Prayer Is Boring. But We Need Boredom… And Prayer

 

Considering that digital formation, often through our phones and social media, either fills our minds with thoughts or prevents us from facing our thoughts in silence, spiritual formation frees us from the constant chatter of our thoughts and trains us to let go of them.

Whether we are meditating on the life-giving words of Scripture or waiting in silence before God, spiritual formation relies on disengaging from the constant flow of chaotic ideas that create a reactive mind that struggles to focus on prayer. In addition, once we have stepped away from this stream of ideas, we also need to let go of the ones that we have fixated on.

The thoughts lodged in our minds prevent us from perceiving ourselves and God’s presence clearly. The more we are engaged in stimulation and ideas, the less space we’ll have to thoughtfully review our days and to let go of what Martin Laird calls “afflictive thoughts.”

These thoughts can fill our minds to the point that we fail to realize God is present, or we remain boxed in by our illusions about ourselves or God. By sitting in silence, releasing our thoughts gently, and creating space for God, we can gain greater clarity through simple contemplative practices. Laird writes:

“Contemplative practice gradually dispels the illusion of separation from God. Through the medicine of grace, the eye of our heart is healed by the gradual removal of the lumber of mental clutter, ‘the plank in our eye’ that obscures the radiance of the heart. This radiance is a ray of God’s own light.”*

This letting go of thoughts is not a spectacular or brand-new, cutting-edge spiritual practice. This isn’t the sort of thing spiritual gurus do onstage to the applause of the crowd. It is an ancient spiritual practice of letting go of our thoughts and illusions that can blind us to the brilliance of God—even if the practice often feels quite unspectacular on most days.

Howard Thurman shares how the unspectacular waiting in silence, releasing each thought as it comes, is the kind of space that God can work with in our lives:

“It is in the waiting, brooding, lingering, tarrying timeless moments that the essence of the religious experience becomes most fruitful. It is here that I learn to listen, to swing wide the very doors of my being, to clean out the corners and the crevices of my life—so that when His Presence invades, I am free to enjoy His coming to Himself in me.”**

If smartphones and social media ensure that we never have to wait in boredom, that we can always find a source of stimulation, and that we never have to be alone with our thoughts, we are training ourselves to fail in spiritual formation. In fact, our devices are stealing an important element of a typical prayer experience.

Put bluntly, prayer is often quite simple and mundane, and even boring. It may include incredible encounters with God or moments of powerful transformation, but the day-in, day-out discipline of prayer is rarely exciting or even rewarding. Prayer even thrives in the boredom of its simple routines and practices.

 

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*Martin Laird, An Ocean of Light: Contemplation, Transformation, and Liberation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019), 58.

**Thurman, Essential Writings, 45.

What Makes It Hard to Stand Still?

Perhaps the strangest paradox of modern life is that it can feel harder to stand still and do nothing than it is to remain in motion doing something.

Shouldn’t “doing nothing” be the easiest thing to “do”?

I have often experienced this sensation while taking a walk and stopping to look at a flowering tree or noticing a particular swirl of light in the late afternoon sky. There’s often something else to do or an inner drive to be productive–to keep moving.

I’ve watched several documentaries where monks are staring contentedly at fields where the sun rustles the corn, where monks settle in at a desk to read scripture for long stretches of time, or where a monk calmly works on a task such as cutting fire wood or making soap. These people may as well be from a different planet compared to me.

How are they so unhurried and calm?

What super power enables them to sit or stand so still and so erect for so long?

Do they drink less coffee???

My suspicion is that I have immersed myself in motion, productivity, and meeting certain goals that appear quite important. I find it difficult to stop each day for meditation, prayer, or silence before God because I’m immersed in illusions about my own importance or the urgency of everything before me.

Training myself to value silence or to thrive in stillness has challenged me to rethink my addiction to motion and activity.

Perhaps I won’t get what I crave if I’m always thinking about doing the next thing?

What exactly do I crave in the first place?

That’s where some uncomfortable reflections come up!

It may be easier to reflect on what I could gain if I made stillness and silence a more regular part of my daily life.

For instance, I have managed to train myself to recognize when I’m not getting enough stillness and silence. I know the feeling of rush, despair, and disordered thoughts that comes with an addiction to hurry and doing.

I can feel my soul lurching forward with the shock of a stop, as if silence is slamming on the brakes in my life.

Yet, when I am grounded in a measure of silence and stillness, I can become more aware of God and more aware of how I’m spending my time.

I can ask if I’m using my phone or social media to check out from reality. I can ask if I need to add more life-giving activities to my day, such as a walk, some art, or a bit of reading.

Perhaps the thing that makes standing still so difficult is that I haven’t realized just how beneficial it could be for me to stop doing things. It would be a tragedy to get everything I’ve been striving to achieve with my activity only to realize I could find most of what I need if I set aside more time for silence.

The Prayer of the Heart vs. Prayer as Mental Therapy

Silent, contemplative prayer has been calming  for my mind, but it’s not the same as going to therapy. I’m not a therapist, but I’ve spent enough time in a therapist’s office to know what kinds of practices can help calm my mind.

There are some ways that prayer and therapy can overlap, as both can lead us to simple phrases or insights that help us re-order our thoughts. As we let go of toxic thoughts, a prayer phrase or word can aid us on our journey. Throughout my time in therapy, I’ve also learned simple phrases to carry with me so that I can keep my mind grounded in reality rather than what I fear.

Yet, it has been a mistake for me to pursue prayer as merely an escape hatch from troubling thoughts. It can help me do that, but I have found that it also calls me to something deeper and far more expansive. I could argue that prayer is also far more costly since it takes me to the depths of my nothingness before the love and mercy of God.

When I’m caught up in anxiety, I can use the insight of therapy to reorder my thoughts around the reality of my situation. The same can happen with prayer, but that is often the incidental result of a deeper healing and presence.

Contemplative prayer has been described as the prayer of the heart. Teachers of prayer have spoken of this prayer as going into the heart and standing before God. They describe it as beholding God or consenting to God’s presence in your life. If God is already present with us, then it stands to reason that the only missing thing for prayer is our consent that leads to a deeper awareness of that reality.

On the other end of contemplative prayer, I have felt a similar reordering of my thoughts much like in therapy, but something else happens as well. Prayer takes us into the realm of mystery and love. Some refuse to put the details of these prayer experiences into words because they are too intimate and beyond the limits of what they can say.

I participate in both prayer and therapy because they are different. Yet, the deeper healing and love of prayer is hardly at odds with the ways therapy puts my mind at ease.

Many times it seems that I leave therapy with a clearer idea of what has gotten in the way of my prayers.

Yet, I don’t pray merely for it’s therapeutic benefits. There is a real cost to prayer that can empty us and lead us through challenging places. There can be a struggle. At times it may seem that God has remained far away, and confusion may loom over us for a season.

We go down into our hearts to pray not to feel better but so that we can love God and become aware of God’s love. There is an opportunity for transformation and renewal, but prayer isn’t just about feeling good.

Prayer gives me an opportunity to be shaped by God on God’s own terms, no matter what the cost may be. As I walk through that refining, I have found greater peace and have let go of the many afflictions haunting my mind.

Finishing a moment of prayer isn’t the same thing as leaving my therapist’s office with the hope that I got my money’s worth. But there both offer a moment to step away from patterns of thinking that can leave myself alienated from myself and from others. Perhaps the greatest difference is that such a movement away from alienating thoughts is often just the beginning for prayer.

 

 

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Can I Find Time to Pray While I Travel?

My daily prayer practices can fall into chaos during the holidays where schedules are scrapped due to travel and I certainly can’t focus on prayer if my mind is swirling with packing lists, present lists, and managing family relationships. How can I find time to pray over the Christmas and New Year’s travel season?

I was on the road last week, and there were certainly plenty of moments when I considered how to fit prayer into my schedule and plans. Here are a few practices that I’ve been using in my own travels and shifting schedule:

Develop Habits to Prompt Prayer

The easiest way to pray is to make it automatic. For instance, there’s a good chance that, like me, you are tempted to whip your phone out when you’re waiting in line or sitting in traffic.

I don’t blame you, and that was my default until I tracked my daily phone pickups with the Moment app. Now that I’m trying to limit myself to 40 phone pickups each day, I have reconsidered how I wait.

Waiting can act as a kind of trigger for prayer, using a few moments in line to quiet my mind with a deep breath and to return to a prayer word to guide myself toward greater awareness of God. Prayer is described as waiting on the Lord, so it’s just about the perfect invitation to pray.

Even if my regular prayer times are filled with travel and family gatherings, a regular prayer trigger or prompt can help me make more time for it.

Keep Track of Your Mental State for Prayer

Travel and family gatherings can be stressful and busy. For instance, I’ve caught myself becoming unreasonably anxious about getting to the airport on time and catching my flight.

I have finally figured out that, in my mind at least, I had treated the urgency of travel with the same alarm as a threat to my life or family. I have a little mantra that I say when I travel, “It’s urgent but it’s not dangerous” that helps me calm down when my mind ramps up into its highly alarmed threat avoidance mode.

Whether journaling or using an app like Examine or Examen Reimagined, a simple prompt to remain aware of my mental state while traveling can help me keep the events of each day in perspective and saves my mind from the afflicting thoughts that can make it so difficult to focus on prayer.

Make Space for “Quiet” Prayer When You Can

Even five minutes in a quiet room, a little time sitting alone, or a ten-minute walk can prove healing for my soul when I’m traveling. Of course the quiet I’m talking about is often personal quiet when I’m traveling. I have no control over what other people say or do!

If I can at least keep in mind that quiet will be good for my soul and my mental state, I can remain attentive and intentional about seizing that time whenever I can. This could be while doing the dishes in the kitchen by myself, sitting on an airplane with headphones on, or playing through some Taize songs while in the car with my family.

Give Grace to Yourself When You Struggle to Pray

Prayer has been practiced by Christians for centuries around fixed times and schedules because it works. When your schedule falls apart due to holiday travel, don’t fall into the trap of shame or guilt.

If you didn’t find time to pray, that’s a great opportunity to ask why and to look a bit deeper into your expectations for prayer, your priorities, and your habits. Judgment and shame can be paralyzing, but if you believe that God desires to be present for you, then you have an opportunity to address what keeps you from praying.

Mind you, I still prefer to have a set schedule where I know when and where I’ll pray, and I am always trying to be mindful about prayer when I’m on the go. Perfectionists may not find these tips very helpful!

By cultivating some habits, growing my awareness of my thoughts, and becoming more intentional about my time, I’ve managed to hold onto some prayer practices while I travel. Imperfect though they are, they are so much better than watching my spiritual practices fall into chaos when I hit the road.

 

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But the Prayer Book Didn’t Teach Me to Pray Like That!

I have turned to different spiritual teachers and prayer books to teach myself how to pray, and I have often found myself starting out far below the bars they set.

If one teacher suggests praying for twenty minutes at a time, I’ve started with five.

If another teacher recommends two sessions of prayer daily, I’ve managed to at least get one.

If yet another tells me to pray sitting up straight in a simple chair, I’ve laid down on my yoga mat, letting out the nervous energy through my hands and feet.

My goal is never to stop where I am and call it good enough. Rather, I need a starting point, a place to get into the habit of daily prayer. Once my prayer habits are established, I can take the next step of actually working toward better posture, longer prayer sessions, and more frequent prayer.

But taking that first step? Or the second, third, or fourth steps after that can be challenging, if not dispiriting. I can fall so far short of my ideal that I can forget that prayer is a daily “practice” that also requires… practice.

Much like everyone thinks they can write well enough before seeing how a professional editor can whip a project into shape, we may overestimate our ability to settle into prayer, to slip into an awareness of God, or to trust our worries and cares with God rather than clinging to them with an unending swirl of thoughts. The letting go of our cares and the simple receptivity of prayer can take time to develop.

By assuming I could dive into prayer without a period of learning and adapting, I’ve set myself up for disappointment and disillusionment. I was lost in a maze of my own making, uncertain about what to do next because I just couldn’t manage to meet the expectations I’d set for prayer. I thought that I could hit the ground running, immediately putting prayer practices into place without a time of struggle or even failure.

I finally found my way forward by embracing each faltering step toward the goals of contemplative prayer teachers. I gradually built my way toward longer and more regular periods of prayer.

My mindset has shifted from focusing on results to focusing on the process. I still have the guidance of teachers and authors in mind, but I’m not drowning in guilt or shame either.

Of course there’s a risk of setting the bar too low. That’s the risk of grace after all. In my own past, the fear of “abusing” grace has pushed me too far toward the fear of letting God down or suffering God’s wrath and anger.

There is a lot of hope to be found in the promise that we are God’s beloved children imperfectly reaching for God, failing at times, but ultimately finding that we were being held all the while as we tried to find God in each daily moment of prayer.

 

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Thomas Merton Shares about Silent Contemplative Prayer vs. Our Reliance on Words

merton contemplative prayer

“We thank [God] less by words than by the serene happiness of silent acceptance. It is our emptiness in the presence of His reality, our silence in the presence of His infinitely rich silence, our joy in the bosom of the serene darkness in which His light holds us absorbed, it is all this that praises Him.”

– Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

What should I say to God?

That was one of the most pressing questions I face each day as I sought to prayer. I’m not sure if it was hard to find time to pray in the first place because I didn’t know what to say. Perhaps I struggled to find time for prayer because it seemed almost impossible or even fruitless at times.

Plagued by uncertainty and insecurity, I put so much pressure on myself to get prayer “right” by saying the “right words” to God in prayer.

If nothing happened, then it was on me. I simply hadn’t said the magic words to capture God’s attention or mercy.

I couldn’t tell you where this kind of prayer practice came from in the first place. My main theory is that my prayer life was more or less a void that lacked information about “how to pray” in the first place.

Without a clear idea of how to proceed with prayer, I filled in this blank slate with what I observed, what I heard, and what I reasoned on my own. Over time, I drifted away from grace and mercy, developing a more performative form of prayer where just about everything rested on me getting everything right–or more right than wrong.

Thomas Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation was like a slap in the face, shocking me out of this misconception of prayer. Through his teachings on silent prayer and silent contemplation in particular, I learned to trust more in God’s merciful presence than my own words.

I could even say that Merton gave me the language to characterize prayer as silence in the first place. Silence before God is prayer, but at one point in my life I would have denied that.

Since reading New Seeds of Contemplation, I’ve found that I can bring something to the practice of prayer, but the “success” of prayer has nothing to do with me. God is present regardless. My enjoyment of God’s presence may hinge on my ability to stop, but God is not dangling mercy to me based on my performance while praying.

Contemplative prayer can be restful, trusting in God alone while clearing away the clutter of our minds. That is the gift of prayer that we can receive by faith. I’ve found that prayer tends to involve saying fewer words, not more words.

And if I can sit in silence before God, I may have a much better idea of what to say when it’s time to make my requests known to God.

 

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Am I Doing Authentic Contemplative Prayer Right?

So much of my Christian spiritual formation has been hindered by a nagging question:

Am I doing this right?

I want to pray in ways that are authentic and sincere.

I want to be pray with the right techniques.

And these desires all lead to one overarching need when it comes to prayer: I want to guarantee a particular outcome from prayer. If I do this “right,” then authentic contemplative prayer guarantees a particular kind of encounter with God.

Everything hinged on the outcome and my belief that I could control it. If I just meant it a little bit more, prayed with a slightly better focus, examined my conscience a little more thoroughly, or practiced sitting in silence a little bit longer, then perhaps my prayer life would finally take off.

And by take off, I mean that it would yield RESULTS–stuff I can point at as evidence of God and of my own goodness. Of course the risk with such evidence of God and my own holiness is that I don’t really need all that much faith to pray and I will face the temptation to hold my own holy experiences over the mere novices that can hardly string a few minutes of prayer together.

Such an approach to “authentic” prayer is more like I’m taking myself off the rails.

Seeking a spiritual experience or “consolation” as an outcome from a time of prayer is a common trap that Christians face in their spiritual growth. Contemplative prayer teachers such as Thomas Merton and Martin Laird warn us that such examination or prayer is quite common. Thomas Keating notes that the thought of enjoying contemplative prayer can turn into a distraction that pulls us out of a moment of intimacy with God.

So, what does authentic contemplation look like?

Cynthia Bourgeault writes that it’s a returning, again and again, to a sacred word, image, or practice, such as breathing. It is a complete reliance on God who has given us everything need and dwells within us before we even had a chance to prove our piety and worthiness.

God’s grace is upon us while we pray, and so we can let go of our desire to prove ourselves or our techniques as authentic. We can only clear space in our schedules and our minds for what God provides.

You don’t have anything to prove to God. You can only receive what God gives. The pressure is off. The silence is an invitation, a moment to live by faith in the present love of God that has always been here for you through the work of Jesus the Son and the indwelling of the interceding Holy Spirit.

 

 

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We Document Almost Everything, but Should We Document Contemplative Prayer?

There’s hardly a day that I don’t take a picture of my kids or something noteworthy in my surroundings. I can take as many shots as I like in order to capture a moment, save the best ones, and delete the rest.

There are plenty of times when I’ve captured a perfect expression from one of my kids, picked up the brilliant shades of red, pink, and purple in a sunset, or preserved an especially important moment for us to look back on in the years to come.

Yet, I often wonder how often I’m removing myself from participation in life when I shift into documentary mode. This is especially true when it comes to our kids. How often have I disengaged from them in order to take their picture? Are there times when I could have had a more meaningful interaction if I kept my smartphone in my pocket?

I confess that I’m quite contrary about the ways smartphones document everything from meals, to date nights, to shoes, to quirky selfie expressions. How often should we step back from a moment, an interaction, or the simple rhythm of daily life in order to put our documentary hats on?

I view myself relative to our culture as a documentary minimalist, and yet I often find myself asking how often I’m removing myself to document something rather than to be fully present for it. Documenting becomes a habit of sorts, a way of interacting with the world that wasn’t really possible until digital cameras, smartphones, and social media increased both the ease and the social opportunities for extensive photographing and sharing.

This tendency to document feeds into a common tendency among Christians who practice contemplative prayer to document or savor any notion of spiritual consolation or a spiritual experience.

Thomas Keating shared in Open Mind, Open Heart that we are always tempted to hang onto a spiritual experience as if we are taking a picture of it, preserving it for reference and consolation later. Rather than allowing ourselves to be present for God in silence, we run the risk of demanding spiritual experiences each time we pray, turning to our preserved memories if we can’t feel the way we want.

Martin Laird notes in An Ocean of Light that such spiritual experiences are mercifully few and far between lest we spend our time journaling about them and comparing them with each other.

Contemplation invites us into a practice that remains deceptively simple, merely being present for God without any demands for a particular feeling or consolation. This prayer invites us to trust in a pure faith that God is present and at work in us regardless of how we feel.

This may prove to be a disappointment at first, but it can also prove liberating. We only have to receive what God gives us, no more and no less.

There is no ideal outcome or result we have will ourselves to have.

There is no technique, trick, mindset, or chant that will make prayer more effective.

God is present based on grace and our prayers are rooted in the reception of that grace whether we know it or experience it in a particular way. There is nothing for us to capture in the moment because we are already being held by a loving God.

 

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How Thomas Keating Gently Introduced Me to Centering Prayer

prayer-parent-child

When I first learned to how to pray with the centering prayer method taught by Thomas Keating, I had no shortage of obstacles to overcome. My thoughts ran all over the place.

  • I thought that I was a failure at prayer.
  • I worried that I was somehow cut off from God’s grace or mercy.
  • I felt guilty that I didn’t pray enough.
  • I felt bad that nothing seemed to happen when I did pray.
  • And I thought that I had too many thoughts.

As things turned out, the last point was very much true, but Thomas Keating introduced a word that helped me cut through the rest of the noise in my mind. Throughout his books, Keating encourages us to “gently” return to the sacred word as a sign of our intention to be present for God.

Growing up in the rough and tumble, wild at heart male evangelical subculture, I didn’t use the word “gentle” a lot. There was a lot of language about commitment, obligation, effort, and dedication. While there is always a place for discipline and commitment, I had completely missed out on the gentle grace of God calling me to a place of rest and silence, trusting that God is near and making the first move toward me out of love.

My resistance to the gentleness of returning to God with the intention of the sacred word betrayed a belief that I deserved to suffer, to cower in shame, to bear the brunt of my failures alone. The sacrificial life of Jesus, his resurrection to new life, and his presence through the Holy Spirit can be lost while immersing myself in shame and fear.

Establishing a routine of contemplative prayer and making it stick as a habit can feel like work and effort, sometimes a lot of both! Yet, the practice of prayer is so deeply infused with God’s grace and love that the word gentle is one of the most fitting descriptors.

Have I imagined a gentle God?

Could I conceive of God asking me to be gentle with myself?

So often I imagine that I deserve punishment, to make things somehow harder as misled act of repentance.

As Keating reminds me to gently return to a sacred word, such as beloved, mercy, grace, or Jesus, there is space to trust in God’s mercy and power. I can let go of what I think I ought to do in order to receive what God has already done.

 

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Preserving the Foundation of My Ministry

Without sharing my presence, my undivided attention to others, I’m not sure I have much to offer others.

Whether I’m writing books or listening to someone, a division or distraction in my attention can undermine my ability to fully take in what others are saying, to empathize with them, and to act in meaningful or constructive ways. If I have trained myself to be distracted, to look for something exciting and engaging, or to divide my attention as often as possible, my ability to be present, let alone to serve others, has been undermined at the most foundational level.

In review of my online activities and smartphone use, I can easily fall into the trap of craving a steady stream of distraction or stimulation that trains me to look beyond the present moment.

Even when it comes to the life of my mind, the more I fill my mind up with distressing, angering, or emotionally charged events, the harder it is to be present. Since social media is chock full of such material, the more time I spend there, the more likely my mind will be spinning with thoughts of the latest outrage.

Far from encouraging a head in the sand approach to the issues of our time, I’m more concerned that we run the risk of being flooded with distressing or enraging thoughts to the point that I become overwhelmed by what I can’t control and struggle to be present for what I can do to serve others and to love the people closest to myself.

The foundation of my ministry to others is presence, preserving enough of myself to hear others, to assess how I can help, and to share generously what God’s presence in my life has given to me.

The more disrupted and distracted I am, the less I can receive from God and the less I can give to others. It’s not rocket science, but it requires a good deal of intention at a time when we are flooded with more information in a greater variety of ways than ever before.

If I can’t preserve space to be present, to enjoy the silence of prayer before God and to step away from the noise of life, then this loss will catch up with me in one way or another down the line. I can’t offer others the stillness and stability of my presence and attention if I haven’t first made that space for myself.

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