A few years ago I realised that fitness was no longer something I could take for granted, and I started to go to the gym. But I found it quite a dispiriting experience, a bit soulless and grim. And then one day as I read in 1 Timothy “Physical exercise has some value, but spiritual exercise is valuable in every way, because it promises life both for the present and for the future.” And I thought – there is a word from the Lord for me!
Now of course fitness is really important, but the thing I want to emphasise is that spiritual exercise is perhaps even more of a struggle. Prayer is hard, and are lots of reasons for that. But perhaps the recognition that it is a struggle is the first step. Few of us are able to be honest about how hard we find it. But I think we need to be honest, and also take responsibility for teaching each other how to pray. We cannot assume that people will pick it up along the way. So I want to share some things that I have found helpful, drawn from the rich heritage of prayer.
Prayer is like art. We are all born artists, and children’s artwork delights us and we pin it to the fridge and keep it safe. But as we grow up most of us stop creating, because we are busy doing apparently more important things. And so we stop learning, and stop improving and gradually think we are just not creative. That is not to say that some people are not simply naturally gifted, but to become an artist requires dedication to keep practising and learning. The parallel with prayer is obvious. Everyone prays, but many of us never move beyond that childish stage, and we start to think we are just not very good at it. It is important that we keep practicing and learning.
I’d like to look at one of the greats. Henri Nouwen was professor of divinity at Yale and Harvard, and wrote widely on prayer. And his advice draws on the historical wisdom about prayer and stands the test of time. I’m drawing on his book ‘Reaching Out’
His starting point is that we are each unique, and need to grow into prayer in a way that is appropriate to us, shaped by our character and the context in which we live and work. Just as an artist finds their own unique style so we will find our own style and pattern of prayer.
But prayer needs structure to allow it to develop. If we only pray when we feel like it or are desperate we will not develop. Just as a monastic community is framed by a rule of life, not as an end in itself, but in order to create space for prayer, so need to plan to pray. And if you can set aside a quiet corner, a place set aside where you have quiet and all you need even better.. If that can’t be at home then perhaps an open church near where you work or even a park bench. Create a regular time and place to pray, and stick to it as best you can, but don’t allow the guilt when you fail to knock you off course.
Nouwen draws three elements from the lives of people who made prayer their greatest priority which may be helpful as we seek to develop our spiritual fitness.
- A contemplative reading of scripture.
- a silent listening to the voice of God
- a trusting obedience to a spiritual guide.
A contemplative reading of scripture. I thought this was particularly appropriate for us, as Nouwen warns against our tendency to make an intellectual exercise out of reading scripture. “in our academic world we make everything we read subject to analysis and discussion”. Of course there is an important place for analysis and exegesis, but too easily we find ourselves standing in judgement over scripture rather than allowing it to judge us.
I find that quite freeing if I am reading the Bible at the start of the day and I don’t have time to do a proper exegesis of the text, get my commentaries out and look into the original greek. Such an approach to scripture asks God to speak to us, and for us to hear it as Gods word for us. We need to also reading scripture in a way that asks what is God saying to me in this moment through these words. It does not ignore good exegesis, but recognised that God speaks to us by his spirit through Scripture in various ways. And part of that I think is reading scripture as it itself intends to be read. We forget that much of the bible is poetry and narrative, exhortation and prophetic – and it is written not simply for information, but for formation – to move us, challenge us and form us as people. It speaks to heart and soul as much as mind.
A silent listening to the voice of God. A contemplative reading of scripture leads naturally into silence. Just as great art, or the grandeur of creation should stop us in our tracks and move us into contemplation, so scripture should be something that like Mary “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart”. Allowing the word of God to soak in and go deep takes time and silence. But that does not come easily to us in our noisy and impatient world. Nouwen describes the struggle to be silent like this; “in the beginning our own unruly inner voices are heard more loudly than Gods voice… but slowly, very slowly we discover that the silence makes us quiet and deepens our awareness of ourselves and God.”
It takes time, patience and often a willingness to wrestle with ourselves and say “be still my soul” but slowly we discover that silence is this remarkable place where we can hear God’s word and become aware of his profound love for us.
Rowan Williams puts it like this “Contemplation is the only ultimate answer to the unreal and insane world that our financial systems and our advertising culture and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit. To learn contemplative practice is to learn what we need so as to live truthfully and honestly and lovingly.”
The third thing is this idea of a spiritual guide. Our faith is so privatised and we keep our fears and doubts so close to our chest afraid of being judged for them that allowing someone else to be part of that seems quite threatening. Nevertheless we can surely imagine the value of it, if someone non-judgmental, wise and compassionate could be found.
“God is greater than our own heart and mind, and too easily are we tempted to make the desires of our heart the will of God. We need a guide, a counsellor to help us distinguish the voice of God, someone to encourage us when we are tempted to despair, to discourage us when we act rashly, who can suggest when to read, when to be silent and which words to reflect on”.
Now this may not be a one to one relationship and that the prayerful christians of the past might fulfil this role for us, whether is it St Benedict or St Francis, St Ignatius of Loyola, John Wesley, or Eugene Peterson or Henri Nouwen himself, these sort of people are essential if we are to find our own way in prayer “without such inspiring guides it is difficult to remain faithful to the desire to find our own way”.
Nevertheless a one to one relationship is of great value, and hard though it is to find someone appropriate, often we don’t find because we don’t ask. This may be a spiritual director or a pastor, or simply a Christian friend who is a few years ahead of us in the journey “There are many who would become wise and holy for our sake if we would invite them to assist us. Often we discover that those whom we ask for help will indeed receive the gift to help us and grow with us towards prayer”.
One of the things about great art is that it transcends the ordinary and touches eternity, And of the amazing thing about prayer is that it doesn’t have to be great to do the same thing. It may be that the most important thing you will ever do is simply to pray because in doing it so you are participating in eternity.
What about praying for things? The part of prayer we call intercession – praying for things and situations and individuals are important but we tend to think they are the whole of it. It is slightly confusing because what we model in church is not actually the model of personal prayer. It is of course right that we bring the things we need and hope for before God – the bible is clear we should do that. And God is gracious and sometimes answers our prayers in just the way we want. But actually the thing that is the answer to our prayers, and the thing God wants to give us is himself. It is our worries and our fears, our struggles and our longings that bring us to Prayer. The answer to all those things is God himself.
I’ve found that in prayer I am a lot less confident to tell God what I think he should do. Much more often I find myself holding people and situations before God. Turning them over and seeing them from different angles and praying ‘Thy will be done’. And in doing so I understand more what Kierkeggard means when he says “Prayer does not change God, but changes him who prays.”
But nevertheless I am confident that no prayer goes unanswered, it is just that many of the things we long for are actually the longing for the kingdom of heaven – they will be fulfilled when the greatest of prayers is finally fulfilled ‘Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven”.