By Bishop Mike Rinehart
This article is also available on podcast here.
How did it go for you? What did you learn? And most importantly: What’s the go-forward? What will your Easter prayer life look like?
Recently I was asked to speak to a group of people about prayer. They asked me to talk about it from a personal standpoint. What worked? What didn’t work? What do you do when you get stuck? I took the opportunity to think back over the years and share a little bit about my own prayer life — the journey that evolved over the last half a century and is still evolving today.
Before you read this, begin by reflecting on your own prayer life. Consider it a time of prayer. It will not do to race into a conversation about prayer frenetically. Sit quietly for a while and think about this. Consider taking some notes in a journal. What does your prayer life look like? Do you pray every day? When? Where? How? Do you pray differently today than you did ten years ago? What would you like your prayer life to be like? Why?
Now extend your meditation on the role of prayer in your life by doing this exercise. Take one minute, or two, and write down as many reasons as you can to pray. Write, “Why Pray?” and then think about this: If you took 30 minutes a day to pray, every day, what would be the benefits?
The Lord gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
30 Even youths will faint and be weary,
and the young will fall exhausted;
31 but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength,
they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
they shall run and not be weary,
they shall walk and not faint.
I have asked several groups this question over the last year. It is fun to hear their responses. People usually say things like this. Read these slowly and consider if any of them are true for you.
“I believe I’d have more peace.”
“It might calm me down.”
“I believe it would help me listen for God’s voice more acutely.”
“It would give me more time to reflect on life and my relationships.”
“It will refocus me on what is important in life.”
“I believe it would make more attuned to and available for others.”
“It would deepen my faith.”
“It would give me more focus and energy.”
“When I pray in the morning it sets my day on the right foot.”
“When I pray in the morning, I am more like to pray during the day.”
“I want to grow spiritually.”
“Prayer lowers my anxiety.”
All of these things are true. Prayer does all of these things and more. I believe we would be healthier people, and more spiritually centered if we spent more time in prayer. Some of these comments are self-centered. That’s okay. There are benefits to prayer. Don’t be shamed by that. We can all use more peace and less anxiety in our lives. It’s okay to want that.
The apostle Paul put it this way in Philippians 4:
Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
Isn’t it interesting that Paul connects anxiety and prayer? He understands that prayer does something to us. Mother Teresa understood this as well. She said,
The fruit of silence is prayer
the fruit of prayer is faith
the fruit of faith is love
the fruit of love is service
the fruit of service is peace.
Paul talked about the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. These are the fruits of having a spiritual life. When I ask people if they are growing spiritually they often ask what I mean. I tell them the things of the spirit are those invisible, intangible things in life that are more important than (but not unrelated to) the visible, tangible things. Then I ask them, “Are you a more loving person than you were a year ago? Is there more peace in your life? Are you growing in generosity? Kindness?” If we want to grow spiritually, grow in those nine areas or fruits that Paul mentioned in Galatians, prayer will be our most important tool. In fact, I don’t think one can grow spiritually without prayer.
Prayer also focuses us. We all have so much to do, the temptation to race into our day without reflecting on the bigger picture of the Spirit’s movement and purpose in our lives is nearly irresistible. We tend to operate like Peter, “Ready. Fire. Aim.”
I’ve never seen the quote cited, but Martin Luther was purported to have said, “I have so much to do that if I didn’t spend at least three hours a day in prayer I would never get it all done.” Luther said there was nothing more important for Christians to do than pray.
All the biblical characters prayed. Jesus prayed. He taught his disciples to pray. Augustine said our souls are restless, until they rest in God.
The participants’ comments above, however, are written in a way that suggests the responders don’t take time for prayer. “I believe I would have more peace,” suggests the person is not currently doing it. I have come to believe most people don’t. The truth is I have spoken to pastors who didn’t have much of a prayer life. Honestly, there were many times in my life when my prayer life was dry, or nil.
So how do you get started? You will find it is not as hard as you think.
He said to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.’ For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat.
How to pray
There are many different ways to pray. This is good news, because if the way you are praying now is not working for you, it’s exciting to know that there are a myriad of other forms of prayer you could try. I have found that different forms of prayer work for me in different stages of my life. I would pray one way for a while and then after a time that way would grow dry. I would enter the wilderness, until I grew into a newer, sometimes deeper form of prayer.
In his book “On Becoming a Magical Mystical Bear,” Matthew Fox says that we learn to pray as children, in a formative stage of our lives when we are dependent on our parents for everything, and so our praying tends to be a long blathering litany of all the things that we want, treating God like some celestial Santa Claus. Somewhere in adolescence we become arrested in our spiritual development and never learn to pray as adults.
When I was studying to be a pastor at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus Ohio, we were required to take courses at two other seminaries in town, the Methodist Theological School of Ohio and the Pontifical College Josephinum. The Pontifical College is a seminary that is run directly by the Vatican. While there, I was blessed to get to know numerous professors, sisters and seminary students. One of the courses we took was on spiritual direction. The nun was pretty sharp. She figured out quickly that we did not need a class on spiritual direction; we needed spiritual direction.
She adapted the class to our needs. It was during this time that I learned about the Christian mystics. We learned about monastic forms of prayer. We studied Father Thomas Keating and practiced many forms of centering prayer. I cannot in one article encapsulate that semester that impacted my spiritual life in so many profound ways, but I can lay out a few of the basic forms that are taught to every seminary student there. Let’s go over these briefly, and then we’ll talk about how to get started.
After saying farewell to them, he went up on the mountain to pray.
Classical forms of prayer.
We learned about four classical forms of prayer that emerged and developed over centuries. We were taught them in a slightly different order, but for our purposes here, I will order them like this: oratio, lectio, meditatio and contemplatio. These are, of course, Latin words. They mean, speaking, reading, meditating and contemplating.
Oratio is spoken prayer. This is the most common form of prayer, and what most people think of when they think of prayer. It may be spoken out loud, or in the mind.
When I think of oratio, I think of Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof talking out loud to God as he works, sometimes thanking God for things, but more often than not asking God for things and complaining about things openly. There is strong precedent for this if one reads through the Psalms.
This form of prayer may include some rote prayers, like the Lord’s Prayer. Many Christians pray this prayer daily. There are many classic prayers that are deeply meaningful to Christians. Consider the prayer of St. Francis:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
and where there is sadness, joy…
Alcoholic and others pray the Serenity Prayer, from a 1943 sermon by Reinhold Niebuhr:
God, give me grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
The prayer goes on, with these less known words:
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.
Oratio may include intercessory prayer: prayer for others. My mother to this day keeps a long list of people for whom she prays. I have no doubt that she prays for them daily, and does not take them off until they request it. I have to remember to call her back when things resolve, or else she’ll continue praying about a situation for years. This kind of prayer focuses us on the needs of others. It is very important, but it is just the beginning.
Lectio means reading. It is often referred to today as Lectio Divina. Lectio has gained much popularity in its recent revival. Origen (185-232) encouraged people to read slowly and seek hidden messages from God in the texts. Augustine encouraged Christians to not just consider the literal meaning of the text, but a deeper figurative meaning that could only be grasped through meditating on it. Benedict expected those in his order to read three hours a day.
Reading Scripture is a form of prayer, if we read it not just to study it or put it under a microscope, but to ponder it, and let it shape us. This is an important method for pastors, who are called upon to study texts and explain them to the congregation weekly. Lectio invites us to marinade in the text. Let the text have its way with you.
This often looks like reading a very small portion of Scripture several times with lots of silence. Don’t try to cover a lot of ground. Take one passage or one story, and dwell in the Word. Read it once and choose one word that jumps out at you. Read it again and consider the characters in the story. With whom do you identify? Read it again. If you were to take this story seriously, what would it mean for your life?
In groups sometimes lectio takes the form of a guided meditation. The leader will walk you through the story, asking you to imagine yourself in the scene. Imagine being at the Sermon on the Mount? Where are you sitting? How do you react to the unfolding events? Jesus comes over to you. What does he say to you? How do you feel? What do you do?
This is prayer. It is spending spiritual time listening for God’s voice through Scripture. Consider reading the works of people of faith who have gone before us as well. Agree or disagree, they will make you think.
Meditatio is meditation. Meditation involves a lot less work. I see it as a pathway to contemplation, though some mystics would disagree. Contemplation is pure silence. Anyone who has tried to be silent will immediately notice that the mind wants to continue to function. Many cannot stop the brain from over functioning. Buddhists call this “monkey brain.”
I am a workaholic. So when I reluctantly sit down to pray, my brain goes into overdrive. Many have had this experience. You get off the treadmill of life and finally stop moving and thinking. What then happens is stuff that has been pushed down begins to bubble up. When I start praying the first thing that often comes to my mind are chores I have not completed. Am I overdue for an oil change? When was the last time I replaced the air conditioning filters? Have I made those calls I promised to make? I need to get my taxes done!
This is normal. The problem is I worry that I’ll forget and so I hang onto that thought and cannot enter into silence. One spiritual director I had said to keep a notebook or journal nearby. When these things surface, write them down. Then set the book down and return to silence. It will be there when you are done, so you can let it go.
In meditation the mind will tend to wander, so a mantra is often used. The word “mantra” just means “word.” It is a word or phrase that brings you back. It may be a simple word like, “Jesus.” It may be a phrase or a memorized Bible passage like, “You are the light of the world.” One of my favorites is simply, “Thank you.” The German mystic Meister Eckhardt once said “If the only prayer you ever prayed was, ‘Thank you,’ it would be enough.” Sit in silence. When the mind wanders, use your word or phrase to bring you back to center, then reenter the silence.
The root word of contemplation is the Latin word templum or temple. A temple is a sacred place. Contemplation is entering holy ground. It is simply “being” with God. No words are necessary God is the prayer the spirit is the active party, and we are passive.
When I think of contemplation, I often think of a couple that has been married for 50 years and are comfortable enough to just be together. Words are unnecessary.
Most people cannot do this. Our minds are simply too much of a jumble, too disorganized, too frantic. Many people tell me it is impossible to not think about anything. Perhaps this is so, but contemplation invites us to approach that place where we are simply basking in the joy of God. It invites us not to think about God, but to simply be with God. The mystic draws from actual experiences of God, not what others have written about the Divine.
Before we pull this all together with next steps, one caveat: I don’t want to confuse these ancient forms of prayer with Luther’s method of doing theology. In 1539 he wrote, “Let me show you a right method for studying theology; the one that I have used. In the 119th Psalm you will find three rules, which are abundantly expounded throughout the entire Psalm. They are called: Oratio, Meditatio, Tentatio.” Luther was not teaching on prayer here, but offering a theological methodology. Nevertheless, his addition of tentatio (struggle) is helpful. Others have written on this much more eloquently than I.
Luther understood that we often wrestle with God as Jacob wrestled with the angel. Jesus was quite agitated as he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. Luther’s Theology of the Cross does not allow for a trite understanding of the Christian life. While prayer often leads to peace, we must also at times be prepared to encounter St. John of the Cross’ Dark Night of the Soul.
At daybreak he departed and went into a deserted place. And the crowds were looking for him; and when they reached him, they wanted to prevent him from leaving them.
If you are in doubt, begin with silence. If prayer is understood simplistically as talking with God, then it should be at least 50% listening, right? Probably more. If Tiger Woods was coaching you in golf, would you spend more time talking or listening?
Set aside time in the morning when you can be undisturbed. Start the day off right. Pick a place, and go to the same place every day for a while. After a time, you will find yourself automatically settling to a prayerful state simply but hook to that place. Pick a place where you don’t do other things. Don’t use the kitchen table for example. Light a candle to mark this time and place as a time and place set aside for prayer.
Try this first, but if after a time this doesn’t work for you, try walking. In certain periods of my life walking was central to my prayer life. Most convents have walking paths and labyrinths for walking. If you have times during the day when you have to walk from one place to another, use the time for prayer as well.
Sitting still has some advantages walking does not. It’s easier to read in a comfortable chair. It’s easier to write. You can jot down tasks or thoughts that come to mind. You can have a Bible or devotional books handy.
If you need something new to spark your spiritual life, consider journaling. For years I tried journaling to no avail. It was dry. I have several old journals that I started and abandoned after a few days. Then one day my prayer life was dry and someone suggested journaling. “Simply write, ‘Yesterday’, and then one or two sentences. Then stop and think.” It might have been a CD by Wayne Cordeiro that a local nondenominational pastor friend loaned me. I tried it, and spend the next two years journaling in such a way that my prayer life had never been better.
I would sit on the couch before anyone was up. The dog would get up and snuggle with me. He likes to pray too. I would set out to write two sentences about yesterday, but would end up writing several paragraphs. My thoughts would often move to crises or conflicts I had had the previous day. In writing that was not for anyone else to see I could pour out my feelings honestly and own up to my faults. I could make resolutions to make peace with someone I had wronged, or speak openly to someone who had wronged me. I found myself acting more deliberately and prayerfully. To this day I can go back and read those pages and recall the ups and downs of my growth as a pastor and a person. I grew to cherish this time in the morning, and felt great loss when I missed it.
I used that space to process many decisions. There are pro and con lists in those pages. I used that space to set goals for the year. If in prayer an idea surfaced, I would jot it down. If I read something moving I would write it there. It became a compendium for my best thoughts, and a springboard for many sermons. I would summarize the ideas of writers I was reading. When someone told me they were putting my name in the hat for bishop, I poured out many thoughts at the absurdity of the idea. From those words flowed thoughts about the church in the world — hopes, frustrations, disappointments, dreams — that are foundational for me today.
If you get anything from this I hope that it is an encouragement to pray. I hope you see that there are many different ways to pray. Different personality types pray differently. I’m an extrovert. Extroverts pray differently than introverts, I’ve learned. Know that you will probably pray differently in different stages of life. There will be times when God feels closer than you skin, and times when God is hidden from sight.
Just do it. Make time in your life to pray and forms of prayer will emerge. Explore. Discover new ways to pray, your ways to pray. Listen for the Spirit.
The God of peace who passes all understanding will keep your heart and your mind in Christ Jesus to life everlasting.
“Be still and know that I am God.”
— Psalm 46