Monday, May 08, 2006

Spiritual Disciplines: Prayer Part 1

Someone asked me about prayer…so here are some quick ramblings….

What is prayer? Prayer is an effort to communicate verbally with GOD. In prayer we offer praise, make requests, or simply express one's thoughts and emotions.

St. Therese of the Child Jesus explains: "For me, prayer is an uplifting of the heart, a glance toward heaven, a cry of gratitude and of love in times of sorrow as well as of joy"

The Christian seeks to raise the mind as well as the heart to God. Prayer, as discourse with a friend, is not constrained, but rather should be spontaneous. Certain prayer events are organized, of course, as in the case of church gatherings, yet even during such events the specific discourse between the soul and God may be spontaneous. A Psalm, for example, may offer different meanings depending on the mood of the person praying. For the Christian, prayer is love, and to "Pray always" (Luke 18:1) is to love always. The Christian grows spiritually through the life of prayer. Someone once said: “as air is to the body, so prayer is to the soul.”

Since the early church was made up of many with a Jewish lineage and history, a large part of the private prayers of its members followed typical Hebrew format. Praying three times a day became the daily practice of the person, though, instead of a community encouraged practice. This adaptation was largely due to the problem that Christianity had not yet become a country-endorsed religion. While the Jews were able to communally close shops and trade for the sake of their Sabbath, the ability to maintain such a discipline among Jewish and Gentile Christians wasn't met with the same enthusiasm. This private practice would later develop into family devotions and personal "quiet times." In the gatherings of the early church prayer was offered frequently throughout the worship service with the Lord's Prayer taking its place as the anchor - a common ritual in each gathering.

Prayer is done in a variety of ways. There is ‘vocal prayer’ or ‘praying out loud.’ Vocal prayer may be prayer of petition, perhaps the simplest form of prayer. Some have termed it the "social approach" to prayer. In this view, a person asks GOD for a need to be fulfilled; GOD is thought to listen to prayer and to be free to grant the request or not. Vocal prayer may also include words of adoration, praise, thanksgiving, intercession, and communion.

There is also ‘meditative prayer.’ This is prayer of a more interior character than vocal prayer would tend to imply. Christian theology, e.g. St. John of the Cross, teaches that this type of prayer is intended to help "obtain some knowledge and love of God" (Ascent of Mount Carmel).
In this prayer the person will pray internally. The person may form sentences mentally, or may simply bask in what the Christian would consider the love of God. Then there is what some call ‘contemplative prayer.’ The progression from vocal, to meditative, to contemplative prayer is not a straight road, nor does the Christian travel in one direction. Some teach that after one reads/meditates on scripture (Lectio divina) they contemplate what they have read and in that process ask GOD to speak to them through His words.

What about our physical posture? Certain physical gestures often accompany prayer, including standing, bowing, sitting laying flat, kneeling. Sometimes hands are placed together, or arms wide open or palms up… There are of course many different ways of praying, and many forms of expression of the same words and ideas. And although communication with God is good, there is a danger that prayer can sometimes be reduced to the trivial or nonsensical. “GOD is great, GOD is good…”

When we pray I believe we need to be aware of what we are saying and communicating to both GOD and, if in a corporate setting, what others are listening to. In other words, I hope that when someone hears us pray, they will not say that all we are saying is just 'a set of words'. We have to guard that our prayer does not descend to meaningless repetition of words, does not sink to saying things without some thought or reflection about what it is we are saying. In my experience many people who pray in a corporate setting slip in “Lord GOD” and “Jesus” as every fourth word. Is this wrong? No, but we need to realize that our prayers are communicating to those who are in ear shot. Even though we may not fall into the trap of meaningless or mindless repetition of words when we pray, there are occasions when perhaps we put less thought or effort into our communications with God than we ought.

Fortunately the remedy is a simple one. We can ask God to help us pray! We may not feel that we are then praying as we can, we may not feel anything out of the ordinary, but it is a first step in the right direction, a first or further step into entering into a more meaningful dialogue with God our Creator on whom we depend for everything. Such a dialogue forms part of the relationship that we share with God, and is fundamental to our whole being.

If we can just let this most fundamental relationship with God occupy first place in our lives, then whatever we do and say in prayer, or however we pray, will never be a meaningless set or pack of words. Instead, real communication will occur, and it will take us further in our relationship with God, and so flow out into our own lives and the lives of those whom we encounter. So, just give it a try…daily….


Misty said...

I read a popular book on prayer and I remember the author commenting that he did not believe in saying grace before meals because when someone is saying grace they are just going through the motions. They are not really having a meaningful conversation with God. What does everybody think of that?

Mark said...

That author holds a silly view.

To say, of someone, that they are just going through the motions and that they aren't having a meaningful conversation with God presupposes that he knows something about their psychological states and I'm quite sure that he doesn't know anything about my psychological states, for example.

Furthermore, it looks like this author has made the inference from: 'Lots of people go through the motions when they say grace' to 'Everyone goes through the motions when they say grace'. That is clearly a bad inference. Furthermore still, it looks like this author is giving up on the custom of saying grace on these grounds instead of making a valient effort to not just go through the motions when he prays. That also seems like a bad conclusion to draw.

One more reason why we should think this author's view is silly is that there is no reason to think that every time we pray we need to have a "meaningful" conversation with God. Lots of times we are just expressing thanksgiving. Suppose I gave someone on the street money to buy lunch, if what this author is saying is right, then it follows that there's no point in the receipient of the money saying thank you because it wouldn't be a meaningful conversation. That is clearly not what we think. We all think that there is very good reason for the receipient of the lunch to say thanks and that his 'thank you' is valuable despite the lack of a "meaningful" conversation.

I think that's enough beating up on that author for now. It seems clearly a silly view to me after all.

SoulPastor said...

I am in agreement with Mark B.
Here is my ungrateful is this culture going to get?

Give us this day our daily bread...

"Uhmmmmmm......because I expect give it?'

Come on people. We need to be grateful for everything, even saying "thanks" to GOD for providing a meal that many people in the world are literally dying for.

Ohhhhh the voice inside my head is screaming out!

misty said...

The question I was asking was not so much about being thankful or not or praying before meals even. The author was refering to 'saying grace' -- the same prayer everytime one eats a meal. Really the issue I was trying to raise was if there is value in prayers that are more of a ritual. I used to agree with the author that there was not but now I am starting to question whether there isn't some value in that kind of thing. If there is how do you find the balance between doing things because that's what you do and having an authentic and real prayer life?

Mark said...


So, the author was claiming that there is something less meaningful about saying the same words as opposed to saying different words each time?

(I'll refrain from saying anything more until I get an answer.)

SoulPastor said...

I love ritual and I believe that ritual is also important. The danger is that ritual can be meaningless as well. As for the question about balance...a prayer life consists more than saying thanks over a meal....right?

Mark said...

Oh there you go changing the topic again Soulpastor, when will you learn.

Just kidding.

Seriously though, read prayer can be as meaningful as the 'free-form' prayer that many of us were used to growing up. There are a number of people that I know, for whom read prayer has become even more meaningful than the 'free-form' variety.

Lots of people think, I know i heard people say this growing up, that 'free-form' prayer is more "real" or "genuine". I think this is simply false in most cases. From what I've observed--and I don't have a limited sample--'free-form' prayer many times ends up being tantamount to a random recombination of frequently used sayings or religious idioms (some of which the prayer probably doesn't have any particular intention when uttering it; for example "Be with us Lord as we go our separate ways").

That's all for now.