Prayer can be like exercise, diet, sleeping enough and other things we know are “good for us.” In the best of times it can also seem that while important they really are the province of “professionals,” or those who are really passionate about them, and that nobody can do it all. We are very good at excuses of one kind or another, and sometimes we’re not convinced what the benefits might really be, or even afraid somehow that doing things differently will change things too much.
Prayer is really like breathing. It is what keeps us connected to life, to God. It is also more than that, it is the way we develop a true relationship with our Savior and source of life and strength. Doing things that make us feel aware of God and connected are hugely important. Some of the most essential ways that people have of reliably having that – singing in church, and regular in-person worship – have been curtailed and impacted in ways we never could have imagined a year ago. This impact has now gone on much longer than any of us likely imagined in March, and is likely to continue for some time. There are conversations of all sorts going on and continuing about what it will mean to be the church in the coming weeks and months and years, and I am humbled and awestruck by the depth of those. I am also profoundly grateful for the response that is happening throughout our church to the movement and cry that structural racism and white supremacy must end, and that it is fundamentally within our call as children of God to be a part of that movement, each in our own way.
As this stormy summer winds towards fall, give yourself the life-giving possibility of truly deepening your relationship with God. It’s a little bit like when I tell my son, “call your grandmother.” He knows where she is, that she loves him and he loves her – the conversations make a huge difference. The variety of conversations in a relationship can be enormous as well. There are news/update conversations, simply being together (even on the phone) conversations, discussions, arguments, asking for something, sharing our feelings, hopes and anxieties, learning, and on and on. Our prayer lives feed us more when they have this variety and more, and in particular our prayer lives are deeper when we develop ways to pray and consistently work on them to listen and even converse with God.
Some people have a special spiritual gift for prayer, and if that’s you, and you have been conversing with God your whole life, that’s wonderful – keep it up, and consider finding a way to share that with others! All of us however, have the gift for prayer, and need to use and develop it to be able to carry out the work God has given us to do, for ourselves, in our families and other parts of our vocations, our work and in the world. In this time it is more true than ever, and it is the foundation for discernment, for figuring out and knowing what God would have us do at each moment of our lives (something we will be talking about this fall in our diocese).
Here are some concrete suggestions. All of them are things that can help quiet our minds and spirits and help us to lay aside our “agenda” with God. While God wants us to bring our petitions to God, there is so much more that is possible when we pray with listening.
- The “Jesus Prayer” is an ancient way to breathe God in and out and to (among other things) make more room for God and listening to God by clearing away things that are anxiously crowding God out of our thoughts. You can whisper or say in your head slowly, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me,” or “Lord Jesus Christ the only Son of God” or “Lord Jesus Christ the only Son of God have mercy on me” or “Lord Jesus Christ the only son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.” This prayer is a key piece of the novel “Franny and Zooey” by J.D. Salinger. If you want a book discussing Anglican practice of the prayer, look for “Praying the Jesus Prayer Together” by Simon Barrington Ward and Brother Ramon, SSF. You don’t need to read a book though, simply begin the practice of saying this prayer repeatedly and regularly throughout your day and see what happens. This has been an important prayer and practice in my spiritual life for decades now.
- Christian Meditation is a terrific way to slowly begin to simply quiet our minds and be with God. It is similar to other kinds of meditation and “mindfulness” with Christ at the Center. For an array of resources, including books and instructions on this practice, go to the website of the World Community for Christian Meditation. This is a great way to start with 10 minutes a day devoted to you and God. There are many books by John Main and others available on their site or through Amazon or other book retailers.
- Find a spiritual director (I would recommend that it not be your own priest or someone in your parish). A spiritual director is a friend, guide and coach for our relationship with God. They generally have some training and possibly certification in the discipline. This is different from a therapist or an executive or life coach. Spiritual direction is about our prayer life and relationship with God.
- Make a regular practice of praying with God by reading and listening to scripture. Bishop Hughes has suggested reading the book of Esther this summer. When we pray with scripture we don’t look for a “meaning,” we listen for words or phrases that point to what God is saying to us. This is similar to “Dwelling in the Word” that is familiar to many, and some of the ways Bishop Hughes invites us to look at scripture together. It also is also called “Lectio Divina.” If you are looking for some guidance on how to make this a regular practice you could try “Lectio Divina – the Sacred Art: Transforming Words and Images into Heart Centered Prayer” by Christine Valters Painter (she goes beyond simply using this practice with scripture). There are many other guides that look at the practice primarily focused on scripture, and the new “Common English Bible” translation is available in a Lectio Divina edition that I appreciate.
Our relationship with God, like any other relationship, takes commitment, presence, listening and sometimes variety. We are in challenging times. Consider making it a priority to commit to one of these or other practices to deepen and strengthen your relationship to God in prayer.