The Practice of Prayer

There is a condition of looking for something without knowing what we are looking for, or even that we are looking for anything at all. Augustine called it restlessness. Jesus described it as a thing that we would ask for if we knew to ask for it. It is a thirst for living water that will quench all thirst. All religions give witness to this act of reaching out. Jesus taught us to reach out by calling upon God in prayer. Prayer is not just one act among many. It works directly on that essential thirst that can only be satisfied in God.

With this episode I’d like to talk about some things I’ve been studying about prayer. This may be one of the most practical topics I’ve ever gotten into since it’s essentially about a practice, something that you do. We can talk about it and reflect on it, which is what I’ll be doing here. But prayer is ultimately a spiritual practice. Theology can certainly be theoretical and intellectual. And that’s something that I really like about it. But I always try to remember something that Evagrius Ponticus (345 – 399) said about theology: “A theologian is one who prays, and one who prays is a theologian.”

I try to live my life in imitation of Christ and one thing that stands out to me in the scriptures is that Jesus prayed. And I think this is very significant. In his book Jesus of Nazareth Pope Benedict XVI said:

“Again and again the Gospels note that Jesus withdrew ‘to the mountain’ to spend nights in prayer ‘alone’ with his Father. These short passages are fundamental for our understanding of Jesus; they lift the veil of mystery just a little; they give us a glimpse into Jesus’ filial existence, into the source from which his action and teaching and suffering sprang. This ‘praying’ of Jesus is the Son conversing with the Father; Jesus’ human consciousness and will, his human soul, is taken up into that exchange, and in this way human ‘praying’ is able to become a participation in this filial communion with the Father.” (7)

As is typical with Benedict, he packs a lot into very condensed passages. Three points stand out to me here about Jesus’ practice of prayer.

1. It is fundamental for our understanding of him.

2. It is the source from which his action and teaching and suffering sprang.

3. Our prayer is a way of participating in the communion that Jesus has with the Father.

That prayer was something fundamental to Jesus’ behavior and identity was apparently something that his disciples noticed as well. On one occasion after he returned from prayer they asked him to instruct them.

“And it came to pass, that, as he was praying in a certain place, when he ceased, one of his disciples said unto him, Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples.” (John 11:1, KJV)

And we have many examples in the Gospels of Jesus teaching about prayer and how to pray, especially in Luke.

As I’ve reflected on prayer I keep sensing its great importance. It’s such a simple thing. And we even tend to dismiss it as insignificant. Like many things, the phrase “thoughts and prayers” is politicized and maybe that’s an apt indicator of our attitudes about prayer, that it’s something empty and ineffectual. And it’s certainly true that prayer can be empty and vain. Jesus even said as much (Matthew 6:5-8). But I actually believe that sincere prayer, far from being empty and ineffectual, is actually the most important thing that we can do. If we want to change the world, starting especially with changing ourselves, we must pray.

Prayer touches on the fundamental issues of who we are and what we exist for. Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430) said to God in his Confessions, “You have made us for Yourself.” Why do we exist? We exist for God. That’s not what most of us think. We may think we exist for any number of other things, or nothing at all. We could say, as Jesus said to Martha, that we “are worried and troubled about many things” (Luke 10:41, NKJV). Ultimately all of these things, all our desires, interests, projects, and concerns are imperfect reflections of the most fundamental and innate desire for our creator and sustainer. But we often don’t know that that’s what we’re looking for, or even that we’re looking for anything at all.

Each of us is, in many ways, the Samaritan woman at the well to whom Jesus said:

“If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.” (John 4:10, NKJV)

What an interesting hypothetical. You would be asking for something. You’re not asking for it now. But you would ask for it if you knew about it. It’s this fascinating situation where we’re looking for something without knowing what we are looking for or even that we are looking for anything at all.

I think this is an apt description of the human condition generally. There’s this kind of generalized discontent and incompleteness to our existence. Augustine called it restlessness.

“You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” 

I think a scripturally appropriate term would be thirst. Jesus described the object of this thirst as “living water”:

“Whoever drinks of this water [meaning literal, physical water] will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.” (John 4:13-14, NKJV)

This living water is both our source and purpose. It’s the culmination of all our longing but we know, both from scripture and just from experience, that the challenges of finding it are significant. Paul said we seek in the hope that we might grope for and find the Unknown God, even “though He is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:27, NKJV)  Paul also acknowledged that prayer itself is difficult: “We do not know what we should pray for as we ought” (Romans 8:26, NKJV)

In my conversations with fellow Christians we’ve shared this experience that prayer can be difficult. We don’t feel like we’re doing it right or that we’re making that spiritual connection with God. That’s a common experience and has been from the beginning. But we have help. Paul said:

“Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.” (Romans 8:26, NKJV)

It seems appropriate and perfect to me that the Spirit would intercede for our nondescript, generalized restlessness for the Unknown God with unutterable groanings. Even if we don’t know what we’re looking for or that we’re looking for anything at all the Spirit can intercede and act on this most vague longing with groanings which cannot be uttered.

Something that I’ve found helpful in the practice of prayer is making use of the different forms of prayer from the Christian tradition. The Catechism of the Catholic Church identifies three major expressions of the life of prayer in the Christian tradition (2699, 2721):

Vocal Prayer


Contemplative Prayer

I find that one or the other of these three expressions of prayer is often most suitable at certain times. I think that sometimes we find prayer difficult because we only know of one form. And even though that one form may be very suitable in many situations it might not be most suitable in others. I’ve found it helpful to weave these three forms together in my practice of prayer.

I tend to think of these three expressions of prayer as sitting on a spectrum of expressibility and expressive content. Vocal prayer is most characterized by expressible content in the sentences that we speak. Contemplative prayer mostly transcends anything that can be expressed in words. And meditation, centering mostly in the words scripture and the life of Christ, sits between vocal prayer and contemplative prayer in its degree of expressibility.

The first major expression of prayer in the Christian tradition is vocal prayer. There are a couple things that strike me about Jesus’s teachings about vocal prayer. And I think they’re related. The first is that in our petitions we must have faith. The second is that we should be relentless in our petitions. I think those two things are related. And they strike me because I don’t feel like I live in an age and culture where we really believe in miracles, especially not to a degree that we would pursue them relentlessly in our prayers. Part of that may be our secularism. And part of it may be a concern that relentlessness would be irreverently presumptuous. But Jesus seemed to have precious little concern about presumptuousness. Consider the following parable:

“Then He spoke a parable to them, that men always ought to pray and not lose heart, saying: There was in a certain city a judge who did not fear God nor regard man. Now there was a widow in that city; and she came to him, saying, Get justice for me from my adversary. And he would not for a while; but afterward he said within himself, Though I do not fear God nor regard man, yet because this widow troubles me I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me. Then the Lord said, Hear what the unjust judge said. And shall God not avenge His own elect who cry out day and night to Him, though He bears long with them? I tell you that He will avenge them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He really find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:1-8, NKJV)

Jesus was insistent that God is the most disposed to grant petitions for those who seek after them.

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!” (Matthew 7:7-12, NKJV)

I’m struck by the directness and complete lack of qualification in these teachings. But if you’re like me you have doubts that it can really be so straightforward. Why? Because we’ve all had the experience that Jesus’s disciples had, where we pursued a miracle that didn’t come:

“Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, Why could we not cast it [the demon] out? So Jesus said to them, Because of your unbelief; for assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, Move from here to there, and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you. However, this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting.” (Matthew 17:19-21, NKJV)

We’ve all had this experience. We pray for something and we don’t get it. I’ve even considered this an important spiritual developmental step, moving from a more naive conception of God to one that’s more sophisticated, where we can appreciate the various reasons that our petitions in prayer might not be granted. But I’m coming around to question that. I wonder if we’re too quick in our sophistication to enable underdeveloped faith.

This is why I think prayer, far from being vain and ineffectual, is the most important thing we can do. We need, as individuals and as societies and nations, things that we cannot produce on our own. We need God to intervene. There are societies and sub-cultures where these things do happen, where people expect, pursue, and receive miracles. God knows how to give good gifts to his children.

The second major expression of prayer in Christian tradition is meditation. Meditation might not be something we popularly associate with Christianity but it’s definitely part of the tradition. It’s often facilitated by texts of scripture and devotional writings. Also visual arts like icons. Lectio divina is one venerable practice of reading scripture for the special purpose of focusing and meditating on it in prayer. I often use one of the Psalms for this purpose. Events from the life of Christ are also very powerful. 

The Rosary is a classic example of a practice of prayer that is focused on events from the life of Christ. Each cycle of the Rosary goes through five “Mysteries” from the life of Christ.

The Joyful Mysteries are:

  • The Annunciation
  • The Visitation
  • The Nativity
  • The Presentation in the Temple
  • The Finding in the Temple

The Sorrowful Mysteries are

  • The Agony in the Garden
  • The Scourging at the Pillar
  • The Crowning with Thorns
  • The Carrying of the Cross
  • The Crucifixion and Death

The Glorious Mysteries are

  • The Resurrection
  • The Ascension
  • The Descent of the Holy Spirit
  • The Assumption
  • The Coronation of Mary

The Luminous Mysteries are

  • The Baptism of Christ in the Jordan
  • The Wedding Feast at Cana
  • Jesus’ Proclamation of the Coming of the Kingdom of God
  • The Transfiguration
  • The Institution of the Eucharist

We can read the accounts of these events in scripture and learn about their contents. But in meditative prayer we can go deeper into them to be moved and edified by them. As an example, concerning the mystery of the Carrying of the Cross, Bishop Robert Barron remarked that, “Carrying the cross must become the very structure of the Christian life.” This idea has had a profound impact on me as I’ve meditated on it.

Something I enjoy about scripture is that it’s very intellectually challenging and stimulating. And interdisciplinary. It involves topics of history, philosophy, and linguistics. I think that’s wonderful. But I think there’s sometimes a temptation to compete over who can be the most knowledgeable about the content of scripture. I don’t think that serves the purposes of scripture at all. In The Imitation of Christ Thomas à Kempis (1380 – 1471) warned: “If you wish to derive profit from your reading of Scripture, do it with humility, simplicity, and faith; at no time use it to gain a reputation for being one who is learned.” (Book I, Chapter V) Rather, Thomas said: “Let it then be our main concern to meditate on the life of Jesus Christ.” (Book I, Chapter I)

In addition to meditation of the life of Christ I cannot speak highly enough about the edifying influence of the Psalms. I’ve said at times, and I still think it’s true, that the fastest way to learn about the narrative arc of the Old Testament is to read 1 Samuel through 2 Kings. And of course those four books are books of holy scripture, so well worth reading. But I think now that the most direct path into the spiritual world of the Old Testament is in the Psalms. I admit that I didn’t always appreciate them and couldn’t get into them. Maybe I wasn’t ready for them. But I really appreciate them now. Sometimes if I find it difficult to get into prayer the Psalms are a great way to get started, to get into the right frame of mind.

To paraphrase Ecclesiastes (3:1), there is a Psalm for every season.

Psalms of joy:

“O how love I thy law! it is my meditation all the day.” (Psalm 119:97, KJV)

“How sweet are thy words unto my taste! yea, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (Psalm 119: 103, KJV)

“Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” (Psalm 119:103, KJV)

“Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord. Praise ye the Lord.” (Psalm 150:6, KJV)

Psalms of grief and frustration:

“How long wilt thou forget me, O Lord? for ever? how long wilt thou hide thy face from me?” (Psalm 13:1, KJV)

“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1)

And Psalms of reflection:

“When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?” (Psalm 8:3-4, KJV)

“One thing have I desired of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to enquire in his temple.” (Psalm 27:1, KJV)

In his book Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI said: “The Psalms are words that the Holy Spirit has given to men; they are God’s Spirit become word.” (131) Speaking about the Psalms and the Lord’s Prayer he remarks that certain formulaic prayers like these can help us to get started in prayer and in approaching God.

“Our prayer can and should be a wholly personal prayer. But we also constantly need to make use of those prayers that express in words the encounter with God experienced both by the Church as a whole and by individual members of the Church… In the formulaic prayers that arose first from the faith of Israel and then from the faith of praying members of the Church, we get to know God and ourselves as well. They are a ‘school of prayer’ that transforms and opens up our life… Normally, thought precedes word; it seems to formulate the word. But praying the Psalms and liturgical prayer in general is exactly the other way around: The word, the voice, goes ahead of us, and our mind must adapt to it. For on our own we human beings do not ‘know how to pray as we ought’ (Rom 8:26) – we  are too far removed from God, he is too mysterious and too great for us. And so God has come to our aid: He himself provides the words of our prayer and teaches us to pray. Through the prayers that come from him, he enables us to set out toward him; by praying together with the brothers and sisters he has given us, we gradually come to know him and draw closer to him.” (130-131)

The third major expression of prayer in the Christian tradition is contemplative prayer. This is the form of prayer that I think of as being the furthest on the spectrum away from expressibility and expressive content. In the Eastern Christian tradition it’s sometimes called “hesychasm”, derived from the Greek hesychia (ἡσυχία), meaning “stillness, rest, quiet, or silence”. Another descriptive term is “apophatic”, from the Greek apophēmi (ἀπόφημι), meaning “to deny”, which is characterized by negative content rather than positive content. I sometimes think of it as empty space into which the Spirit can freely enter. 

Perhaps appropriately some of the greatest spiritual writers in this tradition are anonymous (or pseudonymous). One lived sometime in the 5th or 6th century, writing under the pseudonym Dionysius, whose major work was On The Divine Names. Another was an English writer living sometime in the 14th century, whose major work was The Cloud of Unknowing.

Contemplative prayer is the most unexpressible form of prayer, but it often still involves single words or phases, similar to a mantra in Indian religious traditions. In The Cloud of Unknowing the author instructs that we should use one word of just one syllable in which to enfold our intent:

“If you like, you can have this reaching out, wrapped up and enfolded in a single word. So as to have a better grasp of it, take just a little word, of one syllable rather than of two; for the shorter it is the better it is in agreement with this exercise of the spirit. Such a one is the word ‘God’ or the word ‘love.’ Choose which one you prefer, or any other according to your liking – the word of one syllable that you like the best. Fasten this word to your heart, so that whatever happens it will never go away. This word is to be your shield and your spear, whether you are riding in peace or in war. With this word you are to beat upon this cloud and this darkness about you. With this word you are to strike down every kind of thought under the cloud of forgetting.” (Chapter VII, James Walsh edition)

Other contemplatives haven’t necessarily restricted themselves to one word alone but have also used phrases. The most notable example, especially in Eastern Christianity, is the Jesus Prayer. The Jesus Prayer is this:

“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

The scriptural roots of this prayer are in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican in Luke 18:9-14.

“And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’” (NKJV)

Paul, in his first letter to the Thassolonians, counseled to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). The Jesus Prayer is traditionally thought to be a prayer that a person can eventually learn to pray continually at every moment. In the 19th century Russian text, The Way of a Pilgrim, the pilgrim learns to pray without ceasing by incorporating the Jesus Prayer into his very breath.

“Begin bringing the whole prayer of Jesus into and out of your heart in time with your breathing, as the Fathers taught. Thus, as you draw your breath in, say, or imagine yourself saying, ‘Lord Jesus Christ,’ and as you breathe again, ‘have mercy on me.’ Do this as often and as much as you can, and in a short space of time you will feel a slight and not unpleasant pain in your heart, followed by a warmth. Thus by God’s help you will get the joy of self-acting inward prayer of the heart.”

I have found the Jesus Prayer to be the most powerful prayer for my practice of contemplation.

The Cloud of Unknowing invites what I interpret to be an inversion in perspective and attitude toward the experience of unknowing. Usually we want to know things but when we approach God in his infinity we find ourselves unable to comprehend him because he exceeds our comprehension. But this very experience of unknowability is itself a form of knowledge. It is in this cloud of unknowing that we must dwell.

“This darkness and cloud is always between you and your God, no matter what you do, and it prevents you from seeing him clearly by the light of understanding in your reason, and from experiencing him in sweetness of love in your affection. So set yourself to rest in this darkness as long as you can, always crying out after him whom you love. For if you are to experience him or to see him at all, insofar as it is possible here, it must always be in this cloud and in this darkness. So if you labour at it with all your attention as I bid you, I trust, in his mercy, that you will reach this point.” (Chapter III)

In scripture the cloud is often where we find and hear the voice of God.

“While he was still speaking, behold, a bright cloud overshadowed them; and suddenly a voice came out of the cloud.” (Matthew 17:5, NKJV)

“Now the glory of the Lord rested on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days. And on the seventh day He called to Moses out of the midst of the cloud. The sight of the glory of the Lord was like a consuming fire on the top of the mountain in the eyes of the children of Israel. So Moses went into the midst of the cloud and went up into the mountain.” (Exodus 24:16-18, NKJV)

The cloud is not an easy place to be. It requires practice and conditioning. As the author says, “So set yourself to rest in this darkness as long as you can”.

The author also counsels that such contemplation is the one act that it is not possible to pursue to excess.

“If you ask me the further question, how you are to apply discretion in this exercise, I answer and say, ‘none at all!’ In all your other activities you are to have discretion, in eating and drinking, in sleeping, and in protecting your body from the extremes of heat and cold, in the length of time you give to prayer or reading or to conversation with your fellow-Christians. In all these things you are to observe moderation, avoiding excess and defect. But in this exercise there is no question of moderation; I would prefer that you should never leave off as long as you live.” (Chapter 41)

Not only is excess of contemplation not a possibility or a problem. Unrestrained indulgence in contemplation also rightly orders the soul in regards to all other things, such that they are not taken to excess, but in proper measure.

“Now perhaps you will ask how you shall observe prudence in eating and sleeping and everything else. My answer to this is brief enough: ‘Understand it as best you can.’ Work at this exercise without ceasing and without moderation, and you will know where to begin and to end all your other activities with great discretion. I cannot believe that a soul who perseveres in this exercise night and day without moderation should ever make a mistake in any of his external activities.” (Chapter 42)

Why might this be? The Catechism says, “Contemplation is a gaze of faith, fixed on Jesus.” (2715) With a gaze fixed on Christ all other things become rightly ordered and proportioned. As Jesus said:

“But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” (Matthew 6:33, KJV)

I think this coheres with what I said earlier about how I believe prayer is the most important thing we can do. Because prayer, especially prayer of contemplation focuses our gaze singly on Christ. Jesus said to Martha: “You are worried and troubled about many things.” (Luke 10:41, NKJV) That’s all of us. The Greek word merimnao (μεριμνάω), to be anxious, is a word I always pay close attention to in the New Testament when I see it. It occurs a number of times in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6: me merimnate (μὴ μεριμνᾶτε), do not worry. “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink; nor about your body, what you will put on… For your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.” (Matthew 6:25; 32-33, NKJV) As Jesus said to Martha: “One thing is needed.” (Luke 10:42, NKJV) That one thing is the gaze of faith, fixed on Jesus in prayer.