François de Sales, the 17th century Bishop of Geneva, was revered for his insights about prayer. His recommendation for prayer: every day, “half an hour’s listening is essential except when you are very busy. Then a full hour is needed.” (1) François de Sales presumes three things about prayer:
1. Our prayer begins and ends with listening.
2. When life is very busy – like when you’re beginning a new school term, or a new internship, or a new job, or when life is very full – our discipline around prayer can easily be lost and yet it’s all-the-more important.
3. It’s essential to demarcate some time each day for prayer.
But don’t stop there. I will add a fourth point about prayer which I draw from our own Rule of Life:
4. The real quest, the ultimate invitation for prayer, is to “pray our lives.” (2)To “pray your life” presumes our whole life matters to God, not just the major decisions, not just our cries for help or forgiveness, or our moments of spiritual ecstasy when we feel we’re on a mountaintop and the clouds part and we have the experience of streaming with God. Those extremes of life – the best of times and worst of times – certainly invite our prayer. However most of life is somewhere in the middle, sometimes in the muddle, and even there – especially there – we find an invitation to pray. Jesus shows us the way for this. Jesus becomes really and fully human – as human as you are – meanwhile living in an intimate relationship with the God whom he calls “Father.” Actually, the name Jesus uses for “Father” is the Greek word, Abba, which means Papa or Daddy.
Prayer is about our relationship with the God whom Jesus calls Papa or Daddy, a relationship which God initiates. We are always responding to God. We may be drawn to pray because of some need – a personal need for help, or healing, or hope – or the need of someone who has our heart’s attention: a loved one, a colleague, someone we read about in the newspaper. God is not only the satisfaction of this need; God is the source of the invitation to pray about that need. God is already well apprised of the need. God is God. Our prayer is certainly not a press conference with God, giving God a newsbreak. It’s the opposite. When we are moved to pray, God has somehow or another shared with us what God already knows and, in some mysterious way, God is drawing our own heart into the heart of God. Somehow God is using our awareness, our hands, our voice, our presence, to bear the beams of God’s life and light and love in this world. My image for this is like a tunneling project underground. We set off thinking we are tunneling to God, bringing to God some need; however what we discover, with the first shovel-full of dirt, is that God has already tunneled to us. We are simply meeting up with God. God operates; we cooperate. Our prayer is always a response to God’s initiative.
The invitation is to pray our life. Not our spiritual life. There’s no such thing as spiritual life. God has given us the gift of life, and so we pray our life, the whole shebang. There’s nothing too great or too small. So we pray about our cares for the world and its peoples, our friends and families, our enemies and those from whom we are estranged. We pray about our work, our successes and failures, our gifts and shortcomings. We pray about our sufferings and poverty, our passion and sexuality, our fears and resistances, our desires and dreams, our losses and grief.
We pray not just the day, but also the night, our conscious mind but also our unconscious self. Mercy, we spend upwards a third of our entire life sleeping, which is a God-given need. Use the gift of sleep and rest – when you are most unguarded – to pray for God’s ministrations, for God’s direction, for God’s inspiration, for God’s healing, for God’s hope. For those of us who are strong willed, I think God may have a better shot at us anyway when we are sleeping, when our guard is down, than when we’re up and navigating life full throttle.
How do you pray? Many people presume that how they pray isn’t the right way. They should pray better, or they should pray differently. If you feel you’re one of these inadequate pray-ers, hogwash. Dom John Chapman was an English Benedictine monk, and a much-revered spiritual director. His counsel to someone who was convinced they were not praying “right” was: “Pray as you can, not as you cannot.” (1) One of our own SSJE ancestors, Father Calloway, who was much revered for his discipline of spiritual practices, was asked to describe his prayer. He said, “I kneel down beside my bed and hope for the best.” And so for you: “Pray as you can, not as you cannot.”
You may have learned something about prayer many years ago. As a child I was taught to close my eyes and fold my hands when I pray, and, before bedtime, I knelt at my bedside. You may have prayer practices from your own past – maybe praying with icons, with a candle, with incense; using prayer beads, perhaps praying the Rosary; praying with tears; praying with your eyes open or with your eyes closed; praying by writing; praying with gestures of your body or with dance; praying with your breath; praying while you walk; praying in stillness and silence, or praying with music; praying using Scripture or poetry; praying with words, your words or someone else’s words; praying with your dreams or with the gift of tongues; praying inside in a holy place or praying outside in a holy place; praying alone or praying with other individuals or in a congregation. There is no right way or place or time to pray. If we understand prayer chiefly as our relationship to God, our prayer will be in many forms, and those forms may change over time. Just like in a relationship you have with another person, the ways in which you relate, and how those ways have stayed the same and how they have changed, will be the makings of a real relationship, a relationship that is alive. Don’t be stuck to the archival ways you have prayed. Pray your life now. What is prompting you to pray now, and how? Respond to that invitation, which is God’s invitation. And then, like with every relationship, don’t do all the talking. Listen. Listen up.
If you are “praying your life,” learning to practice the presence of God as you wend your way through your day and through your life, does that mean you don’t demarcate specific times in which to focus your prayer? No, it’s not one or the other. It’s both. François de Sales’ counsel about prayer – when you are very busy, you need to set aside even more time for prayer – presumes we have set aside time for focused prayer every day. I have three suggestions, especially if your life is very busy:
- Pray the “book ends” of your day. At the very the beginning of your day collect yourself in God’s presence or – another way of saying that – pray a collect around your life. You may want to use a one of the beautiful Collects in The Book of Common Prayer, or you may want to write your own collecting prayer for the beginning of the day: a prayer that acknowledges the gift of your life, your dependence upon God, your availability to God. You are a missionary, God’s missionary, and your life has been extended into as much as one more day to be God’s emissary. St. Ignatius of Loyola, the 16th century founder of the Jesuits, taught that the end for which God has given us life is “to know God, and to love God, and to serve God.” (4) Begin your day with that end: “to know God, and to love God, and to serve God.” Find a prayer or write a prayer to begin your day. Memorize it.
- Likewise, pray a bookend for the close of your day. Ignatius of Loyola calls this the “Examination of Conscience.” Collect your day and then pray an end to your day: calling to mind your awareness of need (yours and others), your sorrow and repentance for where you blew it, your gratitude for the amazing gift of life. You may find a written prayer that gives you the language and space to do this, or you may want to write your own prayer, your own Collect, for the end of your day. Memorize it.
- Thirdly, plan for several prayerful interventions in your day. Depending on your schedule, you may be able to demarcate specific times that interrupt the normal flow of your day – like we do here in the monastery – or you might demarcate several periods. Perhaps these prayer periods are between appointments or classes or clients, perhaps while you’re walking or driving from point A to point B, perhaps every time you sit down or stand up. Whatever. Incorporate some kind of prayer cue that you work into the rhythm of your day. I’m not suggesting a long period of prayer. This may only be 30 seconds… or maybe you have longer. The point is a re-gathering, re-centering, re-collecting where you are and how you are and what you are in God’s presence, which you are.
Praying your life will not necessarily make your life nicer. We are followers of Jesus, and Jesus’ qualification is that if we are to be his follower, we must “take up our cross and follow him.” I don’t think we have to go out and look for the cross. The cross will find us. Some days life can be a real killer. Paradoxically, this is Jesus’ way, and it’s our way to find the abundant life Jesus promises in it all, including life emerging from death. Jesus is at our beginning and at our end, and we meet him along the way: the promise of his presence and his provision. Arnold Toynbee, the 19th century English historian, said that “life is one damn thing after another.” But it doesn’t have to be. Life, to be sure, is very challenging, sometimes crushingly difficult and disappointing; however following Jesus, practicing his presence, appropriating his power, will give you strength and meaning in life, and hope for the future. Absolutely.
You may be out of practice in your prayer. You might not even know where to begin again with your prayer. What we are doing here this evening is a living reminder for our prayer. We are celebrating the Holy Eucharist, eucharist, a Greek word meaning “great thanksgiving.” We celebrate the Holy Eucharist, not to momentarily lift us from the humdrum of life into a kind of heavenly awareness. Rather, we celebrate the Holy Eucharist as a living reminder of how to be living life all the time: eucharistically, i.e., with great thanksgiving. It’s a way to “pray without ceasing,” by being grateful. Gratitude in prayer is like oil to a gearbox that is frozen. Gratitude will unfreeze the works in your soul. Being grateful in life, being grateful in your prayer, will not take away the difficult things that you face in life. But being grateful will indeed rebalance the weight of your life, will give you new eyes to see and a new heart to know life as an unfolding miracle where you play such an important part.
God is with you. We see the intimacy of this truth in Jesus – God Emmanuel, God with us as a real human being, meeting us on our own plain. This same Jesus says to us all, says to you, “I call you my friend.”
Enjoy that friendship.
1 François de Sales (1567-1622), Bishop of Geneva, known especially for his writings on spiritual formation, particularly his Introduction to the Devout Life.
2 “Prayer and Life”: chapter 22 of The SSJE Rule of Life: http://ssje.org/ssje/category/rule-of-life/
3 John Chapman, OSB (1865-1933) was Abbot of Downside Abbey. He is quoted here from The Spiritual Letters of Dom John Chapman.
4 This comes from Ignatius’ “Foundation and First Principle” of his Spiritual Exercises. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), was a Spanish knight who, out a wound to his body and soul, became a hermit and priest and who, in 1541, founded the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits.
5 John 15:15.
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