Prayer can be a touchy subject whether one is a Christian or not because in some sense it is really where your mettle is proven. Along my own path I've been subjected to a variety of practices, and still find it to be a difficult endeavor.
I'm no expert on prayer. Endeavoring to write about it summons a few risks to consciousness, such as the risk of presenting myself as something I am not like those religious leaders who foreclosed on their heavenly rewards, the risk of seeming more spiritual than I am, or, more likely, exposing how bereft I am to readers who possess greater knowledge and wisdom. But this is not meant to be a primer or a word of advice. It's just me sharing a few thoughts on prayer that occur to me after engaging in the practice for some time.
Aside from my first prayers of the now I lay me down to sleep and God bless so-and-so variety, in which, not insignificantly, I felt perhaps the analog to or actual endorphins sweep through me after half an hour of asking for blessings on others, as well as imagined or felt the heavy presence of some other -- God? -- in the darkness of the bedroom -- I first began to really pray after I became a Christian at the age of eighteen.
As a Protestant, prayers are meant to be spontaneous and personal expressions, not overly-formal or rigid repetitions, which Jesus also frowned upon. A pastor who prayed with me early on began his prayers, "Oh heavenly father," in a tremulous baritone voice which sounded right to me, so I began my own talks with God in that manner as well. Paul also says that we should "pray unceasingly." This was more difficult than it seems. The gist to me seemed to be merely turning the discursive thoughts always churning away in my brain towards God in a constant impromptu monologue. It's not only difficult, but impossible. I know. I tried it.
As a pray-er early on, trying to keep up some sort of elated feeling as well as a discourse to God unceasingly made me feel as sinful as theologically (as a sinner whose righteousness was, as the prophet declaims, "filthy rags, and then a Calvinist) I believed that I was. The facticity and physicality of my body made me feel dirty. And trying to pray constantly as a mental effort was just too exhausting. I recall once during "quiet time" as a missionary in YWAM taking a walk through a gorgeous garden, alone, and imagining Jesus, trying, it seemed, to summon a vision of him, some kind of response. I realized quickly that what I was doing bordered on idolatry, that I could well be praying to myself and my own imaginative image of God, and dropped it.
Unlike some, I have never been the type of person to hear God's voice, or to whom God disclosed specific responses when I prayed. If I did feel any kind of impression from God, it was always subject to my zealous skepticism, and never broadcast by me to anyone; prayer was a struggle, whispering in a vacuous room in which I was ostensibly alone with God and God was incredibly silent.
The logical response, of course, was that God is not silent, but that he had just already said everything he wanted to say, and that was recorded in His Word, the Bible. So, I would pray and the Bible would respond. A few words of spontaneous prayer, usually requests for help and blessing and prayers for others, as well as private Bible reading were the essence of my Protestant spirituality.
Orthodoxy offered a different perspective to me on prayer, beginning with the proposition that even though prayer is about a personal relationship with God, I do not approach God alone. My prayers are linked with the prayers of the Church, not only now but throughout all time, as we approach the Holy Trinity as the Church who also comes to meet us. I see my personal prayers as an extension of the prayers of the Church, which are mediated and made possible by Christ's redemptive work. Even though my personal prayers are done in private and not as a public display in church, my prayer is not based on a relationship of just me and God; not only am I not alone when I approach God and in communion with the body of Christ, but God is never alone.
As I began to realize that my personal prayer, ergo my personal relationship with God, is rooted in my participation in the active prayer life of the Church, not only in my local parish where two or three are gathered (usually many more), but the universal and catholic church, even when I am praying at home by myself, this gave me a better frame of reference and direction for my prayers, a firm context that isn't totally based on what I believe, how I am feeling at the moment, whether I can keep the dialogue up, or whether or not I think my prayers are being answered.
Corollary to that epiphany, which really had a profound affect on me, is my realization that prayer is less about having an ongoing dialogue with God than it is about recognizing, giving attention to, and being responsive to the presence of God, who is everywhere and in all things. Rather than giving a monologue to God or relying on my imagination to conjure hie response, prayer is an elevation of consciousness through grace. Grace is the presence of God, through which he manifests his energies, and in prayer I can actively commune with him, both formally at church and in private at home, as well as in everything that I do throughout the day and night. I approach God in communion with others in the Church to commune, as a communion, with God (who is also a Trinity of three divine persons in communion with each other), and as the church I have the potential to commune with him spontaneously in and through all of life.
Finally, the prayer of the heart, or the Jesus prayer, also has influenced me positively as one of the means through which I am responsive to the presence of God in all things. The Jesus prayer -- "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner" -- when it becomes established in the heart, can become the continual cry of the whole person, and I find myself saying or thinking or praying it without effort, even when I am not entirely conscious of it, and yet it draws me further in. It is a way to pray unceasingly that isn't mere repetition, nor a reliance on my ability to keep a discursive monologue going.
Other significant changes have followed these realizations. some practical, including the use of written prayers to establish my own interior prayers, the use of chant and icons and incense, and being able to pray to saints to ask them to pray for me. There would be too much to say in one post to address all the foregoing, but they may become topics for future posts.
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