Chapter 7: Ways of Praying

Prayer and the Common Life
by Georgia Harkness

Chapter 7: Ways of Praying

The Problem of Method

There is nothing that Christian laymen are told more often and know more fully than that they ought to pray. Yet instruction in method is seldom given.

There are understandable reasons for this. Prayer is primarily a spiritual experience and not a psychological process, an art and not a technique, and by its very nature no blueprint can be given for it. To attempt to do so is to run the risk of externalizng it and by describing its mechanics turn it into something mechanical. Furthermore, though religious leaders themselves generally pray -- with varying degrees of effectiveness -- relatively few, it may be judged, have consciously analyzed the process of prayer enough to attempt to instruct others. And even though one understands something about prayer and is himself nourished by it, one is apt to feel that it is presumptuous to talk much about it. It seems too much like assuming to be a master in a field where the sensitive person knows well his own weakness, too much like baring to the public gaze its sacred intimacies.

An unfortunate situation results. On the one hand, persons who have tried to pray without getting very far with it are apt to feel that if only someone would teach them -- give them a book of instructions, or a course, or at least a lecture or two -- the difficulties would all be cleared away. But as a matter of fact, we all know how to pray better than we practice what we know! No amount of instruction can take the place of experience and determined effort. To pray well one must pray much. If there is "no royal road to learning," still less is there a straight and easy road to prayer. To complain of failure to be taught may be an alibi for failure to use what has been taught. When the disciples came to Jesus and said "Lord, teach us to pray," he gave them no simple manual of instruction but an immortal and, if taken seriously, a very demanding prayer.

But on the other hand, those who say that the Church has not taught them to pray have a case. There is no end of cults and -- to say nothing of reputable psychiatrists -- half or wholly commercialized "psychological" centers giving instruction in kindred matters. The founder of "Psychiana" does a million-dollar mail-order business teaching people to talk with God under the slogan, "I talked with God -- yes, I did, actually and literally, and you can too." This would not happen unless there were both a hunger for such instruction and a possibility of giving some lessons that people think worth paying for. The book Where do People Take Their Troubles? by Mrs. Lee R. Steiner is sobering reading for religious leaders who know that people ought to take their troubles to God through the ministry of the churches. Whatever the legitimate barriers to trying to teach others how to pray, it is imperative that to whatever degree these can be surmounted without surrender of spiritual integrity, they must be.

In all great adventures of the spirit -- creating a work of beauty, falling in love, devoting oneself to a great cause, entering into communion with God for his service -- there are some things to do and others not to do. There is no chart or blueprint, no precise set of rules to follow. Because it is a personal matter, each person must do it in his own way. Yet it is not uncharted ground. There are principles rooted in human nature and in the nature of things. There are the tested insights of the many who have walked the same way before. Counsels, even though not explicit directions for every circumstance, can be given. It is some such counsels that we shall attempt to state in this chapter, but with the recognition that others who follow another route may arrive at the same goal.

Times and Places

Some things about the occasions and social settings of prayer were said in the previous chapter. It should be engaged in alone, in the midst of the family, congenial friends, a worshipping congregation, amid the varied demands of life. For all these occasions but the last there should be a definite and regular place -- not merely a place in one’s time schedule but an accustomed physical location in which one cultivates the habit, forms appropriate associations, finds reminders inducing the mood of prayer.

The familiarity of such associations often makes it easier to pray in the sanctuary of a church or in a small chapel, where one is accustomed to worship and not to race around doing many things. Nevertheless, one ought not to limit his praying to this setting. It is desirable to have a little table in one’s room or one’s home dedicated to sacred things -- a place for the Bible, a cross, a picture of Christ -- and not let it get cluttered with other things. A child’s room may well have in it "God’s corner," and this is a good practice to carry into adult life. (Some of the "pin-up" girls might come down under such silent challenge!) Our homes might not be fully Christian, but they would certainly be less secular than they are if there were in them more physical reminders of the things of Christ.

But on the other hand, prayer must be as varied in its setting as life itself. To pray most fruitfully, one must learn to pray not only where the physical situation is congenial but where everything cries out against it. One can pray in a crowded, noisy dormitory, in factory or office, in a shopping jam, on the football field, on a flying trapeze.

Time and place are woven together. Since time is the more dominant element, we shall let this determine our sequence of discussion.

Apart from public worship in church or chapel, of which we shall speak separately, the most important times of private prayer are upon awaking, at bedtime, before meals, at irregular intervals through the day, and in a regular, uninterrupted, unhurried period which can be fixed for any convenient time but which ought not to be left to the mercy of circumstance. This last period, which is what usually is referred to as "personal devotions," can be combined with morning or evening prayer, although as we shall note in a moment these have their own specific functions.

In The Morning

Upon awakening one’s first thought ought to be of God. This need not take longer than a few seconds before one gets out of bed to start the hurried scramble of the day, but it is a very important orientation.

There are various ways to do it. The Roman Catholic would have his crucifix near his bed to remind him of Christ. The Protestant may equally well have a copy of Sallman’s Head of Christ, or some other great religious picture, where his eyes will see it when he first opens them. One can draw his Bible from his bedside table, read a verse, and see what it says to him from God. One can look out of the window at something beautiful -- for even in the drabbest of settings there is almost always something lovely -- and thank God for his world. One can look around the room at the picture or better, the living presence -- of a beloved person, give thanks to God for so great a blessing, and ask his protection and care throughout the day.

As one thinks of the new day and its unexplored possibilities one can say to himself,

This is the day which the Lord hath made; I

will rejoice and be glad in it.

Or one may repeat a few lines from a familiar hymn such as,

Still, still with Thee, when purple morning breaketh,

When the bird waketh, and the shadows flee.


Come, my soul, thou must be waking;

Now is breaking

O’er the earth another day:

Come to Him who made this splendor;

See thou render

All thy feeble strength can pay.

Or one may simply, in a few brief words, commend himself and those he loves to God and ask God’s blessing on the day’s work. This morning prayer of orientation, sometimes called in writings of the Christian mystics "the prayer of intention," is a vital setting of the keynote for the day. If one wakes up tired, cross, and blue, or if the day outside is cheerless and drab, there is no better way to get sunshine in one’s soul. If pricks from the day before still rankle and one feels harsh toward a member of the family, one’s roommate, or one’s employer, a prayer to let such stings be forgotten in loving understanding can amazingly make the mood over. If one is hurried and tense at the thought of the number of things to be done, there is no better channel to relaxation. It may be that it was our own feverishness, not God’s intention, that made us think we had to do so much all at once! In any case, if it has to be done, God will see us through it. Such prayer thoughts ought not to be engaged in simply for their therapeutic value, but they bring the best kind of therapy.

This time of morning orientation is not to be confused with the traditional "morning watch" or "quiet hour." The latter is not a feasible possibility in many homes where breakfast must immediately be got, served, and eaten, clean clothes found for this or that member of the family, the children packed off to school, trains or buses caught, a host of other immediacies attended to. This is not to decry the practice of taking an unhurried hour or half-hour for morning devotions. Some individuals and fewer families -- mainly childless ones -- succeed in doing it, and give witness to its worth. However, to advocate it as a prime essential for all is to speak words that have no ring of realism within the conditions of most modern families, and this fact should be admitted. What has been suggested here is a brief, silent but very vital placing of the soul before God as the first act of the day. This is something which anybody can do under any circumstances.

At Bedtime

For most persons bedtime, in spite of fatigue, is a time of greater relaxation and leisure, and thus offers more opportunity for unhurried communion with God. Society tells us what we have to do next when the alarm clock rings; most adults can fix their own time of going to bed. It is, of course, always possible to go to bed earlier, get up earlier, and thus make time in the morning for unhurried prayer. But the answer to this possibility is that few people do it or seem likely to! If prayer is to be effective in the common life, it must reckon with the common life as it is.

Prayer at bedtime has advantages which may well make it one’s time of extended personal devotions. But whether this is done or not, some things of a distinctive nature belong in evening prayer.

Bedtime is a proper time for thanking God for all the joys, opportunities, and even the duties of the day. Modern Christianity is apt to look back upon the religion of Puritan days as joyless; yet as we have earlier suggested it may be questioned whether there is not a greater lack of joy in modern religion, with so many of its exponents tied up in nervous knots. Whether one says with the psalmist, "I will rejoice in the God of my salvation," or with Paul in prison, "Rejoice in the Lord always; and again I will say, Rejoice," one needs to take time to think of the many things one has to rejoice in. There is no better time than at the end of a hard day, when otherwise one may go to bed to think of one’s troubles and toss all night in restless agitation.

Likewise, bedtime is the best time to take unhurried account of one’s shortcomings, provided one leaves them with God and his understanding mercy. To think in an agony of remorse of all one has done wrong, whether with sinful intention or errors of judgment, and to be inwardly upset over the good works one meant to get done and failed to do, is a poor frame of mind in which to try to go to sleep. It sets a train of thoughts going in which self-pity, self-accusation, unhappy memories, harsh thoughts about those nearest, and a buzz of intentions for the next day are mixed in an uneasy jumble. In this state of mind sleep either fails to come or gives so little refreshment that one wakes up worn out. Whether one is overwhelmed with fears, anxieties, angers, thoughts of one’s own hard lot, or weighed down with remorse, the best curative is to lay both one’s troubles and one’s sins before God, and leave them there.

What is actually done far more often, and far less effectively, is to get to sleep by taking a sedative. Temporarily this seems to take care of the matter of uneasy thoughts. But indulged in more and more frequently, it induces sleep by dulling one’s mental agility, and thus one’s general capacity for good work. Being by nature a depressant, it depresses the spirits until one is cross and blue next day without knowing why, and this sets up a new chain of un- happy thoughts. Quiet bedtime surrender of the soul to God would in most cases make all this unnecessary. A modern poet, Margaret Widdemer, has put these arresting, words on the lips of a girl desperate for peace of mind.

Luminal is what you take

For heartbreak.

That is all,

Except sometimes allonal

Or veronal.

Prayer was used, so we hear say,

In a sentimental day;

You arose from kneeling, sure

God and you’d somehow endure.

But such gestures are for us,

One would say, ridiculous;

Out of date

For the young sophisticate. . . .

"Take it with a little water,"

Says the specialist, "my daughter,

One at night and three a day,

It will wash your griefs away."

Saints who suffered long, help me! . . .

Now we have a drug store god

With glass tubelets for His rod.

Three along your busıness day,

One the hour girls used to pray,

Count them for a rosary,

Three and one: one and three:

Luminal. Allonal. Veronal.

That is all. (From "Modern Hymn for Grief" from Hill Garden. Copyright 1936 by Margaret Widdemer, and reprinted by permission of Rinehart & Co., Inc.

Brother Lawrence, knowing no formal psychology, showed himself a prime discerner of the power of the subconscious when he wrote, "Those whose spirits are stirred by the breath of the Holy Spirit go forward even in sleep." Bedtime prayer with its commitment to God of one’s total self and one’s loved ones is good religion, and ought to be engaged in as an act of religious faith. It is also good psychology, and good medicine for many of the ills that beset our nervous, fevered age.

Just as the first thought in the morning ought to be of God, so the last thought should be of him. There are various ways to do this. After one has made whatever personal inventory and commitment one desires, it may be helpful to repeat in a relaxed mood some short, meaningful phrase such as "God is love," or "In thee I rest," or "Be of good cheer," or "The peace of God, which passeth all understanding," or "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit." Or one may wish to repeat a line or two from a familiar hymn, such as

Drop Thy still dews of quietness,

Till all our strivings cease,


O Love that wilt not let me go,

I rest my weary soul in Thee.

Others fortunate enough to have the memory stored with great Bible passages may well repeat one of them. Unfortunately there has been so little memorizing of the Bible during the past generation that few are equipped to do this. However, the Twenty-third Psalm, probably known to more persons than any part of the Bible except the Lord’s Prayer, is ideal for this purpose. Whatever is used ought to be familiar and simple enough so that strain on the memory will not thwart relaxation or banish the mood of prayer.

To others, any such procedures seem artificial. The thing to do is to pray from the heart and let it go at that! Prayer ought certainly to be from the heart. Some can do this better without any patterns, and any repetition of words may seem like autosuggestion. Others are greatly helped by such channeling of thought. Only experience can determine how to do it most vitally.

Grace Before Meals

Some observations about grace at meals were made in the preceding chapter. There are good reasons why this practice ought to be maintained if it possibly can be without artificiality and tension. In a sense it is a sacramental act, imparting to every common meal a touch of divine dignity. Eating is the most communal of all human activities. To eat together is not merely to satisfy jointly the biological urge to be fed, or even to engage in a common cultural pursuit. To eat together is to cement human bonds of fellowship, and these can best be made firm and deep when God is recognized as present in the process. This makes the saying of grace important from the human angle. There is, of course, beyond this the religious obligation to give thanks to God for his provision for our need. The procuring, preparation, and consumption of food would be less of a taken-for-granted routine if prayers of gratitude came more naturally from the soul.

Some questions of method are likely to arise. Shall one teach and encourage the children to say grace? Yes, if this is not an evasion on the part of their more self-conscious parents. A child’s grace with true theology in it to which adults can respond is the familiar quatrain,

God is great and God is good,

And we thank Him for this food;

By His hand we all are fed,

Give us, Lord, our daily bread.

Shall one use one’s own words or a set form of prayer? Both, on occasion. The most familiar of all graces is "Bless, O Lord, this food to our use, and us in thy service." It would be unfortunate never to use this, and equally unfortunate never to use anything more spontaneous. Shall grace be silent? Sometimes, when members of the group are mature enough to know what to do with the silence. But silence ought not to be the cover for an embarrassed vacuum. Shall grace be sung? Sometimes. John Wesley’s grace is admirable for family as well as for larger group singing,

Be present at our table, Lord;

Be here and everywhere adored.

Thy mercies bless, and grant that we

May feast in fellowship with thee. (The original version reads "Shall feast in Paradise with thee." In spite of Wesley’s injunction not to tinker with his poetry, fellowship with God is to most persons a more congenial spiritual note than feasting in Paradise).

Shall one say grace when eating alone? The tendency is not to--but is there not some gratitude to be expressed even by oneself? Shall one bow his head for silent grace when eating in public? Circumstances and one’s own sense of fitness must determine.

The saying of grace ought to be the occasion, not only for personal and family expression of gratitude but for a wider outreach of spirit. To thank God for his bountiful provision for our needs with no thought of the many who suffer is a form of self-centeredness contrary to the mood of true prayer. Yet here, again, there must be variety and naturalness. To pray vocally for the hungry at every meal is apt to mechanize this prayer into a routine. The best forms of grace are those that come from the deep concerns of the heart with infinite variety of expression.

"Pray Without Ceasing"

Paul’s injunction to "pray without ceasing" has been a puzzle to many minds. To pray obviously requires some direction of attention toward God. But if one’s attention were always on God how could one have any mind left for the things that have to be done?

What Paul probably meant was to be always in a state of receptivity toward God. To live a life always open and responsive to God is what Jesus did, and what every Christian ought to try to do.

What this means for prayer is not that we should attempt the psychological impossibility of giving at the same time full attention to God and equally full attention to the matters at hand. Nor does it mean divided attention, such as ensues when one goes ahead doing his work but with part of his mind on pains in his body or haunting worries. "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might," is from the Old Testament but it is also an injunction to the Christian to be placed alongside of "pray without ceasing."

How, then, shall we do it? Again Brother Lawrence is an excellent teacher. There is no evidence in his Practice of the Presence of God that he found it possible to think consciously of God all the time. What he did was to be always responsive to God’s "inward drawings," and to think about God so many times during the day in the midst of his work that he felt a calm assurance of God’s presence. A passage in one of the letters written about him describes this admirably:

If sometimes he is a little too much absent from the Divine Presence, which happens often when he is engaged in his outward business, God presently makes Himself felt in his soul to recall him. He answers with exact fidelity to these inward drawings, either by an elevation of his heart toward God, or by a meek and loving regard to Him; or by such words as love forms upon these occasions, as for instance, My God, behold me, wholly Thine: Lord, make me according to Thy heart. And then it seems to him (as in effect he feels it) that this God of love, satisfied with such few words, reposes again, and rests in the depth and center of his soul. The experience of these things gives him such an assurance that God is always deep within his soul, that no doubt of it can arise, whatever may betide.

There is nothing in this that any Christian might not do. To do it would mean not only a great deepening of the spiritual life, but by the release of tension a great increase in the effectiveness of one’s work. Little prayers of a single sentence in the midst of things --petitions for help to do the work right, joyous thanksgiving, a plea for forgiveness, commitment to God to go forward without worrying over what is ahead or what has already happened -- such prayers can make the day over from monotony or defeat to triumph. Add to these prayers for oneself a word asking the blessing of God on one’s associates, and one may be surprised to find how God gives grace to work with even the most difficult.

Traditionally these have been called "ejaculatory" prayers. This does not mean that they need to be said audibly, though there are times and seasons for a good "Hallelujah." (This means "Praise the Lord!") An ejaculation is something "thrust out," and little silent thrusts of prayer throughout the waking hours, in work or leisure, can so shape the tenor of one’s spirit that it is possible to live serenely and zestfully in the midst of whatever comes. The great Christians one knows, though they probably do not talk much about it, are almost certainly those who in this sense pray without ceasing.

We are not finished. What is most often meant by private prayer, the time of extended personal devotions, is yet to be discussed. However, this large field can be better handled in a separate chapter.