As a young christian I decided I had better join the church prayer meeting, so I found myself one Friday evening sat with a dozen or so fellow members in a small room at church that smelt of damp. We began by going around the group to ask what things we wanted to pray for and then the organiser of the prayer meeting proceeded to pray for an hour, seemingly without taking a breath, about all the topics we had mentioned. Most of his prayer seemed to be telling God what God should be doing in each and every circumstance. After a couple more weeks (yes, prayer meetings were weekly in those days!) I decided that this prayer life was not for me.
We know that prayer is essential for the spiritual life. How often do we hear people say “I need to pray about that” or “take it to God in prayer” but what are we doing?
There are many answers to this question. One common understanding is we are asking God to do something for us. We ask God to heal someone, or that some one will be successful in their job application, even that they will have nice weather on their holiday – the list is endless.
I think this is a great place to start but it is terrible place to stop. This type of prayer, traditionally called petition, is shallow. It’s primarily concerned about what you want and how you can get God to give it to you. Often it is nothing more that bargaining with the Creator.
Any one who has children will be familiar with this, “Mum can I go and play, I promise I will do my homework” or “Dad, make my sister share nicely with me.
As a parent you know there is nothing wrong with these kind of requests, but you long for the day when your child asks “I am having trouble with my sister what do you think I should do so we can share the toys?”
The transition from asking God to do something for you to asking God for wisdom and guidance is a sign of maturity in our prayer life as they are a sign of maturity in our children.
If we always view God as a cosmic vending machine, do the right things, push the right buttons and out pops what we want, we will always be praying at an immature level. And when God does not give us what we want, then our faith evaporates and we walk away from God.
If we move in a deeper maturity of prayer we discover yet another, deeper level. It is a simple love for God and a gratitude for all his works. There is no sweeter moment for a parent than when a child says “Thank you for all you do for me, I love you”. Words like these from a child means that you have helped them grow into a person with humility and understanding.
Yet there is more to prayer even belong gratitude, a hidden mystery that runs deeper than any parent/child illustration. It is a mystical union between what is mortal and eternal.
This prayer moves you beyond what God has done or can do for you, it moves you beyond what you need or want and are grateful for. It moves you beyond ideas and words altogether.
This is the mystery of contemplative prayer, it exists beyond ideas and formulas of prayer and it is possible for someone to live this kind of prayer without realising it.
This prayer is not about what you say or what you do it is about what you become. I believe this is what St. Paul meant when he told us to ‘pray without ceasing’ (1Thesselonians 5:16-18). It is a prayer which envelopes our whole being.
This prayer becomes the most important in our lives. This doesn’t mean that the other prayers are bad. It is good to pray for healing, for wisdom or to give thanks, these are a genuine expression of our humanity, and being real and genuine with God is vitally important. So it is good to carry on praying these prayers, but find the prayer which is not an idea, which is not a conversation with God. Find the prayer which is a union with the divine.
It is the goal of every Christian to become like Christ. To have our being in Christ. To live in him as he lives in us. With patience and a genuine desire we can not only learn how to pray but our live will be come the deep mystery of true contemplative prayer.
God bless, Alan.