What Does It Look Like to Pray More Effectively?

I think we all want to figure out how to pray more effectively, but what exactly are we wishing for? We want our prayers to connect us with God, and we want to see positive outcomes when we pray for peace, strength, courage, safety, or healing.

Yet, does praying effectively mean seeing a direct correlation between praying for specific outcomes and then seeing God deliver them?

I spent a lot of time worrying that my prayers weren’t effective. I feared that God wasn’t real or that my faith was flawed because I didn’t see enough outcomes from my prayers.

Looking back, I got swept up in my expectations and desires for control or even for some kind of sign based on my prayers. I wanted to be legitimized or verified.

Curiously, Jesus often rebuked those who asked him for a sign. The people who couldn’t trust in his word or rest in God’s unseen presence were the ones who demanded verification proving Jesus was God.

When I wanted to prove that my prayers are effective, I made a similar mistake. The mystery of God had to be uncovered in order to give myself a sense of security.

Although I still try to “improve” my prayer practices and become more disciplined in my daily prayer routines, I don’t get wrapped up in the outcomes of my prayer. There isn’t really a way to measure the effectiveness of my prayers.

Perhaps the only measure of prayer’s effectiveness is whether I’m trusting in God or not.

Thomas Keating famously said that you can only fail at prayer if you get up and leave the room.

You are praying effectively as long as you are reaching out to a loving and present God.

You are praying effectively as long as you are resting in God and trusting in God.

You are praying effectively if you either lay down your burdens to the Lord or clear your mind so that God’s love is all that remains in your awareness.

It’s easy to turn prayer or Christian living into balance sheets or stock markets where growth and declines happen regularly. We want to be “growing” as Christians, but such progress isn’t easy to nail down.

It’s more helpful to think about whether you’re participating in prayer or not. Even if you don’t see clear outcomes or progress from your prayers, that isn’t a mark of failure or alienation from God.

Consider whether you have unrealistic expectations or whether you need some instruction in prayer, but prayer isn’t a simple matter of input and output with predictable results. We can beat ourselves up if our prayers don’t bring the same results we see attained by others.

I’ve had to balance extremes in my life.

I know I need to keep engaging in prayer, learning more about prayer, and growing in my practices that are always in need of refinement.

I also know that I can’t measure my progress in prayer or label certain prayers as “effective” based on my own criteria. Who can say with certainty what’s effective while praying to a present but mysterious God?

I hope to keep learning more about prayer, stretching my faith as I trust more completely in God, and practicing prayer in ways that help me experience God in new ways.

I will continue to make petitions for myself and for others, and I will wait on God in silent faith.

Yet, I also will avoid beating myself up over the “results” of my prayers. There are moments in the Bible when God responds with yes to a prayer request and times when God responds with no. Both prayers could be described as “effective” in the sense that they were shared intimately with God.

We won’t always know how to measure the effectiveness of prayer according to our own terms. Yet, if you can address God as your Father, a loving parent, then you are certainly well on your way according to the guidelines shared by Jesus.

Books by Ed Cyzewski on prayer and Christian spirituality.

Photo by Amaury Gutierrez on Unsplash

Why Is Stopping to Pray Agony Sometimes?

If Wayfair sold a sitting chair that comes with a seat belt or, better yet, a five-point belt system like a toddler seat, I’d drop it right into my shopping cart with hardly a second thought.

Perhaps my common sense would kick in and overrule such an impulsive move, but some mornings, it’s so hard to sit in my chair to pray that a belt system sure seems like it would help. It takes an act of will to keep myself glued down, mind clear, and intentions directed toward God.

Why is prayer so agonizing sometimes?

There is something to be said of developing habits and discipline. I know that prayer isn’t anywhere near as difficult as it used to be.

There is also something to be said for mental health or other conditions of the mind. I know that some people have a much harder time focusing and single-tasking than others, and there is no shame or judgment for them.

Speaking only for myself, I can’t overlook the place of activity as a preferred state of being. Zipping from one thing to another while keeping a tally of what’s been done and what needs to be done all while nurturing a lingering feeling of “overwhelm” makes a seatbelted sitting chair sound awfully practical when it’s time to pray.

What motivates us to keep in motion? First of all, I don’t know if I can even recognize the negative side of being in motion. Oftentimes I’m moving from one good or neutral thing to another. It’s not like my day is piled high with vices or aimless distractions–although we all know that our phones can suck up plenty of time.

Second, I likely overvalue the benefit of the items on the running list that weighs down my mind but makes my feet light. I’m not even sure what exactly I hope to gain by getting so much done, but somehow these things gain an oversized importance.

Finally, I wonder if I can’t quite imagine the good that could come from silent prayer, sitting still in God’s presence, or interceding for others. At this point in my prayer practice, it’s not hard to make myself sit down at a regular time to pray (things haven’t always been that way!), but it remains quite hard to settle my mind sometimes.

The agony of sitting still during prayer means that I’m often too focused on getting one more thing (and then one more thing after that) done. I have overvalued the benefit of my own activity and undervalued the benefit of being present for God in a quiet moment.

There isn’t an easy fix for such agonizing moments during prayer. Perhaps the best solution I’ve found is knowing that I can endure the desire to bounce out of my seat, to remember such restlessness is often for a season, and that moments of greater peace and attentiveness to prayer are possible.

The solution I crave deep in my soul, the thing that keeps me on edge and ready to leap to my feet, isn’t going to come from surrender to my restless impulses.

Restoration will come on the other side of the agony of stillness (which really isn’t agony at all) where my mind grows in daily, even momentary awareness of God.

Attention to the presence of Jesus can shape our minds and direct our actions rather than letting the roller coaster of each day take control. Even today, Jesus can speak, “Peace, be still,” to our ever moving, ever shifting bodies.

It’s OK to Call Dangerously Absurd Situations Dangerous and Absurd

One Original Cloistered Genius

In the 1960’s the majority of people in America were preparing themselves for a far-reaching nuclear catastrophe.

Many of the people who prayed to Jesus the Prince of Peace on Sunday were quite alright with the idea of blowing up entire cities of godless Communists.

Even though the Pope had written about the urgency of peace on earth, plenty of Catholics remained disconnected from such thinking.

Monks were even building fall out shelters for themselves while debating finer points of obscure Medieval theology or selling their fancy bread and cheese for a handsome profit.

All of this infuriated Cistercian monk and bestselling author Thomas Merton who plodded away on his typewriter in the isolation of his hermitage in the hills of Kentucky.

As he wrote articles publicly about the madness of his times and the negligence of his church toward people who had been created in God’s image, Merton faced a stinging backlash from the superiors in his monastic order. They believed that a monk should remain silent, weep, and pray.

This only deepened Merton’s frustration, as he watched monks labor for hours each day on profit making ventures rather than “weeping or praying.” In fact, he directly linked the loss of any monastic prophetic function with the neglect of prayer and weeping. He wrote in one letter:

In a word, it is all right for the monk to break his ass putting out packages of cheese and making a pile of money for the old monastery, but as to doing anything that is really fruitful for the Church, that is another matter altogether. What is the contemplative life if one doesn’t listen to God in it?

The Hidden Ground of Love, 79

He dug the knife a bit deeper about all of the “weeping” monks did at his monastery in a journal entry:

I had been hoping to republish a few articles on nuclear war that had been permitted by Dom Gabriel—thinking that it was enough that he had permitted them once. Not so. The new General, Dom Ignace Gillet, dug into the files, held a meeting of Definitors, and declared that there was to be no republishing of these articles. Thus I am still not permitted to say what Pope John said in Pacem in Terris. Reason: “That is not the job of a monk, it is for the Bishops.” Certainly it has a basis in monastic tradition. “The job of the monk is to weep, not to teach.” But with our cheese business and all the other “weeping” functions we have undertaken, it seems strange that a monk should be forbidden to stand up for the truth, particularly when the truth (in this case) is disastrously neglected.

The Intimate Merton, 215

Although Merton tried to overcome the barriers to his publications about peacemaking and justice at a moment of great peril for humanity, his superiors won in the short term. Blocked from public publishing, he regularly found solace in his journal entries and in letters to friends that pointedly and humorously described the absurd and dangerous state of the world and his monastic order’s inadequate response.

There was no other way to describe his moment in time than a failure of Christians, and monks in particular, to grasp the enormous challenges facing the world.

In both journal entries and personal letters, Merton’s humor is sharp and cutting. His sarcasm thick and heavy. He knew that he was only fleshing out what the Pope had already written, but his station as a monk, bound to obey his superiors, meant they had the final say about which of his works on the dangers of nuclear war or the injustice of racism could leave the walls of his abbey.

As an honest man convinced that he was right but also realistic enough to mockingly call himself the “one original cloistered genius,” Thomas Merton felt a burden of helpless despair to use his notoriety for the good of humanity. It appears nearly his entire order had no concern about the well-being of the many people who could suffer from nuclear war.

Having experienced a profound vision of God’s love for humanity during a trip to Louisville, Merton longed to write with clarity and sanity about the dangers of his moment in history.

Thankfully, many of those works, even the ones that were originally blocked, have finally been published. Yet, I take particular comfort in the unflinching realism of Merton’s letters and journal entries detailing his conflict and frustration over his blocked attempts to meet the madness of his times with a bit of God-inspired sanity.

It often feels like the threats to humanity have only multiplied since the time of Merton.

Today we are awash in misinformation, political partisanship driven by fabricated culture wars, vaccine misinformation during a pandemic, climate change’s threats to our planet’s viability, and attacks on voting access. It can be maddening to see the state of our world.

There are real dangers, and these dangers are only multiplied due to bad faith political actors. Even worse, too many people flat out deny these dangers, and plenty of Christians either ally themselves with those denying

We are living in a moment of mass gaslighting and an avalanche of misinformation that is threatening to tear our society apart, to marginalize minorities, and to warm our planet beyond a dangerous point of no return.

How can we stay sane during a moment that is so filled with absurdity and danger? Should we panic? Should we cry? Should we scream? Should we disconnect from it all to care for ourselves?

Thomas Merton stared down many dangerous and absurd threats in his own time, and he used a blunt realism matched with a sharp wit to endure. He sought to do what he could, he spelled out the absurdity he encountered, and he kept praying and trying to make a difference for the common good of God’s beloved creation.

It’s impossible to say what kind of impact had been achieved by Merton’s letters or limited articles that reached the public. However, we do know that peace activists and social justice leaders regularly sought his insight and support. The few times peace activists met Merton’s disapproval, they immediately sought to repair the relationship.

In my new eBook short The One Original Cloistered Genius: Enduring Adversity and Absurdity through the Savage Humor of Thomas Merton, which is also available as a paperback, I have collected many of Thomas Merton’s humorous journal entries. These brief passaged show how deeply he loved his monastic community and also how badly it let him down when it could have done so much more for the common good at a moment of international crisis.

There isn’t a simple application in a collection like this. If anything, Merton’s sarcastic and humorous letters offer us solidarity and encouragement to face the absurdity and danger of our times.

It’s helpful to know that a man recognized as a “spiritual master” in his own time mocked his own pride and leveled devastating criticisms at his superiors and monastic orders when so much was on the line.

In retrospect, it’s quite clear that Merton was right. Blasting untold numbers of densely populated cities to dust with nuclear weapons was a really bad idea and still remains a really bad idea.

I can only hope that more people will realize that issues like stopping climate change or having wider access to voting are good for humanity, good for the poor, and good for the people who are marginalized the most.

Perhaps reading Merton’s struggles in a previous generation will give us the courage and hope to persevere as we face the absurd dangers of our time. And the starting point for facing such a moment is to simply acknowledge that it’s absolutely absurd that we have even reached this moment of crisis in the first place.

On sale now: The One Original Cloistered Genius: Enduring Adversity and Absurdity through the Savage Humor of Thomas Merton

Order the eBook for $1.99 or the paperback for $7.99.

Can You Recognize the Signs of a Spiritual Breakdown?

We have a 2002 Subaru Outback that burns through oil. Maybe it leaks oil. Maybe it does both. No one really knows. A mechanic told me the engine from that year was really, really bad.

To make things worse, the dip stick is extremely unreliable, so I’m always just guessing how much oil to add.

All of that is to say, when we used to drive that car daily, I had to keep a really close eye on the oil—among several other things.

It’s my understanding that cars generally have an “oil” light that comes on when it gets low. In our case, we were on a road trip with that Subaru, cruising up a hill on an Interstate, when the light came on and then we instantly heard an alarming crunch in the front of the car.

That was it for our engine.

Besides a useful dip stick and an engine that kept oil inside of it, I also could have really used a warning light BEFORE running out of oil completely.

It turned out that we had driven through a lot of mountains in western Maryland and West Virginia, and we had burned through all of the oil I put in at the start of the trip.

While we could replace that engine with a used one, I often think of the warning signs I see in my life before I burn out or hit rock bottom mentally or spiritually.

Do I have a functioning “warning” light for the times when I’m in emotional, mental, or spiritual trouble and in need of a pause for restoration?

As I’ve explored what spiritual health looks like for me, I have learned that I am at my best when I do at least 3 things every day:

Journal

Pray

Read scripture

These aren’t major revelations or secrets, right? That’s a pretty standard list of daily practices for a Christian. I could list things like exercising daily, getting 7-8 hours of sleep, reading spiritual books and attending church, but those three in my list above form the foundation.

If those three practices aren’t a regular part of my day, I can almost certainly expect to start feeling distant from God, out of sorts, or just kind of lost. Each practice plays a vital role in keeping my head in a good place and helping me to remain aware of God’s presence.

Since it’s so important, I have a schedule each day, and I fit my spiritual routine into it.

Here’s the thing, schedules change, life gets crazy, and the routine sometimes falls to pieces.

We had some pretty disruptive changes to our schedule over the past month, and my routine suffered.

Over the years, I’ve learned to watch for some warning signs that all may not be well. Here is what I look for:

Is My Journal Empty?

When I open my journal, I can know things are difficult or stressful if I don’t have any entries for the past day… or week.

During one really tough stretch, I would show up for church, open my journal to jot down some ideas during the sermon, and start right below my notes from the previous Sunday. That’s a whole week without reflection!

I use my journal for a wide range of ideas, reflections, prayers, meeting notes, and whatever else. It’s a place to get thoughts out of my  head, and if my journal is empty, that means my head is likely full of stuff I haven’t fully processed. That is usually not good for my mental health.

Journaling also makes it much easier to pray since a head full of thoughts can lead to a busy mind that will struggle to pray.

Have I Moved My Bookmark?

I use The Divine Hours to read, reflect, and pray through scripture daily. Each day offers a series of readings based on the day of the week and the time of day. It’s a very handy way to read a variety of scripture on a consistent basis.

But when my schedule falls to pieces or life gets chaotic, I may catch myself flipping past a few days in order to find that day’s reading. If I haven’t been keeping up with scripture reading, my bookmark will be off by a few days.

Having grown up in a Christian subculture that attached a lot of guilt and obligation to Bible reading, I’ve really had to rethink WHY I read the Bible. I prioritize devotional reading or using scripture to guide my prayers.

When I open up the morning scripture reading, I take a prayerful posture and ask God to guide me. I’m not looking for answers, prooftexts, or a duty I can check off in my list of spiritual things.

If I’m not guided by the words of scripture and the Spirit’s inspiration through those words, then who knows what will influence me. There are plenty of alternatives!

I shouldn’t be surprised that my head often ends up in an unhealthy place if my daily scripture reading slides.

Do I Have Enough Time to Pray Daily?

There isn’t an easy way to visibly track how often I pray, but generally I aim to land in the 20-30 minutes range for dedicated prayer. Of course there are plenty of opportunities to be prayerful and mindful of God throughout my day, but I benefit the most from focused, distraction free prayer time if possible.

But dedicated prayer time isn’t guaranteed each day. A kid may wake up early, a work project has a tight deadline, I miss an alarm, or who knows what else can spring up.

I do my best to stay honest about prayer. Am I getting at least 20 minutes? It’s not a magic number that guarantees some kind of spiritual epiphany. It’s just a way to keep myself from getting lazy or cutting corners.

Over the years, I’ve found that if I can set aside 20 minutes for prayer, it’s usually a breeze to hit 30 minutes. Of course, stretching my prayer time that long can start to take away time from my morning exercise routine!

What Are Your Warning Signs?

I’m certain that my three essential daily practices aren’t the only ones or that they aren’t unique to me.

I’d love to know which daily practices you rely on to be both mentally and spiritually healthy. If the comments are closed (they close after 2 weeks to prevent spam), you can always drop me a line on my contact page or share this post on social media along with your own list of essential practices.

Training Ourselves to Be Present for the Sacred Already Around Us

What if we spent our time seeking the sacred, being present for the holy?

We wouldn’t have to travel anywhere. We wouldn’t have to overhaul our routines. We would only have to add activities that bring space for thought and awareness of the present moment.

Where is the sacred found? Some may travel to a sacred space to find the sacred, but such spaces help us detach from distractions rather than bringing us closer to God. Jesus spoke of the indwelling Spirit and the Kingdom of God being within or among us.

We could say that the sacred is found among us in the present moment.

If we want to find the sacred, then what prevents us from seeking it? What blocks our path toward what what is deeper and more valuable?

This is the pearl of great price, the most valuable thing we could imagine. We spend our lives making cost/benefit analysis for our choices and practices. What do we gain, what do we lose, and is that trade off worthwhile?

My sense is that the sacred presence of God and the resulting presence of God’s Kingdom is found when we are able to be focused and stable in the present moment.

We may repent of the past and cast dreams and visions into the future, but we can only rely on God’s grace to cover what we have done and rest in God’s care for what’s coming tomorrow. We can’t change the past, and we can’t control the future. Our faith addresses these two areas where we exert no control.

Yet, the sacred now is where God’s dynamic energy is present, and preserving our attention to this moment will pay off in personal, spiritual, and relational ways. My faith in the present rests in God’s presence that I can easily miss.

Any of my fears about God abandoning me or my own sin making me unworthy have given way to the assurances of Jesus that he is present, he knows his own people, and nothing can separate us from the love of God.

The disconnect I often find in my own life from God’s sacred presence is my attention. Training myself to be present, to be still, and to be receptive to God’s presence changes my approach to spiritual practices.

If the sacred is already present, I’m not trying to summon God, to prove myself worthy, or to do the right thing in order to make God show up. ​My practice becomes a process of training myself to chase distractions from my mind and to be present for God in the moment.

This training to be present in the moment involves everything from the chores I do, the moments I wait in line at the store, and the ways I spend my free time.

Taking a run, painting a picture, or building something out of wood becomes part of the practice of prayer as I train my mind to be still, to release thoughts, and to be present for whatever God may have for me in the present moment.

My creative projects by themselves can draw glory to God, but they also become a formative experience that trains me in the ways of being present in the moment. The more I am present in the moment, rather than dreading the future or lamenting the past, the more I can enter into prayer with a clear mind that is receptive to the sacred that is already there.

Can You Really Pray for an Hour Each Day?

The great spiritual writer and priest Henrí Nouwen once visited Mother Teresa and asked her what he should do to live out his vocation as a priest, she replied:

“Spend one hour a day in adoration of your Lord and never do anything you know is wrong, and you will be alright.”

My first reaction was something like, “Oh, that sounds super simple. Got it.”

Then, I started looking at my calendar. “AN HOUR??? REALLY?”

And then I started thinking about the low points in my days, the times when anger burns, and the moments when apathy and sloth make it very easy to resist what could help me the most.

With a few moments of reflection, the words of Mother Theresa started sounding like a reach for me.

While we could argue about the merits of her advice and the fact that she gave it to a priest rather than a married guy with a job and three kids, let’s assume for a moment that she’s right on the money about what we all need each day. Besides, it’s easy to assume that only “religious professionals” have the time for spiritual practices.

If adoration and obedience will help most of us fulfill our vocations, then we just need to figure out how to make them both happen. And even if we want to debate with Mother Teresa, I don’t think more adoration and obedience would hurt anyone—especially since adoration could take so many different forms.

So, let’s consider for a moment what it could look like to set aside an hour of adoration for the Lord each day and not doing anything we know that’s wrong.

Where Do We Begin? Obedience?

I’ll be honest that when I first tested out this path for spiritual direction, I spent a lot of time focusing on my actions and thoughts. I tried to do what I knew to be right.

There are moments when we need a bit of willpower and some white knuckling to obey God’s commands. A few incidents with neighbors come to mind as moments when I had to intentionally act to forgive some who had done something wrong. I had to choose to let go of my anger in order to forgive as Jesus told me to forgive.

Forgiveness isn’t usually easy, but it is what a merciful and forgiving God asks of us. Yet, should obedience to God’s commands always come down to willpower and white knuckles?

I think that question helps us see how Mother Theresa’s two suggestions intersect rather than stand alone. In fact, that separated approach to obedience and adoration was a big mistake on my part.

An hour of adoration of a merciful and forgiving God will remind me of God’s great mercy for me. I’ll also allow God to shape and change me so that I conform to the work of the Holy Spirit in my life rather than making myself act correctly.

If I need some spiritual direction that will lead me away from willful sins, then I may benefit most from looking toward the God who can show me the path forward.

Adoration has a lot to do with obedience.

Can I Spend an Hour in Adoration of the Lord?

The thing I’ve learned about myself and spiritual practices is that I can’t let the ideal undermine the reality of life. I can’t let the perfect replace the possible.

Some days the kids wake up extra early or stay up super late. Some days the alarm isn’t set properly or we fall back asleep by mistake. Some days the unexpected happens or an interruption pulls us away from our worthy pursuits.

If we aren’t tucked away in a monastery, we have to accept that we probably don’t have as much control over our schedules as we would like. And even monks have sometimes complained about not having enough time to pray!

I have found that I do best with making space for adoration of the Lord in silence and in praying scripture by aiming for a rough schedule every day. It’s not perfect, but I generally know how I’m going to start each day. That helps a lot.

I also try to make some space in the middle and at the end of each day so that I can remain aware of God. It would be amazing if I could just make an hour available each day at the drop of a hat, but there are so many competing priorities and distractions each day. The best solution I can find at now is to make space for prayer and adoration before the day really gets going and to then find space for it as I do other things or as I take breaks throughout the day.

I don’t know if I’ve gotten close to an uninterrupted hour of adoration in a day, but I have found that it’s possible to at least spread this time out throughout a day.

As imperfect as that approach feels some days, I have noticed without fail that my ability to live in obedience to God always follows my ability to make space for silent adoration. If my adoration falters, then my obedience most likely follows that path shortly.

This is the mystery of the Christian life, both choosing to live in obedience to God while also placing ourselves in the care of the Holy Spirit to shape us and to guide. As my mind is reshaped by God’s work, my “work” of obedience becomes a joint venture in union with the Holy Spirit.

These days I try to spend a lot more time asking if I’m making time for adoration rather than if I’m living in obedience. If I am making time for adoration, the obedience often takes care of itself.

Photo by Agê Barros on Unsplash

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.

 

Learn More about Spiritual Formation vs. Digital Formation

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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.

I Can’t Talk My Way Out of Every Spiritual Crisis

Words don’t always make difficult situations better. I still haven’t been able to shut down my impulse to speak up when I should probably keep my mouth shut.

I’m the kind of person who always wants to help someone going through a tough time. And so I talk, I try to commiserate, and I do my best to think of something encouraging or helpful to say.

Maybe I’ve helped others sometimes, but plenty of other times I’ve felt like reaching into the air to grab the words and stomp them into oblivion before they land in the other person’s ears. I tend to overestimate the good that my words can do, and so I pressure myself to say something, anything, when sometimes I really just need to be present and remain available.

There’s a kind of theme that emerges in my own spiritual practices and in the stories I hear of others who practice contemplation. We want to talk our way out of a spiritual crisis, we want answers, we want definitive statements, we want the doctrine that unlocks the door that will alleviate our doubt, uncertainty, frustration, and pain.

I have imagined myself talking my way through difficult situations, as if my own chatter would somehow compel God to take notice and offer a solution once I reach a magical threshold of prayerful words. Perhaps there’s also a reverence threshold to my words where I try to sound like a prayer book… “Gracious, magnificent, and merciful God, bestow upon me, your servant, the full measure of your goodness…”

And yes, talking through our prayers can work and yes God can give us answers, but I can’t talk my way out of every spiritual crisis. And to be honest, I’m not sure that I would even want to be talked out of a crisis or given a magical solution to every issue in my life.

I imagine a parent holding a sobbing child without words, just offering presence and comfort. We wouldn’t criticize the parent for that kind of presence. There really is nothing to be said in the moment. The pain must be felt and the moment can only be resolved with presence.

There isn’t a physical God on earth to hold us quite so directly, and so I have overcompensated with words until they failed me. And when words failed and I couldn’t talk myself out of a spiritual crisis, I assumed that God had failed me.

But there is quite a lot more to God than the words we speak or the ideas scrolling through our minds. There is presence and comfort in silence, even if such a possibility appears counterintuitive or unlikely.

Even in this space where I only have words, images, and white space, I can’t talk you out of a spiritual crisis. I can’t give you the magic next steps to spiritual prosperity. I can only say that words have failed me, but God has not. If you step into that silence and stillness, there is something else waiting for you there. I can’t tell you what it is or what it will feel like. Even if you do find it, words may fail you.

Perhaps we can find hope in the possibility that we don’t need more words to be present for God. In fact,  I typically find it most helpful to use fewer words.

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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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Is Contemplative Prayer Biblical?

contemplative prayer biblical

 

If a Bible loving Protestant, especially an evangelical, asks “Is contemplative prayer biblical?”, it’s likely that this person is already assured of the answer.

“Contemplative prayer” as a defined concept does not show up in the Bible, and the same goes for the methods that contemplative prayer teachers share today. There is nothing quite like centering prayer or specific instructions about how to pursue silence in the Bible.

If you can’t find contemplative prayer methods in the Bible, then it appears to be checkmate, right? Without chapter and verse, there is no Biblical basis for contemplative prayer… except that the teachers of contemplative prayer quote a lot of scripture.

What gives?

It’s true that there is no specific instruction about how to engage in contemplative prayer, but there is plenty in the Bible about praying in silence, waiting on the Lord, seeking God in the solitude of the wilderness, praying always, and praying in secret/silence. You could say that we know about as much about prayer as we know about being a pastor.

We can list the limited details of serving as a pastor just as we could list the limited details of where and when to pray. If we made a list of how pastors go about serving today compared to the guidelines of the Bible, there is quite a bit that we could say doesn’t show up in the Bible–including just about all of the stuff in church leadership books that detail mission statements, vision statements, core values, and corporate leadership and HR guidelines.

I’m not listing those things to argue against them. Rather, within the biblical view of pastoring, we tend to expect the practical, day-to-day realities of pastoral ministry will require some innovation and problem solving on our own parts.

So, when we are instructed to pray in silence, to wait on the Lord in silence, to pray constantly, and to pray in secret, we are right to wonder exactly how to pray in this way.

What does it look like to pray in silence and solitude?

When we see that Jesus ventured off to solitary places, John the Baptist and Paul both sought God in wilderness solitude early in their ministries, and many key figures in the Old Testament experienced God in the wilderness, it’s only logical to ask how we should go about seeking God in these quiet, lonely places.

This is where a bit of church history can help us and show us how contemplative prayer intersects with the Bible.

The desert fathers and mothers sought to imitate the wilderness spirituality of Jesus and many other figures in the New Testament. They still ventured into cities to minister, wrote letters to the churches, and made themselves available to visitors, but they devoted the bulk of their time to prayer and work.

As these early Christians worked, they typically sought to make themselves available to God in silence, with some either breathing in a rhythm where they imagined the Holy Spirit filling them or praying the Jesus prayer which is based on the prayer of repentant tax collector (“The publican’s prayer”). Some used other ways to pray in silence, but over the years a simple breathing practice or prayer word/phrase stuck as the primary ways to pray in silence and solitude.

Most importantly, there is no dogmatic approach to a single way to pray. These Christians engaged in a variety of forms of prayer, giving thanks, making requests, and praying with prophetic insight. They didn’t demand only silent prayer, and different forms of silent prayer took shape over time as they learned to encounter God in the depths of their being.

This inner prayer that takes place in a heart that is still and receptive to God rather than reacting to thoughts and fears is often called contemplation or the prayer of the heart. While Jesus never described this precise outcome for silent prayer, he most certainly modeled this form of prayer and intersected with the biblical tradition that made space for silent prayer and waiting on God.

The teachers of contemplative prayer who pass down these traditions and practices for silent prayer that are grounded in biblical directives don’t pretend to teach centering prayer as the only way to pray in silence. Rather, it is a helpful way to be receptive and aware of God.

The point is to be silent, aware of God, and receptive to the Holy Spirit as directed by the Bible, but the details of the silence are up to us. While the traditions of the church are not the final word on these matters, there is a lot of wisdom in seeing which prayer practices have stood the test of time and proved their worth to Christians in a variety of settings over the years.

We are more than welcome to experiment with our own ways of being silent in solitude before God, but let’s not kid ourselves that our modern innovations are somehow superior or more biblical than the traditions passed down for generations. I’m personally most interested in doing what the historic church has found most helpful.

No one is going to argue about the Bible’s teaching to pray in silence and solitude, and so arguing over the details of how to do that strikes me as unhelpful. The teachers of contemplative prayer have literally based their prayer words and repetitive prayers on scripture, using simple phrases and words to let go of their troubling thoughts, to let scripture fill their minds, and to be fully present for God.

One final point bears keeping in mind here, and it’s a big one.

I have yet to read a critique of contemplative prayer from someone who had actually practiced it and had received spiritual direction from an experienced director. That critique may be out there, but regardless, the majority of the critiques I’ve heard and read are based purely on hearsay and conjecture without real first hand experience.

If you aren’t comfortable with a practice like centering prayer or sitting in silence isn’t helpful and life-giving for your soul, there is no one condemning you. I was once in your shoes, so I get it better than most.

Yet, I encourage you to consider that a large number of Christians throughout the history of the church have benefitted from contemplative prayer. Why would any Bible-believing Christian dismiss a practice like this based on modern conjecture and hearsay?

 

Learn more about contemplative prayer by checking out my related post: Is Contemplative Prayer Dangerous? 

 

Read More about Contemplative Prayer…

Based on my own resistance to and experiences with contemplative prayer, I’ve written an introduction to this historic Christian practice. The book is titled:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray:
Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians

On sale for $8.49 (Kindle)

Amazon | Herald Press | CBD

 

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