Take this week, for example, as I found it particularly difficult to pray. I was having trouble quieting down, I couldn’t focus well on what I was reading, and even my journaling felt a bit too forced. After a couple mornings of this, I realized that my attempts to try harder were only making matters worse. We all experience something like this from time to time.
Prayer is a way of saying “yes” to these kinds of invitations to deeper relationship with God. Robert Michel writes, “Prayer is opening yourself in such a way that sometime–perhaps not today, but sometime–you are able to hear God say to you: ‘I love you.’ ” (quoted in Ronald Rolheiser’s Sacred Fire, p. 181). I am convinced that when we live our lives out of that place of being God’s beloved, that divine grace and love spills out into the world.
A Little About Grace
While it is perfectly within God’s prerogative to communicate the Gospel in any way God chooses, Christians have come to trust that in the Word and Sacraments, especially, God communicates a love that sets free. When we come together for worship, we are gathering together around those means of grace.
Luther taught that a person is well prepared to receive the Lord’s Supper when she/he has faith in the words “Given and shed for you.” In my experience, prayer very often relates to that Sunday dialogue—“For me, really?” And, as prayer flows into and out of the Eucharistic gathering, prayer also relates to the Monday through Saturday question–“Now what?”
As we take up those questions, we rely on the work of the Spirit as it is described in the meaning to the Apostle’s Creed—the Spirit calls, enlightens and sanctifies. Praying grace-fully, then, is submitting to the ongoing process of being strengthened and renewed to live out our callings in the world.
What Does Praying Grace-Fully Look Like?
To practice being open to the Gospel, some journal, take walks, or sit outside. Some read one passage of Scripture while others read whole books. Some pray prayers written by others, follow morning prayer and evening prayer, sing hymns, listen to music, or make art.
In this harried week, I myself had to put down the books and the journal and go outside for walks. I needed a full-bodied way to let the busyness of my mind move out of my heart and I found the beautiful spring days along the lake shores to be just the word of grace the Creator was ready to speak.
What helps your whole self tune in to the Gospel? What helps you linger with the sense of grace and mercy you experience Sundays in the Word and Sacrament? The answer may be different for every one of us, but 1,500 years of practice at prayer suggests that the Benedictine monastic tradition might suggest some essential elements:
- Begin in solitude with God. Consider Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s masterful framework for his text Life Together: The Day Alone, The Day Together, Ministry. It reflects the monastic conviction that community and ministry are rooted in quiet before God.
- Slow it down. What helps you counter the relentless push of the day or awakens you from the humdrum? Stay with it long enough to let it speak.
- Trust God with the truth. The well-known Cistercian Thomas Merton gives us courage to pray even our uncertainties when he offered his own prayer of vulnerability: “I do not see the road ahead of me. / I cannot know for certain where it will end . . .” (Thoughts In Solitude)
This way of praying grace-fully is instinctual for Christian disciples. When I asked my eleven-year-old daughter what she would say about praying gracefully, she said, “Dad, it’s as simple as going to your room, closing the door, and saying whatever you need to say to God.” With that, she nailed two of the preceding three points. You can pray grace-fully. You likely already do: Be alone with God. Slow down. Feel free to speak even your uncertainties in prayer.
2. See if any of these passages invite you to linger with them....
- Matthew 5:44 — “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
- Matthew 6:5-6 — “Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others . . . Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father in secret.”
- Luke 11:1 — “Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray . . .” (Jesus then gives the disciples the Lord’s Prayer)
- Romans 8:26 — “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”
- 1 Thessalonians 5:17 — “Pray without ceasing.”
3. Sometimes people ask if they are praying “rightly.”
- Is your prayer moving Christ-ward? (Deepening relationship with Christ?)
- Is it ultimately integrating the personal and communal? (Deepening relationship with others?)
- Is it sustained and sustaining? (A regular and natural form of prayer for you that undergirds the lifelong journey of being called, enlightened and strengthened?)