I once knew a man who was taught to pray by folding his hands, bowing his head, closing his eyes and talking to God just like talking to a friend. For years this man tried his best.Yet when the “amen” came, he felt like a failure. He just couldn’t pray that way. He felt something must have been wrong because he couldn’t pray like he should.
This is likely to happen to all of us at some point in our lives. Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8). Yet so often we ask and ask, only to wonder if anyone is listening or if there is something wrong with us.
How is our spiritual life nurtured through prayer anyway? Where does prayer fit into the spiritual life? Is it necessary to pray or to pray well to be spiritually healthy? If I learn to pray better, will my life improve? In the brief space I have here I can merely begin to address these important questions that many people ask.
Let’s first of all find the place of prayer in the spiritual life. In his The Sermon on the Mount, St. Augustine of Hippo suggested seven steps as a kind of outline for the Christian life. I will comment here on the first three. While it may not seem natural or comfortable, the first step, the direction toward healing and comfort in Christ Jesus, is the step of surrender. This comes to us as a gift of the Holy Spirit. In the water of our Baptism God gives us the Holy Spirit to walk each day with us along this spiritual path. Due to our sin we would not willingly follow Jesus nor walk this path of holiness without the Spirit’s aid. Martin Luther picks up this theme in his catechetical explanations to the third article of the Creed.
The great gift of the Holy Spirit is this gift of surrender to God. Surrender is another word for refocus. The Holy Spirit calls us to turn back toward our God–to take time for our God. but to which god are we to surrender? The god of laws? The god of anger? By no means! The God we worship is the God of love (see Matthew 22:34-40). Yes, sometimes love can look tough. Still, the desire of our Lord is much more gentle. It’s like the advertising image from years back, of a young person on a hot, sunny day, slowly leaning backwards and falling into the delicious coolness of a swimming pool. This may be close to what our Lord has in mind; falling deeply and passionately in love with the God who deeply and passionately loves us. It is only our own sin which makes this falling in love so hard.
That sad reality leads us to the second of St. Augustine’s steps. By the Spirit calling us to turn our attention to our God, we must at the same time turn our attention away from something else. Many times our attention is captured by pleasures and pains which occupy our waking moments. Giving more time and attention to Jesus means we have less time and attention for those pleasures and pains. Oddly enough this usually results in sorrow. Sorrow is St. Augustine’s second step. Giving up the pleasures and pains which keep us away from our God causes sorrow. For example, many people enjoy the pleasure of sleeping late one morning each week. Often that is Sunday morning. In order to give more time and attention to God we may feel the need to worship God in church. Sorrow comes when we give up that wonderful pleasure of sleeping in. No one said that being a Christian was going to be easy.
Giving up those pleasures and pains that would take time away from God make time for God. This brings us to the third of St. Augustine’s steps: the step of prayer. Prayer takes time and requires our attention. In order to pray to God we must give up those pleasures and pains which become a barrier to God. The surrender of step one is met again in step three.
Prayer has both a public and a private side. Private prayer is the daily prayer we say as we wake in the morning or just before our eyes close at night. It is the prayer we say when we narrowly avoid an accident or when someone needs our help and we can’t be with them. Public prayer is community prayer—the corporate prayer of the church. We need both public and private prayer for a full and balanced prayer life.
Prayer in general introduces us at a deeper and deeper level to the God who has called us away from the pleasures and pains we mentioned in step two. In coming to know the beauty and love of Jesus our sorrow is vindicated. We learn that our sorrow was worth it. Learning to devote more and more time to prayer, we begin to change. It is a change for the better. Our world begins to expand as we learn that God loves not only ourselves, but our whole community and our whole world. The more time and humble attention we give our Lord, the more we are drawn out of our self-centeredness and the more the Spirit can become a blessing through us for the sake of others. This process may not make life easier, but it will make it better.
The way we move through these first three steps depends on who we are. I use the ancient personality and spirituality assessment system called the Enneagram to describe this. According to the Enneagram we all find our own personality in one of three different centers. These centers describe the focus of our attention. If the center of our attention is to ask “Am I happy?” all we do, the way we learn and the way we love will be geared to answer that question. If we are centered on, “What do you think of me?” we will devote ourselves to that question. The third center asks, “Does this make sense?” and leads us to constantly try to understand what is going on around us.
If my own happiness is my central concern in life, the surrender of St. Augustine’s first step will not be attractive to me at first. Only when I understand the deeper happiness that comes from walking daily with God will I willingly enter into surrender. Step two, sorrow, becomes understood as giving up lesser pleasures in favor of greater pleasures.
The second center asks what others think of me. Augustine’s step one asks me in this center to stop asking everyone except God this very important question. Giving time and attention to God tells me what Jesus thinks of me. The sorrow of step two increasingly becomes regret that we haven’t asked Jesus sooner. More often, more consistently and more deeply Jesus tells us he loves us.
The last center wants the world to make sense. Giving up human-made models of reality in favor of God’s story is what surrender means in this center. Sorrow is most deeply felt when we are half way in the change-over, knowing that everything else is shallow yet we still don’t know enough about God to understand completely why everything is the way it is.
Moving back to St. Augustine’s step or prayer, we might ask how people in the first center find strength in their prayer life. Many ways to pray may be used, but the prayer of silence is especially appropriate for those centered on seeking happiness. Silent prayer is very simple. Just find a quiet place, repeat a love word to God softly and let it go. Then simply remain in silence, waiting for Jesus to speak. The voice of our Lord will be just as silent: a word spoken deeply in the heart.
Prayer in the second center is a conversation with God deep in our own soul. There are many ways to do this. One way is to close our eyes and imagine meeting Jesus anywhere we want. We come close to Jesus in this scene. We sit down and wait for Jesus to speak. This begins that deep inner conversation that helps people in this center who want to know what others think of them.
Finally, people in the third center need to focus on something outside of themselves. That’s because third center people live too much in their heads. Closing our eyes makes it very hard to quiet the active mind because the mind is no longer distracted by the outside world. Such activities as praying through icons and praying with music uses that external focus to quiet the mind so that we may clearly hear the voice of our Lord talking back to us.
May God bless each of us as we begin again to be nurtured, strengthened, and loved by our god through prayer.