Friday, April 05, 2013

Explaining prayer?

I have been trying to find my way recently through a thicket of thoughts about prayer. Prayer has been so important to me in my Christian life – the central calling, as I have felt – that it is really quite hard for me to look at it at all objectively.

Ever since I can remember, I have wanted to know how things worked. Not just the mechanics of things, but what was at the heart of them, what “made them tick”. I am still that way. I find it hard to pray unless I have an idea, a theory, of how prayer works.

To be honest, I am not sure if this is possible. There are many models used by different people at different times to try and explain how prayer works, from “asking big daddy in the sky,” to making oneself, one’s own will and capacities, available to God for his will and purposes. Asking “in Jesus’ name” too has come to complicate the understanding of prayer, it then being necessary to point out that this is not a magical formula, but is in fact praying according to God’s will, with the same obedience to that will that Jesus himself showed throughout his life, death and resurrection.

Paul, of course, came closest to my own experience when he wrote,

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. (Romans 8.26-27)

If God is spirit, eternally and universally present and yet beyond time and space, then he/she/it is not “a person” as we understand the word “person” at all. Just as God is not a thing, but No Thing, isness itself, God is as far beyond our human concept of personhood as humanity is beyond algae, quite possibly further.

We know the trace of God in the human heart, the light (John 1.5) in the eyes of each of us, in the eyes (Psalm 104.27-30) of those who are not human, too.

In 1656 George Fox wrote,

Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations, wherever you come, that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.

“That of God in every one.” If there is that of God even in me, then if I come into his presence, as Michael Ramsey wrote in Canterbury Pilgrim, with the needs – and the pain, and the longing – of the world on my heart, how can God not be moved to the good, finally (Romans 8.28) of those women, men, animals, all creation, whom I love as best I know how to love?

Contemplation is for all Christians... [It] means essentially our being with God, putting ourselves in his presence, being hungry and thirsty for him, wanting him, letting heart and mind move towards him; with the needs of the world on our heart.

(Michael Ramsey, Canterbury Pilgrim)


  1. This is so interesting. Prayer for me for a long time was always in that "ask for stuff" category. When one day that simply ran into a wall, and I saw that it wasn't really just about that I was quite disoriented. Who was I to have this list of requests, wanting things to be this way or that way? What about "thy will be done"? I felt as if I weren't seeing something obvious.

    I struggled a while to understand why I should pray at all if that familiar way of praying "for things" wasn't fitting anymore. And then it began to make sense. I framed it as prayer formerly being "aspiration" and now being "affirmation." Prayer - and even when it is vocal, ritual prayer - became more of a participating in God's presence in all its forms - both the joys and sorrows, etc. as you describe.

    But something else came to me more recently, which is a sense of timelessness in prayer, a sense that prayer "already always is." It makes that sense of "being with" even stronger.

    Sometimes when I am praying in words, I feel as if all the centuries of people praying those words are resonating together in this moment. Or that the prayers - silent or spoken - are not something I or anyone else does, but something that just endlessly resonates through the universe, by itself. A bit like humming a note that resonates with the symphony already being played, perhaps? It moves me to tears, often.

    1. _The Book of Privy Counseling_ says to empty yourself of all thoughts, do not use words, if possible, and give your very substance of being, "naked," to God, who is the ground of our being.

  2. I sometimes wonder, Ona, if the presence in the universe of dark (i.e. indetectable by our senses) matter and energy is not something to do with all this... I'm not, I hope, working myself up to anything bizarre, but your words about "something that just endlessly resonates through the universe, by itself..." resonate very strongly with what I sense myself. "That of God in everyone" is in fact in and through all that is: as Paul said in Colossians 1.15-17, "He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together."

  3. @Brian - yes, exactly; and Meister Eckhart speaks to this, too. @Mike, yes also: "He is before all things...". I don't yet know my way around scripture as well as some, so I appreciate your pointers.

  4. I think if we ever figure prayer out, it will not be prayer. If the Spirit is moving within us, transforming us into something new and improved each and every day, will not our awareness of Him, our comprehension of Him, and even our communication with Him do the same. I am finding it is more abiding, than saying. More being than doing. Allowing myself to be drawn into Him.....Ah, how sweet it is!!