Prayer is an important part of the Christian lifestyle, but it is often neglected or squeezed out by other commitments. The foundation of prayer comes from the ministry of Jesus, which was steeped in prayer, and in the Anglican tradition finds expression in the weekly Communion service and the daily offices of morning and evening prayer, originally set out in the Book of Common Prayer and more recently in the Book of Alternative Services. Here we look at some approaches to prayer and some suitable times and places to pray.
APPROACHES TO PRAYER
What does it mean to pray? Prayer is an engagement with our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer in an ongoing and ever-deepening relationship. A satisfying prayer life takes commitment, but even when you are committed prayer sometimes feels unsatisfying. This is perfectly normal! Our souls yearn for union with God and mourn those times when we seem not to make that connection in a meaningful way. But the very act of our striving to know that which is ultimately unknowable this side of heaven demonstrates our willingness to listen and to learn. Given the time, God can utilize whatever we offer in prayer to strengthen both ourselves and the whole of creation.
When we pray, we try to offer all that we are, and all that we have as a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. That means paying attention to those different parts of your psyche that together make up the person who is uniquely “you.” Everyone can pray, but not everyone will pray in the same way as effectively. Your prayer life is an exploration of trusted ways that can bring you closer to God. Some will sustain you on an ongoing basis. Some may be brought in to add variety and depth to your prayer. Others may feel very foreign to your preferred way of doing things but may be worth exploring in order to strengthen your “shadow” or underdeveloped side.
As we develop our relationship with God, we are called to move from simple and comfortable ways of interacting into risking a little more. The way you prayed when you were a child or a young adult may still work for you, but you will want to supplement the spiritual “milk” with more meat now that you are maturing in faith. One simple way to do this is to give God a little more of your time. Even lengthening your intentional time by five minutes a day can reap great fruit. The following are some suggestions to improve the quality and quantity of your prayer life.
1. Utilizing your body
Sometimes our prayers spring up within us from the events of the moment and wing their way to the heart of God. When we are feeling close to Jesus, it is natural to slip into talking to him while we go about our daily lives. However, prayer also involves cultivating a readiness to listen in return. Take a few moments at the beginning of your allocated time with God to settle yourself. A deep breath, a pause in the motion of your day, reminds us that there is an important conversation about to take place, and we will want to give it our full attention.
When we were young, we were perhaps taught that there was one position that was “right” for prayer. Maybe it was kneeling beside your bed with your hands folded. Maybe it was standing with your arms raised in praise. The truth is, the body can pray in any position, but some are better than others. You might experiment with the posture that keeps you comfortable enough to focus, yet not so comfortable that you fall asleep as soon as you assume it (yes, God grants to the weary rest, but you don’t want to snooze off as soon as you get together with your Beloved). Our outer posture can help mirror our inward attitude, so a position that seems reverent to you is best. Practice openness – in how you hold your hands, in how you breathe, in willing your very muscles and organs to receive the healing that awaits you. There may be times when you feel like curling up in a defensive ball, but a prayerful posture influences how you pray.
Your posture should be ergonomic – you don’t want to do your body damage while your spirit is being filled – so don’t slump. If you are praying on your knees, keep your back supported. Some saints in our faith have sought out a certain amount of pain to sharpen their prayer. However, standing waist deep in sea-water or kneeling all night on a stone floor are spiritual tools that took years for them to use properly, so start more conservatively.
There may well be distractions around you. Many in the tradition have counseled shutting one’s eyes to pray to help direct focus inward to the Divine. Others have advocated an external symbol or place to rest your eyesight. You may want to try using a candle or icon or other object that speaks to you of the Holy. Holding onto a stone or rosary or prayer shawl is another way. But our focus is neither ourselves nor any tangible object of worship. It lies beyond, trying to pierce what the anonymous mystic called “the cloud of unknowing.” As often as our attention wanders, however, we can recall ourselves to the moment of communion with an internal or external prompt. In this way, a holy word or picture or thing may be helpful. Be consistent with it over several attempts at prayer, so that whatever you use to help you focus becomes familiar.
For some, the restlessness of their hearts manifests in the restlessness of their bodies and makes it difficult to settle to pray. Others cannot stay in one posture for extended periods without pain. There are also those who find it easier to pray when their whole body is an extension of their communication, like sign language writ large. Walking prayerfully could involve a favourite pathway, or a tool like a labyrinth or the Stations of the Cross. Or you could try dancing to a piece of music as an offering to God (go ahead and close the curtains and no one will know). At the beginning of your prayer time, you may want to form an intention: is this movement a prayer for assistance in reaching a decision? Is it intercession for someone else? Is it praise or adoration? Is it a penitential act? Take a moment at the end to give thanks for the journey that your spirit has traveled as your body has moved.
Work Offered Prayerfully
It is possible to offer work as prayer. Be mindful of God’s presence with you as you go about the task. You could sit and knit or crochet a prayer shawl, investing every stitch with God’s peace and healing. You can sit with another in silence to share comfort or to nurse. You can weed, plant, or build. Open yourself to the ongoing work of the creation that is mirrored dimly in the small job that you are doing and thank God for being a partner in it.
2. Utilizing Your Emotions
Taking Your Temperature
All of us go through times in our lives when our prayer life is coloured by the experiences of our outer lives. If we end up each day stressed, we carry that with us into our prayer time. If we are exhausted beyond words, that shows. Any chronic condition, positive or negative, is part of who we are before God. Added to that are the specific events of our day, which we naturally take to the Lord in prayer. That means that some days we are so frustrated we could scream, but on another we may be doing an internal happy dance. At the beginning of your prayer time, assess where you are on your emotional thermometer. There is a healthy honesty in admitting where we are at, even if it is not where we “should” be. Remember all those psalms about vengeance and death to one’s enemies? Those came out of a people who weren’t afraid to admit how they felt before God. Awareness can lead us to confession that reshapes our prayers in a more life-giving way.
What kind of person are you? Are you an introvert or an extravert? Introverts may find it easier to go into a corner and be quiet before God, while extraverts may find it easier to pray with others rather than alone. Both are important and need to be developed in our prayer lives. Both ways of approaching prayer bring gifts and growing edges. Within these broad preferences, you may also notice that you are more of a sensing type person, needing the concrete, or a more intuitive person who is drawn to patterns and associations. You may observe that your preference is to analyze and judge, or alternately to rely on your internal feelings of rightness or wrongness. When you are choosing a discipline of prayer, be aware of what ways tend to draw you in towards God and which you struggle to “make work.” It may boil down to your personality type. Again, God wants us to form our own special relationship with Him, not to do things the same as our friends or even our mentors.
Music and Sung Prayer
Prayers don’t have to be spoken and they don’t have to be said, either. Try singing a spiritual song that can carry your prayer in its words and tune. Or put on a piece of music that reflects and transcends what you could voice. Our feelings and hearts then engage in the “universal language.” Many scriptural passages and parts of the Church’s worship have been set to music. To challenge your spiritual practice, choose a genre that lies outside your comfort zone – maybe Gregorian chant or Christian pop. Ask, “How is God speaking to me through this music?”
A different approach to prayer is to allow the Holy Spirit to work through your hands to create an offering. You can contemplatively colour a sacred picture or mandala, in silence or while listening to music. It is not the finished product that is important, but the act of prayerfully focusing attention on the present moment with God. What about arranging flowers to give thanks or sewing or quilting a prayer gift for someone? Baking bread is very therapeutic – try infusing the loaf with prayer and setting aside time to pray while it rises, then sharing the food with loved ones. As adults, we often dismiss play as something children do and forget that we all need to engage our surroundings with wonder, imagination, and the ability not to take ourselves too seriously.
There are gifts of the Holy Spirit that come in useful in our prayer lives. Speaking in tongues is especially appropriate in private prayer when we do not know what to ask for, but feel moved to voice the deep desires within us. The gift of healing can also be used in prayer for others, even at a distance, and holding a person in love and light makes a huge difference. Many people have spoken of the positive effect of being “held in prayer” during illness or distress. It is always right to ask for God’s gifts to assist in your prayer life: but be prepared to be surprised as you don’t always get the one you were hoping for!
3. Utilizing Your Mind
Our conscious minds are wonderful things. They help us remember and organize all kinds of information. In our times of prayer, they can help and hinder. Most of us have had the experience of trying to pray and then remembering that we have to pick up bread or milk. We immediately feel like we have “failed” the prayer test. If we can accept that thoughts from all levels of our being will emerge during our time with God, then it gives us an opportunity to bring everything in prayer, mundane or important. There are tools that can be learned to set aside those things that are not important in the moment (but might be later) and return to the main point: our time with God. There may be other times when the quiet actually allows a flash of insight or remembrance that is profound.
Intercession and Prayer Chains
If we are Christians in contact with the larger world in any way, we will have others asking that we pray for them. It may be people from the prayer list at Church. It may be someone we know who is in need of healing, clarification, or strength. It may be a situation in our world that we feel moved to include in our prayers. It is helpful to have a written list of names, kept somewhere private, to remind us of who to lift up, so we are not searching our minds for “that other guy who asked me to pray for him.” Prayer chains, or committed groups within a Church who regularly offer intercession for individuals, may covenant to pray at the same time. However you decide to intercede for another, it is helpful to tell him or her that you are praying for him or her unless it would be harmful to your ongoing relationship. It is also important to keep confidence if the other person has shared details of his or her situation so that he or she doesn’t feel his or her problems are being broadcast to a group.
Praying the News
One way of keeping abreast of current situations is to listen to or watch the news or read the headlines and then make a point of praying about each of the situations you have heard. You can ask for God’s healing and compassion and specifically ask God to show you ways that you can make a difference locally. Bring your concerns to the gathered community to add to the prayers of the people on Sunday morning, as appropriate. But be careful not to dictate to God how God should sort out the problem – it is enough to pray that God’s will be done.
Contemplation is the act of spiritual digestion. Once we have heard a word from God, through experience, Scripture, tradition, or reason, we need to work through what it means for us. But this isn’t achieved by puzzling it through. Sitting quietly with the question without forcing an answer is helpful. Some call this a resting prayer, others the act of listening for the heartbeat of God. Just as intimacy with a loved one doesn’t always need words, so contemplation is both active in awareness and passive in that the other isn’t demanding a certain response. To “just be” is a lot harder than it sounds. Although it feels highly artificial at first, setting a timer to mark off a time of silence and contemplation is helpful, so that you are not caught constantly wondering how much time you have left. As you practice contemplation, you will find that time spent with God is very elastic – it can seem to last forever or just a moment. At the end of your prayer time, take a few moments to re-emerge or re-surface into the present.
4. Utilizing the Tradition
Incorporating the Reading of Scripture
There are many ways to bring the reading of Scripture into your daily prayer life, but the only thing that is important is that you find a way to do it. The more you engage the Bible, the more you will identify with the people and the experiences that are written within its pages. The images and symbols become powerful ways to enter prayer.
One way of reading, called the Ignatian model, invites you to imagine yourself as one character in the story you are reading. What does that person see and hear, feel and smell? Who touches them? Where does God lead you?
Another way is to take small passage of Scripture, maybe a couple of verses, and pray them word by word, or phrase by phrase. Stop and explore what each part awakes in you. What resonates with your life? Why do you think that is?
You can also take a story and retell it in your own words. Try to set it in modern times or think of a parallel from your experience. Or take a psalm and write a prayer about it from your perspective.
Written and Unwritten Prayer Traditions
Within every Christian denomination there are different emphases on the most effective way to pray. Holy men and women in community have found common words that they have used both in gathered worship and in their private devotions. These were written down and passed on. Through the ages, prayers attributed to saints or Church leaders have been used by subsequent generations. And the Holy Scriptures contain many prayers that others have found helpful, such as the Book of Psalms and the Magnificat (Mary’s Prayer). At the same time, every believer is encouraged to find his or her own words to speak to God. Both are important.
If you have mainly drawn on the tradition of the Church in written prayers, try setting your books aside and speaking heart to heart with God. If you have grown up praying extemporaneously, discover the richness of what other disciples have expressed. Our prayer lives need balance. We will find new ways to pray and new aspects to our faith as we stretch our understanding of what it means to be a Christian in conversation with Christ.
No prayer is more foundational to our faith than the prayer that Jesus taught us, most usually referred to as the Lord’s Prayer. He commanded his disciples to pray in this way and we follow the example of generations of believers when we use the words handed down to us. There are more traditional and newer versions of the prayer and there is some room for interpretation on the meaning of some of the words, but the thrust of it is obvious. If you are to learn one prayer by heart and teach it to your children, this is that prayer. Say it in the morning and in the evening, and any other time in the day when you have a moment to reflect. You may want to take one phrase at a time and pray through all the associations you come up with.
The Apostles’ Creed is the statement of faith we make in our baptismal promises. When people ask what we believe, this is a good reference point. Pray through the lines for understanding and illumination.
Another good foundational prayer to have at hand is a prayer of confession. There are several forms in our service books, or you can use a simple line prayer, like “Lord Jesus, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This is especially appropriate at the end of the day, as you reflect on what has happened.
Liturgy and Daily Offices
However you structure your daily prayer life, it can be greatly enriched by turning to the divine liturgies and daily offices of the Anglican tradition. Many of the services allow great flexibility in what can be added, changed, or omitted, depending on the season of the Church year, the circumstances, and what is at hand. No lay person is required to use the Morning or Evening Prayer services of the Church for private use, but you may wish to draw inspiration from them or say them at home to support the great cycle of prayer that turns hour by hour through the Anglican Communion. For modern and engaging versions of the offices, you can look to A New Zealand Book of Prayer, Common Worship, Daily Offices of the Society of St. Francis, or many other written versions.
In today’s culture, the Internet also offers many online resources and websites to connect with Christian communities. These simplify matters by outlining daily readings and changing elements of the liturgy (saving you looking them up and flipping pages). You can also download apps for your phone or other device that offer daily prayers and Scripture readings to complement your prayer life.
Drawing from the Saints
Another way to model your prayer life is to take the example of one of the saints of our faith. Try committing for a specific period to reading one of the great devotional works of a Christian and praying as he or she prayed. You may find a style of prayer that fits you well – whether it is contemplative, mystic, pragmatic, or ecologically centred. And you may also find some like-minded people through the Internet or locally who may help form a support network for you in your life of prayer.
PRAYING ALONE; PRAYING WITH OTHERS
If prayer’s purpose is to engage us in conversation with our Beloved, both time and energy devoted to its practice are useful. Now we move deeper into thinking about the vertical connection between an individual and God and also the horizontal connection amongst all who pray.
1. Praying Alone
We all need time apart with God. It is difficult for many, not only to set aside periods of reflection and rest, but also to figure out what to do when we enter into them. However, prayer is as necessary to our bodies and souls as breathing – and we all know what happens when we forget to breathe! Start with the understanding that God is calling you aside to strengthen, comfort, and encourage you. It doesn’t matter what you have or haven’t done. You are God’s beloved and God is always ready to listen and counsel. Even when your prayer life seems a chore, the very act of obedience in turning again to God is good for whatever ails you.
In the gospels, we keep hearing about Jesus slipping away from his disciples to find a quiet place to pray. There were so many demands on his time. He could have gone 24-7 with a ministry of preaching, teaching, healing, and loving everyone around him. But Jesus had the sense to set some priorities around his schedule. Being in his Father’s presence filled him with strength and gave him the energy to re-engage the world. Think of your private prayer time not as time away from the important stuff you should be doing, but preparation for it.
Instructions in Scripture
In Matthew 6, Jesus warns us that the purpose of prayer is not to show others how holy we are. Yes, there is a place for public worship, but what we do in private apart from the gathered community is just as important to sustain our relationship with God. Get yourself behind a closed door if possible. It is good to have clear boundaries in a shared household (“Please don’t knock or bug Mommy for half an hour – it’s God time”). But don’t expect everyone else to be impressed when you announce you are taking your spiritual life more seriously. If your partner, children, or room-mates can respect your privacy at mutually agreeable times, you have all taken a huge step forward in faith. Set your phones and devices on silent mode and don’t let your well-meaning friends distract you: their calls or posts will still be there in fifteen minutes. And you don’t have to report back to them on your prayer life either. Pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
When you are praying on your own, it is easy to slip into the kind of prayer that is easiest for you and perhaps neglect ways that would help round out your prayer life. Try to include elements of confession, intercession, thanksgiving, and adoration. Sometimes these are framed as “I’m sorry, please, thank-you, I love you.” Finding a rhythm that encourages the prayerful reading of Scripture, reflection, listening, and acknowledgment of God’s presence takes work to discover and maintain. It doesn’t mean you always have to do the same thing or use the same prayers, although some find a very ordered structure helpful. But just like children need to learn to brush every tooth and floss, we need to learn how to build a well-balanced spiritual hygiene routine. The great thing about your private prayer time is that you and God can together figure out exactly what nourishes your soul the best.
Just because you are dedicated to deepening your relationship with God doesn’t mean that every moment you spend in pray will be profound and life-changing. All mature spiritual practitioners have experienced periods of dullness, turmoil, and even despair. These are the times when your resolve and patience are tested: do you have the obedience to continue when the going gets rough? Rather than giving up, pray for persistence to go through the time of trial. Remember that Jesus, just after the emotional and spiritual high of his baptism by John, was sent immediately into the wilderness.
Temptation comes in many forms, including abandoning your practice of private prayer in favour of something easier or more attractive. But although there are many aids to prayer that may refresh your spiritual discipline, nothing replaces dedicated quiet time with God. Shuttling back and forth amongst flavours of the month, whether it is yoga, rosaries, or journaling, will not resolve your restlessness. It is better to stick to a simple form of daily prayer and enrich it from time to time with new tools.
During the course of your journey, you will almost certainly encounter shame, despair, and desolation. Bring these to God and allow your spiritual wrestling to be honest. There are parts of the Bible, like the story of Jacob in Genesis, the book of Job, and the Psalms, that all speak helpfully to the shadow side of our prayer lives. Ask for the assurance of God’s presence with you, and for the Spirit to pray within you in the times when you feel you cannot pray.
You know you are experiencing the symptoms of prayer deprivation when your anxiety level is rising and your energy level is decreasing. Left unchecked, the two can paralyze us. Have the courage to turn to God for help. If your emotional pain or physical illness prevents you from being able to follow your prayer routine, let your pain be your prayer, but trust God enough to share it with God instead of bottling it up inside or running away.
The old saying is that sometimes we have to retreat in order to advance. Make a regular retreat a part of your prayer life. Book a time, whether a day, a weekend, or longer, to go on a second honeymoon with God. There are several retreat centres locally that you can visit as an individual or as part of a group. Or you can structure your own time away at a friend’s cabin or in your own home when everyone else has gone out of town or is busy for the day. Retreat centres often offer spiritual directors who can meet with you to discuss your prayer life or you may want to journal some insights to share with a friend or advisor later.
It is amazing what restoration comes from spending quality time with the One who loves you. You can plan out periods for rest, food, prayer, reading, and relaxation, but leave enough space to be surprised by unexpected opportunities. Maybe the sun comes out and you can walk around a lake or as dusk falls you can curl up in a chair and stare at a cozy fire. God’s good pleasure is for your spiritual health, so arrange at least one retreat a year.
2. Praying With Others
When we pray on our own, we are never truly alone. We are in the presence of Jesus and because we are a part of the Body of Christ, we are also joined to all people who are members of that body. In the hymn, “The Day Thou Gavest,” the author describes how at every moment, there are new voices joining in the chorus of prayer as the sun travels across the sky to different continents. Our single cry is one of many who continuously weave a web of prayer around our world. Every time we open ourselves to God, we open ourselves also to the power of collective prayer rising up to heaven.
The Communion of Saints
This is the generation of the Internet. Children of today have never known a time when they could not turn on a computer, choose a server, and immediately access a whole universe of information and people across time and space. But Jews and Christians throughout history have experienced a similar connectedness when they pray. In our Anglican understanding, we name it as the communion of saints. We believe that the kingdom is not complete until all are drawn into the circle of God’s love. That means that those who have died and gone before us still have a job to do. They continue to pray with us that God’s will be done. So when we think of the saints in light, we can imagine them both magnifying and directing our prayers in company with them. We don’t pray to the saints, but we do pray with them, and they with us. All whom we love and hope to see again in heaven surround us with a cloud of witnesses, as they watch over and cheer us onward.
Covenanting to Pray
When two or more agree to pray for the same purpose at the same time, even when they may be in different places, a greater spiritual dynamic occurs. Jesus told us, “When two or three gather in my name, I will be there in the midst.” He didn’t say they had to be in the same room. Not only is there a certain strength in a shared ministry of prayer like this, it is also an encouragement to individuals to commit to it. If we have said that we will join others in prayer at 9 pm on a Sunday evening, no matter where we are, we are more likely to do it. You can agree to use the same form of prayer, such as a service of compline or a litany, or you can hold up the same people or intention in your own ways. Prayer vigils are another variation of this shared purpose, when a group covenants to keep continuous prayer by each taking a shift, e.g., one hour, so that a person or event is bathed in prayer.
Companions in Prayer
Similarly, having a prayer partner or companion in prayer can be helpful in regular engagement. You may meet on a regular basis to share concerns, ideas, and reflections, then go away to hold up each other’s prayer requests privately. This can be informally as a trust between friends or a formal agreement to be an Anam Chara or soul partner and fellow confessor for the other.
Privacy and Confidence
When praying for and with others, it is important to have ground rules about what will be shared and with whom. Define how much information you need to identify and hold up a person or concern in prayer and what needs to stay confidential within a circle. Often prayer lists will have only first names on them, especially if they are part of information that may be posted publically. Information shared confidentially for prayer is not to be brought up in conversation unless you are talking to the person you from whom you heard it first-hand. Experiences that might be embarrassing or hurtful if retold to a third party should be edited to more general requests.
Finding a trusted group to pray with is a precious gift in community. Within its context, there is a place to bring both your own concerns and those of wider interest. The prayers raised can then enrich and inform your own private devotions.
The most fulfilling prayer groups are those that allow room for God to be the counselor. It is not the role of any group member or the leader to give advice or instructions on how to fix any situation that comes up in the group. Instead, refrain from the temptation to comment on another person’s story, and instead offer to take it to the Lord in prayer. Allow time for prayerful silence to be a healing and supportive atmosphere. Give grace for people to cry and be angry, but be firm about what is acceptable in the group’s context, e.g., no personal blaming or attacks. Be aware of individuals’ needs for space and their tolerance of physical contact. Sometimes it is far better to pass a tissue than a hug. Always ask permission to speak or act if you are unsure. Allow people to “pass” if they are not ready to voice prayers aloud. At the end of your time together, end with a shared prayer such as the Lord’s Prayer or the Doxology, so that all can take part.