Exploring a Life of Prayer
by Jane E. Vennard
Jane E. Vennard is lecturer in spirituality at The Iliff School of Theology. The Rev. Vennard, ordained in the United Church of Christ, is a spiritual director in private practice in Denver. She leads workshops and retreats throughout the United States and abroad. She is the author of Praying with Friends and Enemies: Intercessory Prayer (Augsburg 1995). The following paper was written in December, 1990.
When I was first invited to teach a class on prayer at the Iliff School of Theology, I responded eagerly and submitted my course proposal with the title "Explorations in Prayer." My basic course was accepted, but the title was changed to "Life of Prayer." My previous excitement turned to fear. I knew I could help students explore many ways of praying, but could I teach them about a life of prayer? I was not sure I was living a life of prayer. Would I be able to teach with integrity?
In the recent years of teaching "Life of Prayer," I have discovered the wisdom in the title. By recognizing my own inadequacies, I am able to be more open and vulnerable in the classroom. I am a more effective teacher when I am struggling to learn along with the students. "Life of Prayer" is also an invitation to integrate prayer with life. Life with only a small section devoted to exploring prayer is quite different from putting prayer at the center of life.
Prayer is our response to God's loving call. In this reflection I will invite you into activities to help you affirm and learn from these experiences of prayer. We will explore what keeps us from responding when deep in our hearts we long to be in relationship with God. I will encourage you to try different forms of prayer to discover which ones fit you best. My hope is that this reflection will lead all of us more deeply into the center of our lives where we find God. When we truly know God to be at the center of our lives we are living a life of prayer.
The Experience of Prayer
Most of us know the experience of prayer. We may remember prayers taught to us in childhood. Prayers offered in our church communities may have meaning for us. Many of us can recall a time of pain, agony or despair when a prayer was pulled out of us with surprising strength: "Oh God, help me, help me!" or "Why, God, why?"
Often we remember times of great wonder during which we experienced God's presence. A sunset, a piece of music, or a baby's smile he]ps us to remember that God speaks to us in many ways if we are open and willing to see and to listen. When our hearts are touched by the wonder of God we often respond with words of gratitude or praise or simply an inner smile of joy.
We are all pray-ers; we know how to pray. But when we think about learning to pray we forget our experience and turn outside ourselves for answers and insights. The first step in exploring the life of prayer is to begin with the experiences that are uniquely ours.
How were you introduced to prayer? I was taught "Now I lay me down to sleep..." and the Lord's Prayer. I do not remember learning them; I just remember always knowing them. I did not say my prayers regularly at bed time and our family did not have times of prayer together except at special meals when grace was offered by my father. We went to church as a family and I remember long and boring prayers from the minister. I was never taught about silent prayer, being quiet in God's presence, or the fact that I could have an individual relationship with God. Exploring our childhood memories, the positive and negative, the instructions and the lack of teaching, helps to guide our adult prayer life.
Prayer as Action
A woman in a class on prayer, when asked to remember her first spiritual experience, told the instructor that she could not remember anything about a time of prayer, but what was flooding her mind and heart was a school girl's memory. When asked to describe the incident that had come into her awareness, she told the following story:
I was nine years old and playing with my friends at recess. I noticed a Jewish classmate sitting under a tree and crying silently. She had not been accepted in our school and was often teased. I hadn't paid much attention to her until that day. I remember seeing her all alone and without hesitation I left my friends and what we were doing to go and sit beside her. We did not speak, we just sat together for the rest of the playtime.
When she finished her story the instructor said softly, "Your compassionate response to a person in need was a spiritual experience. Action can be a form of prayer."
Often our understanding of prayer is too narrow. We exclude from our prayer life powerful experiences because they do not fit our definition of what prayer is or what prayer is supposed to be. I define prayer as any activity that nurtures our relationship with God. If reading Scripture brings you closer to God, that is prayer. If having tea with a friend nurtures your relationship with God, that is prayer. If sitting still in a summer garden feeds your soul, that is prayer. Listening to music, teaching Sunday School, serving in a soup kitchen -- all can become prayer.
Intention and Attention
Turning our daily experiences into prayer takes both "intention" and "attention." Our intention has to do with why we choose to engage in a certain activity. I may take a brisk walk to control my weight and lower my blood pressure. Or I may take a walk with the intention of drinking in the beauty of God's creation. I could read poetry because it relaxes me before I go to sleep, or I could read listening for the Spirit in the poet's words. I could serve lunch to the chronically mentally ill because it would be an interesting experience. Or I could volunteer because Jesus said, "Even as you do for the least of these, you do it for me" (Matthew 25:40).
Attention has to do with the focus of our minds and hearts as we engage in our activity. Attention is similar to the Eastern practice called mindfulness, which is being fully present to the moment. In Christian practice, attention is being fully present to God in the moment. Cooking a meal with our hearts centered on God is more of a prayer than the rote repetition of a standard prayer with our mind centered on what we will do when the prayer time is over.
Exploring the life of prayer begins with remembering all the ways we are pray-ers. The following questions may help you to guide you in your explorations:
* How were you taught to pray? What was left out of those teachings?
* Remember an early experience which you would now, using our broader definition, call prayer.
* Make a list of all the things you do that nurtures your relationship with God.
* What activities could you turn into prayer by shifting your intention and your attention?
* Can you imagine how your life would change if you were more intentional about prayer and paid more attention to God?
Obstacles to Prayer
I like to imagine the life of prayer as a long and winding path on which God calls us to journey. We are not at the beginning of the life of prayer, for we have been on this journey since birth. "The Lord called me before I was born," says Isaiah, "while I was in my mother's womb God named me" (Isaiah 49:1b).
Looking back and remembering helps us to know how our prayer life developed. Examining our relationship to God in our present situation teaches about our immediate prayer practices and encourages us to ask: "How might I deepen my life of prayer? What are my next steps on this journey?" God is calling, and we long to respond, but sometimes we find ourselves stuck, not moving, trying to ignore the call. What gets in the way of responding to God's call? What are the obstacles we encounter as we travel the path of prayer?
Although many people speak of being blocked in prayer because of outside restraints -- not enough time, no quiet place, too many interruptions, lack of family understanding -- most of our obstacles to prayer reside within ourselves. We may be blocked by old ideas about what prayer is and what prayer is not. We may think that we do not know how to pray. We may not feel good enough to respond to God's call. Or we may be afraid that if we proceed in prayer God may ask of us that which we are unwilling to give.
Engaging Our Obstacles
To discover our own obstacles we must be willing to step forward on the path of prayer, for often we do not know what is in our way until we bump into it. In an exercise using guided imagery to help students recognize their blocks to prayer, one man met a strange character standing in his way. He was wearing a full suit of medieval armor and brandishing a sword. When the man stopped and engaged the stranger in dialogue, the armored man dropped his fighting stance and said in a weary voice: "I am only trying to protect you. If you continue on the path of prayer you will become vulnerable. You might get hurt."
The student had no idea that his fear of vulnerability was blocking his prayer life, but the imagined meeting with the stranger made perfect sense. He had been brought up to believe that men should be strong and in control at all times. He had been warned of the dangers of being vulnerable in a hostile world. His fear of vulnerability in his interpersonal life was also active in his life of prayer.
The obstacles which we discover are not to be discounted, overpowered, or destroyed. This student could have ignored the armored man, or taken up his own sword for a fight, or pushed him aside as an insignificant bother. Instead, he listened to the stranger, took him seriously and ultimately included him in the life of prayer. "Now when I pray," the student told me later, "I imagine the armored man praying with me."
The obstacles that stand in the way of our prayerful journeys are to be attended to, engaged, and included in the life of prayer. The path to God is one of compassion not violence, one of patience not urgency. There is no rush, for God is with us even as God is calling us.
One young woman told me she had stopped praying because her old images of God were no longer valid, and she had no new images to replace them. "How can I pray to a God I cannot imagine?" she asked. I suggested she take her dilemma into prayer. "Pray to the God of Mystery," I prompted her. "Tell this God about your lack of images, and whatever you are feeling about your loss."
If we try to figure out who God is before we pray, we may never pray. Similarly, if we wait to pray until we have the right words, until we build our self-esteem, until we overcome our fear of vulnerability, we may never pray. The longer we wait to pray the more we leave God out of the process of our transformation. When we are willing to acknowledge the true blocks on our paths of prayer, engage them and include them in our prayer, our obstacles and our very beings will be transformed.
* When you think of responding to God's call to relationship, what feelings get evoked?
* When you think of deepening your prayer life, what do you believe might get in your way?
* How might you pray with your block to prayer? How could you include your obstacles in your life of prayer?
Forms of Prayer
After you have explored your own experience of prayer and discovered where you are in your life of prayer, you may wish to examine different forms of prayer with the possibility of learning a new way to pray. Sometimes we outgrow our old ways and we need some new ideas. Sometimes we are content with the way we are praying yet wish to expand into new areas. Sometimes we need help in understanding what prayer forms we are using and how we might deepen the experience. The forms of prayer described below are offered as a possible next step in your life of prayer.
Prayers of Praise and Thanksgiving
Prayers of praise and thanksgiving are one of the most common forms of prayer. Many hymns in worship are hymns of praise. A simple table grace is a form of thanksgiving. Prayers of gratitude are a common response to the beauty of God's creation. "Thanks be to God!" may be the shout at the arrival of good news.
People who have recovered from grave illness speak of their deep gratitude for life. People who have lost everything in fire or flood speak with wonder about being alive. A heart filled with gratitude can be developed in more ordinary circumstances by practicing regular prayers of praise and thanksgiving. To pray in this way we simply need to pay attention to all we have received and express our gratitude. The wonder of a fall morning, the smile of a child, an unexpected call from a friend, a task completed, a place to live, a warm meal -- all can evoke a prayer of thanksgiving.
"Arrow Prayer" is a term used to describe a prayer which is offered quickly in the moment. Prayers of thanksgiving often come in the form of arrow prayers. Arrow prayers are also helpful in times of distress. "Help me, God!" "Holy one, watch over me." "Walk with me Jesus, for I am afraid." These arrow prayers are also prayers of praise and thanksgiving for they recognize God's on-going presence in daily life.
Prayers of Anger and Sorrow
Sometimes in the experience of deep grief and overwhelming anger, God seems very far away. We may feel that God has abandoned us. Although many people find prayer hard during these times, these deep feelings can provide a fertile ground for prayer.
The Psalms provide guidance for this form of prayer. The psalmist was not afraid to cry out to God in anguish, rage, grief and despair. The psalms teach us to turn to God in our hours and days of darkness.
"Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord"
"My tears have become my food, night and day..."
"More misfortunes beset me than I can count..."
"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
There have been times in my life when my anger has burned so brightly, or my grief has been so overwhelming that I have been rendered inarticulate. I could not have formed words for a prayer if I had wished. But God does not need poetry. God does not even need words. In our deepest despair, if we simply turn our hearts to God, we have fashioned a prayer. And as we continue to weep and rage in God's presence, we may be comforted that we do not suffer alone.
Intercessory prayers are prayers on behalf of others. We ask not for ourselves, but for them. We are all familiar with prayers of intercession and we offer them up frequently. We pray for our national and world leaders. We pray for the victims of natural and human disaster. Sometimes we pray more specifically, asking God for exact outcomes: "God, bring Martha out of her coma." "Please God, keep Paul safe on his coming journey."
Prayers of intercession may be in the form of arrow prayers as someone you love comes to mind. You may wish to be more intentional, putting aside a period of time each week to pray for others. Prayers may be offered in which you ask God for specific intercession, or your prayers may be more general such as: "God, be with ... this week" or "God, I commend to you ..." or "God, may ... know your hope."
A non-verbal way to pray for others is to use your imagination. In your mind's eye, visualize the person for whom you are praying. Then visualize this person being held in God's hands, or surrounded with the light of God's love, or in the company of Jesus. As you sit in prayerful imagination allow the mental picture to take its own shape. Allow it to move from your mind to your heart. Hold this image lightly in your heart before you release the person for whom you are praying.
General intercession is another way to pray for others. The following prayer is an example of general intercession:
Gracious God, I pray ...
...for all those I love
...for all who are hard to pray for
...for all who are ill
...for all who grieve
...for all who have been forgotten
May they find comfort in your loving presence. Amen.
Prayer of the Heart
In 19th century Russia, a lone peasant wondered around his country in search of the answer to one compelling question: "How does one pray constantly?" He writes anonymously of his journey and his discoveries in the classic book, The Way of the Pilgrim. Although we differ greatly in time and place and situation, the Pilgrim's teachings are relevant for us today.
The Pilgrim discovered as he walked, talking to people, reading and praying, that one prayer, repeated over and over and over again moved from his lips, to his mind, to his heart. After long periods of repetition, the prayer was as constant as his heartbeat. His heart was praying constantly. The prayer the Pilgrim used was "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me."
The Pilgrim chose this particular phrase for he believed that these six words held the full truth of the Gospel message. You might choose another short prayer that holds more meaning for you such as "Dear God, hold me close," or "Gracious God, grant me peace," or "Jesus, my brother, walk with me."
When you have chosen your prayer, begin to repeat it over and over again. Be creative about when you practice. Pray your prayer as you run errands, as you wait in lines, as you do chores. Pray your prayer as you are going to sleep and as you awake. Speak the words out loud when you have the chance, or silently in your mind. Keep praying and wait and watch for the time when you realize that your prayer has moved to your heart, and begins to pray itself. Be patient. The Pilgrim teaches us that all our hearts are willing and able and eager to pray constantly.
As friendships grow and deepen and trust is built between people, periods of silence become comfortable and even a vital part of the relationship. So it is in our relationship with God. Most forms of prayer teach us ways to speak to God, not ways to listen to God. To listen effectively we must be willing to be silent. Centering prayer is a form of prayer that helps us be still and listen to God.
The practice of centering prayer is the commitment to simply be with God in silence for 15 or 20 minutes once or twice a day. Father Thomas Keating, who has been writing about and teaching centering prayer for over 25 years, recommends that before you enter into centering prayer you pick a sacred word. The sacred word is to remind you of your intention during prayer time, which is to rest in God's presence. You might choose God, or Abba, or Jesus, or Spirit, or Holy One. You could choose an image such as a flame, or a deep pool, or a rainbow.
Once you have chosen your word or image, begin your prayer time with a brief verbal prayer asking God's guidance and then simply sit silently in God's presence. You will soon find that this simple form of prayer is not easy! As soon as I am silent outwardly, the inner noise begins. I am besieged, not with the presence of God, but with old memories, plans for tomorrow and next year, things I must do, people I need to talk to, ideas about new projects, and on and on and on.
All these thoughts do not mean that I am failing at centering prayer. They simply mean that my attention has left God and gone somewhere else. So I slowly speak my sacred word which reminds me of my intention and allows my attention to return to God. Once I am back with God, only a few seconds will pass before I am somewhere else again. When I notice I am not with God, I say the sacred word and return. This is the rhythm and the practice of centering prayer.
Sometimes people think that the goal of centering prayer is to silence all thoughts and be in perfect stillness. But there is no goal of centering prayer except to be with God. Your thoughts will never go away. In centering prayer you use the sacred word to drop beneath the thoughts and feelings into God's loving presence.
After 15 or 20 minutes have passed, offer a brief prayer of thanksgiving, or say the Lord's Prayer, and move gently back into the activities of your life. You may think: "Well that didn't work! I don't feel any closer to God. I don't feel at peace. I had to use my sacred word about one hundred times, and once I even forgot my sacred word!" You need not be discouraged. Centering prayer takes practice, and even those who have practiced for years have difficult periods of prayer. What is important in centering prayer is that you continue to practice. And keep in mind Father Keating's encouraging words: "The only way you can fail at centering prayer is to not show up!"
Another prayer form, Lectio Divina (which means Sacred Reading), uses Scripture to guide us into prayer. Instead of reading the Bible to "cover the material" or "get through a whole book or chapter," Lectio Divina invites us to read a very short passage slowly.
In Lectio Divina the Scripture passage is read four times. The intent of each reading is different. The first reading is read aloud to simply hear the words. The second reading, either aloud or silent, is for thinking about the passage. Bring to mind whatever you know or question about the words. After the third reading, respond with prayer. Talk to God about what you have read and how you feel about it. When you read the passage the fourth time, allow the words to touch your heart. Sit quietly, as in centering prayer, and listen to the word of God as it is revealed through Scripture.
Lectio Divina is a prayer form which is ideally suited to group prayer. The second reading can lead to a lively discussion, and the third to shared prayers that the passage evokes. The silent period is enhanced when a group of pray-ers share the same intention and focus their attention on God through Scripture. Read, reflect, respond and rest are words to help you recall the four movements of Lectio Divina.
The Embodiment of Prayer
"And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory as of God's only son, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). In spite of these words from the Gospel of John, Christianity has often separated body and spirit, rather than recognizing that they are one. Therefore, many of our prayer forms ignore or even seem to deny the body. (How many times were you told as a child not to wiggle in church?!)
When we recognize the unity of body and spirit, the body can become a path to prayer. Through your God-given senses you can recognize God's presence in the everyday world. Remember beauty that has opened your eyes to God: sunsets, rose buds, children playing. Remember sounds that tell of God's love: a friend's voice, harp music, crickets. Remember the feel of puppy fur, of cool sand on bare feet, of early morning sunlight. What about the taste of communion bread, hot tea, chocolate, tears? And remember the smell of new mown hay, salt air, campfire smoke. These ordinary events that are experienced through our senses can nurture our relationship with God.
Another way our bodies can guide us in prayer is to pay attention to our physical positions when we pray. Notice what happens in a group when a leader says: "Let us pray." Everyone bows their heads. A bowed head is the most common prayer position in the Protestant tradition, but it is only one of many. In experimenting with body positions, I have discovered that different postures evoke different prayers. By paying attention to your bodies and feelings, we can discover the many ways our bodies like to pray.
What are your prayers when you bow your head and fold your hands? What do you pray on your knees? Or when you stand with your arms stretched up to heaven? What happens when you pray with your brothers and sisters with your eyes open and holding hands? You cannot answer these questions with your mind. Put your body in the different positions and see what happens. If your body cannot assume some of these postures, close your eyes and imagine yourself in the different positions. You may be surprised at what you discover.
Finding Your Own Way
You have explored the early beginnings of your prayer life, the twists and turns that brought you to this point, your present experience as a pray-er, and the possibilities for the future. With all this information it may be time for you to fashion your own unique life of prayer. What might your prayer life look like in the next months?
Being realistic in your planning is very important. A young mother of three was very drawn to centering prayer. She went to many retreats to learn more and to practice centering prayer in a group. When she came home, she tried to find two 20-minute periods during the day when she could just be with God. She could not do it. Many days went by without her centering time and she got discouraged and gave up. Months later she attended another retreat and spoke of her difficulty and disappointment to the leader. This kind and wise woman told her: "My dear, you are clearly drawn to centering prayer. Attend as many retreats as you are able. Learn this form of prayer so that you will be ready when your circumstances are ready. As for now, with your young children and your work, let go of centering prayer, but do not let go of God. Use arrow prayers throughout your day, and if you find a moment of quiet, rest in that and thank God."
When thinking about a life or prayer many people try to plan a daily routine. Routine and rhythm can come in many forms. Maybe you already have the rhythm of weekly worship. Recognize that as part of your life of prayer. I make a commitment to go on two retreats a year and see those times as integral to my life of prayer. Your practice of prayer may change during Advent or Lent, or maybe with the seasons. Someone whose early morning walk is regular prayer time in the warm months, will need to discover another practice for the cold of winter.
Praying with Others
Another element in fashioning one's life of prayer is the inclusion of others. Prayer is not just a solitary endeavor. Prayer partners are one way to make a human commitment as well as a commitment to God. Prayer partners can meet regularly for prayer together. Prayer partners can also be committed to praying for each other for a period of time. Sometimes prayer partners can become spiritual friends who meet periodically not only for prayer but for a discussion of each person's on-going relationship with God.
Prayer groups can be helpful as you begin a regular practice of a new form of prayer. A weekly commitment to join together for centering prayer, or Lectio Divina, or intercessory prayer helps to establish a pattern and honors Jesus' words: "When two or three are gathered together, I am there among them" (Matthew 18:20 ). Some prayer groups are on-going, others ask people to make a specific time commitment.
Delighting in Prayer
A woman came to speak with me because she felt that she had lost her prayer life. She was no longer practicing the forms of prayer that were common to her tradition. She felt guilty about her lack of discipline and could not figure out why she was not returning to prayer. When I asked her whether she felt alienated from God she responded: "Oh, no. I've never felt the presence of God so integral to my life."
I then asked her what she was doing to nurture her relationship with God. She told me that every morning she would get up, fix herself a cup of strong tea, wrap herself in her grandmother's afghan and sit in her comfortable lounge chair and gaze out her window at Pike's Peak. Sometimes she would play music, or read a few lines of Scripture or other devotional material. "Sounds like prayer to me," I said. "Oh, no," she replied. "It's too easy and comfortable to be prayer."
Designing Your Own Life of Prayer
The practice of prayer can be comfortable, challenging, easy or difficult. Like human relationships, our relationships with God will go through many stages as we become more intimate. Sometimes the relationship will fill us with great joy, other times it will seem boring and stale. Sometimes the relationship will be as natural as breathing. Sometimes it will demand hard work and require a lot of time and energy. We may even have times when we break our relationship with God, going our own way, paying no attention to God or to prayer. But God does not turn away. God keeps calling. And after a time, a longing wells up in us to return to God. This longing is a sign of faithfulness, for our hearts have been touched; we have heard God's call.
Our longing will lead us to God, back to the life of prayer. Rather than berating ourselves for having lost our way, we can celebrate that we have found our way again. Like the woman who lost one of her ten silver coins and called her friends and neighbors together to rejoice (Luke 15:8-10), we can know joy when we return to the life of prayer.
As you think about and plan for your own life of prayer, be in prayer. Let the spirit guide you. Prayer forms can be combined or adapted for your own special needs. You may discover a unique style that grows out of your past experience, your present circumstances and your longing for God.
In designing your own prayer life, the following questions may guide you:
* What is the easiest and most natural form of prayer for you?
* What would be a realistic rhythm of prayer for you? Daily? Weekly? Monthly? Would it be possible to schedule a yearly retreat?
* Remember times you have wandered from your practice of prayer. What was the experience of being lost and then finding your way again?
You might ask: "Isn't a life centered on prayer only for monks and mystics and saints?" Although these holy people have much to teach us about prayer, I believe a life of prayer is available to all of us -- young and old; alone and in the midst of family; working, retired, and unemployed. God calls all of us into relationship.
As you respond to God's loving call in your life, I offer this prayer from Ephesians for your journey:
I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ ... may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know God, so that with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which God has called you....
Bacovcin, Helen, trans., The Way of the Pilgrim, Garden City, New York: Image Books, 1978.
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Hall, Thelma, R.C., Too Deep for Words: Rediscovering Lectio Divina, New York: Paulist Press, 1988.
Keating, Thomas, Open Mind; Open Heart, New York: Amity House, 1986.
Rupp, Joyce, O.S.M., Praying Our Goodbyes, Notre Dame: Ave Maria Press, 1988.
Thompson, Marjorie J., Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995.
Vennard, Jane E., Praying for Friends and Enemies: Intercessory Prayer, Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing, 1995.
Vennard, Jane E., narrator, Coming Face to Face With God: Conversations of Prayer, (video), Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing, 1995.
Wuellner, Flora Slosson, Prayer and Our Bodies, Nashville: The Upper Room, 1987.
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