Teach us to pray

Once, after the disciples had observed Jesus praying, one of them said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1-13). So he gave them some words, though it wasn’t words they wanted, and though any words could have served as well, even words they already knew.

As observant Jews, the disciples already knew the words and the times and seasons of prayer. They had been steeped in the traditional forms of prayer since childhood. So it wasn’t new words or form or technique they wanted. They saw something in Jesus that was missing in their lives – an authenticity, a depth of being, a sense of himself, a wholeness, a quality of relationship with God and with his place in life. That’s what they wanted.

They were not asking, How can we pray like you? They were asking, How can we have the kind of life you have? How can we live from the depths, as you live from the depths? How can we embody the quality of relationship with God that you embody? So they thought, If we learn to do what you do, maybe we’ll have what you have.

Why do you pray? Last week I asked a few people why they pray, and here are some of their answers. “To clear my mind.” “To release a burden and calm my mind or spirit.” “To get in touch with something within, deeper than words.” “To connect with a center of values around which to make important life choices.” “To overcome challenges and problems.” “To be more awake to life.”

You don’t really want to learn how to pray, I’m guessing; you want the kind and quality of life Jesus experienced in prayer. You want what we all want, what Joseph Campbell described as “an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.” How do we learn that?

We learn it, as you might guess, through a slow, probably life-long process, starting with a simple prayer, one you might have memorized as a child – “Now I lay me down to sleep . . . ,” for example – or with words you might read from a prayer book or a worship program. Then you learn to take the words into a deeper place in your life and to pray with your heart as well as your mind. With discipline and practice, you might grow into prayer that prays itself unconsciously, like your pulse or your breathing. Eventually you might empty yourself of all images, hopes, and desires, and simply rest quietly in the lap of silence, listening until you hear the “sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:12) that is the voice of God itself.

Ultimately, prayer is not something we do; it is something God does. When we don’t know how to pray, St. Paul wrote, God prays for us, searching our hearts and praying in us with sighs too deep for words (Rom. 8:26-27). The art of prayer is to pay attention to the Spirit of God that is praying in us and for us. It is to throw ourselves into the arms of the Spirit and let the Spirit have its way with us.

That may seem a pretty precarious way to live, giving up control so completely to something that remains such a mystery, but that’s what prayer is, finally. The nature of prayer is found in the word itself, which comes from the Latin precarius, which also gives us our word “precarious.” It means “given as a favor” or “depending on the favor of another person,” and it relates to the idea of being given something at the pleasure of another person, who might at any time choose to take it back.

To pray is to depend completely on God’s grace, without any effort to make God fit our expectations, do our will, or produce what we desire, dying to ourselves so that we can live for God alone. To pray is to dive into the life God is giving us and to do it in a way that leaves us depending completely on God’s volition.

Setting out on a journey of prayer is like getting into a very small boat and setting out on the ocean to search for unknown lands. It will be a journey of adventure and exhilaration and, yes, at times fear. For all we know, when we get to the horizon of the life we have known, we may drop off the edge of the world. But like all explorers, those who would truly pray are drawn to discover what’s waiting out there, without knowing if we have the courage to face it. (Adapted from Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times [Boulder, Colo.: Shambala, 2016])

The old Irish monks sometimes felt called to a particular kind of journey called a peregrinatio, which was a pilgrimage for the love of Christ without a destination in mind. They would step into a small boat called a coracle, without oar or rudder, and let the current carry them wherever it would until they finally came to their place of resurrection. If we would have the life Jesus had, the abundant life he offers, we must be ready to cast off from the familiar and be carried on currents of grace toward a radical, direct encounter with God that we cannot control. That’s true prayer, no matter what words we may learn to use.

Questions for Reflection

  1. What was the first prayer you remember learning as a child? Who taught it to you? How did you feel when you said the prayer?
  2. How has your prayer changed over the years? How has your concept of God changed? How does your prayer life today reflect your ideas of God?
  3. Why do you pray? What do you seek when you pray?
  4. What happens when you pray? How do you experience your prayers answered? What is happening when your prayers seem to be unanswered?
  5. When we are weak and don’t know how to pray, the Spirit helps us and intercedes for us “with sighs too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26). Think about your deepest yearning, the one that is difficult to put into words. How might giving attention to that yearning bring you closer to God?
  6. Our words “pray” and “precarious” both come from the same Latin root, precarius, “depending on the will or pleasure of another.” What does this say to you about the nature of prayer? About the nature of God? About what God wants from you?

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