You may be reading this because you want to know if what you call prayer is actually prayer, or maybe you’ve never prayed and don't know how to start, or maybe you pray regularly but it feels like hard work and frustrating. You are not alone, we all have moments when it’s tough going and our doubts crowd our minds. I find that prayer is first and foremost about presence - purposefully and mindfully putting ourselves in God’s presence, with all that concerns us, as well as all that we are grateful for; to find a special place, or a special time when we can look outside ourselves and sense ‘the other’, the creator, the Spirit of life, the one we call God.
What the Bible says about Prayer
Quite a lot as it happens! - It doesn't tell us to be on our best behavior, or mind our P’s and Q’s, rather we are invited to speak with God, ‘as with a friend’ (Exodus 33 v11) just as Moses did. Prayer is about honesty, authenticity and just telling God how it is - good, bad, dull, scary, joyful; absolutely everything. The Bible is full of prayers, especially the psalms; they are the heartfelt cries of the people. They reflect every emotion; psalms of praise (e.g. 150) psalms of honesty (139), psalms of thanks (135, 23), psalms of despair (22, 120); sometimes they give us words when our own words seem hard to come by.
The seemingly more daunting reference to prayer is found in St Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians (5 v16) ‘Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances’. How do we pray without ever stopping - especially as most of us struggle to even start? It seems impossible. But prayer isn't always about set words, set times and a structure. In prayer God draws us closer, he gently reminds us of his presence, and then invites us to cooperate. St Paul also gives us help with this, for just as we each get dressed in the morning put on our clothes, and then more or less forget about them; similarly we are invited to ‘put on the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 13v14) and then get on with the day, knowing that God is by our side, guiding us, encouraging us and above all loving us. The bible asks us to enter that deep relationship with God whereby we can treat him as friend and life long companion.
What Jesus says about Prayer
Jesus took prayer seriously, he is frequently depicted as leaving the crowds or disciples and taking himself off to a quiet place, or even the wilderness that surrounds the cities to find space to pray, (Mark 1v35, Matt 14v23) We too may have a quiet space to think and pray - in our gardens, at the kitchen sink, in the bath even.
Jesus’ life is built on a deep personal relationship with his Father, and prayer is the cornerstone. We are invited to make prayer the cornerstone of our lives too. We may need to find a time of day to suit us; maybe early in the morning, on the way to work, maybe at the end of the day to reflect on what was good, where we noticed God, where we ignored God. Jesus shows us that time and space are important; but above all prayer is a deep relationship, where we are open and honest with God, and where we find peace.
The Lord’s Prayer
It is a source of great comfort to those of us who sometime struggle with prayer to know that the Disciples struggled too! They asked Jesus how to pray - they saw that deep relationship between Christ and his Father, and they saw how their own relationship with God was lacking so they asked for help. Jesus’ response is what we call the Lord’s Prayer:
Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name;
thy kingdom come;
thy will be done;
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation;
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
the power and the glory,
for ever and ever.
Jesus broke all the rules of his time and told us we can call God Father or even Dad. This intimacy was revolutionary - and still is. We are to pray also for ‘Thy Kingdom to come’ - we want Earth to become as Heaven (and we are to work for this too). We know we get it wrong and we need forgiveness, and indeed to believe that we ourselves are forgiven; and we need help to forgive others. And we need to praise God and know that his Kingdom is the one we pray for and the one we need - always. Forever. Amen.
But prayer is hard…
Yes! We’ve all had time when we’ve felt ‘in the wilderness’ or like no one is listening - or even just bored! It may be helpful to remember that at any moment of the day or night, millions of people around the world are also seeking to pray. We do not do it alone. When prayer feels dry or tough, we perhaps turn to our friends, our priest or books for advice. But, maybe praying with others, or even just sitting there while they pray (and you try) is enough. Prayer is about relationship and maybe if we pray in relationship with others it will help or unlock the problem. Prayer is not a solitary experience; even when we find ourselves alone!
In these times it may be easier to pray for others than ourselves, it may be that at this moment our prayer has become action and practical help; cooking a meal for someone who’s unwell, volunteering for a task, popping in on someone who’s lonely. Prayer is not just about words, or even feelings - it drives us out into the world to be answers to other people’s prayers too!
Prayers to try
Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
This is the Jesus prayer which is repeated over and over like an internal chant as we seek to be in God’s presence always.
Christ has no body now but yours,
no hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Your are the feet with which he walks to do good, yours are the hands, with which he blesses the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
(Teresa of Avila 1515-1582)