Mother Theresa was frequently asked how she managed to face the overwhelming needs day after day. She replied,
“My secret is very simple: I pray. Through prayer I become one in love with Christ.
Prayer is not asking. Prayer is putting oneself in the hands of God, at His disposition, and listening to His voice in the depths of our hearts.”
We are a verbose people. We love words. We love talking. We love expressing things. We love discussing and debating. We love to be heard. And in church the type of prayer that has been modelled in our tradition has been the “talking to God” prayers. Sometimes in church it just seems to me that there are so many words coming at me. Sometimes it feels like too many words, cascading over one another, filling the air space. Sometimes it seems to me that we talk at God, not to God. Sometimes I have even heard from the front the type of prayers that seem directed towards us, the congregants. Who hasn’t heard the ‘advert prayer’ inserted amidst a congregational prayer?
“Oh Lord, we ask and pray that you would nudge people to volunteer for our BBQ supper this Thursday from 5:30 -7:00 where we still have need of people for kitchen help and 10 more salads…”
Silence in church is rare, and uncomfortable for many people. A one-minute pause during a prayer feels like an eternity. We start to shift uncomfortably in our seats, wondering when the pause will be over and we breathe a sigh of relief when the words begin again.
But listen to the words of Henri Nouwen, in describing what he calls “Prayer of the heart”
“For many of us, prayer means nothing more than speaking with God. And since it usually seems to be a quite one-sided affair, prayer simply means talking to God. This idea is enough to create frustration. If I present a problem, I expect a solution; if I formulate a question, I expect an answer; if I ask for guidance, I expect a response. And when it seems, increasingly, that I am talking into the dark, it is not so strange that I soon begin to suspect that my dialogue with God is in fact a monologue.” (pg.72)
“[Our] views on prayer are the product of a culture in which high value is placed on mastering the world through the intellect. The dominating idea has been that everything can be understood and that what can be understood can be controlled. God, too, is a problem that has a solution, and by strenuous efforts of the mind we will find it…. This of course does not mean that the intellect has no place in the life of prayer, or that theological reflection and prayer are mutually exclusive. But we should not underestimate the intellectualism of the mainstream North American church…. How can we possibly expect anyone to find real nurture, comfort, and consolation from a prayer life that taxes the mind and adds one more exhausting activity to the many already scheduled ones?” (pg. 74)
“[In the gospels, the disciples ask Jesus] “Teach us to pray.” And suddenly we become aware that we are being asked to show the way through a region that we do not know ourselves. [In our] prayer life our minds may be filled with ideas of God while our hearts remain far from God. Real prayer comes from the heart.” (pg.75)
Nouwen goes on to explain more about the characteristics of the prayer of the heart that I don’t have time to outline here. I enjoyed his quote from John Climacus:
“When you pray, do not try to express yourself in fancy words, for often it is the simple, repetitious phrases of a little child that our Father in heaven finds most irresistible. Do not strive for verbosity lest your mind be distracted from devotion by a search for words. One phrase on the lips of the tax collector was enough to win God’s mercy; one humble request made with faith was enough to save the good thief. Wordiness in prayer often subject the mind to fantasy and dissipation; single words of their very nature tend to concentrate the mind… ” (pg. 81)
“This is a very helpful suggestion for us, people who depend so much on verbal ability. The quiet repetition of a single word can help us to descend with the mind into the heart… a word or sentence repeated frequently can help us to concentrate, to move to the center, to create an inner stillness and thus to listen to the voice of God. When we simply try to sit silently and wait for God to speak to us, we find ourselves bombarded with endless conflicting thoughts and ideas…. Such a a simple, easily repeated prayer can slowly empty out our crowded interior life and create the quiet space where we can dwell with God... Our choice of words depends on our needs and the circumstances of the moment, but it is best to use words from Scripture.
This way of simple prayer, when we are faithful to it and practice it at regular times, slowly leads us to an experience of rest and opens us to God’s active presence. Moreover, we can take this prayer with us into a very busy day. When, for instance, we have spent 20 minutes in the early morning sitting in the presence of God with the words, “The Lord is my Shepherd” they may slowly build a little nest for themselves in our heart and stay there for the rest of our busy day… The discipline is not directed toward coming to a deeper insight into what it means that God is called our Shepherd, but toward coming to the inner experience of God’s shepherding action in whatever we think, say, or do.” (pg. 82-83)
I love the line about ‘building a nest’ for yourself in the morning by using a simple phrase and sitting with it in the presence of God; a nest you can return to each moment of your busy day.
Perhaps there is one phrase or piece of Scripture that you can hold in your mind and heart today? Maybe something that God has been impressing upon you in the last week, or a part of a devotional that you have read? I believe this ‘prayer of the heart’ takes practise. See if you can even begin with one minute per day. 🙂 That’s about where I have to begin! But I look forward to how this contemplative practise might help me deepen my prayer life and my personal experience of the living Christ, the incarnational reality of Jesus in me.
Quotes taken from The Way of the Heart, by Henri Nouwen. 1981.