Part of a series on The Way of Love.
Bishop Curry’s Way of Love provides the church with “practices for a Jesus-centered life.” Many of these practices are traditional Christian disciplines presented in accessible language for an internet age. So, with this resource, Curry is modelling evangelism. The key practices are, Turn, Learn, Pray, Worship, Bless, Go, and Rest.
In this brief essay, I will reflect on “Pray.” I hope to provide some theological reflection on prayer. I will also provide a couple of examples of prayer that you can try.
The 1979 prayer book catechism describes prayer as “responding to God, by thought and by deeds, with or without words.” This broad definition is meant to allow for many aspects of Christian life to be swept up into prayer. It is important to notice that, for a tradition and a scriptural canon that tends to emphasize prayer as words directed to God, prayer actually encompasses aspects of our relationship with God that go beyond verbal exchange. Prayer is at least verbal, but not solely so. Our relationships with one another inherently involve conversation. But our embodied relationship with one another is not merely verbal. We have body language, hugs, kisses, and sexual union as a part of the human expression of love. We have more subtle forms of presence, such as even sitting together in silence. The variety and subtlety of human encounter, in many cases, translates over into our relationship with God — a relationship defined by God’s willingness to relate to us in our humanity — and that ultimately expressed in his Incarnation as Jesus Christ.
Perhaps we could define prayer as deliberate acts and disciplines that open us to connect to, and communicate with, God. This would include listening deeply to God and prayerful meditation on Scripture. This kind of meditation is the foundation of the Christian monastic tradition. We can also include contemplation of the divine nature. This kind of contemplation is the foundation of both Christian philosophical theology and Christian mysticism. Of course, prayer is also words. But it is not simply petition or intercession. Prayer is thanksgiving and praise. We give God thanks for what he has done. We also praise and adore God simply for who God is, in God’s very nature, independent of God’s relationship with creation. Prayer is also lament, invocation, penitence, oblation, etc.
Although we can certainly include non-verbal actions as prayers — actions speak louder than words — nevertheless, as a religion of the Logos, we need to understand such action-prayers as existing within the context of some kind of intelligible intercourse or conversation with our divine dialogue partner. Fasting is prayer. But going without food only becomes fasting when we dedicate that discipline to God in prayer. Such prayer most often ought to take the form of words. In this case, words of oblation: “Lord, please accept this fast.”
The main thing to hold on to for a Christian understanding of and approach to prayer is that God is always waiting to meet with us, greet us, and welcome us into his presence. All we have to do is spend some time, every day, in prayer, and we are promised that God will be there — whether we always feel that presence or not. So, as with any relationship, regular interaction is key. But it does not need to be overwhelming. How about the Lord’s Prayer once in the morning, and once before bed? Such seemingly tiny habits quickly build into significant and long-lasting transformation of our lives.
I have heard people contrast the way of prayer with the way of action in the world — often to the detriment of prayer. Why pray when there are so many neighbors to love? This assumes that praying for our neighbor is somehow not “real,” or somehow does “nothing.” But this fails to achieve full faith in God, God’s presence, and the real action of God in our lives. Praying for our neighbor is both love of God, simply by turning to God in prayer, and also genuine love of neighbor.
Many readers may already be familiar with core, verbal prayers. I would like to conclude this brief post with a suggestion for meditation as a way to engage prayer. Meditation is a form of non-verbal prayer where we simply become still and know that Jesus is our God. We dwell intentionally with God. It is also an opportunity to pray with our imaginations — freed from discursive content. And we can build this into our regular prayer practice. Planting such little seeds can grow, over time, a transformative Rule of Life for ourselves.
Settle into place and get still. Invoke the presence of God. Take a few deep breaths and relax. It may help to close your eyes. Breathe in and imagine that you are taking away any anxiety or fear you may have and giving it to Christ. Then exhale and imagine you are giving yourself the deep peace of Christ. Envision yourself and watch yourself slowly resting in Christ’s presence. After you have established this, let it go.
Next, imagine someone in your life you truly love and shift the focus to him or her. Breathe in all of that person’s tension, fear, anxiety, and pain. Lift this up to Jesus to carry away. Breathe out to them all you hope for them in Christ. Envision them relaxing into Christ’s presence and being filled with genuine joy. Once you have established this, let it go.
Finally, imagine someone who is your enemy. I know what you are thinking, perhaps: “I am a Christian! I don’t have enemies.” But is this true? Who was the last person who really bugged you? Whom do you avoid? Who frightens you? Before whom would you feel shame if you saw that person walking down the street toward you? Those are the people you can love through prayer. Choose one and focus on him or her.
Now make the same exchange for that person. Breathe in all their pain, fear, anxiety and woe. Give it to Jesus to carry away. Then breathe out to them, from the Holy Spirit within you, everything that person needs from Christ to be full of joy and freedom and peace. Once this is established, let it go. Conclude with a prayer for your enemy.
Try this for two weeks on one of your enemies. Let us know in the comments what changes. I promise that something will.
Blessings on your prayer life during this Lenten journey.
The Rev. Dr. Nathan Jennings is the J. Milton Richardson associate professor of liturgics and Anglican studies at Seminary of the Southwest.