5 More Steps to Kick-Start Prayer
- Last May (22nd) I published a short paper, ‘5 Steps to Kick-Start Prayer’ which outlined my lack of expertise in prayer but also some hints which help me to persevere. They were basic steps regarding place, time and language. For some they will be vital; for others rather underwhelming. These next 5 steps take us deeper into prayer which we defined as ‘consciously putting ourselves in God’s company’.
- There are libraries of books on each of these topics. You may have found some treasures among them but if you haven’t, then please ask. I still have some useful books in my twice-filleted library which I am happy to lend or to make further suggestions.
- So, 5 more steps which I hope may help you along the path through this tantalizing and infuriating mystery which we call prayer!
Step 6: Meditation.
- The first 5 steps were principally about intercession: a good place to start. The Lord’s Prayer, the model prayer, is concerned mainly with intercession (the coming of kingdom values, the provision of daily necessities). Archbishop William Temple said that when he prayed, coincidences happen. When he doesn’t, they don’t.
- Contrasted with intercessory prayer, meditation focusses our minds on one thought or situation. Scripture is an obvious focus and the best. Take a phrase which appeals to you and ’brood’ upon it. One French mystic calls the exercise ‘rocking and chewing The Word’, rather like a cow chewing the cud, extracting the juices. For instance, a verse like Luke 12 32: ‘Fear not little flock for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom’.
- The parables of Jesus are also fruitful ground for mediation. Take Mark 4. 1 – 20: the Parable of the Sower and Jesus’s explanation. Plenty of scope there for brooding, getting inside the story.
- Another method is to take an event in Jesus’s life such as Luke 5. 17 – 26, the healing of the paralytic. Put yourself in the picture: are you one of the crowd in the house? If so, are you at the front or the back? Are you on the roof, ripping off the tiles or are you on the stretcher, being lowered down on top of the crowd? How does if feel? Who is near you? What about the atmosphere and lastly, how will you move closer to Jesus from your present position?
Step 7: Coping with Frustration.
- ‘5 Steps’ finished with a reference to the 17th century priest and poet, George Herbert and his poem, ‘Prayer’. I go to poetry when my prayers run dry, and for good reason. Another of Herbert’s poems illustrates his frustration (and mine) in prayer. ‘The Collar’ begins with Herbert thumping the Holy Table in frustration! Many a Christian will have been there! There are several causes of frustration in prayer:
- Silence can be frightening to some but is such a vital ingredient in serious prayer. A cork floating on the water seems distracted by the turmoil on the surface but underneath is a whole different world. Elijah feared for his life (1 Kings 19) and found refuge in a cave. It wasn’t in the wind, the earthquake or fire that he found the voice of God but in the silence. Getting under the surface can be challenging. Use a repetitive word or phrase or something visual to concentrate upon. However, it is in the silence where the real riches lie.
- Boredom is a common problem. Boredom can be brought on by external factors (fatigue, repetition) and can be tempered by a change of location, time or posture). However, internal factors can also irritate us and might suggest a different form of prayer (see Step 8). We all need encouragement to keep going so a prayer partner or guide may be an encouragement to you. Or even the right book.
- No answers to prayer? This raises big questions for which there are pointers which don’t fit into this short guide. But many of us this lockdown will have been encouraged by the recovery from illness of key people in our communities for whom we have been praying fervently. Intercessory prayers will have an answer and we may be part of that answer. To assist another person or group with practical help makes the spirit soar and the prayers dance! More on this in Step 9, below.
Step 8: Contemplation.
- So far we have covered the work of intercession and meditation. Both require verbal or mental language. Intercession ranges around the concerns of the world while meditation concentrates on a phrase or an event in the life of Christ, or even the verse of a hymn. Contemplation requires a shift to wordless adoration and the move can be disturbing. John of the Cross, one of the Spanish Mystics, coined the phrase, ‘The Dark Night of the Soul’ – a rather frightening phrase which is actually encountered by many on their spiritual journeys.(1)
- Symptoms that this shift is required include a frustration with meditation, a desire to move away from mental/active prayer and thirdly a desire to be alone with God. We are drawn to be near and in that mystery which, for shorthand, we call God.
When I lived by the sea, I thought that vast ocean was a dead hinterland which I did not
understand and contributed nothing to the life of the parish. Then I began to understand it, was mesmerised and drawn to it. It remained a mystery but a friendly one – one which brought peace, comfort and even when it was in a rage, communicated power and majesty.
- This attraction to wordless adoration is like two lovers wanting to be nowhere else but together. No words are necessary; they know each other’s thoughts and intentions. There is much experience of darkness, cloud and ‘lostness’ but also a continued yearning to be present in that state of lostness for a glimpse of clarity.
- This form of prayer brings us close to a unity with God but should not be confused with a state of tranquillity alone. Quiet is important as part of the process but all our prayers must issue in action: love of God and our neighbours.
Step 9: Morality.
- All our prayers must issue in some form of action on our part. God does answer every prayer but sometimes the signs are obscure. That has always been the case. Think of the burning bush (Exodus 3) when God propels Moses into leadership; the star above a stable in winter; a silence after the storm; a vision on a hillside, a conversation with a stranger in a graveyard. However, if we’re facing in the wrong direction – away from Christ and his ways – then we will miss those signs. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matthew 5.8).
- Karl Barth (famous theologian) said, ‘To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world’. Prayer does not come under the category of self-fulfilment, happiness or therapy. It is part of the work of building the Kingdom of God which Jesus preached and practised during his ministry. He has given us our ministry, of which quiet prayer is just a part, an orientation towards action.
- Luke tells us of a most powerful spiritual experience on the top of a mountain: the story of the Transfiguration, Chapter 9. However, “on the next day” (9.37) the disciples were faced with a fitting child whom Jesus heals but he also gave the disciples a sharp telling-off for their lack of action.
- ‘Hints and guesses’ as T.S.Eliot says, are often all we receive in terms of answers to prayer or prompts towards action. Scripture reading is a backdrop to all of this. It makes God’s truths more sharply defined. And don’t ignore dreams either. They can be powerful incentives. Lift the phone, write a card, raise a smile, volunteer for Foodbank, face that difficult relationship.
Step 10: Church-Going.
- I have spent much time among the most professional pray-ers in the world: monks and nuns. Their life is one of solitude, silence, aloneness. But each day, at regular intervals, they go to church together for Divine Worship. Now the internal dynamics of a monastic house are often very powerful. They did not choose each other; God chose them to live, work and pray together – to love one another though not necessarily to like one another.
- Churchgoing for them is a corrective, a re-orientation. It is a crucial part of the day and not an option. Neither is church-going for us an option. It is here that we are fed, encouraged, directed, challenged and valued. It is here that we give value to others by just being there and that is so important in a bleak world which is now looking for a different way to live, post-pandemic.
- People who pray – and you must be one called to such a ministry, having followed these 10 steps! – find that their work begins and ends in worship. We do not pray alone. We pray with our colleagues around the world – millions at any given moment – but we also join our prayers with those of the saints who have gone before and those who will follow after. The church (building) is a signpost on the way; a marker, a cairn for which our contribution is vital, especially in the countryside where the density of population is low and resources are scarce.
- Stewardship is not a clever way of raising money but a spiritual thermometer. How much are we prepared to give to God in terms of time, talents and money? Your contributions will grow, along with your commitment and prayer is a lubricant to all of that.
- Enjoy your prayers. Thank you for reading thus far – and please pray for me.
1 July 2020