Prayer, I think, is right up there on my list as one of the most difficult spiritual disciplines. I’ve always struggled with it. I’m such a do-er that the be-ing aspect of prayer (stillness, quietness, waiting) has always been a struggle for me.
But I’ve also found it easier and easier over the last few years. Not because my personality has changed or I’ve somehow just gotten better at it. Instead, it’s because my understanding of what prayer is has grown, changed, and expanded. I’ve begun to learn, a bit more each day, that prayer is a lot more expansive than the narrow, this-doesn’t-fit-me-well, version of it I’ve so often struggled with.
In Sacred Rhythms Ruth Haley Barton writes that “prayer is all the ways in which we communicate and commune with God.”
Read that again. . .
Aaaaaahhhhh. . . . the freedom here! The invitation! The joy and delight and healing and rest and peace and just-plain-gutsy-real-ness of this kind of prayer.
This certainly does include the prayer of words whispered, kneeling, hands-folded before bed. This certainly does include the praying through a list of requests, the sharing of prayers with others, the quiet listening-and-praying-along of church community prayers.
AND it includes so much more.
For me, communicating with God often takes place in short bursts of thoughts and ideas, and also—as the word-nerd I am—in long scrawling pages of journaling. And the communing–the listening and being with–for me is often what may be more like prayer in disguise. It’s in the quiet moments of falling asleep and being, both soul and body, at rest. It’s in the beauty of nature, glimpsed both in seconds or stretches of time. It’s in the moments with others—laughter, joy, camaraderie, the blessed comfort of human presence. It’s in the belt-it-out worship moments when I sing at full-throttle. It’s in the mind-and-soul wandering that often happens as I listen to sermons . . . playing with ideas about God, dancing through Truth, tossing concepts about, kicking theological tires. I could go on . . . for there are indeed many ways in which I commune with God (many of which would be traditionally defined as “prayer”). What about you? In addition to the regular, disciplined type of prayer—in what other ways do you communicate with or commune with God?
Now, get ready for some more freedom . . .
And here we go. Norwegian pastor Ole Hallesby, in this fantastic little book Prayer, wrote this: “To pray is nothing more involved than to lie in the sunshine of His grace, to expose our distress of body and soul to those healing rays which can in a wonderful way counteract and render ineffective the bacteria of sin.”
Thank you, God, for Ole Hallesby. And thank you even more for this truth!
Prayer is of course what we do. We, in discipline, choose to do the hard work of prayer. But it is ALSO what we simply receive. To pray is to receive and revel in the warming, healing, life-giving love of God. To bathe in His grace.
What joy. What delight. What fulfillment.
. . . and hold your horses, for a minute.
Because, along with all this rosy and profoundly true talk about prayer is another reality we each experience: a lack of fulfillment. A sense of emptiness, of not-quite-full-ness.
And . . . is this OK for me to say, to admit? That as a Christian I am not always profoundly fulfilled? That I do also experience what’s true for all of humanity: a deeper longing?
I think it is . . . and I’m in good company. Lewis talked about this, and Chesterton, and of course Blaise Pascal, who wrote this in Pensees: “What else does this longing and helplessness proclaim, but that there was once in each person a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? We try to fill this in vain with everything around us, seeking in things that are not there the help we cannot find in those that are there. Yet none can change things, because this infinite abyss can only be filled with something that is infinite and unchanging — in other words, by God himself. God alone is our true good.”
In prayer, we experience bits of this filling. We have moments, even seasons, of fullness and satisfaction.
In prayer the true good of God himself pours into us and satisfies us.
It’s a partial filling for now, I think. An already-but-not-yet fullness prefiguring the ultimate satisfaction that will one day come. But it’s better . . . far better . . . than any of the pithy substitutes we attempt to stuff in there.
And so prayer is the communicating.
Prayer is the communing.
And prayer is both the filling and the enduring longing.
The longing that draws us to the ultimate source of goodness that we need.
May it ever, ever draw me on.