Walking through the primeval gar- den that was their home, our first parents were ever alert to the presence of the God who shared their world. Nothing was more ordinary than the extraordinary encounters they regularly had with the divine. Life was prayer. Prayer was life.
But listening to the serpent turned everything upside down. Prayer no longer seems natural, and God no longer seems pre- sent, so instead of the soul’s normal language of prayer as attentiveness, we create our own prayer dialect. Because we are not really convinced that prayer is a conversation, our version of prayer involves much more talking than listening. We fear that if we were silent, all would be silent. Incessant prayer chatter protects us from that feared discovery, but it also means we seldom hear the still, small voice of God.
No longer as natural as breathing, prayer has become as complicated as living. It has become a discipline, an obligation, a practice—something to do, rather than simply a way of being. Seldom is it merely walking through the garden of our day anticipating encounter with the Divine Gardener. Seldom do we simply waste time with God in wordless enjoyment of divine presence.
Those who know God most deeply and genuinely are people who have relearned the soul’s natural language of prayerful attentiveness to the divine. They are attuned to God. What they tell us is that God is present and that God is revelation. Personal, experiential knowing of these two truths lies at the core of Christian prayer. No amount of words or actions can ever replace this knowing.
Prayer is much more than what most of us think of or practice. Offering petitions for self and others is certainly a legitimate and important part of prayer. But petitionary prayer far from exhausts the possibilities of this rich, soul-nourishing contact with God. Prayer is also:
- Reading a passage of Scripture and listening for God’s personal word to you.
- Reviewing your day and noticing where and how God was present.
- Meditatively walking the Stations of the Cross.
- Allowing music to draw your spirit toward God’s Spirit.
- Affirming your beliefs by reading or reciting the creeds.
- Meditating on Scripture and thinking about its meaning for your life.
- A contemplative walk in the forest that moves you from self-preoccupation to God-consciousness.
- Confessing your sins and asking for forgiveness.
- Smelling incense during liturgy, allowing your spirit to soar heavenward.
- Offering God praise and thanksgiving.
- Reading liturgical or other written prayers.
- Attending to your breathing, accompanied by the silent repetition of a love name for God.
- and much, much more.
The ways in which God can communicate with us are infinitely more creative and diversified than we could ever imagine. Because of this, the ways in which we can communicate with God are correspondingly broader, richer, and deeper than most of us ever experience.
Christian prayer is openness and attunement to the God who is ever reaching out, ever communicating, ever seeking intimate engagement with us. Christian prayer is being present to the God who is present to us. Christian prayer begins with the realization that the communication begins with God. To talk before listening is simply bad manners!
Dr. David G. Benner is an author, lecturer, and retreat director. For the past thirty years his work has focused on the development and practice of a spiritually sensitive depth psychology and the nurture of a psychologically grounded Christian spirituality. He currently serves as Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Spirituality at Psychological Studies Institute (Atlanta, Georgia) and as the founding Director of the Institute for Psychospiritual Health.