful posturing of our daily lives toward God. The hours are typically as follows (variations of times and names do occur, and the hour of Eucharist is omitted from private prayer practice): Vigils (2:00 a.m.), Lauds (6:30 a.m.), Terce (8:30 a.m.), Sext (noon), Vespers (6:00 p.m.), and Compline (7:35 p.m.). This practice generally includes prayers, responses, hymns and readings (which are provided). Although it may at first seem restrictive and formulaic, this practice has the potential to create a new orientation for our lives by reframing how we prioritize our time. For those wanting to explore this practice, the late Phyllis Tickle has several accessible and helpful volumes such as: “The Divine Hours” (pocket edition available), “The Night Offices” and “Christmastide” (Advent and Christmas), as well as seasonal editions.
Another prayer practice that helps order the day is known as examen. This practice is done in the evening, ideally just prior to retiring, and supports a prayerful review of the day’s events. First, acknowledge that you are in God’s presence and look at your day with gratitude. Notice what you gave and received and give thanks for the gifts of this day. Invite the Holy Spirit to help you in your understanding of the day and to see yourself and your actions clearly. Ask: How have I responded to God’s gifts today? Then, in your mind, take a slow walk through your day and notice the details, the interactions, the people – taking into account those moments where you may have transgressed or where you may have shown love. Be honest but gentle with your shortcomings, not allowing them to overcome the prayer. Finally, move the prayer toward reconciliation and resolve. Ask for God’s forgiveness for actions or thoughts that fell short and seek guidance for healing the broken places. Give thanks for God’s work in your life and the opportunity to continue to grow in the ways of Christ. Conclude with the Lord’s Prayer. Far from being self-centered, it is a practice that allows for an authentic and unvarnished prayer life to develop wherein no part of our lives is withheld from God and we recognize and give thanks for the grace we have received.
Breath prayer (also called the Jesus Prayer) is not only highly adaptable, but is a practice that may be used alone or as a way to focus before entering into more contemplative prayer. Its origins are largely attributed to the anonymously penned book, “The Way of a Pilgrim,” which recounts a pilgrim’s desire to learn how to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17). It involves repetition of a short prayer said until it becomes like breathing – an unconscious act of prayer ingrained in the body, heart and mind. While we are unlikely to repeat this prayer thousands of times a day as the pilgrim did, we may find its repetitive nature allows us to free ourselves from distractions and focus our thoughts and intentions on being still before God. For the breath prayer, find a comfortable position, close your eyes and repeat this short (traditional) phrase at least three times, inhaling on the first three words, and exhaling on the last four words: Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. The words may be varied and oftentimes psalm verses are used. Its rhythmic pattern also lends itself as a “walking prayer.” This prayer may be practiced anywhere and for any length of time, therefore, it is particularly helpful in acclimating oneself to regularly incorporating prayer into each day without a schedule.
Our last practice is adapted from the Rule of St. Benedict, which stipulated a daily time for “divine reading” or lectio divina for the monastic community. The simplest instruction is that you are asked to slowly read (usually three times) a short passage of Scripture or a psalm and let the words, or a single word or phrase, sink into your mind and heart. As one monastic community describes it, we are not “trying to extract information” from the passage but rather standing “ready to be challenged and formed by the Word,” and in this way our “heart enters into a dialogue with the heart of God.”
Perhaps in no other practice does our understanding of Scripture as a living Word become more apparent than in lectio divina. We may spend days, months or even years with the same passage, gleaning new insights, revelations and depths of gratitude each time. In “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,” Eugene Peterson, who has spent decades contemplating Psalm 108, wrote: “And then as so often happens with these wonderful scriptures we have been given, a word or phrase we are merely toying around with works its way into our lives. Instead of using it for our amusement or edification or whatever, it begins using us.” It is when we are open to the Word, letting it work on us that the lectio divina prayer can become something truly transformative.
These are only a few of many prayer practices available to us as Christians. We are invited to each one, as well as the prayers formed on our lips and given voice, and the ones writ on our hearts in silent meditation. God hears and welcomes them all and we are enabled to enter this dialogue with the simplest of words: “Lord, teach us to pray. Amen.”
Nadine Ellsworth-Moran is an ordained Presbyterian minister who is currently in transition and will begin a new ministry serving at a church in Georgia later this month.