42. Forty-two books on prayer sitting on my shelf, according to a very quick survey of the “prayer section” in my library. If I dig around, I may find two or three more dispersed through the bookshelves or sitting in a dusty corner. I didn’t count The Prayer of Jabez. I’m also not counting the books with a chapter on prayer or on certain kinds of prayer like the charismatic ministry-time prayers and deliverance prayers (which are filed elsewhere, on my charismatic shelf). Many of the greats are in the prayer section: Andrew Murray, E.M. Bounds, Brother Lawrence, Morton Kelsey, St. Teresa of Ã?vila. Altogether, that’s a lot of words talking about prayer. It’s definitely more words than the Bible says on the subject.
One of my college yearbooks has a picture of a friend of mine on the “Day of Prayer” page. He’s sitting in the student center on a bench, hunched over resting his head on folded arms across his knees. The thing is, he wasn’t praying at the time — he was suffering from a migraine. The college set aside a day each semester as a largely unstructured prayer day. Unfortunately, it may be the case that our expectations of prayer can lead to more migraines than peace and blessing. A lot of good words have been said of prayer, though… some of the things that stand out for me:
- “Jesus never taught his disciples to preach, only how to pray.” — Andrew Murray, With Christ in the School of Prayer.
- “A good conscience, void of offence, is an excellent preparation for an approach into the divine presence.” — David Brainerd, in The Life And Diary of David Brainerd
- “Prayer should be brief and pure, unless it happen to be lengthened by an impulse or inspiration of divine grace.” — The Rule of Benedict
- “One cannot go in for silence in a big way, make a pile and then retire. It would be better to settle for a more modest undertaking so that one could stay in business and keep at it. Otherwise the profits soon dry up.” — Morton T. Kelsey in The Other Side of Silence
- “Could you not tarry one hour?” — everybody else, quoting Jesus in an effort to get people to pray more.
This entry is part of a synchroblog on prayer for today, instigated by Erin Word, Lyn Hallewell and Cindy Bryan. The question at hand is “How do you pray?” and if I need to answer it directly for the syncroblog, my answer is “weakly.” Unlike some of the prayer habits I’ve known in the past, I quickly run out of things to pray these days. I think I’m gravitating more toward scripted prayers or prayer books, though I haven’t committed to a regular one yet. I used to use a booklet I made for myself, a compilation of prayers from the Bible, and it was rich. Now I find that I might approach weakly rather than with a strong prayer agenda as in my days of yore. After the initial forray (scripted or not) and a few feeble requests and such, I find the words peter out, and I’m left in silence. The thing I think I’m learning now has to do with the power of that silence, as I turn from viewing it it simply as silence and see it as stillness, as resting, and as waiting.
At first when I had to approach the subject for this post, I thought about how I’ve talked about prayer some in the past…
- Beautiful Beatitudes (Feb 05)
- Past Prayer Life Regression (May 05)
- Past Prayer Life Regression II (May 05)
- Why fast? (May 05)
- Celtic Daily Prayer (Dec 06)
- God complains about prayer (Sep 06)
- The Annotated Lordâ€™s Prayer (Sep 06)
…and wondered what more I could possibly say. Most of these posts relate to how I’m re-envisioning the practice of prayer, reshaping some of my ideas in that regard, as well as some review of my experience of prayer. A lot of it includes a rejection of prayer-formula theology — you know, the idea that if we pray just right, God will fill the order. Mostly, I see that as magic, a kind of Christian witchcraft, where God is so small as to be commanded by our whims… if we get the formula right.
I recall the prayer emphasis in the CLB, and though it was good in a lot of ways, it was in other ways an emphasis on our work. I’ve noted before (in “God complains”) that God is not impressed by our many words, yet it’s precisely what we continue to offer. Well, that or nothing, I suppose. My charismatic background has disdain for scripted prayer — any of the scripted prayers in the Bible are expanded extemporaneously so that they’ll be long enough to satisfy God or to fill out the hour. At least, that’s what it looks like now. At the time, it was explained as something like using the tool of the scripted prayer as a “starter” for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. I’m not sure how it might have been overlooked that the Holy Spirit may have inspired the scripted prayer.
Someone from a more liturgical tradition once observed about evangelicals that they tend to come into the presence of an almighty, holy God, and “just wing it.” I’m coming to see how deeply valuable the scripted prayers are… most of them are loaded with more meaning or significance in a few short lines than the many, many words of the extemporaneous prayers — especially the ones peppered with “Yes, Lord, and…” or “just really wanna” and similar phrases which include several repetitions of various names for God, just in case he forgets that it’s him we’re talking to. Then of course there are the public prayers which are simply a guise for sermons and rebukes directed at the other people in the room. Most of our prayers lack space… we’re afraid of the silence, so we fill it with meaningless words and phrases which are equivalent to the “uummms” we try to eliminate from public speaking. In conversation, we sometimes do this to keep control of the floor while we gather our next thought. I’m not entirely sure why we think we need to do this when we’re praying.
I once quoted (in “God complains”) Mother Teresa’s description of her prayer life as both she and God mostly just listening. I love the idea of space that this implies, the silent communion. Yes, a recent article in Time talks about her “crisis of faith” out of God’s silence, quoting a letter she wrote to the Rev. Michael Van Der Peet in September 1979: “Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.” One the one hand, we can say that if even she despaired, what hope do we have? Yet on the other hand we can take comfort that it is not only we who despair of the silence… and it needn’t shake our faith. If we learn to rest in our relationship with God, to be at peace even in the silence, then we are sustained in the relationship. We can utter some rich words, scripted, perhaps; adding to them when the unction strikes… but as we sit in silence and an image of a friend comes to mind, still we can offer it wordlessly to God as a prayer for that person. Our spirit communicates with his.
For a long time, I feared the silence. It was the desert, with nothing to sustain me. I am learning now perhaps… in the smallest of ways, that maybe — just maybe — the silence is there to teach me that God sustains me even in the void, the great nothingness. Even in the desert. Though I despair in the silence, if I but “dial down” and rest in him, sitting together wordlessly… life begins to seep into my soul, ever so slowly. Could it be that God is not found in the whirlwind, not in the fire, not in the earthquake… and sometimes not even in the whisper. Might he sometimes be found in the silence? Might he always be found there, if we dare to journey there and have the discipline not to fill the silence ourselves? “Be still, and know that I am God,” wrote the psalmist, in God’s voice. Be still. God spoke through Isaiah, telling Israel that their salvation was in returning to him and resting, where they would find strength in quietness and confidence in him. Quietness. Rest. It was in the silence that Elijah sat despairing, when God taught him that his voice was not in the flash, the pomp and circumstance… but in the stillness, he was there. And into the silent despair he whispered, “What are you doing here?” Perhaps it isn’t that Elijah was in the wrong place (the cave) so much as he was in the wrong space (despair). Fortunately, he was in the right mode — silent. I wonder how much pop-psychology crappyjack spirituality self-help claptrap we could do away with if we would learn the benefits of waiting, and practice it continually. Israel understood waiting — modern Christianity separated itself from Judaism, almost deprecated the Old Testament, and forgot how to wait. To wait is to learn rest… the thing which our souls desire so deeply. And perhaps the most mind-blowing thing of all… when we are still, in our silence God hears us waiting.