Living on a Prayer
Jesus teaches us to pray
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus prays. He prays with and for his disciples. He goes off by himself to pray. In the description of the Last Supper in the Gospel of John, Jesus prays a long prayer for unity among his disciples (17:1–26). He teaches us to pray (Lk 11:1–4). And we learn from Nicodemus’s approaching Jesus in the middle of a troubled, dark night that Jesus will meet us anywhere, anytime (Jn 3:1–21). Wherever we are, when we pray together, Jesus is there (Mt 18:20).
Prayer is serious work. Prayer is where we step out of the rat race to catch our breath—literally. The Spirit of God that moved over formlessness and darkness to bring out a good creation is described in Genesis as ruah—literally “wind” or “spirit” (1:2). The breath of God creates us, and will re-create us if we stop to let it.
In the Lord’s Prayer we ask for God’s kingdom to come, and pray to avoid temptations and evil. We ask for help in the midst of our difficulties. Yet our journey is not about remaining in places of security. We pray for the strength to step out where we are called and the trust to depend on God.
In his First Letter to the Thessalonians, Saint Paul adds some counsel in his challenge to rejoice: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing” (5:17). Without ceasing? Really?! Christians who have taken this challenge seriously have created deep spiritual practices. For example, the prayer of the philokalia (“love of the beautiful”) developed over centuries among Eastern Christians as a form of meditation. Repeating a simple phrase, such as “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” or the single word “Maranatha” (“Come Lord”) over and over again is practiced until it becomes habit—second nature. In this ancient form of prayerful repetition, the presence of the divine is connected to the breath. Through this prayer, one leaves behind conscious thought and allows the movement of the Spirit to become embedded within one’s heart.
This practice may not seem so strange to those whose use of the rosary has brought them to similar levels of prayer and rootedness. Repetition may look like mindless routine from the outside. Yet this type of prayer draws the mind, focusing first the hands, then drawing inner attention to a place where body, mind, and heart rest—and grow. In this place we can link our needs, our reflection on the mysteries of Christ’s redemption, our prayers for others, and the decisions we face.
The multilayered work of prayer through repetition is also taken up in common worship. When we sing, we connect to others, literally breathing together as we join our voices. We stand, kneel, and sit together. The routine of ritual may lead to boredom or distraction, or it might help us realize our connection with those around us. Each of us brings our experiences and needs to common prayer. Can we see them drawn together into a Eucharist, a thanksgiving? Rejoicing is a common work. Liturgy means literally the “work of the people.” Singing, especially, creates a harmony, a unison in difference.
Some prayers (those we do by habit or those we see as a duty) are only beginnings; they remind us of our relationship with God. Others that are embraced through disciplined practice draw our attention deeper, demanding that we focus more on our relationship with God. Prayer creates new insights and actions that move us past ourselves and into communion with God and others.
Some practical exercises
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of our modern spiritual journey is that we find ourselves too busy to pray. The first step toward real growth is making time.
To begin, try this simple exercise. Spend thirty minutes in silence. Unplug completely; turn off your cell phone, computer, television, and find a place of quiet where no distractions will occur. We are used to being connected. In silence, our bodies fidget, our minds flit and flutter from one thought to another. We may be missing a text or a phone call! Try a quiet room (even a basement or a stairwell). A public place such as a library or a church could work (try to find a place that is empty). Outside, a field or park, even a porch or our front stairs will reconnect us to sky, clouds, grass, and breeze.
Lectio divina (divine reading) is a process of group prayer and reflection on the Scriptures that draws on the presence and insights of others. This exercise has different forms, but each contains some basic steps. Reading Scripture aloud (a psalm or other passage) slowly, maybe several times, puts the group in touch with what the text says. Meditation, or discussion, brings out what the text is saying to individuals in the group. Verbal prayer allows us to speak from what the text is saying to us. Contemplation settles us in silence as the passage invites us into the presence of God.
Eventually, through deepened meditation, we move beyond words. We stop looking for ways to address God and let God find us. We come to a place where we can understand Psalm 46:11, “Be still and know that I am God!” The great mystics have known the presence of God is a gift. We take basic steps. We step out of our routines and our fast pace. But soon a humbling insight dawns on us. We do not create spiritual success. We must be still to know God. Sometimes when we are still, we are just still, waiting. And we realize we depend on God.
Saint Teresa of Ávila has led many through the stages of spiritual progress that she describes in her classic the Interior Castle. Setting aside time for prayer, self-discipline, waiting, and other steps are taken up in her movement inward to find union with God. In deep prayer Saint Teresa finds selflessness—a realization of God’s reality beyond the scope of our ego and our desires. Paradoxically her prayer fueled her work and that of her spiritual co-worker Saint John of the Cross through their reforms of sixteenth-century monastic life, the wider spiritual life of Spain, and has given life to countless people since.
This path, the paradox of leaving the workplace to pray so we can return again to re-create the world, is waiting for us today. Modern life is waiting for liturgy—the work of the people.