People with a faith background usually think that prayer is important, but often reckon that they’re not very good at it, and feel bad about that. I think that most of us are much better at prayer than we give ourselves credit for. Often the problem is that we define prayer too narrowly, because our vision of God is too small. So I suggest that we start not by thinking about what we can do to breathe some new energy into our prayer life, but by looking at the bigger picture and asking “What is prayer?”
Human beings have always prayed because we have a sense that there is a God beyond ourselves whom we can address, and we hope that God will hear us and respond to us. The Christian Gospel goes further in saying that God is a God of love, and that this God lovingly, actively seeks us out. It is in the very nature of God to desire relationship with us. The Alister Hardy research which I quoted earlier seemed to suggest that most people know of this relationship because they have some experience of God, although many of them would not use explicit Christian language to describe it.
The Christian Gospel also says that because God is a loving, relating God, and because we are ‘created in God’s own image’ we cannot be fully human without relationship with God. The Alister Hardy research appears to bear that out too, suggesting that those who have spoken about their moments of religious experience and who therefore know something of this relationship, are more likely than other people to be psychologically well balanced and to be happy
The God we have discovered in both The Bible, and our own Personal Bibles, is this God Who is actively seeking a relationship with us. We have also seen that the Biblical God seeks to relate to us through everything. The most important things about God are that God is a God of love, and that God seeks relationship with us through everything.
I think of prayer as anything that nurtures this relationship between God and us. The initiative in prayer is not with us. God created us, and created us for relationship with God, so the initiative lies with God. Prayer is something that is primarily God’s business. Our weakest longings for God and our feeblest attempts at prayer are responses we make to the initiative of God.
The God Who created me for relationship with God, is praying in me, sustaining and nurturing our relationship, keeping it alive, and stirring me to respond. God is always and everywhere praying in other people too,
As I go outside, God is praying in each person I meet. As we meet, the God in me meets the God in them. There is a splendid tradition, I suspect Celtic in its origins, that says when you meet someone you don’t just say “The peace of God be with you.” Instead you say “The peace of God be with you both,” and you address not only the other person but also the angel [a symbol of God’s presence] who accompanies them wherever they go. Other faiths make the same point when they bow to each other on meeting. God’s praying thus unites me with everyone else whom God has created. God is praying in all of us.
Thus united by God’s prayer, my relationship with all other human beings is transformed, for they are now my sisters and brothers. The Lord’s Prayer makes this point when it begins “Our Father………..” . The praying of this prayer to God unites us with all of the rest of God’s children, who share God’s image with us. Acknowledging God as Father carries with it the implication that all other human beings are my brothers and sisters. Loving God and loving all God’s children are two activities intimately bound up with each other, we can’t do one without doing the other. So prayer calls me to social and pastoral action, as practical expressions of that recognised family relationship with others. When I respond I am not only responding to my brother or sister’s need, I am also responding to the God of love Who calls me, and thus what I am doing is a form of prayer. Not to respond in this way is to doubt that we are family, and that God is the “Our Father” of all of us.
Ask someone where he/she would choose to go in order to be open to a sense of the presence of God, and the likelihood is that they will answer that they would choose to be out somewhere amongst the natural world. For most people God is most obviously present not in a religious building but in a garden or park or out in the countryside. For all of creation is the handiwork of this God of love, and when we are in it we tend to become aware of God’s love. It makes good sense then to think that God is not only, always and everywhere praying in us, but that God is always and everywhere praying in all of creation. And if we have the eyes to see it we will be able to do so. When we take ourselves out into the natural world that is what we want to do. We are deepening our relationship with God, we are praying.
As we sense the God whom we know praying in the whole of creation so our attitude to creation is transformed. To fail to care for the whole created order is implicitly to fail to acknowledge God and God’s prayer in it. In caring for creation we are responding to God and therefore deepening our relationship with God. We are praying.
What are the implications for you and me of this bigger picture when it comes to our attempts at prayer?
- It is God Who takes the initiative in prayer and Who calls us to respond in relationship. It is God Who is the primary ‘pray-er’. Prayer is primarily God’s business rather than ours. Sometimes it is enough just to recognise that.Prayer may be simply standing unprotected before God. You just wait there open to God, and trust that God is praying in you and that that is enough. Just turning up may be all you can sometimes manage, but it is enough. There do not have to be good feelings involved on your part. You may have to learn to accept that once you have decided to put yourself naked before God in prayer, that is all there is to it. You may feel nothing. You are not praying in order to feel good, you are praying because you have decided you are going to give time to be consciously before God and for your relationship to deepen so that you may grow into the human being that God has created you to become. Part of that will be your trusting that it is happening, whatever you might be feeling or thinking.
- We have been created for prayer, because at our core is a desire for relationship with the loving God Who created us, and prayer is what nurtures that relationship. And if God is truly a God of love then prayer can’t, in principle, be so hard. As Sister Wendy Beckett put it: “The astonishing thing about prayer is our inability to accept that if we have need of it, as we do, then because of God’s goodness, it cannot be something that is difficult.” [Sister Wendy on Prayer’ Sister Wendy Beckett, pub Continuum, 2006]
- While all human beings are created ‘in God’s image’ and God prays in each of us, we are all gloriously different, every one of us is unique. So our ways of relating to God will be unique to each of us. One of the dangers in prayer is in assuming that we must all pray in the same way. While we need some ways of praying together when we pray corporately, when we pray on our own we need to feel free to do so in ways that feel natural and right for each of us.
- Prayer is primarily about our relationship with God. It is not about getting things, or changing things, or persuading God to do something God hadn’t previously intended to do, although things can and do sometimes change because of prayer. It is about deepening the relationship between God and me.Prayer doesn’t change God but it can change me. If I pray for a bike for Christmas and I don’t get one, I don’t stop believing in God. I learn to trust that either God is saying “No” and has good reasons which I may not understand, for doing so. Or that God is saying “Not yet”, and I need to learn to wait and trust. If I don’t like the answer I think I’m getting then I can go back and talk some more to God about it. Prayer is about getting some communication going between me and God: about deepening the relationship. We might have some stand-up rows; I might occasionally go off in a huff and refuse to speak for a bit, but I learn to keep coming back, trying to communicate, and trusting that the primary task is the deepening of the relationship, and the development of trust in me. It will almost certainly lead to growth and change in me, which may not always be comfortable or what I might have chosen! And it will almost certainly lead to growth and change in my thinking about and knowledge of, God.George Appleton [ ‘One Man’s Prayers’]wrote this wonderful prayer about a changing understanding of God, stimulated by thinking about the Biblical story of Mary of Magdala meeting the Risen Jesus in the garden on Easter morning:
“O Christ my Lord, again and again I have said with Mary Magdalene,’They have taken away my Lord & I do not know where they have laid him.’
I have been desolate and alone. And you have found me again,
And I know that what has died is not you, my Lord. But only my idea of you,
The image, which I have made to preserve what I have found. And to be my security.
I shall make another image, O Lord, better than the last.
That too must go, and all successive images, until I come to the blessed vision of Yourself, O Christ my Lord.”
- Prayer is primarily about our relationship with God, but it is also about our relationships with other human beings, and with all of creation. Prayer brings us into communion with all of God’s creation. Prayer is responding in love to my brother and sister, it is responding in love and care for all of creation. Anything that does this, consciously or unconsciously, is prayer. For some people this may express itself mainly through what they ‘do’, their practical care of others and the environment: this is their prayer. For others it may express itself primarily in terms of ‘being’, a silent sense of inter-connected relationship with other people and the whole of creation: this is their prayer.
- Prayer is directing my thoughts and feelings towards God and always trying to stay open to a response. Sometimes using words, and sometimes not using words. There is an increasing vogue today for praying through symbols: lighting candles, putting stones in water, placing bunches of flowers in significant places or at significant times, etc. The big advantage of using symbols is that it is often very difficult to put one’s prayer into words, and using a symbol can often be a deeply satisfying way of expressing something deeply felt. While the symbol remains in place, the prayer continues to be symbolically offered.
- I can either practise the ways of praying that others have discovered to be helpful. It’s good to learn from the wisdom that others have acquired over the centuries. But it can be dangerous to get too hooked on techniques, which might get between God and me and hinder our relationship.
- Or, I can nurture my own natural ways into prayer, by naming to myself the activities that I enjoy, that naturally lead me into a sense of God’s presence. We each have our natural way or ways into prayer. What do you enjoy doing that easily takes you into a space where you are relaxed and receptive to the divine? It might be listening to music or reading; it might be being outside in a garden or park, it might be doing some simple physical task with your hands; it might be caring for another person, or joining in with a group activity. Whatever it is that you enjoy doing and which seems to leave you open to God, do it and see it as prayer.Its good to recognise that God has created me able to know Him through the things I enjoy. But it can be dangerous if I just enjoy myself and forget God. A way of minimising the danger of that is to say a short prayer asking God’s blessing on your pleasurable activity before you begin, and then taking a short time to reflect on what God might have been saying to you through it, afterwards.
- It’s good to pray on my own, but it is good to pray with others, and for many people it is much easier to pray with others rather than on my own.
To summarise, it is God Who initiates prayer in us and Who calls us to respond. We have all felt something of that call. It is a call to relationship. Prayer is whatever nurtures our relationship with God.
God is a loving God so responding can’t be difficult. We each have our own God-given, ways of responding in prayer, which we can learn to trust.
Exploring our relationship with God through prayer will help us to grow into the person God has created us to become. It will also change our relationships with other people, and with all creation.