Chapter 4: Praying in Thought

Praying Today: Practical Thoughts on Prayer
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 4: Praying in Thought

The distinction between "vocal" and "mental" prayer often seems rather forced and artificial. This has already been remarked upon, although we have been prepared to use the distinction as a matter of convenience. Yet a good deal of adoration or praise, about which we spoke at the end of the last chapter, is entirely "without words" -- and thus might very well have been included under the category of "mental" prayer. For by "mental" prayer traditional writers have intended to denote the kind of conscious relationship with God that does not require the use of words, spoken or formed. Ideas, thoughts, as well as deeper emotional or "affective" states, are included in this category where the classical writers would place meditation, contemplation, and the various stages of "union with God" about which the mystics have given us reports.

However we may feel about adoration and praise, including it in "vocal" prayer or letting it serve as a kind of borderline approach to "mental" prayer, it is obvious that when we come to meditation we are concerned with a kind of exercise that can quite readily be carried on with no verbal articulation u such.

One of the difficulties many people find in reading about meditation is the variety of "systems" that are suggested to them. There are the Sulpician and the Ignatian and several other "methods"; in each of these it is taught that one proceeds from "point" to "point," moving almost automatically along a line that is regarded as appropriate to the chosen "system." The beginner wonders which "method" he is to choose. He may also think that the very complicated series of steps that the experts propose are not for him -- maybe the very holy can follow this procedure but the ordinary man or woman has neither the time nor the interest to do so. In fact, in my judgment, the ordinary person is right. Someone has said that it would have been better if those who worked out these "systems" had never been born; and that comment has its point. Yet it must be acknowledged that sometimes, for some people, the "system" approach has worked and does work; therefore it cannot be entirely dismissed. For our purpose here, however, we shall simply disregard it and consider the simplest and easiest of all ways of meditation, call it by what name one may prefer.

Suppose that you are planning a holiday trip. Obviously you will secure the literature that is relevant. You will read it through, try to discover the shortest route to your chosen resort or the route that has most interest for a person like yourself. Then you will think about the activities in which you will engage while you are there. A great deal of attention is required and you will be quite prepared to spend a considerable period of time in thinking through the whole trip. Doubtless after completing your reading you will sit down and think over your plans very carefully. Now what you have really been doing is engaging in a meditation on your holiday, although you would not have called it that.

Or again, suppose that you have had the privilege of meeting a distinguished visitor to your town. You have been introduced to him, you have talked with him, you may have heard him give a lecture and then answer questions. Now you wish to think over your experience and see what it really meant to you. So you sit quietly for a few minutes and do just this. Again, you have been meditating, even if such a description would not have occurred to you.

Best of all, suppose that somebody you love very deeply has written you a letter in which he speaks of what he has lately been doing, of how much he misses you, of things that you have done together and may again be able to do. He closes with a renewed expression of his love for you and signs with the name by which you call him. After reading the letter it is likely that you will think about this person, think about the relationship between you, and thus find your affection renewed and strengthened. You will have been engaging in meditation, despite the fact that such a word would not have occurred to you. Probably you would say simply, if asked what you had been doing, "Thinking about my dear friend John."

Now meditation as an exercise in prayer is no different from this sort of natural and normal human experience, except that it is thought about God, about God’s character and his activity in the world. As an old teacher once said to me, "Meditation is just prayerful and careful thinking about something or someone very important to us."

One begins with some passage from the Bible or another bit of writing that will be suggestive and stimulating. One reads attentively, in order to get the full benefit of the passage. Then one closes the book and thinks. That is all that is necessary. Sometimes it is helpful in one’s thinking to try to picture a scene -- for example, Jesus with his disciples in some particular situation that a gospel passage narrates. This "composition" may be of value because it will make vivid and clear what was going on in what has been read. Then one asks. "What does this mean?" That is, what was the point of the incident so far as the original participants were concerned? One thinks about what was conveyed to them by the given happening; and one goes on to think about what is conveyed to oneself now. "What does this mean to me?" one may ask. Then, at the end, it will be appropriate to ask a further question, "If that is what it meant then and what it means now to me, what does it teach me or what does it require me to do?"

Meditation is just as simple as that. It is the intentional, yet not coerced, effort to read or think about, to read and think about, some significant incident in God’s way with men as reported in Scripture or in some other piece of writing. It may even be thinking about some moment in one’s own experience in which one has felt the reality of God or thought that some demand is given or some vision is disclosed. One lets his mind play upon the material until it speaks significantly and helpfully. And then one determines to use in the future the new insight or suggestion that has emerged.

In past ages some of our Protestant forebears did just this with the Bible every night. Robert Burns has a telling picture of such a nightly experience in his poem about the Scots peasant on Saturday, preparing for the observance of the next day as the time for worship and rest: The Cotter’s Saturday Night. A great deal of the strength of the evangelical Christian’s life was derived from a meditative reading of Scripture in this way. In Catholic circles, the believer may not have been so likely to use lengthy passages in the Bible in this way; perhaps he was content to take a very brief passage, maybe only a verse or so, and meditate upon it, or even to use a passage from the Fathers of the Church or some "spiritual classic." But the same result followed.

So far as the Bible is concerned, we may notice that it may be read in various ways. Some may wish to use it as an historical book; after all, it is a collection of writings bound up together in one volume, telling us of the way in which the Jewish people came by God’s self-disclosure to a deeper understanding of the God they worshipped and a more adequate conception of his purpose for his "chosen" race. It leads into the story of Jesus and the results of his coming. For a student of the history of the human race it is an invaluable book. It can be read for that purpose. Then there are the scholars who read the Bible in order to discover the specific relationship of section to section, idea to idea, etc. They may devote their time to textual problems or to other questions that happen to interest them. But the ordinary Christian generally reads the Bible for what he is likely to call the "inspiration" he receives from it. There are some people who decry such a use of Scripture, but I believe they are wrong in so doing. Bible reading can provide "inspiration"; that is, it can quicken our minds, warm our hearts, strengthen our wills, purify our desires -- and this is all to the good. Yet it is possible today to combine these several approaches in a fashion that can make the reading of the Bible much richer and more rewarding. The use of a commentary discussing the passage that we hope to read can do a great deal to enlighten us about what it has to tell us. Such a commentary need not be technical nor burdened with critical apparatus; it may be simple and straightforward, based on scholarly study but not thrusting such study before us. To mention some commentaries that are of this sort, there are the studies by William Barclay, now readily available in paperback form, and there are Mowbray’s Mini-Commentaries as well as the SCM and the Tyndale series. Anybody who uses these or similar books will be able to read the Bible more intelligently and will discover that the "inspiration" contained in its several parts becomes all the more compelling.

There is always a danger that the Bible will be read mechanically, without imagination. To read it in that way is to miss its deepest message. Even in earliest days, the Church distinguished among what were known as the "senses" of Scripture. There was the straight literal "sense" of a passage, with its presumably historical basis. But there were also the allegorical, moral, typological, "topological" (or spiritual), and mystical "senses." Sometimes the distinctions were rather artificially drawn; yet their point is clear -- ancient Christian thinkers knew that the Bible could be read in different ways and for different purposes. Above all, they knew that the Bible should be read with all the imaginative insight one can manage. And in a way meditation on biblical material is just that: after all the other "senses" have been exhausted, there is the imaginative approach that will make it possible for the reader to grasp the big meaning of what he is reading.

So much, then, for meditation and meditative reading of the Bible. We now consider contemplation. That word has been used in a variety of ways by the great writers on prayer; but our interest is only in its main intention, which is easy to grasp. Contemplation essentially is wordless looking. A French peasant was asked what he was doing when he sat quietly in church gazing steadfastly at a crucifix. He answered, "I look at him and he looks at me." That was contemplation in its simplest but also most profound sense. Looking -- but that requires something to look at. Otherwise there may only be wool-gathering, meandering thoughts, without any concentration of attention.

It is just here that the Christian faith can speak in a peculiarly effective way. For the center of that faith is not something but Someone at whom we may look. Christians believe that in the Man Jesus there is a placarding before men of the reality of God’s character, his love, and his action in the world. He is the focus of an unending, manifold, yet faithful movement of the divine Lover in and to his creation. To look at him is to look at an action of God. The French peasant looked at the crucifix, the symbol Christian faith has hallowed as the best insight we know into the heart of deity. Thus one meaning of contemplation is simply looking at Jesus. The incarnation of God in a human life provides us with a focus for contemplation; and a very large part of Christian discipleship is in looking at that human life as we know it from the gospels or see it portrayed in paintings or statues or in stained glass. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this, even if some have thought that it tended to "limit" deity and made devotion too much centered on his manward activity.

In the story of Jesus we have "Truth embodied in a tale," as Tennyson puts it in In Memoriam; and for most of us it is best to concentrate on that, knowing that what a French teacher of prayer once said will come true: "Through the wounds of his humanity we will be brought to the intimacy of his divinity." It is possible to become altogether too sophisticated about these matters; I wish to plead for simplicity and availability in the practice of prayer; and I believe that in the incarnate Lord, God has graciously given us just such a simple and available object for our contemplation.

On the other hand, there may be those who can come to contemplate what the mystical writers have styled "the stark vision of God in himself." If by this is meant God apart from and without relationship to his world, such writers have departed from the deepest meaning of the Christian faith and perhaps from the realm of human possibility altogether. But if they have meant that there are some persons who can contemplate deity without the use of any particular set of images or symbols, they may have spoken the truth. For the ordinary Christian who wishes to pray, however, it is likely that this is "too high"; he "cannot attain unto it." In that case he should not try. The contemplative who can attain to this "stark vision" is very rare. Few of us are John of the Cross or Theresa or Meister Eckhart, who evidently could see God thus. Still it is worth observing that when these mystics sought to write about their experience they were obliged to use symbols and images. One thinks of Theresa with her comparison of the life of prayer to a medieval castle, of John of the Cross with his lovely story of the lover in the garden of cypresses, and of Meister Eckhart (the most abstract of them all) with his talk about a spark of deity that seems to become the very self of the person praying.

Such names as these bring us to the mystical "union of the soul with God," as this supreme experience in prayer has been described. But about that we shall not write. There are plenty of books -- for English-speaking readers chiefly such studies as those by Evelyn Underhill, W. R. Inge, and Baron F. von Hugel, found in many libraries -- that may be consulted. The reason for not discussing this subject, nor indeed the whole range of "mystical prayer," is that in my judgment a great deal of harm has been done by the suggestion that every Christian may advance to mystical prayer if only he will make the effort. I believe this is not the case; as was pointed out earlier, the mystics are few although they are also very important. In a small volume intended to help ordinary people, who most certainly are hardly likely to become "mystics" in the technical sense, it would only be troubling and confusing to deal with such matters. In any event, the writer himself is not a "mystic"; and whatever I might say would be so much at second hand that it could be of little help to others.

The remainder of this chapter, therefore, will be devoted to some topics that are important for any learner in prayer. When to pray and where to pray, for example, require attention. So does the increasingly commended business of "arrow prayers," as they have been called. And something should be said about the use of the old set services of the Church -- for Lutherans and Episcopalians that means the reading of Morning and Evening Prayer, or Matins and Evensong. The next few pages will consider each of these topics in turn.

When to pray? That is a question each of us must answer for himself. Years ago it was said that one should pray morning and evening, setting aside perhaps ten or fifteen minutes for the purpose. Once a week, we were told, we should make time for meditation. But such a system seems very difficult for many people in the crowded and hurried condition of life today. All one can do is suggest that immediately upon getting up in the morning, while dressing or (for a man) while shaving, it is perfectly possible to say some appropriate prayers of aspiration and self-commitment for the day. In the evening, before going to bed, a short period may be found for further prayers, including intercessions for others and a simple statement of one’s own apparent desires and needs, but for the most part a quick confession of failure, a word or two of thanksgiving, and a silent moment in which one praises God for what he is and for what he does. If this is done daily, one may be able to arrange once a week a rather longer period of time when one can follow pretty much the full round of petition-intercession, confession (with a brief look at oneself), thanksgiving, praise -- and then, at another time, find opportunity for a careful, prayerful reading of a piece of Scripture with five or ten minutes of meditative thought about it. But there is another type of prayer -- the "arrow prayer" -- that can be said anywhere and everywhere; to it we shall return.

In an older day one’s bedroom, sometimes equipped with a prie-dieu at which to kneel, was recommended. Nowadays this is not so readily available for the purpose, except in those houses where each member of the family can be sure of quiet in a room of his own. Thus it may be better to say one’s morning prayer of aspiration and commitment in the way already suggested -- while dressing and preparing to "come down to breakfast." Evening prayers can very well be said just before going to bed, even in bed if this is necessary. It is certainly helpful to us, embodied creatures as we are, to kneel -- posture can make a difference in the attitude we take, to our "frame of mind," as we say. But it is not of overwhelming importance in the hurly-burly of contemporary life. Nowadays many churches are open all day; it would be a wise plan for the rest of us to adopt the common practice of Roman Catholics and drop in at a church on the way to work or coming back from work. It need be only for a few moments, but the atmosphere is right, especially if the church is the sort of place that obviously has been much prayed in. T. S. Eliot in Four Quartets speaks of Little Gidding as a place "where prayer has been valid"; there are churches like that, too.

What now about the practice we have called "arrow prayers"?

An "arrow prayer" is a very simple and direct petition or word of thanksgiving and praise, which may be said at any time and in any place. Texts from well-loved portions of Scripture may be selected; one may find appropriate words in some other book; or one may make them up for himself. Typical arrow prayers would be: "My God I love thee; make me love thee more." "Thank God for life and friends, for work and fun, for everything." "Help me, O Lord, to see thee and serve thee wherever I am." The possibilities are beyond number. And one can also pray in this fashion before undertaking some job, "May I do this work as well as I can and in a way pleasing to thee" or "Help me, Lord, in talking to this person who needs my counsel" or "Strengthen me to face this ordeal." It is as simple as that.

Related to arrow prayer is the repetition from time to time of some familiar hallowed form of words, trying to make these come alive in one’s mind. The Russian Christians often use what is styled the "Jesus prayer." It runs like this, "Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy upon me" -- and it is said over and over again. Is this "meaningless repetition"? Not at all; rather, it is a help to fix attention on the reality of God in Christ, who is everywhere present but to whom we must turn consciously and attentively from time to time if that reality is to be vivid to us.

For many the use of the set services of the Christian Church, as found in the traditional prayer books, can be of great value. Episcopalians and Lutherans are familiar with morning and evening services, called Matins or Morning Prayer, Evensong or Vespers. Those who decide to use these services in private will discover in them a great richness, including Bible selections and Psalms, ancient canticles or songs of praise, prayers that have been valued by millions down the centuries, and above all the sense of taking part in a continuing round of prayer that has given these services the traditional name of Opus Dei, "Work of, or for, God."

Finally, it ought to be clear that nobody can engage in prayer "to order." Each of us has his own way, his own attrait to God, as the French put it -- his particular kind of approach. Therefore each of us should try to work out for himself how he is to engage in prayer. This is true in respect to time and place, in respect to types of prayer -- in word or in thought -- in which to exert himself; it is also true in respect to rule or plan for church attendance and for receiving the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. We can learn from others; and we should have the humility to want to do so. But in the last resort we are the ones who are praying, not somebody else. In any event, one thing is clear. Our praying, whether in word or thought, whether in church or at home, whether at ordinary services in church or at the Lord’s Supper, should be grounded in two matters of supreme importance: the reality of God as Love and the concrete place where we happen to be as human beings.

We shall probably never be very good in praying, but that is simply a fact of our feeble, sinful, finite human nature. On the other hand, we must try to be as good as we can -- faithful in prayer, persistent in praying, committing ourselves always to God who knows us better than we do and who yet accepts us, and loves us, because we are his "dear children." With this sort of approach, we shall find that our praying is increasingly meaningful, strengthening, and worthwhile. There is no reason for us ever to feel discouraged about it.