Prayer is responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with and without words.
God is a self-giving and loving presence in our lives. God creates, redeems and sustains the whole universe in every minute of every day. We cannot draw a single breath – nor live a single moment – except by the grace of God. Because God’s power and action in our lives is so phenomenal, the human relationship with God easily becomes one sided. How are we to respond to God’s amazing grace? How can we be in an ongoing and meaningful relationship with such a great and generous friend? The answer: Prayer.
By praying each day we attend to our relationship with God. By regularly praying we respond to God’s grace, offering something of our selves (our time and energy) as a gift back to God. Prayer may be a conversation with God in which words and thoughts are exchanged, but it need not be, for prayer is first and foremost a response to God’s presence and grace in our lives. Prayer is a thank you and it is a gift. Praying is how we stay in healthy relationship with God.
At St. Paul’s, there are regular opportunities to learn to enter into and maintain a regular rhythm of prayer, particularly prayer with scripture. These include the Basics classes, which are offered every year, and weekly Bible Studies.
Every year for the past fifteen years I have taught people how to pray for 20 minutes every day. Here are the 5 things my students have found most useful.
Create your own Sacred Space. Set aside a beautiful, uncluttered space that becomes your very own Oratory. People have come up with a range of solutions. Many have cleared away an underused desk or table. Some have become what they jokingly call a ‘closetarian.’ I have one student whose home life was chaotic and so she chose to leave home early for work and park under a favorite tree. She then pulled an icon out of her glove compartment to change her car, at least for a time, into sacred space.
Pick a time and stick with it. If our time of prayer keeps migrating to different times of the day, our practice is likely to wither. A healthy prayer practice, like a healthy diet, involves regular and reliable times. Research has shown that people who want to exercise regularly are most successful if they do it first thing in the morning, second most successful in late afternoon, and least successful if they try to do it around lunchtime. The same thing is true about prayer. Further, while it is fine and good to say prayers before bed, that is not the best time to dedicate to the 20 minute practice because the long term depth of our experience depends on our being alert. Most people find first thing in the morning to be the best time.
Play! There is no one-right-way to pray. The Christian tradition has developed a wide range of practices, many of them presented with wit and good humor in The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Prayer. Practices differ according to our temperament and the season of life we are in. Possibilities include prayer beads, icons, journaling and many classic prayer liturgies easily found on the internet. Don’t be afraid to play and experiment for a while until you find the mix of practices that truly suits you!
The Top Three Practices. There are three practices that I have seen people most often embrace that have sustained them well over the long haul. They are:
- Morning Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer. People from all denominations are rediscovering this English treasure. Morning Prayer was shaped in the 16th century and based on ancient monastic practice but re-interpreted for ordinary lay people. The whole liturgy takes about 20 minutes.
- Centering Prayer. Centering prayer is Christian meditation. The simple practice consists of sitting comfortably with your eyes closed for 20 minutes and using a single word to ‘ever-so gently’ nudge aside thoughts. The master of the practice is Thomas Keating, a monk in the Benedictine tradition who helped reinterpret the practice for modern use in the 1960s. His book Open Mind, Open Heart is the best introduction, and he has many other helpful materials. Many places have Contemplative Outreach communities to support this practice.
- Bible Reading. This ancient practice has gotten a modern push thanks to many who are taking The Bible Challenge, an invitation to read the whole Bible in a year by reading three chapters of the Old Testament, one Psalm and one chapter of the New Testament each day. This tends to take about twenty minutes. Tack on some intercessions and the Lord’s Prayer and there you have your daily time with God!
Find Friends. Peer support is essential. I often help people get into the rhythm of prayer by having a small group meet for six weeks, The first session I teach about prayer, including these five points. Then for the next five weeks we begin each session by checking in about how prayer went that week for us. Knowing we’re going to be checking in with peers gives that little extra motivation. Further, research has shown that if we stick with a new habit for six weeks we are likely to keep that habit for the long haul. When we are getting started in prayer, our support can also be as simple as finding a prayer buddy to help keep us accountable.
One of the most moving things about a regular prayer practice is a deep feeling we get from time to time that, even though we are physically alone, our prayers are joining the prayers of brothers and sisters in Christ around the world.