The Spiritual Practice of Prayer… Prayer may be the first thing that comes to mind when we talk about spiritual practices. And it should be – prayer is the oxygen of our life as Christians. Without prayer in our lives we are merely observers of a relationship with God rather than participants.
Why do I say that?… As in any relationship, our relationship with God can never grow if there is not some level of communication. Prayer is that means of communication with God and when we pray, we know that we speak directly to God without the need for any human intermediary. God longs for our attention and acceptance of the love offered us through Christ. Our response to that love offering, as in any human love relationship, is a desire to be in the presence of our loved one and to communicate that love. Prayer communicates our love to God and is therefore our most important spiritual practice: “In order to be effective, prayer has to be the first thing we do, not the last” (Eugene Peterson).
How can we deepen our prayer lives?… An important aspect of prayer to remember is that it is a dialogue, not a monologue. Prayer is not just bringing God our list of needs or wants; it is not just us doing all the talking. Imagine a human relationship where one person did all the talking and never listened to the other. That is a relationship doomed to fail. A loving, growing relationship is one where both parties listen attentively to each other as much as they speak. But listening in prayer is not something that we are taught much about in Sunday School or Church. We learn to say the Lord’s Prayer, we may learn how to pray using ACTS (adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication), we may learn the Jesus Prayer as adults, and all of these are valuable ways of praying. But we are not taught much about listening. Indeed, even in our worship services, there is little opportunity given for listening to God in prayer. Listening as a community of faith is as important as listening individually.
How do we listen in prayer?… Two key aspects of listening in prayer are intention and silence.
Without intention, listening may never happen and our well-worn habit of talking for all of our designated prayer time will take over. One key to developing the intention to listen is to ask God to lay that desire on our heart. Jesus said to Bartimeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51 NIV). Now imagine that Jesus is talking to you – ask for help listening to God and know that your prayer will be answered! Time management is another way to set an intention: make sure to allocate as much time during prayer for listening as for talking. It may be best to end your prayer time with listening: after you have laid your concerns in God’s hands, wait for His response. Learn to listen. Practice listening. It will get easier.
Silence is essential for listening and God explicitly commands us to be in silence: “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10, NIV). But this is something our culture does not do well. We have lost the habit of silence and even the capacity for silence. It has become a stranger in our everyday lives, something that makes most people uncomfortable. But, “Silence is God’s first language; everything else is a poor translation,” (Thomas Keating). When we practice silence, we become aware of our interiority, our heart, and this nakedness of our soul, free from distraction, can become an offering to God as well as an opportunity to hear what God is saying to us. We will need to practice silence, to retrain our brains and become comfortable with hearing our internal noise. As we have to regularly use atrophied muscles after injury or surgery to rebuild their strength, we may need to regularly use our muscle of silence in order to feel comfortable with it. When we have become attuned to silence, it will be easier for us to hear God.
Finally, prayer is powerful. When we pray we actively step into God’s presence, open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit, and allow God to work in us. As Henri Nouwen said, “Prayer is not what is done by us, but rather what is done by the Holy Spirit in us.” As Christians, we are vessels of God’s blessing to others; we are meant to be salt and bearers of light and we cannot do this without the power of the Holy Spirit. Prayer is a way of allowing the Holy Spirit to bring about God’s kingdom on earth, now, through us.
“God speaks in the silence of the heart. Listening is the beginning of prayer.” —Mother Teresa.
Questions for Reflection… How is your spiritual practice of prayer? Is listening in prayer a new practice for you? Have you experienced hearing God in your prayer time?
Eugene Peterson, The Message Devotional Bible Thomas Keating, Invitation to Love: The Way of Christian Henri Nouwen, Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life