I have written a great deal about prayer on this blog. It is one of the great passions of my life and my ministry. But I have not yet shared the basic practices that guide my life of daily prayer. So I want to share with you the five pillars of my prayer life. Apart from weekly worship, which is foundational and essential to me and to all Christians, what are the basic practices of daily prayer that sustain me? What are the pillars of my prayer life that keep it propped up when the burdens of life threaten to weigh it down? What are the practices of prayer that I keep coming back to, over and over again, and that help me to “pray always and not to lose heart” ( Luke 18:1)?
There are obviously many types of prayer that are important, both to you and to me. Spiritual journaling, for example, may be one of those. Or the Examen of Conscious. Or prayer walks. And so on. But the five that I want to share here are the ones that I consider essential to me. These are the practices that I continually return to, that never seem to be far from me, and that help me to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
The Lord’s Prayer and the Psalms
Every day, almost without exception, I pray the Lord’s Prayer, and I pray the Psalms. These are absolutely foundational for me. And these are connected. As Luther put it, [The Psalter] “runs through the Lord’s Prayer and the Lord’s prayer runs through it, so that it is possible to understand one on the basis of the other and to bring them into joyful harmony.” If we do not have time, then, we can simply pray the Lord’s Prayer. But if we have the time, why would we not turn to the prayer book of Jesus himself? Why would we not turn to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer calls “the great school of prayer”? Why would we not turn to the God-breathed prayers that help us to pray, that teach us to pray, and that join us in prayer with Christians of all times and places?
And so, the Lord’s Prayer and the Psalms are, and always will be, a pillar of my prayer life. Often I will pray these using the Divine Office, which I have written about here: What Is the Divine Office? Or, I will use the psalms appointed in the Book of Common Prayer’s 30-Day Psalm Cycle. Or, I will simply pray a Psalm that is speaking to me at that time in my life. But, a pillar of my prayer life is always the Psalms, and always the prayer that Jesus himself taught us.
A Dedicated Place of Prayer
Here is another pillar of my daily prayer life: Having a dedicated place of prayer. I am blessed to work at a church, which means that I can pray in our sanctuary during the day. When I am home, I have a quiet corner in my basement where I can go for uninterrupted prayer. At my previous house, I actually used a folding chair in our closet. When my children were young, they knew that if the closet door was closed, daddy was praying. Back before I became a pastor, I had an hour-long train-ride to work in Chicago that became my place of prayer. The place has changed, in other words, but the need has not.
Here is how Thomas Merton describes the importance of this, in his book, “New Seeds of Contemplation”:
There should be at least a room, or some corner where no one will find you and disturb you or notice you. You should be able to untether yourself from the world and set yourself free, loosing all the fine strings and strands of tension that bind you, by sight, by sound, by thought, to the presence of others …
Once you have found such a place, be content with it, and do not be disturbed if a good reason takes you out of it. Love it, and return to it as soon as you can, and do not be too quick to change it for another.
Jesus himself teaches us to do this, of course, in his Sermon on the Mount: “But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:6). Praying with others is important, but is praying alone. And to pray alone, it has been important to me to have a dedicated place of prayer, where I can spend time alone with God, free of interruptions.
Prayer, like any conversation, involves listening as much as talking. If we are going to pray, then, we must be willing to listen for God’s “still, small voice” (1 Kings 19:11-12). And if we are going to hear that voice, we must be silent. So silence, for me, is another essential pillar of my prayer life. It is not always easy to find silence in our noisy world, of course. And even when we do, it can make us uncomfortable. A practice which has helped me to become more comfortable with silence is Centering Prayer, which you can learn more about here: Contemplative Outreach. This is certainly not the only way to become comfortable with silence, but it is one that has blessed me and many others.
I have shared more about silence in a previous blog post, so I will not say more now. You can find that blog post here: Silence and Prayer.
A healthy prayer life requires sustenance, and one of the best ways to find that sustenance is through devotional reading. This can take various forms. A well-known type of devotional reading is lectio divina, which I have used often in my prayers. This is a way of reading and praying with scripture that typically involves four steps:
- Lectio (Read the Word of God with the ears of your heart)
- Meditatio (Reflect on God’s Word and what it is saying to you at this time
- Oratio (Respond in prayer);
- Contemplatio (Rest in God).
Read, Reflect, Respond, Rest. A way of praying with scripture that has consistently offered wonderful sustenance to my life of prayer.
My devotional reading often uses scripture, but I have also found sustenance through other devotional books. Examples of these include Martin Luther’s ” A Simple Way to Pray,” Thomas a Kempis’s “The Imitation of Christ,” Thomas Merton’s “New Seeds of Contemplation.” In a category by themselves I would put books of Christian poetry, such as Luci Shaw’s “The Generosity,” Malcolm Guite’s “Sounding the Seasons,” and Wendell Berry’s “This Day: Collected & New Sabbath Poems.” These and many other devotional books have been very helpful in feeding and nurturing my prayers.
When I am reading a devotional book, I read it slowly and prayerfully, and when a passage connects with me in that moment, I put the book down. It has served its purpose, and led me to prayer. This is the very instruction that Thomas Merton offers in his “New Seeds of Contemplation”:
“It is quite normal to use the Bible, or a spiritual book of some kind, to ‘get started’ even in the kind of prayer when you do not do much ‘thinking.’ When you find some paragraph or sentence that interests you, stop reading and turn it over in your mind and absorb it and contemplate it and rest in the general, serene, effortless consideration of the thought, not in its details but as a whole, as something held and savored in its entirety: and so pass from this this to rest in the quiet expectancy of God.”
Martin Luther says something quite similar in his “A Simple Way to Pray” when he writes:
“It often happens that I get lost in right and good thoughts as they come … When such rich thoughts come, just let other prayers go and give these thoughts plenty of room; do not in any way hinder them. For in this way the Holy Spirit is preaching to you. His sermon is better than a thousand of your prayers. Many times I have learned more in the process of praying a single prayer than I would have struggled to learn through much writing and reading.”
To put it another way, devotional reading prepares one for prayer, but is not prayer itself. Prayer begins when you put the reading down and listen to the Holy Spirit.
Thomas Kelly’s “A Testament of Devotion” begins with this quote from Meister Eckhart: “As thou art in church or cell, that same frame of mind carry out into the world, into its turmoil and fitfulness.” I taped this quote to the wall of my closet in my previous house, since that was my “monastic cell.” But how do we do that? How do we carry that same frame of mind with us after our time of prayer, “out into the world, into its turmoil and fitfulness”?
One way that I found very helpful is through a simple, short prayer that I can pray throughout the day. I often use this version of the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.” I pray this with my breath, praying “Lord Jesus Christ” as I breathe in, and “Have mercy on me (or us)” as I breathe out. (Sometimes I use “me” and sometimes I use “us.”)
This is certainly not the only “arrow prayer.” Another popular one uses Psalm 23: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” And to share another personal example, when my sister died quite unexpectedly in 2007, I drove my family through the night from South Carolina to Connecticut to be with all of my loved ones, and for her funeral. Throughout that terrible drive, I found solace and strength in this simple breath prayer based on Psalm 46 – “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”
There are many other examples of these types of arrow prayers, but I have found a short prayer like this to be essential to me, and a wonderful way to keep me anchored in prayer throughout the day, no matter the circumstances I am facing. These short prayers can be in our own words, too, asking for help in a particular situation, or praying for a specific person. But having a set prayer to turn to, like the Jesus Prayer or these examples from scripture, has been essential to me in my life of daily prayer.
So, there you have it, my five pillars of prayer. But I want to close with one last piece of wisdom that has been important to me, that I learned from the spiritual director, Dom Chapman: “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.” Grace abounds, in life and in prayer. And it has always been important to my prayer life to show myself grace, to be gentle with myself, and to pray as I can, not as I can’t. And this is often determined by whatever is happening in my life. (I recently shared the challenge of praying while sick here: Pray While You Can.)
Pray as you can, not as you can’t. And then? Trust that even your desire to pray is itself prayer. This desire is a response to the Holy Spirit’s prompting, to the still, small voice that can be a sigh too deep for words, but is always calling, always beckoning us home. As Thomas Kelly puts it so beautifully in his “Testament of Devotion“:
Eternity is at our hearts, pressing upon our time-torn lives, warming us with intimations of an astounding destiny, calling us home unto Itself. Yielding to these persuasions, gladly committing ourselves in body and soul, utterly and completely, to the Light Within, is the beginning of true life.