Meditation on Prayer

Presented by the Rev J.D. Brown at the Dallas Assembly Quarterly Meeting.

Holy Redeemer, Irving, 26 Mar, 2011

Introduction

Brotherhood of St. Andrew - 3/26/11 Meeting - Fr. J.D. BrownThis talk was cobbled together from a number of classes taught over the years, referring to notes that relied chiefly on the resources I have listed below (in case you may want to use some of these for yourself). I credit particular authors’ works in the body of the text, and if this were a scholarly work, I would have footnoted more scrupulously.  Any oversight in this regard, comes with my apologies.

Resources

Creating a Life with God; the Call of Ancient Prayer Practices, Daniel Wolpert , Upper Room, 2003.

“The Daily Office On Line”:  (http://www.missionstclare.com/english/ )

The Harper Collins Book or Prayers, compiled by Robert Van De Weyer, Castle Books, 1997.

Prayer and Temperament; Different Prayer Forms for Different Personality Types, Chester P. Michael and Marie C. Norrisey, The Open Door, Inc, 1991.

(or visit:   http://www.msgr.ca/msgr/WEBPrayerHANDBOOK.html)

The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola, Anthony Mottola, Image, 1964.

The Way of the Pilgrim & The Pilgrim Continues His Way, Helen Bacovcin (Translator), Walter J. Ciszek (Foreword), Image Books, 1985.

The Word is Very Near You: A Guide to Praying with Scripture, Martin L. Smith, Cowley Publications, 1989.

So, how is your prayer life?

(That was the usual opening question from my spiritual advisor). Who in here would be willing to trade your current prayer life if you could get a better one in exchange? I am guessing pretty much near 100% would respond positively. That is kind of my sneaky way of asking if you are dissatisfied with your prayer life. So let’s blow off all the false piety we have when we talk about prayer and how much it sustains us, etc, etc. I am here as clergy to tell you that a healthy faithful prayer life is hard work. It takes work to achieve but it is also essential to a healthy Christian life. Just like diet and exercise are hard for some of us as we get older, prayer can be hard. So let’s start with the premise that our prayer life needs calibration. That’s okay. You are in good company.

The disciples asked Jesus, Lord, teach us to pray. Imagine being in the very presence of Christ and having personally witnessed his ministry – do you think you would still be unable to articulate your faith in prayer and would need to ask for help? Well, they certainly did. Jesus after the Transfiguration chides his disciples who ask why they could not heal the epileptic boy and he tells them because this condition would only respond to prayer (Mark 9.29). What do you suppose Christ was implying? Perhaps he was hinting to them that they weren’t praying enough or at all? Then when Jesus is in the Garden, they fall asleep instead of keeping watch with him for one hour in prayer. My point? The Holy Apostles of the Church struggled with prayer.

Why Pray?

You might hear argued, if God knows everything before we know it – why go through the drill of praying to him in the first place? The image I use most often is one of a child going away to college. Once they have flown the nest, you as a parent live for those phone calls that say they are doing well, or had a success, or even a failure. And you don’t even mind getting those phone calls when they ask you to send money, or food – because you are hearing from someone you care very deeply about. You know what they need, you knew why they are calling, but you still want to hear it from them. God knows our every need as well but he still likes to get that phone call because he loves us, cares about us and wants to hear that we are doing okay, too.

So acknowledging that we are unhappy with our prayer life; that we desire to improve, that we really want to share that phone call and hear God’s love for us beaming back from the other end of the line – how exactly do we go about making that connection? How do we have at least a hope of being successful at establishing a routine of prayer – after all the wrong numbers we may have dialed before? We need a time, a space and a means that actually makes the connection. If you lack any of these – you will have a difficult time making that call.

The Biggest excuses against prayer

There isn’t a suitable time, place, or real means available. Martin Smith in his book, The Word is Very Near You, suggests that some reasons behind the excuses we make for not praying are an unconscious resistance to intimacy with God. God might scare us. He might actually be listening – and then where would we be?

A Time to Pray

Smith suggests a typical session can take from 30 -45 minutes (Yikes!). So maybe you might only want to commit to doing it a couple of times per week. But if even that is not possible – you may want to think about what that says about where you put your priorities or your degree of over commitment. You may feel too tired when you first wake up but if you wait until you are fully awake you may never pray at all. If you relegate prayer only to the leftovers of your day then it may indicate how distracted and unfocused you really are.

Pray by the Hours

Anglican prayer, then is conveniently divided into the “Liturgy of the Hours” or the Daily Office which includes short services for morning, noon, evening and Compline (before bed) using appointed Psalms and scripture guided by a lectionary at the back of the prayer book – or if you are a computer type – you can follow the cycle of morning and evening prayer on line – (http://www.missionstclare.com/english/).  So, there is an opportunity for you to pray at just about any time of the day or night – you just need to pick one.

A Place to pray

Smith also suggests excuses for there not being an adequate place to pray: Church is too far away or it is not open and there is no way you can do this at home or in your car.  Interruptions abound, not to mention temptations and distractions. What would it look like if I was praying and someone walked in? Asking for a time of privacy generates suspicion and prayer is “a nonconformist activity”. We may be shy about saying why we need the time and privacy or we may ashamed, or we don’t want to be held accountable in case we happen to get tired of the practice. Moreover, if you announce why you don’t want to be interrupted, your commitment to pray is now public knowledge (Yikes again!). How can you back out?

Christ says to go and pray in a closet (Matthew 6:6). Why? Public prayers attract attention, attention diverts our attention, and we are tempted to act out. Christ says those who pray in public already have their reward – (to appear publically pious – not to petition God. Matt 6:5). Privacy gets our ego out of the way, makes undistracted silence possible and allows for honest emotion meant only for God. You can get emotional – shed tears if you want to and not feel self conscious. So go and find a place. If you can’t find one – make one.

Make a holy space

I know a woman who when she renovated her home put in a window seat that became her prayer corner. Then she told her family – when I am sitting there, please do not disturb me. When I train our LEM’s to visit folks in hospital or sickrooms, rarely is there an appropriate open surface from which to serve Holy Communion. Usually the table spaces are cluttered with water cups filled with water and bendy straws, Kleenex, medicine, etc. I show them how to slowly, intentionally and reverently make a holy place for communion in the midst of that chaos of the tray table at a hospital. You can do the same. Take off your pager – shut off your phone. Use a symbol, a signal or gesture that marks the space. In the Middle East they carry a rug –  good idea. It is portable, you can carry it with you; it marks a boundary of time and space: unrolling it and stepping on to it indicates commencement of the time of prayer; stepping off it signals conclusion. Lighting a candle can also signal a time to begin; extinguishing it a time to conclude.

Getting our game face on

We are at a loss to know how to settle down – our mind races. How can we shut it up?  My spiritual advisor at seminary started every session with 5 minutes of silence to allow us to get our game face on before we moved into discussion. Think of it as a long elevator ride from chaos of your daily life up to the penthouse where you will meet God – and then the doors open, you step out and there he is. What do you want to say?

What to pray about (Intercessions)

You all have heard about the ACTS acronym: Adoration, Confession Thanksgiving and Supplication (or intercession) gives you a script to follow. Most of these are not too difficult to understand but I want to go off a bit on a tangent about how you might approach intercession. At our church, just like yours probably, we have an intercessions list as long as your arm. Bobby, Suzy, Frank and Ted, Mary, Billy, Fred, Denise, etc…  How do you avoid having prayer for them turn into simply a reading of names off a list?  Take them on one bite at a time. I do not believe I am capable of holding more than half a dozen people up in prayer at one time before it becomes like reading a list. So I take the list and break it up in pieces.

When I was a seminary intern at St Margaret’s, in Catlett, VA, I started a prayer group. I recruited enough people so that there might not be more than a half dozen names from the intercessions list assigned to each of them. If the intercessions list grew larger- we recruited more people to pray. Each person in the group was encouraged to call the persons they were praying for – ask if there were any specific thing they wanted prayer for, and then maybe a week or so later re-connect to see how things were going, if the prayers had been answered or if additional prayers were needed.  In this fashion the prayer list was no longer a dead reading of names from the phone directory, but a thoughtful and genuinely relational document. People had no difficulty holding people up in prayer because they knew them and their needs. Their prayer became more genuine because it was about relationship and communication.

How do I pray; what do I say?

Does God only speak Elizabethan English? Does he only hear prayers from Rite I or the 1928 prayer book? Is that how you talk to someone with whom you have an intimate relationship? If not, then talk like you would normally to someone you care about and be genuine. Honesty is the best policy. Have you ever shouted at God? Do you think he isn’t big enough to hear it? Read Psalm 88 – that’ll give you a for instance. Another is the following prayer written by Harry Williams, former Dean at Trinity Cambridge:

O God, I am hellishly angry; I think so and so is a swine; I am tortured by worry about this or that; I am pretty certain that I have missed my chances in life; this or that has left me feeling terribly depressed. But nonetheless here I am like this, feeling both bloody and bloody minded, and I am going to stay here for ten minutes. You are most unlikely to give me anything.  I know that. But I am going to stay for the ten minutes nonetheless. (Harper Collins Book of Prayers).

You need a form to follow

If you write a letter you don’t start with the closing – muck around in the address, say something from the body and end with a greeting. No instead you follow a form. If you write or read poetry (or were forced to at some point in your education), you may be familiar with a form of poem called a sonnet. It has a specific rhyme scheme you must follow – or it is not a sonnet – just like if you diverge from the recipe – you may make whiskey but it won’t be bourbon. What happens when at first we engage in a form is we struggle against it – but with practice we find that the form allows us an expression of freedom that actually gives meaning to our effort that we might never have achieved otherwise.

So, too in prayer, we engage in some form – follow a specific manner of prayer. While you may think it easier to pray by just plopping yourself down in a chair fold your hands, raise your eyebrows and cut loose – soon you may run out of things to say – you may wonder if the sound you hear is a bearing going out in the air conditioning, and then remember something you need to do before you go to work – did you turn off the coffee pot?  That is precisely why a form is helpful.

The Book of Common Prayer

The Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer provides us with a framework and form common to all in our denomination. It gives us a format to follow – collects for every occasion, prayers for every saint, and for all conditions of life.

It also includes the Psalter – David’s collected prayers which span every human emotion from happy to sad, relieved and glad, Thankful, hopeful, in agony and mad. If you don’t have anything in mind to pray about – scan through the Psalter – you’ll find a good script to follow.

The Psalter

I just mentioned Psalm 88’s shouting match with God – but then look to see how God’s answer brings peace and joy to the same writer in the following Psalm 89? Former military guys – especially Navy types “who go down to the sea in ships” might connect with Psalm 107. Psalm 118 which we sing at Easter and Jews sing at Passover – might have been the very last Psalm sung by Christ at the last Passover supper. Does that make you want to look it up? My own favorite is Psalm 131. If you ever find yourself without something to say to God – there is ample material in the Psalter to help jump start your own prayer.

Types of Prayer

Daniel Wolpert lists at least 12 Prayer practices (see Creating a Life with God; the Call of Ancient Prayer Practices):

  • Fundamental Prayer:  the use of Silence, the use of holy reading and silence found in the Lectio Divina:  (See: Martin L Smith’s “The Word is Very Near You”)
  • Mental Prayer:  Jesus Prayer (used in “The Way of the Pilgrim”), Contemplative, Examen (“The Spiritual Exercises of Ingatius Loyola”), Creative Prayer, Journaling
  • Physical Prayer:  includes tactile prayer like praying the Rosary, or walking the Labyrinth
  • Living Prayer:  Being in and appreciating nature, honoring God in your livelihood, working for justice in your Community (Martin Luther wrote about a theology of work).

I am not going to cover them all but touch on some of those that I find helpful.

The Lectio Divina was developed by St Benedict as a process of holy reading (which is the literal translation), centered on a piece of scripture and read with prayerful intention.  The steps in this process consist of the reading, contemplation, responding in prayer and then meditating on the result of the experience. After having experienced the Lectio Divina for myself and having led others in it, I am now more open when reading scripture to allow it to pace and interrupt me – I am not reading to complete a page but reading so that the page speaks to me. Similarly in my reading of the Psalms, especially when I happen to be struggling with some problem or issue at that time, I will hear an answer that gives me understanding and a sense of comfort that in the grand scheme of whatever is going on, God is still present. I’ll talk some more about the Lectio in a moment and how it may be used depending on your personality.

Personality of Prayer

Many of you have had undergone the Myers Briggs personality testing. What it does is type your personality to help you understand how to best mesh with the personality types around you. That same information, the kind of person you are – the likes and the dislikes, attributes, strengths and weaknesses contribute to the type of prayer you may find most successful, too. There is a book (“Prayer and Temperament; Different Prayer Forms for Different Personality Types” or visit a website I have listed in the handout that contains much of the same information) indicating the form of prayer best suited to you based on Myers- Briggs personality profiles. These forms are based on your preferences:

  • Which is your favorite world: Do you prefer to focus on the outer world or on your own inner world? Are you an extravert or introvert  (E or I)
  • How do you receive information: Do you prefer to focus on the basic information you take in or do you prefer to interpret and add meaning? This is called Sensing (S) or Intuition (N).
  • Which holds greater sway: emotions and motivations or facts: When making decisions, do you prefer to first look at logic and consistency or first look at the people and special circumstances? This is called Thinking (T) or Feeling (F).
  • How then do you proceed: In dealing with the outside world, do you prefer to get things decided or do you prefer to stay open to new information and options? This is called Judging (J) or Perceiving (P).

Use of Lectio Divina in combination with those different personality types helps frame the kind of prayer you might find most appealing.

Examples

Thomasian Prayer: Thomas Aquinas was the one who asked the question “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? He was known for parsing theology down a pretty fine level of granularity… (an intuitive thinker). Example:  Read Markk 15.10: For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over.” How would Thomas parse this? Consider envy. Have you ever felt it? When? Why? What did you do? Have you ever suffered because someone else felt it? What did you do? What role did envy play in the death of Jesus? Why is there envy? Why are people unaware they are envious?  How can you discover if you are envious? How can you avoid it? How is love the opposite expression? End with a petition to discover and disarm your own envy.

Augustinian Prayer: He captured his entire confession in a book – (imagine the emotion) – so he is …  (an intuitive feeler). Example:  Read Eph 3.14-21:  …I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love…etc.

Change all the pronouns from second person to first (“you” to “me”).  Reread the prayer as a prayer for yourself, multiple times emphasizing each word.  Consider what insights you gain experiencing the prayer personally.

Franciscan Prayer: Francis was a hugger.  He senses, perceives and revels in experiential data (so the Lectio really doesn’t work here). His is a spirituality that would probably be my shadow type (or opposite – essentially this is not my style. I am an ESTJ).  Nonetheless what a Franciscan style of prayer might do is consider who you love most in the world? Think ask yourself how you can see God in them?  Ponder and give thanks for the blessings you see in them. Ponder and give thanks for the love you feel for them. (See what I mean?)

Ignatian Prayer:  (Here is my boy!). Ignatius Loyola was a soldier who took a cannon ball to the knee and while he was recovering all he had available to read was a book on the lives of the saints and the Bible. Reading and contemplating on these, he came to faith.  He is very formulaic (he goes by his senses and then judges) which appeals to the linear thinker. There is a mechanism; a formula to follow and a result expected.

Example:  Read the Gospel of John, Chapter 11, the burial of Lazarus. Put yourself in Martha’s place – you are both angry and grateful at Jesus’ appearance. You are tired from sleeplessness and your eyes smart from tears you are holding back. You approach Jesus telling him in your grief that your brother Lazarus would be alive if he had come sooner.  See the surroundings, taste the dust in the air, hear the sounds of nearby villagers going about their daily lives – while your life has all but ended. In this very public place, Christ looks into your eye as if you were the only two people around and says to you “Your brother will rise again…I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live…” As he looks into your eyes – sounds noises, distractions and time stops.  He then speaks: “Do you believe this?” Don’t answer immediately. Continue to look into the eyes of the living Christ. What do you feel? What do you say? Describe the moment.

Another form of prayer would be Apophatic Prayer

I mentioned earlier getting our game faces on by entering into silence.  This form of prayer takes that idea and runs with it. It goes beyond words – so now you get to throw that away as a crutch. This style of prayer is “hard to describe.” Think of emptying yourself, giving up “doing” prayer and rather “submit” to prayer. You release control including trying to control the unconscious.

One image that helped me to appreciate it:  I once attended a free Yoga session as part of a class on spirituality – (if nothing else, I had a great nap). The instructor told me to relax and I did something with my shoulders but wasn’t totally relaxed. So then she told me to soften the eyes, then relax the jaw, then breathe more slowly. Now imagine all the blood in your body moving to your feet. Use that same image to help peel back distractions layer by layer so as in Luke 5: 1-11, you can drop the net deep. With practice, the time in silence becomes sustaining – and you will find it easy to go into silence even longer. Who here has been in silent prayer for an hour? Sound hard? That’s what Christ asked of his apostles in the garden.  Work your way up to it – and try it sometime. What you will discover is that time doesn’t stop – it flies.

There are some helpful aids to praying in silence. You can tee up the silence with the Lectio first –if your mind has to wander at least let scripture be the last thing that went through it.  Pick one word to ground yourself set your stake in the ground – when your mind strays come back to it. My word is “boom.” When my mind starts to wander about what we might be having for lunch – or about someone who made me angry and what I am going to tell them if I ever get the chance, I say the word (BOOM!) and visualize the scourge striking Christ’s back or the hammer striking the nail going through Christ’s hand on the cross.  Boom. I imagine my own weakness – compare with his suffering – and try to simply sit in reverence and thanksgiving until I need to say it again. Boom. The cross is set up right and slid down into a post hole. Boom. The hammer breaks the legs of the criminals. Boom. The spear is thrust in his side. Boom. An earthquake hits when he dies. Boom. The stone is rolled away. Boom. The door to the upper room swings open.

Drawbacks of this style

You can’t stop thinking – so “I must be doing” it wrong. Essentially you encounter your own fallen reality. Peter drops the net deep and has an unpleasant revelation, too. He says to Jesus, “Get away from me, I am a sinful man.” We feel the need to fill the void with something because we are habitual “doers” not used to waiting. This selfish focus is the essence of sin. We are like Saul unable to wait for Samuel to arrive to make the burnt offering at Gilgal before offering himself (1Sam 13.9). Rather than wait for God – we try to do something to fill the void.  The reality is we can’t quiet our minds – we encounter our sinful selves, our lack of self worth and shame – hence we admit our helplessness…and in so doing we submit. There is nothing to do but wait…and God shows up.

Apophatic Prayer done in Groups

A group is actually a good excuse to engage in this style of prayer. It provides support from others. You are less likely to give up so easily in front of others. Try it for 15 minutes.  Afterward you can share what you experienced. One caution, however, the positive support the group provides is in its ability to listen to the experience of others – not their analysis of it. 

Pray without ceasing or “The Jesus Prayer”

“Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have mercy on me, a sinner.” Blind Bartemeus is the source for this particular prayer (Mk 10:47: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”). How does blind man recognize Jesus? His desire is to see again; to recover sight, (Greek:  ana-blepso literally to “look upward”).

This style of prayer is depicted in the devotional classic: The Way of The Pilgrim the story about a Russian pilgrim who desires to learn how to pray without ceasing. The Pilgrim’s experience at first is very hard. Then gradually the prayer becomes the “song in your head”.  Repetition acts like a zoom lens allowing you to focus clearly on one point. At some point the person praying experiences transformation of surrounding reality – and the presence of God.

Like some of you, I frequently am awakened in the middle of the night and find it difficult to get back to sleep. What I have found helpful is to use that time in prayer. Still lying in bed I start reciting (silently so I don’t disturb the wife) the Jesus prayer over and over in my head and when I fall asleep – sometimes as I do I dream about being in the presence of Christ.

How do I pray?

Now having led you around the horn talking about the variety of ways one can pray, you may wonder what my prayer discipline is. Actually, it is a combination of all of these and I sometimes flit from one form to another as they become more effective in addressing my personal need. It is my routine to follow the morning office lectionary – actually using the online Morning Office instead of the prayer book – because too much flipping back and forth distracts me from what I want to be about in prayer. If a verse in one of the readings takes me somewhere – I allow it to do so.  If I find that my mind wandered during a reading – I re-read it. If it is particularly resistant or difficult to understand – then I read it out loud. After completing the readings when I engage prayerfully in the recitation of the Apostle’s Creed, the Our Father and then I add the Hail Mary, I do 2 or 3 repetitions – (which is a truncated form of the Rosary anyway) by the time I finish the last repetition, I find silence easy to achieve and find that it is a “tangible” silence where I am truly open and listening.  Afterward I pray the concluding collects and benediction.

Closing

I want to close by telling you that my prayer life – like my personality has lots of different facets to it – because by nature, I am a doer. So I must keep “doing” prayer – almost feeding my attention deficit – like handing a shiny toy to a kid in the back seat of the car to shut him up – so God can drive me to the desired destination without my incessant interruption (Are we there, yet?). All these different techniques and mechanisms are crutches I find helpful to allow me to shut up and listen to God. I need them because, maybe like some of you, I am a cracked and broken vessel unable to do this without some help. Using these techniques over time, with practice, when I really strain, sometimes I can hear what God wants me to hear. My hope is maybe one of these techniques of prayer will help you to hear him, too.

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