What is prayer, and what use is prayer?

Written on retreat at Glasshampton, 1993?

Day 1

Prayer is the dedication of the mind and the soul towards God, re-dedication again and again at the start of each day, each hour, each moment.

Prayer is nothing in isolation; it can only mean anything in the context of a life lived, just as the written word can only mean anything in the context of a text read and acted upon or remembered.

But prayer for some cause in which we can reach no further is in itself an action taken. For example, if I `pray' for someone who I can and should help directly, but do not offer them any help myself, my `prayer' means nothing. However, if I pray for someone in some remote disaster of which I have heard, and in which I cannot help otherwise, that is still real prayer.

But are there situations in which my only action can be only prayer? In the case of a remote disaster, I can write to politicians for intervention; I can make financial donations in support; I can offer my skills in support. In praying for the sick, when it seems that only a miracle can save them and that I should pray for a miracle, I can still visit them.

When I pray for the well-being of a friend, I still must act directly to them as a friend, with the same concern that I put into my prayer, and without being pulled by my own convenience in the relationship. (I can pray also that I will be a good friend to them -- and yet I must also listen to their needs directly.)

And yet I cannot, in practice, do all these things, as there are so many opportunities that I cannot follow them all. However, my willingness to help in ways other than prayer must be there, for my offering to be truly prayerful.

Recently, I've been finding the `contacting God' part of prayer harder than usual; I think it's just that I'm looking too far away, and that I have already made contact more than I'm used to having done, and can just speak gently and quietly, finding him already indwelling in me.

Day 2

I often feel empty in prayer, and find myself asking ``What is prayer?'' and ``How can I pray?'' and ``Am I praying when I try to pray?''.

So, what does happen when I clear my mind to pray? Am I just leaving it blank? How about inviting God in? Am I doing that? Is this the same thing as listening to God? I don't think so, just being with God is a distinct thing from setting out to listen, to discern His will.

It would be easy to do the wrong thing in trying to be with God; it is too inviting to imagine perception of His presence, to welcome gusts of warmth and light and to say that these are from Him. Of course, what comes to me through the same channels as my physical or inner senses I cannot distinguish from the corresponding sensations. What I delight in thinking of it as illumination from God could simply be a ray of sunlight through the chapel window (but that is simple to check); an uplift of warm feeling could be a draught of warm air (that is harder to check); what about the sensation of a physical defect being healed? Yes, that is distinct and cannot be explained away; but there are only so many parts of the body to receive this, it doesn't happen every day! And feelings of being loved, of forgiveness -- must we trace their origin too, to be sure that they are of God?

Or does this not matter? God works through physical and mental signs as well as supernaturally. Yes, enjoy uplift in prayer, when it comes, but do not depend on it.

Once, years ago, I learnt that I had to take what I saw as the perceived presence of God in my prayer, and say to this: ``You are not God. You are only my perception of God. I must abandon you, and go into the darkness waiting behind you.'' In effect, I must abandon my faith, and trust in God's faith alone -- true faith is not something that I can own. To be exposed to real faith, I must take the step of faith that is walking into the possibiity of atheism: casting aside my faith as I have known it, and seeing what is really there.

A few years later, I had to do this again, and realized that it is a repeating process; as I accumulate my own thoughts of God, I must again and again move on from them. Recently, it has seemed that I must start each prayertime this way, and do it again if the prayertime seems dry: when I feel empty of prayer, I must in prayer empty out even that emptiness before I can be filled. The process is becoming less fearful, as I learn that I can trust God to fill me to what extent He knows is right.

And so this process is part of a way forward; but it is not the Way, and I must apply it to itself, casting aside even the casting aside, to go forward on a faith that is yet barer, learning gradually to look toward God alone.

This seems to have much to do with distance and darkness, and perhaps a little dark night of the soul; but at the same time as casting aside falseness, it is possible to embrace the truth as we are given it, and this is much simpler and more joyful.

It is indeed impossible for us finite creatures to comprehend properly our Infinite Creator (or, if you will, us creatures of a lower degree of infinity to comprehend properly our Creator whose attributes are all of a higher Infinity) but he gives us finite means to see some part of Him, and we can rejoice in these, and find great warmth and consolation through them. But further than this, God the Son takes on our lower finite form while at the same time remaining truly God, and in this we can see Him as God made Man. But these topics deserve an essay in their own right!

Day 3

This morning it became real to me that God wants my joy to be complete, and that He doesn't necessarily withhold things I long for on principle because I'm me. This came up in the context of a possibly significant friendship with a young lady having started recently, which has brought a new level of thankfulness to my prayer, even before the new level of joyfulness came in. I've also got a lot of gratitude for my recovery from depression; as the Psalmist puts it, ``The Lord has pulled me out of the miry pit''!

Later, in a period of finding it difficult to start to pray, I tried instead to try not to pray, and felt immediately that my prayer started to flow. This will probably sound over-pious, but I think my background level of prayerfulness may have risen over the last few years.

Day 4

I've been noticing that it seems that my prayer can continue while other thoughts are also running in my mind.

I expect the difficulties I've been having with prayer will (provided I keep working at things) turn out to be just a `chrysalis' phase in which change is occurring below the surface.

Thinking more about things: I can't think of anything harder to `turn on' (or off) than prayer. Physical things are easy, like body movements (except in extreme cases); even psychological things, including a lot of emotions, can be manipulated quite readily by techniques as cognitive therapy. Prayer just doesn't seem to be something you can start doing either directly by wanting to, or indirectly by reliable techniques. It seems more like trying to stay awake when I'm extremely sleepy.

This could in part be that prayer is connected with God, and depends on His will as well as ours; on the other hand, He is surely always more ready to listen than we are to pray, so there should be no obstacle at the listening end!

Or could it be that He's holding back the `feeling of prayer' in order to teach me something? To teach me to pray more? To get me to rest in the power of His love? To get me to think about the nature of prayer, and of His nature, as I am doing here?

I think that trying various prayer-based things might help here; singing psalms, for example.

Regular attempts help, according to writings by a camaldolese hermit; keep on trying, and that will count as prayer, and eventually you'll get your flow of prayer restored.

One thing that may be relevant to distracting thoughts is the idea that those thoughts have to occupy a certain amount of attention on average, and getting them seen to (ie dreaming / day-dreaming) before prayer may get them out of the way; in which case prayer immediately after rising from sleep is probably a good idea, as I will have come fresh from dreaming and not have started on day-dreaming (which may be a sign of tiredness? or of boredom?). I can probably train myself to do less daydreaming -- I must inquire about this from my psychologist and psychiatrist.

There seems to be so much movement in the mind; I don't currently dare to get it to slow to a standstill; it seems to be like some mechanism that must be kept running. I'm not sure that I currently can even divert its movement into prayerfulness (maybe what I'm trying in detail is something impossible?) -- I think I'm frightened of letting go of my own mental industriousness.

From talking with Amos: Take what I do when I try to pray, and make that into prayer. Be broader in what I count as prayer -- try new ways!

Some time after the retreat on which I wrote the above:

Things that I'm uncomfortable about

I'm uncomfortable with the idea of asking lots of people to pray for you -- as though God is going to be swayed from some unpleasant plan of His by more people clamouring. Treating Him as though He has that kind of plan, as though our plans are more merciful than His, may have biblical precedents but my instincts now are to say that this is bad theology.

Formulaic prayer, and liturgical prayer, seem somehow odd to me -- that we should be able to pray on demand for a particular thing. To me, prayer is mostly something deeper inside than that, but perhaps it's one of those things that comes gradually under control, like the bladder.

Formulaic prayer seems at risk of becoming mechanistic or magical:

May all the saints on the first page pray for us;
May all the saints on the second page pray for us;
May all the saints on the third page pray for us;
And from all things on the fourth page, Good Lord deliver us.
[John's Christianity page]
John C. G. Sturdy

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