When the disciples of Jesus asked him for a lesson in prayer he gave them, not an instruction on technique, but the Our Father. In other words, he taught them what to pray about. He apparently said little about how to do it. He himself seems to have preferred the open countryside as the setting for his prayer, but he never suggested that this was the best setting for everyone else.
What, then, is the common factor in all the different kinds of prayer? This really amounts to asking: What is prayer? We must avoid the tendency to give too narrow an answer to that question. We may be praying far more than we think we are. It is good to recognise this, since it is more encouraging to build on something which has already started than to feel we have to begin from scratch.
Prayer is, first and foremost, an attitude to life. It is reaching out beyond the appearance of things to the deepest realities which lie behind, beyond, and yet within those appearances. The occasion may be an explicitly ‘religious’ one, like a Sunday Mass, but it may also be a beautiful sunset, the smile on a baby’s face, a great piece of music, the encouraging word of a friend; the occasion scarcely matters.
What matters is what we feel ourselves reaching for depths of meaning in life. The depth of meaning is part of what we mean by God. To sense it is to begin to pray. It needs no words, though we may grope for words to express it or use a form of words which others have used.
Prayer is a rising of the mind and heart to God. I know ‘raising’ is the more usual word but ‘rising’ is more faithful to one great spiritual school in the Christian Church. It is not we who begin the movement towards God. It is God who draws us. The human mind and heart are made with a built in homing device. Or to put it in the more poetic language of the Eastern Church, God puts a divine spark in every human being. That spark seeks out the fire from which it came. Prayer is the process which allows this to happen and which involves us in that process.
We can, of course, seek to disconnect the homing device or extinguish the spark. To do so gives the illusion of making life simpler and more comfortable. We do not always want to be reminded that we are destined for more than even the best things this life can offer. So we try to fill all the silences with activities, like people who cannot endure a moment without our iPod. As soon as a space occurs in our lives we rush to fill it. If we cannot find something to hand, we resign ourselves to boredom.
Many of us do not want to be alone with ourselves, still less alone with God. Until we can conquer this fear of solitude, prayer will remain for us a rather fitful, childish and boring interlude which occurs on the surface of our lives. It is not so much prayer itself which frightens and bores us as the prospect of entering a pool of inner silence where we may hear more than we want to hear. In that pool our minds and hearts are cleansed, so that we can hear the murmur of God’s voice and see the glimmer of his light.
It takes courage to pray because it takes courage to face the really big things in life, the things that simply cannot be managed or controlled. And so we are more comfortable with small answers than with big questions, which cannot be adequately answered this side of the grave. But the big questions never go away, and that is our hope. It is never too late to face the inescapable fact that God has put something of himself in all of us.
And the result is a kind of homesickness which only God can finally cure.
Prayer is a conscious effort to welcome, indeed to intensify, that homesickness, that hunger for the reality which lies beyond appearances. It is the conscious recognition that we are wayfarers on a journey to eternal fulfilment. It is the deliberate will to allow the Godward side of us to rise to its creator in the knowledge that each and every one of us, whether we know and appreciate it or not, is made in God’s image. We bear within us an unquenchable spark of God’s very being.
When we have realised this great central truth about ourselves, we can then go onto to choose the circumstances or settings which suit our own particular temperament. Though God has made us for himself, he has also given us the freedom to escape from him.
God draws us – but always with a gentleness which leaves us creative partners in what is happening. If we create the space, or simply use the spaces which life itself provides, we shall quickly discover the power, subtlety, and delight of God’s attractiveness.
Reprinted with permission
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