1When I was a child growing up in the 1950s in suburban Washington, D.C., the arrival of the Good Humor Ice Cream truck was a neighborhood event. We heard the bell before we saw the white truck. That gave us time to run inside for the money we needed to buy a frozen treat. (Orange Popsicles were my personal favorite.) I still remember my excitement when I saw him coming. First, I would take my life in my hands to step off the curb into the forbidden street. Then I would wave my hand to get him to stop. The driver of the little freezer on wheels would get out of the truck and come around to take my money and give me my treat. Oh, the delicious joy of the whole experience!
The problem was that the Good Humor man didn’t show up on a regular basis. Monday. Tuesday. Wednesday. Then maybe no ice-cream truck for several days. It broke my heart, so one summer day, I did what children with broken hearts often do. I asked God for help. I prayed that the Good Humor man would come the next day. He did. God was in heaven, and all was well.
Whether or not God changed the route of the ice-cream truck so that it came down our street that day, I will never know. But I do know that it was the first time I remember praying and seeing results. As my understanding of God and prayer has matured and deepened, I’ve come to see that my childhood prayer experience was extremely limited, but it was a beginning.
Take a few minutes to think about your own childhood experiences:
What is your first memory of prayer?
As a child, how did you picture God?
Since these first experiences, prayer has become much more complicated for me. The issues are bigger than Popsicles—my questions are deeper than when the Good Humor man will come, and sometimes the answers are much less clear. In my struggle with God about prayer, I have found two sources of encouragement: Scripture and the companionship of others. In fact, the two go together. In Scripture I find historical companions who model the kind of prayer life that I would like to have. And in friendship with others, I often find contemporary companionship that nurtures my prayer life. Let’s look first at what Scripture offers.
Journeying with Paul
One of the people in Scripture who models prayer for me is the Apostle Paul. I don’t know how Paul prayed as a child, but I suspect that as an adult, he thought that God was an angry judge who punished those who broke with religious tradition (see Acts 9:1–2). After his dramatic conversion on the road to Damascus, Paul came to know God as a loving, merciful Father. His prayers for the early church reflect this change in his understanding of God. We can learn a lot about prayer from the way Paul prayed for the people at Ephesus. Listen in on this remarkable prayer from Ephesians 3:14–21:
For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen. (NIV)
What words stand out to you in this prayer?
Note the specific things Paul prayed for in verses 16–19.
How did he describe God in his benediction (verses 20–21)?
Paul asks for an intimate relationship between his friends in Ephesus and God. But for some people, God is more like an acquaintance. They relate to God the way they might shake hands when introduced to a stranger. The touch of prayer is formal and impersonal. They may pray only in table graces and with emergency “foxhole” prayers. But God desires to touch our lives much more intimately.
When I think of the touch of God on my soul, I am reminded of the way my husband reached out to take my hand as I wakened from major surgery. My husband’s touch communicated intimacy, love, and celebration of my life. Paul’s prayer reflects his own deep intimacy with God and he prays that the people at Ephesus would share in this intimacy. Let’s take another look at his prayer.
Many people think of prayer as asking God to fix a problem or meet a need. How is Paul’s prayer different from this? Which kind of prayer do you prefer?
Picture Paul sitting down and thinking of the people in the church at Ephesus. One by one they come to his mind. What exactly is he asking God to do in their lives? How would you feel if someone prayed like this for you?
The focus of Paul’s prayer is that God would help people experience the fullness of God’s love. Describing God’s love, David Benner says:
God doesn’t want me to try to become more loving. He wants me to absorb his love so that it flows out from me. . . . Only love is capable of genuine transformation. Willpower is inadequate. Thomas Merton reminds us that the root of Christian love is not the will to love but the faith to believe that one is deeply loved by God. . . . Embarking on the journey of Christian spiritual transformation is enrolling in the divine school of love. Our primary assignment in this school is not so much study and practice as letting ourselves be deeply loved by our Lord. 2
This is the essence of the Christian journey. It not only reflects the love of God that Paul described in his prayer, but it reminds us of the place to begin in our prayer. The more we quiet our hearts and embrace the love of God in our lives, the more inclined we will be to pray that God will help others to experience this love.
Paul’s prayer is also an encouragement. Sometimes I wonder about my prayers. I wonder if I am praying for the right things or if I am praying enough. Sometimes prayer feels like a burden. One day, as I was out walking our dog, I expressed this frustration to God.
“I can’t pray for all of the needs of the world, and I can’t pray all the time!” I cried out. Then I sensed the Spirit of God whispering to my spirit, “You don’t need to. Pray when you pray, and forget about it the rest of the time.”
“That’s too easy,” I said.
The Spirit answered in my inner being, “That’s grace.”
Resting in Prayer
The sense of God’s whispering to me that day fits with what Richard Foster says about prayer. Referring to the reminder to “pray always,” Foster says that the literal translation for this phrase is “come to rest.”3 Part of prayer, then, is resting in the truth that God hears our prayers and answers us in love. We can pray for our family, our friends, and ourselves, resting in God’s love for them and for us. God will then do “immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (verse 20).
Paul’s prayer is also an encouragement to me because I do not understand how prayer works. I do not understand how a created being (me) can talk to the Sovereign Creator (God). Who do I think I am to make suggestions and requests to God, who knows all things anyway? Paul would probably have understood my dilemma. Tucked into his prayer for the Ephesians is his request that they will know the unknowable. He prays that the Ephesians will “know this love that surpasses knowledge.” Paul’s words encourage me that I, too, can experience the love of God which surpasses knowledge. I can then pray that others will experience this love too, even if I do not really know how this happens.
I sometimes borrow Paul’s words when I pray. For example, I have a graduate theology student friend who is caught up with such questions as, What is God like? How can human beings know God? and How do we know what we know? As I pray for him, I ask that he will be strengthened in his “inner being” and that as he studies and learns, he will continue to be “rooted and established” in God’s love (verses 16–17). I can pray with confidence because this is Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians. It is a special joy to be able to pray the words of Scripture. When I do so, I know I am praying according to the will of God.
Focusing my own prayers around the prayers of Scripture is one of the most life-giving ways I know to pray. It helps me set aside my unanswerable questions and be at peace with my limited maturity and strength.
For example, when I found myself worrying about one of our daughters when she moved to a distant city, I was able to pray with the words in Psalm 121. I prayed that the Lord would “not let [her] foot slip” (verse 3), that God would “keep [her] from all harm” and “watch over [her] coming and her going” (verse 8). I put her name right in the psalm. When I pray Scripture in this way, I do not necessarily know how the truths of the words will work out in life. What I do know is that praying Scripture gives me assurance that I pray aright.
Prayer as Dialogue
But there is yet more to prayer beyond our part. In his book Whole Prayer, Walter Wangerin suggests that the paradigm for prayer is, “We speak—God listens—God speaks—We listen.”4
Speaking and listening are both key components of prayer. I can almost picture Paul praying the words of his prayer and then stopping and listening. I imagine him thinking about what it would be like as the Ephesians experienced more and more of God’s love. Doing so, he may have again heard God speak divine love to his own heart. Perhaps it was after a time of silence that Paul began to speak again: “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory” (Ephesians 3:20–21).
We don’t, of course, know the rhythm of Paul’s experience. But I do know that my own prayer life is enriched when I speak and then stop to listen. To listen means first of all to be quiet—to stop talking. As we listen for God, we need to remember that God’s voice does not sound like the voices around us. When God spoke to the prophet Elijah, he did not speak in the rush of wind, the drama of an earthquake, or the roar of a fire.
Instead, God spoke in a “gentle whisper” (I Kings 19:11–12), something described in the NRSV as the sound of “sheer silence.”
When we stop to listen as we pray, we may hear sheer silence. Or we may sense gentle whispers. The more we practice silence and solitude, the more we practice listening, the more we will be able to hear the Spirit of God in our lives.
Beyond the Beginnings
Many of us find that the more we try to pray, the more we run into difficulties and questions. Once again, the Apostle Paul can encourage us. He wrote the following words to the church in Rome:
The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for saints in accordance with God’s will. (Romans 8:26–27)
Now that is good news! The Holy Spirit is praying for me and in me—even in the midst of my inability to pray.
One of the ways I have applied this truth in my own life is to experiment with silent prayer. I was introduced to this by Thomas Keating. In his books on prayer, he suggests the following guidelines for praying in silence:
- Choose a word as a symbol of your intention to consent to God’s presence and action within. (Pick one from your heart, something such as love, Jesus, Lord, or joy). Keep this word available throughout your prayer time.
- Sit comfortably. Close your eyes. Now silently introduce your sacred word.
- Be silent in the presence of God without verbalizing any prayer. If your mind wanders, repeat your sacred word to come back to inner silence.
- Stay in silence for about twenty minutes. (Keating suggests two twenty-minute periods of this kind of prayer each day, but this will probably be too much as you begin. Use his suggestions as they fit your own life.)5
It may be hard to quiet your mind. It may feel strange. That’s okay. It is important to remember that while it may seem as though nothing happens during this kind of silent prayer, the fruit of the Spirit will begin to blossom in your life as you practice this discipline. I have a friend who, without my knowledge, was doing this for months. Finally, I said, “There is something different about you. It’s wonderful. What’s happening?” That’s when I discovered she had been practicing this kind of silent prayer, allowing it to help her center her life in Jesus. If God leads you, this might be another step on your own journey.
All of this makes prayer sound like a very private experience, and in many ways it is. But sharing our private prayer experiences with someone else can also be deeply enriching. Doing so is the heart of spiritual direction.
In spiritual direction, all parts of our relationship with God provide fodder for discussion.
As the director listens attentively and with love and affirmation, the directee comes to know God better and experience the life-giving presence of the Spirit more deeply.
I often talk about prayer with my spiritual director. Just recently, I needed to express (again!) my sense of inadequacy when I pray. I described how frustrated I get when I don’t see results, or when I forget to pray or wish I had prayed more. I was full of self-doubt, and I poured it all out as I described my prayer life.
At one point I asked, “So what do you think God is saying to me in all of this?”
She looked at me quietly and answered, “What do you think God is saying to you in all of this?”
I was quiet for a few minutes and then replied, “The first thing that comes to mind is that God is saying, ‘Alice, just relax!’”
My director then said, “I think that is what God is saying to you—just relax!” I carried that thought home with me and found I was able to experience the peace of God more deeply as I prayed that day.
Spiritual direction provides a unique opportunity for such dialogue. It is a place where we can share spiritual experiences as private and intimate as prayer, and where we have someone to guide us as we navigate the paths of our souls. It is a place where we are invited to listen to God in fresh and personal ways.
In her book, Holy Invitations, Jeannette Bakke offers questions about prayer that can be addressed in spiritual direction. Consider whether they may help you share about your own prayer life with a trusted friend, or as you listen to someone sharing his or her prayer life with you.
- What are your prayer practices, and how have you chosen these particular ways?
- Where do you sense aliveness in prayer?
- What do you think the Holy Spirit might be inviting in your prayer? What makes you think this is God’s desire?
- What are your desires related to your prayer?6
Prayer is a frequent topic as we accompany a friend on the spiritual journey. One of the greatest gifts we can give is to invite a person to talk about his or her prayer life. Doing so is the gift of spiritual friendship.
Prayer as God’s Work
Prayer continues to be a wonderful and frustrating mystery to me. Sometimes I wish I still had the innocence of my prayer that the ice cream man would come.
Instead, I have complicated prayer with questions about God and about myself. But in spite of all my questions, I continue to pray.
I pray because my heart cries out to God. I pray because my mind knows no better way to be. I pray (according to the popular saying) “as I can, not as I can’t.”
Michael Casey reminds us, “Prayer cannot be measured on a scale of success and failure because it is God’s work—and God always succeeds. When we believe we have failed at prayer, it is because we decided what shape our prayer should have and are now frustrated that there is nothing we can do to implement our ambition. Prayer is nothing more or less than the interior action of the Trinity at the level of being. This we cannot control; we can only reverently submit.”7
May God give us the grace to surrender to love and submit to the work of the Spirit in us as we seek to listen for God in prayer.