Wednesday, December 2, 2009

What is prayer? A personal journey: Part I

“Let everything you see represent to your spirit the presence, the excellency, and the power of God; and let your conversation with the creatures lead you unto the Creator; for so shall your actions be done more frequently, with an actual eye to God’s presence, by your often seeing him in the glass of the creation.

In the face of the sun you may see God’s beauty; in the fire you may feel his heat warming; in the water, his gentleness to refresh you: he it is that comforts your spirit when you have taken cordials; it is the dew of heaven that makes your field give you bread; and the breasts of God are the bottles that minister drink to your necessities.”

From The Rules and Exercises of Holy Living, by Jeremy Taylor, 1651
(Chapter I, Section III)

What is prayer? Many have tried to answer the question, and every answer I have ever heard has both truth and limits. So I give my own answer today with great trepidation. I hope there is a kernel of truth here, but I expect this will fall short.

The best way I can give an answer is by telling you about my own prayer life, which has had many ups and downs over the years. At its best for me, prayer is a conversation, much as Jeremy Taylor above describes. At its driest, prayers are words on a page, or meandering thoughts with no heart or no substance. Prayer for me has many peaks and valleys, as does life itself.

Let me describe a little of my private prayer life (as distinguished from my public prayer life of sacraments and community worship). I provide this not as a recipe guide, but simply as a sketch of what works for me (and it will inevitably change, so this is a snapshot). This might work for you, or might not.

I’d be most interested in hearing what works for you in prayer. This is intensely personal stuff, so I do not propose telling you more than I am comfortable telling you, nor would I expect you would go beyond your own comfort zone in your description of prayer.

So here goes…

My foundation for prayer are the Biblical texts read as prayer. Stay with me and I will explain. My private prayer life for many years (20 years to be exact) has been built atop The Daily Office, which is the Episcopal/Anglican cycle of Morning and Evening Prayer. The prayers come straight out of The Book of Common Prayer, and each day has biblical readings and canticles assigned rotating on a two-year rotation. The church year begins on the First Sunday of Advent, so we have just entered Year Two of the Daily Office cycle.

To make my life slightly easier, I have a big fat leather-bound book that contains all of the biblical readings, in order, day-by-day for the full two years (the book was a gift at my ordination from Barry Beisner, who was my shepherd through the ordination process; he has gone on to become the Bishop of the Diocese of Northern California). You can also find all of the daily readings and prayers each day by clicking HERE.

That is the superstructure upon which my prayers are built.

My method has taken me many years to develop, and truthfully, is always evolving. I learned a
prayer method many years ago from George Murphy, S.J. (and you may recognize this as Ignatian). I have also worked with spiritual directors (mostly Jesuits) who have helped me adapt this method and keep it fresh.

After reading the passages for the morning, I sit quietly, close my eyes, try to quiet the noise between my ears, and imagine myself somewhere in one of the biblical passages. Which one speaks to me today? I paint an imaginary picture of the scene, what it looks like, what it sounds and smells like, and then I put myself into the picture.

I do my best to describe what I see and feel, and then I listen. I don’t crank up my advice machine for God, but instead notice who else is there with me – usually some very familiar friends and family, but sometimes a few surprising people as well. Those I know who are sick or hurting or in trouble are there. Sometimes Jesus comes into the picture with us. I listen to what Jesus might be saying, if he is saying anything at all. Sometimes he just sits awhile.

Usually the scene is a familiar place. It is real. I do not imagine scenes out of a Cecil B. DeMille Bible movie, or even out great religious art (not that there is anything wrong with that; praying with icons is a rich tradition all its own). I may linger for several days in a single place.

For several weeks running in my prayer image, I was sitting on a ridgeline in the High Sierra, a rocky spot very familiar to me. But I’ve sat in Mexican villages and at a cattle ranch where I stayed years ago. I've also sat in the dark catacombs of Canterbury Cathedral. When Jesus teaches while sitting on a beach by the sea, almost always I end up sitting on a log at Pope Beach at Lake Tahoe with Jesus.

Sometimes Jesus looks like Jesus in popular art, white robes flowing, or he might look like the icon to the right. But that is rare. Sometimes Jesus looks like a park ranger, or a ranch hand. Sometimes Jesus is male, sometimes Jesus is female.

The important thing for me is that I sit and listen. I am not there giving God advice. There are times when I feel Jesus is asking me a question, and I try to answer. But I am not telling God what to do.

Some mornings this picture is vivid and stays with me all day; other mornings, it doesn’t come at all. When the picture doesn't come, I sit with a few words from one of the passages and think how it might have something to do with what confront me for the rest of the day. Some mornings even that will not work. Prayer has peaks and valleys.

When the image goes, I return to the prayers of the day, and sometimes they have a particular vitality that is fed by my prayer images.

At the end of the day, I engage in an “examine.” I ask what I have done that fits what I heard in my morning prayer; where did I fall short? I try to enfold my day in prayer.

You could say this is simply me listening to my imagination, and you would be right. But I believe that God especially reaches us in our imaginations, in our dreams, in our moments waking and our moments sleeping, and in those moments when the outer world is quieted for a time.

Yet I am also aware that this kind of prayer can be self-absorbed, and if I am not careful, it will block the world from my doorstep, separating me from the community of faith – and the wider community of no faith at all. The danger is my prayer could become all imagination, all fantasy, all selfishness.

And that brings me squarely to the written words on the page, the sacraments, and the community at prayer - all grounding me in the reality of life. More on that next time.


Janice Dean said...

Thank you, Jim. That was brave, and I, for one, got a lot out of your sharing.

Bill Sweet said...

What is prayer? What motives drive prayer? What defense mechanisms often work against prayer? You might be interested in seeing some of the scientific research into prayer. See

Bill Sweet

Josh Thomas said...

This is a beautiful and honest reflection, and our Daily Office blog is pleased and proud you linked to us.

We provide the structure for prayer as written, but where people go from there, where God goes, we cannnot know.