THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 5
Prayer for beginners
We are all learners in the school of prayer. The person who thinks they have arrived is even further behind than most of us. Why are we all learners? It is because prayer is another word for the quality, depth and extent of our communication with God. And none of us ever gets to the end point of that in this world.
What lessons are there to be learned about prayer? Let us try to examine prayer under four headings: Starting, continuing, going deeper, the further reaches.
If we are taught our Christianity in a Christian home – and what a blessing that is – then we may well be taught early on to ‘say our prayers’. As we grow we may well throw off the habit, feeling it means nothing to us. Or we may discover that it does mean something to us and we try to go on praying from time to time. As adults we all have the experience at the beginning of feeling inadequate. That feeling never fully goes! If we let that feeling discourage us in the early days it is a great pity. The essential meaning of the Christian faith is to keep on keeping on. Through famine and plenty, storm and flood, desert and lush valley.
It seems that the experience of wanting to pray is built into the human being. It seems to be an instinct – a heavenly implanted capability. But how do we start when we have not been taught as children?
When you start trying to pray remember that it is a natural activity. There is something in you that is urging you on. It is not contrived, nor artificial – though it may feel like that at times.
The best way in is just to start. Start by talking to God. Make it conversational. Tell him what your joys and sorrows are. Don’t try to dress it up in religious language. Talk as though you were chatting with a friend. Tell him the things that are on your mind. If you can, let there be some pauses, and you might be surprised to find that the apparent monologue turns into a dialogue. The universal experience of Christians down two thousand years is that God comes to us and deals with us at the level we are at – wherever that is. If you want to mention Grandma’s arthritis, then do so. You might even ask for a little relief for her.
The incredibly important rule – and perhaps the only rule – is to be natural. Don’t use stilted language. Don’t try to be religious. Don’t try to remember forms of address (O Almighty God..) or forms of prayer from childhood (Our Father ..) Just act naturally. Don’t worry if you feel awkward. Talk to God as though he was walking or sitting next to you. Say hello and goodbye – and you might want to thank him, if it seems appropriate.
You may want to pick up where you left off last time – or you may have completely forgotten all about your previous conversation and want to just start afresh. Go as you please. Only be real. But over a period of time you will almost certainly find that you fall into a sort of rhythm – perhaps you ask for things, or seek a better attitude. Well, did you get them? Perhaps you asked for things for other people. Did they get them? If your past prayers seem to have been answered in some discernible way, then thank the Lord for the answer. If they did not appear to have been answered, don’t let that put you off. We all have to learn, step by step, why our early prayers are sometimes unanswered. Maybe they will be answered in due course.
Some people write their prayers, or at least keep a note of their requests. And that helps them to thank God when they perceive an answer being given. Sometimes we pray for a thing and then, later, we realize that the answer came in a different way than we expected. That is a sign of growth and maturity in us. It is a sign of our becoming more adept at relating to God, who always acts for our good, but not necessarily for our desires.
You may even find that praying starts to become a little exciting – well, certainly, interesting. You look forward to see what happens after you pray for someone. You may even begin to want to add an extra dimension to your prayer by telling God how wonderful or great or wise you think he is. If so, then just do it. The heavens won’t fall if you get it wrong.
The key thing about continuing is to continue. Especially to continue when you feel least like it. Negative feelings or no feelings at all are part of normal human experience. We all tire of prayer at times. We are human beings. We all decide at times that it isn’t working for us and we may as well give it up. We all wonder at times what the use of prayer is. The key thing is not to stop there. If you do you will arrest your own spiritual development, because the key thing about prayer is to battle on through those dry patches.
Probably about this time you may become aware of other people’s prayers. Either in a church, or at some ceremony or funeral or wedding or whatever. Suddenly you have tapped into the fact that other people are also on this journey into prayer, into God. You begin to appreciate other people’s prayers. You observe how they pray – the words they use, the posture they adopt, the manner of their attitude to God. You may become aware of a rich vein of meaning in what they pray. You look into a person’s soul when you listen to their prayers. You realize that prayer is an access point to a very deep part of you.
From that point on you might take any of many different routes – it is up to you really. You may buy collections of prayer – some books of prayers are a lot better than others so be warned! You may listen to the radio which has slots where prayers are said. You may get more interested in church, where, with luck, you may find real prayer going on. (Even recited prayers in an obsolete language, spoken without any feeling, can sometimes suddenly become alive!) More likely, unfortunately, that you will often find routine prayers or carelessly contrived intellectual efforts at prayer. But among the dross there will be some gold – stick with it!
You may stumble on real treasure – for example, for some people the Prayer Book is a treasury of prayer. Or, perhaps, ‘Celebrating Common Prayer’ by the Franciscans. Suddenly you have struck gold! A rich resource which releases you into a new dimension of prayer. Prayers that express something very deep within you that you didn’t even know was there. As you start to use these, whether they are centuries old or freshly minted prayers, you find a deep resonance with them within you.
You may also come across a prayer group – probably connected to a church. Don’t be put off if some of the praying leaves you cold. That happens in most groups most of the time. But praying in a group is a very special privilege and a great help to one’s own growth in prayer. It is to be highly recommended if you can find the right group.
The further reaches
You are on your own from here on! Again, there are many different paths to choose between. There is meditation – a wonderful experience, where you might take an incident in our Lord’s life and dwell on every aspect of it for a time. There is contemplation – equally mid-blowing - where you quieten your mind and gradually stop the endless churning process of thinking! You learn that silence in God’s presence can be pregnant with meaning for you. If you get into a charismatic group you may even find yourself getting into prayer in an language unknown to you! But such groups are not easily found. Always, of course, there is worship, which includes prayer and is a rich time of giving and receiving.
By this time you will have realized that prayer is an avenue – not the goal. The aim is not to pray well, or with reality – by this time you will know God intimately in your own experience and will value prayer for what it is - a two-way communication channel. What all of prayer is about is knowing God in one’s own experience. That can happen quite quickly or it can take years. Going deeper takes all our lifetime.
Is there any special advice for a gay person? I don’t think so. Before the throne of God we are all equal; we all are forgiven sinners praising God and asking for bread. Our sexuality fades into insignificance before the effulgence of His Glory. What focuses our attention is Christ – through whom we come to the Father and in whose name we pray.
This is only a poor kind of introduction to prayer, but maybe it will stimulate some readers to try again.