Learning to Pray: An Interview with Roberta C. Bondi

by Roberta C. Bondi

In her work as a church historian Roberta C.Bondi has sought to make the wisdom of the early church and the insights of monastic spirituality available to contemporary Christians. Her books To Pray and To Love and To Love as God Loves (both from. Augsburg Fortress) explore the life of prayer as exemplified by Christian monks of ancient Egypt. Bondi, who teaches at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, recently wrote Memories of God (Abingdon) and is now working on a book about prayer titled In Ordinary Time.

This article appeared in The Christian Century March 20-27, l996. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.


Bondi shares what she has learned about the practice of prayer from her study of Christian monks of ancient Egypt.

Many of us feel we ought to pray more than we do, but we often find praying difficult, -- or something we are uneasy about. Why do you think this is?

I can think of three kinds of obstacles that get in the way of prayer. The first is that for many of us in mainline Protestant traditions -- and for many Catholics too, I'm discovering -- prayer is not something we have been allowed to talk about at home or in church. It is regarded as an embarrassing topic, and a private topic.People who are not intimidated in any other area of their lives are intimidated by the idea of prayer. We are especially intimidated when people announce themselves as experts in prayer - and there are those who take the "I will tell you how to do it" approach.

Another problem is that we relate to God in terms of duty. There are liberal and conservative versions of this, but it comes to the same thing. The prevalence of "ought" and "should" language kills a lot of relationships with God. Nobody wants to be around someone whom you relate to only in terms of duty. I'm willing to relate to people that way some of the time, but don't expect me to want to do it. But for the monastic teachers of the early church, with whom I've spent a lot of time, a relationship with God is one of desire and delight. This is really a different basis for prayer.

The third thing that gets in the way of prayer is the images of God that we carry around, and which govern our hearts. We can have an image of God as a terrifying or judgmental being. In that case, perhaps, for some of us, not being able to pray is itself a gift of grace. Our ideas of God often come from when we were little, and they are associated with authority figures. Churches may reinforce the vision of God as a judge or as one who is interested in us only when we're bad. You can see this in the way we sometimes talk about the "will of God" for our lives. The "Will of God" almost always has negative content to it. What God wants is definitely not going to be what we want.

Perhaps those people are acknowledging, or attempting to acknowledge, that God's will is not always our will.

Our theology may tell us that God wants something different from what we want, but we rarely go on to ask, What is it that God does want? God desires the thriving and wholeness of the human race. I mostly hear about the "will of God," however, when people are considering why a baby drowned in a swimming pool and that kind of thing. The point being made is usually that God's ways are inscrutable, and we get hurt in the process.

Let's go back to the obstacles to prayer. Do you think people are also theologically and philosophically uncertain about what prayer is? For example, they wonder if prayer is essentially an inner monologue, in which case it might be better termed "meditation." On the other hand, if they think prayer is a dialogue with God, they're often not sure what it means to have God respond-and they are uneasy with people who speak confidently about what God has revealed to them.

We are so verbal, especially in the Protestant tradition, that it's hard for us not to imagine prayer either as monologue, in which I tell God things and God listens, or as a conversation in which I tell God things and God answers back. But from what I understand out of the ancient monastic materials I work on, prayer is really an entire relationship, and the verbal part is only one element. A lot of what we learn when we pray is to be quiet. We need to stop thinking that a relationship is constituted only by language. The closer we get to other people, and the better our friendships are, the more silence these relationships contain. The people we talk to all the time are probably the people we don't know.terribly well and whom we don't trust. The issue is not so much "Does God talk back and if so how?" but whether we can learn just to be in God's presence.

Intercession is a large part of prayer, and here again uncertainties arise. When we pray for other people -- for the homeless, for those who are ill, for those suffering in Bosnia -- we may think, Well, this is in God's hands anyway, isn't it? What is the point of my prayer?

The question of intercessory prayer is really an interesting one, because it raises the issue of what we want from prayer. It seems to me that one of the aims of prayer is to grow in friendship with God. If this is the case, then let's consider what constitutes a friendship, and then try to pray in accordance with that. One of the things about friends is that they want the same thing for each other. Not that they necessarily both want ice cream at the same time, but that the well-being of one person is tied to the wellbeing of the other. This doesn't just mean that God wants what we want, but that we want what God wants out of friendship for God. That is a basis for intercessory prayer. If God's deepest longing is for the well-being of the world, then God wants the wellbeing of Bosnia, and we pray for that out of friendship with God.

Another thing about friends is that they speak their minds to each other. When friends don't tell each other what they have on their minds, it destroys the friendship. This is another grounds for intercessory prayer. It doesn't matter that God already knows everything. For the sake of friendship, God needs us to say what we want. Whether we get it or not is a different matter. You don't always get what you ask for from your friend -- maybe most of the time you don't get it - but you need to say what it is you need and want.

It's already clear from your comments as well as from your writing that your encounter with the spirituality of the desert fathers and mothers has been crucial -- intellectually, theologically and spiritually. Can you tell us about this encounter?

There is so much involved that it's hard to summarize. I do remember clearly coming across a sixth-century homily which said that we ought to go easy on one another, and not judge one another, because God regards us so much more mercifully than we regard one another, and more mercifully than we regard ourselves. This was a mind-boggling, revolutionary idea for me. It struck me that if this is true, then God isn't a terrifying person I need to stay away from.

Was the message of God's mercy present in the churches you attended as a child?

I don't think it was there at all in the Baptist revival. It wasn't part of my family experience. It was there in the Methodist church, but I couldn't hear it. So when I encountered this idea, it was like a brand new idea. It was like running into a new scientific principle.

Were you at all inclined to say that these sixth century folk had it wrong, or did it ring true?

It rang so true that it completely undid me. It didn't even occur to me that it might be wrong. I really regard that as the moment when I became Christian. What I couldn't do for several years was assimilate this truth. Because if this were true, many other things that I believed couldn't be true. And I had to work through those other things --which had to do with being female, and leaming that I really am made in the image of God, that God really does have a preference for the oppressed and the outcast.

This was before the advent of the women's movement. I had all these parts of myself that did not go with being feminine in the early '60s and mid-'60s, and I was doing everything I could to discard those parts of myself. These were good things about myself that I was trying to get rid of. It took me a while to recognize that God didn't see me in the same way I saw myself, but saw me through much gentler eyes.

How did this realization affect your approach to prayer?

Like a lot of people, I had thought that if you turned everything over to the Lord, you would be at peace. So I had expectations about prayer that ran quite contrary to what else was going on in my life. One of the important things I learned from the fathers and mothers, the Abbas and Ammas, is that prayer is a lifelong process. Friendship with God is the goal, not the starting point. I also learned that prayer is the process of in-gathering all the parts of ourselves that we don't want. It's quite common for us to think that we are to enter God's presence only when we're worthy. But what God is interested in is our bringing our whole self into the relationship.

One of my favorite sayings of the monastics is that prayer is warfare to the last breath. Prayer is hard work -- and painful a lot of the time because it makes us face parts of ourselves and accept parts of ourselves that we'd rather not.

What have been some of the "warfare" issues for you?

One of them has been fighting the barriers that stand between myself and God, barriers that have to do with the images of God that I have carried in my head. For years and years I couldn't call God Father in my prayer because my relationship with my human father was so painful. My father was so authoritarian and judgmental that to think of God as Father meant I could experience God only as judgmental, authoritarian, and contemptuous of me as female.

The point when I realized I had to do something about this barrier coincided with the moment I realized I had to do something about my relationship with my human father, whom I had not seen for years. I didn't want to see him, but the Ammas and Abbas that I had spent all my time working on and with whom I had many conversations on prayer kept saying, Look, the goal of the Christian life is love of God and love of neighbor, and if your father isn't your neighbor, nobody's your neighbor. This is not optional.

This was part of the warfare. The other part was realizing that I was going to have to choose deliberately to address God as Father in my prayer and work through scripture passages and so forth, and figure out exactly what I had in my own heart -- what I believed. A whole lot of the warfare of prayer is about figuring out the discrepancies between the theology in our heads and our actual working theology and facing that discrepancy head on. What if I prayed to God as Father and found out that God really was who I was afraid God the Father was and that God rejected me as my human father had as a child? I've had several other points at which I've had to confront my worst fears in my prayer, confront God and say, "Is this really true about you? I've got to know this from firsthand experience and not just as something that I read about in books."

You have made a rigorous effort to be honest before God and to achieve some self-knowledge. Perhaps not everybody would have either your persistence or your analytical inclination.

People have different levels of needs. A lot of what has driven me has been pain which has been so unbearable that the choice has been either to deal with it or go under. I think many of us get help from therapy in understanding what our problems are, and it doesn't occur to us to take our problems into our relationship with God. We somehow have the idea that our relationship with God is different from other relationships. But theologically this is what it means to be made in the image of God -- that our human relationships are mirrors of our relationship with God.

What would you say to somebody who comes into your office and asks you to help get them started in a discipline of prayer?

Actually, this is a requirement in my course on "Theology and the Christian Life in the Early Church." .I tell students that there's no way to understand the monastics unless you're trying to approach things from their angle. This is not just intellectual stuff, it's about a relationship with God. I don't care if they end up feeling at the end of the semester as though they haven't succeeded -- whatever that means; they've got to commit themselves to trying.

I ask everybody to include three elements in their prayer. One is some portion of scripture every day. I explain to them the Liturgy of the Hours, and how the backbone of monastic prayer was the psalms. The other part of their prayer is conversation with God in which they really speak their minds. We talk about the things that make it difficult to speak our minds to God, especially about being afraid of God. The third part of their prayer is silence: just sitting in God's presence without saying anything or having any expectations of God or of themselves. I call it kitchen table prayer. Just spending time with God as we spend time with a friend without tallking.

For students who are afraid of God, who have emphasized God's righteousness and their sinfulness, God's bigness and their wormlikeness, I suggest that they find something that doesn't occupy their minds but is pleasant to do, like handiwork, or doing a crossword puzzle, or even reading a detective novel, and to just sit in God's presence. That is a way to begin to learn that God is trustworthy and that God isn't that person they're afraid of, but somebody else.

I emphasize that however much time they've decided to give to prayer, they should cut it back before they even start. Maybe start with ten minutes. Then they can add a little bit if they want to. One of the things that derails prayer faster than anything else is starting with some sort of noble idea of what it ought to be. I stress that prayer is a

pretty ordinary, everyday kind of thing. Yes, it has its high moments, but a lot of prayer is just a matter of showing up.

One would tend to think that in mainline churches today people are not encountering a God who is primarily judgmental.

Mainline churches may not formally talk about God the way the churches I grew up in did, but people's experiences can still make them view God in those terms. It's distressing how many of my students still deal with the fearsomeness of God, not because they have encountered it at church, but because they've grown up in households in which one or both of the parents were highly critical of who their children are. And if people's earliest experiences of authority figures is that they're not trustworthy, that they're frightening, then it's hard for them to believe that God is trustworthy. However we may think we relate to God, or want to relate to God, we tend to relate to God the way we related as children to the significant adults in our life.

Another issue that arises in mainline churches is the sense that God is absent. Imagine someone growing up in a household in which their parents are emotionally absent, and then going to a liberal church, which preaches about a God who is interested in social-justice issues but not interested in individuals. All that serves to distance God.

What was as powerful in my young life as the Baptist revivals I went to was going to a seminary where it was emphasized that God doesn't have time for people's petty little individual concerns, because God is concerned only with large issues like social justice -- the war in Bosnia, not the individual suffering of one family. That was as judgmental -- as much hell, fire and damnation -- as anything I ever heard in any Baptist revival.

People are also struggling with a perfectionism that may have started in their families, but which churches seem to endorse. Our churches project an image of what you're supposed to be like when you go to church: you have to be successful, you have to have a happy face. You may be going through a divorce or your kids may be on drugs, but you still need to look like you've got it together. All this indicates to people that God is interested only in people who have it together. That is really just as oppressive to my students as anything I grew up with.