Chapter 8: Private Devotions

Prayer and the Common Life
by Georgia Harkness

Chapter 8: Private Devotions

The occasions of prayer discussed in the preceding chapter require very little extra time in the day’s work. They can be engaged in helpfully by persons of any degree of spiritual maturity -- from the person who has never prayed in his life but wants to begin to the saint of ripe experience. I have emphasized them because if prayer is to be effective in the common life, it must become a feasible possibility to people where they are, not merely a recommendation as to what might well be done in some other state.

The Period of Private Devotions

However, we must now give more particular attention to what is generally the theme in discussions of private prayer -- the time of extended personal devotions. In enumerating the principal occasions of prayer it was said that there ought to be a period of regular, unhurried communion with God, planned for and not left to the mercy of circumstances. This I repeat, for some things I shall say about it are unorthodox. It is often urged that an hour a day, or a minimum of a half-hour, be set aside for this purpose. Some who are masters in the art of prayer seem to imply that no one can really maintain a well-fertilized prayer life without giving this amount of time to it. One ought to take time, it is said, to pass beyond any conscious thought to a joyous sense of the divine Presence, and dwell in this mood until life is reoriented.

With this view I agree in part, but only in part. One ought to take time -- whatever the time required -- to relax, to direct attention from self to God, to pray to God in a receptive mood, to feel spiritual refreshment and direction from God’s presence. This can come in five minutes, in ten, in thirty, in sixty -- or it may not come at all from any length of time. To sit or kneel day-dreaming for thirty or sixty minutes is less likely to lead to spiritual power than a few minutes of vital fellowship. Where there is true love between human persons, it does not take long to establish rapport and companionship again after the absence of one of them. If one seeks to live continually in God’s presence, the time of special prayer is simply a further advance along channels already open.

It is hoped that no one will take the above paragraph as an alibi for not bothering to have an unhurried time of personal prayer! It is easy to let "the care of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches," that is, our many economic and material interests, "choke the word." It is against this danger, probably, that the advice is given, "Pray by the clock if you cannot pray by the heartbeat.’’ (In E. Stanley Jones’ pamphlet How to Pray. In spite of a minor difference of opinion at this point, I commend it highly for its many practical and spiritually vital suggestions.) Nevertheless, I doubt that prayer by the clock is ever effective unless it has in its content that which makes the clock unnecessary.

The selection of a time for this unhurried period depends wholly on the circumstances of the individual. The only essential principle is that it must be a time of leisure and freedom from interruption. A morning hour is generally advocated, and for ministers and others relatively free to fix their own schedules this is probably the best time. A period early in the day gives opportunity to gather resources and get orientation for the day’s demands. Yet for many persons, as was noted earlier, the social situation makes this -- if not impossible -- at least so difficult that another time had better be chosen. For those in school or business, there may be a near-by church or chapel where one can go sometime during the day to be alone, and by slowing down from the usual rush, gain physical as well as spiritual refreshment. For others, the only free time in the day is the evening -- perhaps late in the evening. However complicated one’s existence, there is nobody who cannot find a few minutes somewhere in the day to be set aside regularly for this purpose.

What shall be done in this period? I venture to outline a plan, not because there is only one way of doing, but because many people are frankly at a loss to know what to do with a time of private prayer if they set it aside. They can, of course, read a page in The Upper Room or some other devotional manual -- but beyond that, what? What is proposed here is only suggestive, but may offer some direction. There seem to me four essential steps.


The first is relaxation. This means one ought to get as comfortable as possible without going to sleep. To pray very long on one’s knees may make one, not God-conscious, but knee-conscious! For this reason it is usually better to sit in a comfortable chair or lie on one’s back, with the weight as evenly distributed as possible. Then relax the body’s tense muscles. Most people do not realize how tense they are until they stop to think of it. This is a good time to think of it, and physical relaxation is an important introduction to spiritual composure. There are techniques for physical relaxation, (For an account of such techniques see Hornell Hart, Living Religion, David Fink, Release from Nervous Tension, Edmund Jacobson, You Must Relax, or Josephine Rathbone, Relaxation. but even without explicit knowledge of such techniques a great deal can be accomplished if one will simply sit or lie quietly and "go limp." There is good psychotherapy in the oft-quoted remark of the Negro mammy who said, "When I works, I works hard. When I sets, I sets loose."

With the body as relaxed as you can make it, relax the mind. This does not mean that one should get tense again trying to think of nothing! God does not require of us empty minds. It means, rather, that one should as far as possible put away extraneous thoughts and settle down to the matter at hand. The reason for selecting a time of leisure is that if one tries to do this with a host of duties demanding immediate attention, very few people can exercise enough self-discipline to still the mind before God.

In order to divert the mind from all that one has just been doing or must presently do, it is necessary to put something positive in the place of these clamorous thoughts. Just as a church service usually begins with a call to worship, one may well make for himself a private call to worship. This can be a simple, "Lord, here am I; fill me with thy Spirit," or Samuel’s "Speak, Lord; for thy servant heareth," or the words of a familiar hymn such , as

Spirit of God, descend upon my heart,


Lord, speak to me, that I may speak

In living echoes of Thy tone.

Whatever one says at this point ought to be the natural, unforced opening up of the soul to God. Some can do this without words. For others such a brief inward but verbal prayer is an aid to relaxation and a helpful approach to what lies ahead.

Meditation and Devotional Aids

The next step is meditation. We said a moment ago that God does not expect us to approach him with an empty mind. There are extremes to be avoided, for God does not make himself known best either in a vacuum or in a welter of our own or another’s thoughts. One discovers God and His will by patient, quiet focusing of attention in this direction. The purpose of meditation is not merely to make one think. Thinking in the speculative or problem-solving sense may well recede at this point. To meditate upon God is to think about God and his great goodness, his neverfailing care, our place in his Kingdom, what he requires of us. Without such meditation prayer is apt to degenerate either into self-centered clamorous petition or into a vague form of aimless, comfortable musing.

Some persons of long experience in silent worship can move to meditation upon God and communion with the divine Spirit without any external devotional aids. For most persons less mature, and for many of us who have prayed for years, there is need of something concrete and tangible to direct one’s thought and keep it from running out into frayed ends. The Catholic at this point has the advantage of a rosary which tells him what prayers to say and how many. Though this may become mechanical, there is a concreteness about it which most Protestant private worship lacks.

For the Protestant the most indispensable aid is the Bible. There are various systems of Bible reading to follow. The best plan is either a consecutive reading in one book a few verses at a time, or the passage for the day indicated in some form of devotional guide. There are many convenient guides, such as the references in The Upper Room, the readings for the week often listed in church school quarterlies, the seasonal readings announced by the American Bible Society. It does not matter greatly which system is followed provided there is regularity. I have heard a great religious leader say that for years he has followed the practice in his private devotions of opening the Bible at random to see what it would say to him. If one is mature enough not to put wrong interpretations on passages out of their context this can be done -- otherwise, something more systematic is better. (This practice is generally frowned upon, and it can run into magic. However, this was an important step in Augustine’s conversion. [Confessions, Book VIII, 29.] God can use any method if we are open to his leading.)

In any case, instead of trying to read a long passage at a time it is best to read one brief unit of thought and let one’s mind and spirit catch the message in it. There should be other times for extended, closely reasoned study of the Bible to uncover its meaning in its historical setting. (Among the best guides for this purpose are Julian P. Love, How to Read the Bible and Edgar J. Goodspeed’s book by the same title.) In private devotions a useful principle is to read it as one might a letter from a friend, not fussing about each word but letting God speak through it. Although some parts are of greater devotional value than others -- especially the psalms, the gospels and Paul’s letters -- there are amazingly few passages in the Bible that do not have some living truth that is waiting to kindle the spirit.

In reading the Bible for devotional purposes, fresh meaning leaps out from it if one asks himself two questions. What did this mean to the person who wrote it? What does it say to me? The first question calls forward from the back of one’s mind all that one knows of the setting of the passage. The more one can picture imaginatively the Hebrews in exile in Babylon or singing psalms of joy in the temple rebuilt on their return, the early church guarding carefully the precious fragments that told the story of Jesus, Paul among the churches or in prison writing to nourish and admonish those new in the faith, the more one can gather meaning from the words. But even without such knowledge, the Bible has such a universal and timeless message that always one may ask, what does it say to me?

Nothing is an adequate substitute for the Bible. Yet in our time the form of devotional aid most widely used is probably The Upper Room, Today, Forward, or some other serial publication in pamphlet form. This can be very helpful if rightly used. It is often misused. Letting one’s eye race across the page is not meditation or devotion. The Bible passage, whether a single verse or a longer reference, should be read in full and its meaning thought about. The printed meditation, the thought for the day and the prayer must become the reader’s own, else the reading is not devotion but a substitute for it. The human wisdom there stated is less important than what God suggests to you, and your own thoughts may be better than those of the printed page! In any case, for real meditation they must become your thoughts even if they come secondhand.

Many other aids to meditation are available. E. Stanley Jones’s Abundant Living has had the phenomenal sale of over a million copies, and therefore presumably has very wide use. (His Victorious Living [1936] and The Way [1946], all published by the Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, are also arranged for devotional use.) Thomas R. Kelly’s Testament of Devotion though it appeared as recently as 1941, is already a classic. (Harper & Brothers. It contains a moving biographical memoir by Douglas V. Steere, who collected and edited these essays after Thomas Kelly’s death.) There are such old stand-bys as à Kempis’ Imitation of Christ and Brother Lawrence. A new anthology of Christian devotional literature, The Fellowship of the Saints, compiled by Thomas S. Kepler, makes available a great many treasures of the past formerly hid from view. A resource which ought to find wide use is the Methodist Book of Worship for Church and Home, which has a section admirably arranged for personal and family devotions as well as material for public worship. Others find help in various compilations of religious poetry.

In the matter of such devotional aids it is impossible to prescribe for another. Yet there are some principles of judgment to follow. In regard to any devotional literature one must ask, "Does it speak to me? Does it stir and refresh my spirit? Does it bring me nearer to God?" If after a fair trial it does not, discard it and try another type. Fortunately, there are many kinds available which bring the spiritual quest and achievement of the ages to our minds as worthy substance for meditation.

Self -examination

The third step in the devotional sequence we are tracing is self-examination. Some would begin here. The purpose of meditation, however, is to set God and his holy will before us. In this light we are the better able to take stock of our acts and intentions, recognize shortcomings, form new resolves, make new commitments of the self to God. In this perspective petty hurts melt away, and praise is estimated more nearly at its worth. If one is given to feeling sorry for himself, frustration at not having what he wants, feelings of inferiority or of thinking of himself more highly than he ought to think, there is no better corrective than rigid, honest scrutiny before God.

The sins that most beset the path of cultured, respectable people are not the more overt transgressions against society but the subtler sins of worry, selfishness, pride, and prejudice. Though one may live chronically possessed by these demons and know well enough that he is unhappy, one seldom stops to look at himself and see these traits as sin until he is challenged to do so. Such a challenge comes home with greater force when put to oneself in earnest self-examination before God than it possibly could through any human moralizing.

To be unified, this aspect of the time of prayer should be related to the preceding. Suppose, for example, that one reads the story of Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand. Instead of being troubled over the miraculous angle of it, one may well be prompted to ask, Have I helped those in need? Have I done what I could for the hungry in Europe and Asia? Have I made right use of my loaves and fishes? Or one reads, "He hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth." (Acts 17:26, King James Version) Am I really as free from race prejudice as a Christian ought to be? Am I willing to have a Negro or a Jew live next to me? Do the Germans and the Japanese and the Russians seem to me as much like persons and children of God as the Americans around me do?

Or one reads on two verses further and finds, "for in him we live, and move, and have our being." At first glance this seems more comforting, less open to disturbing self examination. But is it? Do I really believe this? Am I sure enough of it to stop worrying and fretting? If God is right here with me, must I not relax and trust that whatever comes, he will see me through?


Thus far most of what has been suggested for the time of personal devotions is not, strictly speaking, prayer but the preparation for it. There is need for the quieting of body and spirit before God, the opening of the mind toward God with perhaps the discovery of a message from him through the printed page, perspective by which to see ourselves before him as we really are; Without such preparation, unless one is very mature in spiritual things he is likely to plunge in without knowing which way to go next.

The final step is prayer. Here all that has gone before becomes crystallized. The best course to follow in private prayer is to let God’s Spirit lead, and without much regard to the form of words, voice whatever is in the heart. If the relaxation has been real, the meditation meaningful, the self-examination searching, the words will come.

Various procedures are possible. One may pray without any form or sequence, led only by inner impulses. Or one may pray according to the natural sequence outlined in chapters two through five, voicing step by step one’s adoration, thanksgiving, confession, petition, intercession, commitment and assurance, seeking throughout to pray in Christ’s spirit as well as in his name. For some this may seem too mechanical, too much as if the Holy Spirit were being constricted to a pattern. To others such a form is helpful not only to understanding but to inward voicing of the moods of prayer.

Private prayer ought to be the most individual and personal matter one engages in. For this reason it ought not to be limited to the words of another. But both for beginners in the school of prayer and for the most mature, there is a proper use of memorized or printed prayers. There are many collections, ancient and modern, and prayers which have stood the test of time are likely to be full of great spiritual meaning. One can pray in the words of another if the prayer comes from the heart and not simply from the eyes or lips. To read a prayer without inwardly responding to it is no more useful to the devotional life than to read the newspaper.

Some will wish to move from verbal prayer, whether framed in one’s own words or those of another, to inward, wordless communion of spirit. This can be as rich and joyous an experience as a wordless appreciation of beauty or a time of silent fellowship between understanding human spirits. However, it is not to be advocated as a norm for all. The attempt may lead, not to deeper levels of prayer, but only to a vague semiconscious reverie. Apparently by temperament and experience some can, while more cannot, pray vitally without the use of words.

When the worshiper feels that he has prayed long enough -- and nothing but his own sense of completeness can tell him how long -- the thing to do is quietly, reverently to go about whatever needs to be done next. A transition there must be, but fortified with a new inner quietness and power, one can go if necessary to the most abruptly different environment and meet its demands with tranquillity and strength.

Posture and Diction

We have not stopped during our analysis to say much about such matters as posture and phraseology. This is because they are not very important matters. However, a few words may now be said about them.

The only principle to follow regarding the posture in which to pray is that it should be whatever is most conducive to reverence and receptivity. Usually one prays best in whatever position he is accustomed to associate with prayer -- whether kneeling, sitting with bowed head, or standing. Closing the eyes helps to shut out distractions as well as to induce reverence. There ought to be no excessive discomfort and no ostentation about the posture assumed. But on the other hand, one ought not to be "soft" or timid about his praying. If the circumstances require some physical discomfort or some admission to others by outward appearance that one is praying, one may well ask God for stamina to do whatever is required. In general one ought to pray as quietly, as inconspicuously, and as naturally as possible.

The same principle holds regarding diction. Shall one address the deity as "thee" and "thou" or use the "you" of ordinary address? Presumably it makes no difference to God. But it may to you, for to get too familiar is to remove the sense of reverence. Prayer is fellowship with God, not a familiar chat with a pal. One ought to pray in whatever language seems most natural, and to some "you" seems more natural than "thou." To most persons, the opposite is true in addressing deity.

For the same reason, persons who are accustomed to use more than one language can pray best in the tongue that is most familiar. No one who has participated in a great ecumenical gathering can have failed to be moved by hearing prayers in many languages, addressed to one God, spoken with one spirit, understood not by the ear but entered into unitedly by "the fellowship of kindred minds.

Distractions and Wandering Thoughts

Before leaving this discussion we ought to say something about an impediment to prayer which at one time or another besets the path of almost everybody who tries to pray. Even when praying with the best of intentions and genuine earnestness, one is apt to "come to" with the startled recognition that somewhere along the way one’s mind got off the track!

There are several things to do about wandering thoughts. Perhaps the first is to recognize that it is a very common human experience about which one ought not to be too much worried. John Donne, great English preacher and dean of St. Paul’s three centuries ago, makes this confession:

I throw myself down in my chamber, and I call in, and invite God, and his angels thither; and when they are there, I neglect God and his angels, for the noise of a fly, for the rattling of a coach, for the whining of a door; I talk on in the same posture of praying, eyes lifted up, knees bowed down, as if I prayed to God; and if God or his angels should ask me when I thought last of God in that prayer, I cannot tell. Sometimes I find that I had forgot what I was about, but when I began to forget it, I cannot tell. A memory of yesterday’s pleasures, a fear of tomorrow’s dangers, a straw under my knee, a noise in mine ear, a light in mine eye, an anything, a nothing, a fancy, a chimera in my brain, troubles me in my prayer. So certainly is there nothing, nothing in spiritual things, perfect in this world. (Works, Vol.III, p. 476.)

The first requirement is not to be greatly disturbed by such mind-wanderings, but to try to "overcome evil with good" by having enough positive thoughts of God in one’s mind to bring back roving thoughts. One reason why we have emphasized so much in this chapter the need of content for meditation is that it is a psychological impossibility to think of nothing for very long, and if one does not think of God or one’s relation to him, one is sure to think of something else.

A second need, however, is to see what is causing the mind to wander. Other factors besides spiritual laxity may be at the bottom of it. You may be too tired, or too uncomfortable, or there may not be enough ventilation in the room. You may not be sleeping enough at night to pray alertly in the daytime. You may have undertaken too much work and screwed yourself into a tension from which you cannot let down. You may have so many other pressures from persons that God seems a long way off. Part of this you can correct by analysis and adjustment of circumstances; part of it will recede only as you care enough to make a time for quiet waiting before God, for relaxed receptivity in which God has a chance to capture and direct your thought.

A third procedure when distractions banish attention is to meet them head on by absorbing them into the prayer. Douglas Steere in his Prayer and Worship illustrates how this can be done. Outside a mother is calling her child, the wind howls against the house, the rain beats down. Instead of letting these sounds defeat the mood of prayer, one can pray the distraction in: "O God, continue to call me as the Mother does her child and I shall answer; the wind of God is always blowing, but I must hoist my sail; O God, saturate my soul with the rain of thy redeeming love. (Op.cit., p.21.)

The Test of Achievement

It is possible to be concerned either too little or too much with whether one is getting anywhere in his attempts to pray. This is not just the same question as to whether one can expect an answer in an overt sense, to which we have repeatedly given attention. When no inward response seems to come, one ought to be concerned as to whether he is praying in the most fruitful way. If not, the sooner a change is made the better, and now is the time to begin. But one may be overconcerned. Not careless but earnest Christians are peculiarly prone to discouragement.

The most subtle of all sins is pride in our spiritual achievement. Not only do we like to receive recognition from others for our spiritual gifts and graces, but it is pleasant to have a comfortable glow of satisfaction at the thought that we are doing pretty well with our good works, including the works of prayer. Correspondingly, there can be intense discouragement and a sense of thwarted ego if we do not seem to make out as well as we thought we were going to. Though it is seldom analyzed, a hurt feeling as if God had snubbed us gets mixed in with a sense of frustration and shame at not being able to go through with something we had set out to do.

Prayer ought to lead to soul-searching and humility; it ought not to put us in a dither from a sense of failure. It is not Christian to be careless or indifferent in prayer. To pray in faith calls for faithfulness. But neither is it Christian to be self-centered in our earnestness. The backswing of discouragement when we think we ought to be more powerful in prayer than we are savors of egotism and of lack of faith in God. If God hears the prayer of the penitent for forgiveness, we can trustfully leave with him not only our sins but our shortcomings.

We come back, therefore, to what has been said before, that if our praying is rightly centered in God and faithfully maintained, we do not need to worry much about its effects in us. The effects will be there whether realized or not in greater quietness and calm, greater earnestness of effort, greater stability and strength. A great Christian said the most important thing that can be said about method when he wrote, "The only way to pray is to pray, and the way to pray well is to pray much. . . . The less I pray the worse it goes."