February 18, 2016

Practicing Lent: Prayer

A conversation about faith practices with my good friend Mike Angell.

Mike: When talking about “spiritual practices” prayer is probably the most obvious starting point. Yet, the longer I spend with prayer, the less obvious a practice it seems. Prayer is a subtle art, sometimes maddeningly so. Growing up, I can remember just a few discussions about prayer that I heard in Sunday School, or from church leaders describing what prayer was (and often what it wasn’t). I remember a visiting priest who told our congregation that God “wasn’t like a bell-hop in a fancy hotel.” You couldn’t just call up and order things. That understanding of prayer didn’t work he said. Prayer was a given in my tradition, but sometimes it was easier for Episcopalians to say what prayer wasn’t than what it was.

Jason: I grew up in the evangelical environment where prayers were most often extemporaneous, which means that prayers were not read or prepared ahead of time. Rather, prayers were the thoughts and expressions of the person praying at that moment. I learned to talk to God by listening to others talk to God in prayer. The Christian faith is relational and in any relationship there are certain things that ought to be expressed time and again. Affection. Apology when necessary. Gratitude. Asking for help. The fact that I tell my wife every day, “I love you” the exact same way at the same time doesn’t make it any less meaningful. The ritual of this expression of my love for her is part of what sturdies our relationship–even when we fight. What I have found is that both types of prayer–the written, even ancient prayers that we say over and over again, and my own immediate expression–are equally as important.

Mike: That sense of “learning by imitating” is absolutely true for me. Growing up in The Episcopal Church, we spent a lot of time in Church reading prayers that were written centuries ago. I remember a Sunday School class that taught the Lord’s Prayer over the course of a whole year. This way of praying was sometimes belittled by Evangelical friends when I would join in their youth group activities. Many of these friends viewed prayer as an expression of your heart. How could you use someone else’s words? I sometimes felt awkward praying with these friends. There seemed to be a lot phrases like “God we just want to” that I didn’t know how to use. I still found comfort in prayers from the tradition that often expressed what I felt better than I could. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to value both extemporaneous and poetic written prayer. So far though, we’ve been describing prayer as words.

In college I read a book on prayer from the Franciscan (Roman Catholic) priest Richard Rohr that changed my perspective. Rohr talks of prayer not so much a process, but as a posture. Prayer isn’t about saying the right words to God, but about an inner openness to God. Anne Lammott likes to say that the best prayers she knows are single words: Help! Thanks! and Wow! There’s a simplicity to this which is delightful and also subtle. All three of those words initiate an openness to God.

Jason: Maybe the simplest way for me to explain prayer is as a conversation. A conversation requires as much listening as it does talking. I know that the idea that God knows each of us intimately might be creepy to some. It’s a concept that has been twisted by some faith leaders with ulterior motives. Still, the Scriptures establish that we are each seen and known by God. But as Mike said at the beginning of this post, this doesn’t mean God is waiting to attend to your beck and call. Rather this means–as Romans 8 explains–that God notices and understands even those things that you have difficulty giving words to.

Mike: That “conversation with God” is a line you hear a lot about prayer, but I’m grateful for your emphasis on listening. “God knowing us intimately” can be a little strange sounding, but that intimacy is central to Christian understandings of prayer. There’s Psalm 139, “Where can I go from your presence...If I take the winds of the Morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea. Even there your hand will lead me.” Some folks have compared that Psalm to children’s book, “The Runaway Bunny.” God is constantly present to us. We can read it as a little creepy, but the psalm was written as a meditation on God’s closeness. Thomas Merton, another monk, wrote “God is closer to us than we are to ourselves.” In many ways, the silent or “listening” times of prayer are about attending to the God who is already within and around us. We may not hear a word in the silence, but we may be made aware of God’s abiding presence. Sometimes, as Romans 8 says of the Holy Spirit, “for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”

The Contemplatives teach that there are two kinds of prayer: cataphatic and apophatic. Those are big nerdy Greek terms, but essentially they mean this: Cataphatic prayer is prayer with words, with content. We name needs and desires before God. Any prayer with words, even the simple repetitions of a rosary, the pages and pages of words in the Daily Office, or extemporaneous prayers from the heart are all examples of cataphatic prayer. Our culture knows this kind of worded prayer well.

Apophatic prayer is silent. We sit. We rest in God’s presence. Most of us don’t spend as much time in prayerful silence as we do praying with words. The contemplatives often point out that it can take some words to prepare us for silence. It often helps me to find the silence for contemplative prayer if I get there through the words of the Daily Office. There are a couple of moments in the prayer book where the official words of prayer make room so that “silence may be kept” or “prayers may be added silently or aloud.” When I pray the office by myself, I often take these moments as an invitation to sit for 10-20 minutes in silence.. Finding the place for silence in the words is like finding the space and the time for prayer in our life. It helps to have a particular place, at a particular hour set aside. It also can help to have words and practices that make room for the silence.

Jason: In the silence of apophatic prayer we are able to notice things that we are otherwise distracted from noticing. In the fifth chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus explains that his actions are a response to what God is already doing. This is a lovely depiction of what prayer can be like when we begin to notice what God is up to in our lives and the world around us. St. Paul talks about “unceasing prayer” in his first letter to the Thessalonians. It’s this idea that the practice of prayer–whether verbal or silent, read or off-the-cuff–begins to actually shape how we live. Like Jesus, we grow more aware of the Spirit at work around us and respond to those things. Not simply when you bow your head but as you react to situations at work or walk down the street. Those actions begin to become prayers–part of your ongoing conversation with God. I recommend Nicole Cliff’s honest and frank article on prayer as an example of what prayer is like in everyday life.

Prayer is not about perfection. It’s often clunky. It’s not a continuous up hill climb–there are peaks and valleys, no matter how steeped in a practice you are. Yet, it is that practice and rhythm of it that begins to shape us. Just as in any relationship.


Last year, Mike and I did a series on liturgy. You can find those posts here.

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