The Rev. Anne K. Bartlett is Rector of Trinity Episcopal Church, Ashland, Oregon. If ever we need to know how to pray, it is in this present moment in our lives in this world. Here is a simple guide to talking to God, from her sermon of the 9th Sunday in Pentecost. It also teaches us how to listen...
In the name of the Living God, in whose name we pray. Amen.
“Lord, teach us to pray.”
I don’t know about you, but I don’t find it the easiest thing in the world to talk publicly about prayer. Real prayer, that is: prayer from the heart, not “autopilot” prayer, when we’re just going through the motions.
Yet I’ve spent my vocational life praying: praying in public; leading our common prayer in worship, praying at the bedsides of those who are dying, praying at weddings, praying with individuals and families in both sorrow and joy, praying before potlucks, praying in monasteries, praying with words and praying in silence.
But the truth is, I still feel shy talking about prayer, especially my own prayer life, as if I’m some kind of expert on the subject. The experience of prayer is so personal. Besides, there’s not a doubt in my mind that many of you are more faithful at prayer than I. After all these years I still feel like a beginner. I always seem to be starting over. There’s a little book on Benedictine spirituality written by a layman from Memphis, Tennessee, with the immensely comforting title Always We Begin Again. That’s me, and that sums up my life of prayer.
When discouraged, I am also comforted by St. Paul’s words that though we do not know how to pray as we ought, the Holy Spirit is praying within us, “with sighs too deep for words.” I trust Paul, and I trust his words, and I do believe that the Spirit is praying within each one of us, bringing us to God whether we are aware of it or not. And that is grace. Even our prayer life is not left totally up to us, thanks be to God.
“Lord, teach us how to pray.”
Jesus did not give a lecture about prayer, he didn’t describe the five different types of prayer – intercession, petition, praise, thanksgiving, repentance; he didn’t suggest several good books about prayer, or a DVD series, or tell us to attend weekend workshops on prayer. He did not imply that we are such spiritual amateurs that we should best leave the praying in the hands of the pro’s. Jesus gave no directions about prayer positions – whether he liked it better if we knelt or stood or sat still as a statue or raised our hands or bowed our heads or danced in a trance – but he didn’t say not to do any of those things either.
What Jesus did was to pray. He was always slipping away and going off by himself, early in the morning or late at night. He prayed with his disciples, and he prayed for them, too; he prayed for healings, and he prayed when he was afraid, and he prayed when he was full of grief and also when he was full of joy, he prayed that our spirits would be bound inseparably to his spirit and thus to the Source of all Life and all Love. When asked, he taught this prayer.
He said, “Say, Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins as we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
What, we say? That’s not how it goes! The older we become the more sure we are about the exact wording of the prayer Our Lord taught us, and some of us are adamant Jesus did in fact pray in Elizabethan English. Truth is, I doubt that Jesus ever imagined we could make such a fuss about whether we asked forgiveness for our sins or for our trespasses or for our debts. I suspect he would much rather that we understand that when we ask God for forgiveness we need to have already made a move on our part to forgive those who have done us wrong in some way.
Episcopalians are especially susceptible to the temptation to make idols out of our prayers, to worship the ritual rather than let the rituals help us to worship God. We love our Book of Common Prayer, and understandably so. It holds us together. Historically our biggest fights have not been over doctrine but over changes in our prayers. When asked what we believe, we often respond with “Come, worship with us.” Our praying is what shapes our believing, and we know that if we can continue to pray together, we can bring all sorts of differences to the sacred table, where the Spirit will sort them out, in Her own good time.
Corporate prayer forms us into Christ’s Body. The Spirit is acting deep within us – here and now – forming us and molding us more and more into being the church. That formation is a great and wondrous mystery. The work and grace of our common prayer is not much valued in this age of rampant spiritual individualism. But we believe that we are not simply individual pilgrims, making our own isolated ways up the holy mountain. We are also a community of faith, indeed the very Body of Christ, and we trust that God has a purpose for us in this time and place. It is our parish vocation to discern that purpose with prayer and with passion.
Prayer is like any regular habit of love and of relationship. Our prayers get woven into our souls and bodies and maybe even create cellular memories at a level beneath our ordinary consciousness. That’s one reason why the prayers we learned in childhood remain so powerful. God is great and God is good, and we thank Him for this food. That’s why it is so important to pray with our children and grandchildren, to say grace before meals and to give thanks to God for the day that is past and to pray with our spouses and pray with our friends and pray publicly at times, even if it makes us self-conscious. Remember: No one has yet died from being self-consciousness.
It took me quite a while to feel comfortable to hold hands across a table in a restaurant and quietly give thanks to God for food and for friendship. It’s a quiet kind of witness, and it’s good for our souls, and I ask you to be bold and be brave, and try it, if it’s not already a habit. How often I have been privileged to be at the bedside of someone dying, someone already halfway to the Kingdom, and find that when I start the Lord’s Prayer, I see the person’s lips begin to move, and the words are there and something shifts in the room and we know we are held in the divine presence. But it is the dailiness of saying our prayers that forms a structure within us that supports us and holds us fast not only when we’re dying but also as we’re living the most ordinary of our days.
Prayer is how we open ourselves to the presence of God. Let me say it again: Prayer is how we open ourselves to God. I used to pray: “ O God, be present with us…” but one day I realized I was assuming that God was not present with us unless we specifically called. I’m learning it’s the other way around. When we pray, we make ourselves present to God. We intentionally open up space inside and out. Outwardly, we make a space in time and gently push away external distractions. Inwardly as we detach from our ordinary preoccupations and busy thoughts we open up ourselves and create space inside. Prayer is about making room. We empty out so that there is room for God.
Most prayer practices – meditation, contemplation, lectio divina, the labyrinth, even spoken prayer – what they have in common is this emptying and letting-go, this creation of a thin space in time and space. It’s all about detachment from our own busy-ness and from our own ego’s, from our incessant thoughts, worries, plans and fears. Prayer is as natural as breathing, as natural as being with your beloved, as natural as letting yourself rest in God. There’s nothing weird or woo-woo about it. The paradox is that the more we pray, the more we discover that all time is sacred, and there is no there where God is not.
So why do so many of us resist prayer? Oh there are many reasons, but one of them is because we know that when we pray faithfully and intentionally, we will be changed. When we empty out and make room in our lives and in our selves for God, then Spirit will start to make some shifts in us. At some point, we find the stakes have been raised. We may find ourselves making business decisions based on what we believe God wishes us to do rather than solely on the basis of the bottom line profit margin. Thy will be done. We may find the Spirit nudging us to make amends to someone against whom we have trespassed, and it is only after making those amends -- usually with some discomfort on our parts – that we find the inner peace for which we longed.
Forgive us as we forgive others. We may find that we are drawn more and more to simplicity in our lives, and that we can no longer live comfortably with the amount of clutter or consumerism as we had become accustomed: Give us this day our daily bread. As we become more faithful in our times of prayer, some of us may find that our words slow down and then begin to disappear as we come more comfortable with the silence deep within us where Christ dwells, until only an occasional “help” or “thank you” bubbles to the surface.
I have known Christians, regular folk like you and me, one of them a saint from this parish, on the altar guild for many years, now gone to glory, who once told me that for most of her life she said the Lord’s Prayer “oh, about 100 times day, I guess.” In classical spirituality, that kind of praying is called “constant recollection” – prayer on a barely conscious level that is constantly infusing all of a person’s life, recollecting – re-collecting – bringing one back to the one thing necessary in life, which is connection to God.
Many Christians through the millennia have found the Jesus Prayer from the Orthodox tradition to be helpful. The full version goes like this: Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me, a sinner. In my own practice with this prayer, over time it has distilled into simply “Jesus…mercy.” When I time it with my breath – breathing in on Jesus, out on Mercy – I find my center of gravity shifts from my shoulders to my solar plexis, my heart opens, and I feel calmer. I have often suggested that when people are facing an MRI or an unpleasant medical procedure that they find their own prayer mantra – a few words at most – to hold them close to Christ as they go through what they have to go through.
Millions of people in recovery claim the Serenity Prayer as their lifeline to God and sanity: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. I wonder how many times the Serenity Prayer is prayed every day across the world. Many of us know of its power and transformation, a day at a time.
When we sing Taize chants at communion time, we are praying. The thing about sung prayer is that the words and melody can take on a life of their own inside of us, and we may find that the prayer is praying us at unexpected times. Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom. I know a man who said he got through the middle-of-the-night hours of a very difficult illness by letting himself rest in that particular chant-prayer.
This week I spent some time with an out-of-town friend who has been to hell and back, having endured six months of weekly chemotherapy for Stage Four cancer and then recovering from the effects of the prolonged chemo. We know each other well enough to for me to ask what that experience of suffering was like for her, and how she was changed by it. It was a sacred story, and I wept as I listened. She said that what got her through was that so many people, known to her and unknown, were praying for her. I had put her name on our own prayer list for a while, so this congregation is part of her story. “I would not have made it without those prayers,” my friend said. “I could literally feel the support; sometimes it felt like a web of light literally holding me up, and other times, as if I was riding on the back of whales.”
“Lord, teach us to pray.” And he did. And then he told us to be persistent. Keep knocking, keep asking, keep searching, keep praying, keep making space, keep looking for the sacred in the ordinary, keep making yourself aware that God is present, keep aligning your spirit with God’s Spirit, for your own sake and for one another’s sakes and for the sake of the whole world.
And when we forget and slip back to our old ways? Well, let us remind each other that our longing for God is a holy hunger. Always we begin again, each one of us, until the day we die, and then it won’t matter anymore, because then we will know that we always have been and ever shall be in the presence of the Holy One and held in the very heart of God.
In Christ’s name, I pray. Amen.
The photo was taken by an unknown Trinitarian.