One of my confessions is that…I find prayer, which is so useful and beneficial, so boring, or at least I used to. Infact, had I come across a piece on prayer like this, a few years ago, I would have stopped reading by now.
I disliked prayer intensely, then. Not, the actually ‘communing’ bit, but the actual doing it in a group, church context. I would rather have had root canal treatment than take part in group prayer…
…until, I re-defined, or properly understood, what it is!
So, what is prayer?
Years ago, I think I probably had the view that prayer was a way to coax God to do what I wanted, regardless.
My earliest recollections of ‘corporate’ Christian prayer, years ago, whether it was before the evening church service or for some special event, was of meeting with a motley group of much older people, in a little, darkened room, the vestry, which was badly in need of decoration, smelled of dust, and was cold, damp and uninviting. And, the language? I don’t mean swear words, but all those ‘thees’ and ‘thous’, as if God spoke like middle-class England did some three hundred years ago?
Dost thou understandeth me? You catch my drift?
If that room and prayer was a food it would be cold semolina pudding. It didn’t encourage me as an older teen to pray.
The collection of prayers, as one person prayed and then the next in the circle prayed – always ‘intimidating’ and artificial as I might not want to pray next in the queue – seemed to be fear-based, a ‘warding off’ of something, rather than something more positive, say, of inviting God ‘in’. Although my theological understanding now is that even that is unnecessary as God is already here, there and everywhere, and it is the Deity who invites us, anyway!
But, thankfully, knowledge gave way to wisdom.
Now, a few years older than a teen – cough, cough – okay, may years older, my understanding of prayer has changed, so that I regard it as a conversation with the deity, and two-way, at that! That last claim still raises a few eyebrows from my local evangelical Christian friends, some of whom look at me with that ‘humour-the-poor-fellow-as-his-mind-is-obviously-addled’ look. Inwardly, I look at them and think, you don’t know what you’re missing, and that, too, forms part of my prayer for them.
But, I’m ‘so old’ now I really don’t care what they think of me. I’m having a great time with my redefined view of prayer. Don’t stop me know, Queen (the band) said in another context.
Right now, I’d like to suggest three forms of prayer.
I know there are more than three, and it depends what you’re really looking at, as there are different ways to slice a cake, but, here’s three forms or stages of prayer to think about, that I’d like to offer.
The first is vocal prayer. This might be the staple diet of many, and/or it might be seen as the first stage in prayer, and one that is commended. It’s certainly the only stage of prayer that was used in that dust-laden vestry. It’s where we might say aloud our prayers, and it includes prayers that we ‘say’ silently as thought-prayers, inwardly, and might consist of list of needs for us or others, or things to give gratitude for.
It’s a two-way conversation.
It could include adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. It could also use spontaneous words or formulaic, written prayers of old. I’ve also discovered contemporary language is acceptable to the Deity!
The second is imaginal prayer, along the lines of that attributed to St Ignatius. Here, the imagination can ‘dance’. I sometimes like to read a holy text, and then imagine that account and myself ‘in’ it. What would I have heard? What would I have seen? What would I have felt? What would I have done? What would it have been like to listen to, say, Jesus, deliver a parable? Imagine!
Maybe to counter that old view of prayer I had years ago, and to ‘combat’ the sedentary nature in many places, I also – and this happens only when I’m alone, I assure you – like to move about!
Yes, in this second level of prayer, actions are possible. I discovered that if the prophets of old in the Book can use ‘enacted parables’, and Jesus used ritual, then I (and that includes you) can use movement in prayer, though you might like to call it ‘dance’ or ‘exaggerated ritual’. Infact, you might want to keep it a secret like me – though it’s a secret no longer.
It’s dancing with the Deity. You can even ‘lead’, such is the Deity’s grace and humility, and desire to ‘connect’ with you.
Yes, with my eyes closed, I imagine that when standing, and with my hands raised in ‘surrender’ in prayer. Orans is what the ancient Believer would call this; it’s very similar to the I am being allowed to ‘harvest’ some heavenly power.
It’s a moving out of normal ‘time-space’, into the liminal, where things happen!
When I then place my hands on my heart, that power is ‘linked’ to the person, metaphorically, on my heart at that time. When I mould my hands around an invisible ball in front of me, I like to imagine that that prayer-power is almost ready to ‘go’. And then, adopting a zen-like pose of putting my weight more on one (slightly bended) leg, I use both hands, open-palmed, to ‘propel’ that prayer-power in the direction of the person prayed for. I would also say a brief verbal prayer for them.
Sometimes prayer can be too brief, too easy, too shallow. This helps me, and it might help you. Ofcourse, you can vary and/or adapt the ‘dance’.
Afterwards, I take my time to ‘return’ to normal time-space, and I let my hands ‘hang loose’.
I know some may find this totally unnecessary and time-consuming, or even bizarre, but I find it beneficial, and much better than sitting and just saying ‘Bless Fred, he’s not at all well!’.
The third way is that of the prayer of silence or the prayer of Presence. It’s a going deep, and deeper still. I imagine at first, maybe being in a forest and I’m walking along a path to encounter the Deity. In this type of prayer, I quickly, purposely, lose the idea of ‘picture-thought’, and just rest. Thoughts come and go all the time – but they’re metaphorically like ships on the horizon and I pay them no attention to them. Grab onto a thought and you ‘jump out’ of that ‘no-thought’ space.
This prayer is the way of just sitting, relaxing, resting, being. Revealing in the Deity’s Presence.
It is being in the Presence of the deity. Bask in it. No effort is needed. The interesting thing is, that the moment you ask yourself, ’Have I encountered yet?’, then you haven’t, because that’s a thought, and you’ve moved out of just resting, just being, just being in the Presence. Similarly, if you work at it, you’ve missed the point. Understanding that you’ve been in the Deity’s Presence is in hindsight, and never during the event. It’s known only after the event, when one thinks back! And it’s awesome! It’s apophatic meditation (or contemplation, however you use those words) or centering prayer.
Some find this third idea of prayer odd, unnatural, and some of my evangelical friends say it is ‘rather un-christian’, little realising that it was the ‘staple diet’ of many Believers for over a thousand years before the Reformation – but, sadly they trace their knowledge and understanding of such things only as far back to their particular denominations start-date, some three hundred years ago or less.
Oh, they don’t know what they’re missing.
No, this third level of prayer, basking in the Deity’s Presence is very similar to that of human lovers. Initially, in most young relationships there is the ‘whispering sweet nothings’ stage when just the voice of your lover is exciting; then there is the working together and planning together stage, dare I say imagining together; and as the relationship grows and matures there is ‘silent-togetherness’ stage. Then, just being in each other’s presence is more than enough. No words, no actions, no thoughts are necessary! Just being together is everything! This is the third level of prayer, that I would recommended – that of encountering God as the all-embracing, Loving Presence, available to all!
So, there you have it. I hope, in my praying, things are more dynamic, lively, interesting and relevant. I certainly feel as though I’ve taken the J-Cloth and Fairy Liquid to my previous notion of dusty, old, irrelevant and archaic prayer, and swept away the prayer cobwebs of shallowness. Hmm, I feel better already!