Methods of Spiritual Maturity - Prayer Practices

I have not had an easy time with prayer. That may make you a little squimish or uncomfortable to hear from a pastor. I realize that this is a dangerous thing to say when you are someone who is called upon so often to pray and those in front of me are the ones who are expecting me to be good at prayer! However, to deny the truth of that statement as we begin this time on prayer, this significant means of grace, would be far from being authentic with you about my own struggles with this.

As prayer is one of the two most significant practice of our maturing faith, by no means have I sat back idly with my praying issues. It is precisely because of my own journey that I hope to speak to this not because I have found some secret to prayer but because I have continued on, learning as I have gone. I am convinced the endeavor has been and will continue to be worth it for the gain of knowing and being known by God.

I hope that one day I will be counted among faithful Methodist clergy who stayed the course. As such, I can't help but be challenged and instructed by John Wesley in this practice. In his sermon on the “Means of Grace,” prayer is the first and foremost of the means. As Mr. Wesley says, “And first, all who desire the grace of God are to wait for it in the way of prayer. This is the express direction of our Lord himself (III.1.).”

One of the problems I have discovered with my approach to prayer is the singular approach the Church has taken to prayer in the past few centuries. Whether by patterns or repetition – our approach to prayer seems to have grown narrower and narrower, allowing popular teachers or certain teachings to dictate to the whole without examination.

Again, John Wesley was well aware of such tendencies, including what he saw regarding prayer practices. In his sermon on “The More Excellent Way,” Mr. Wesley goes farther to focus more directly on our personal prayers,

The generality of Christians, as soon as they rise, are accustomed to use some kind of prayer; and probably to use the same form still, which they learned when they were eight or ten years old. Now, I do not condemn those who proceed thus, as mocking God…but surely there is “a more excellent way” of ordering our private devotions. Consider both your outward and inward state, and vary your prayers accordingly (III).”

In tracing the history of prayer in the Church, Father Thomas Keating notes that with reformation as well as the Renaissance and Enlightentment, many prayer practices of the Church were lost. So even today, we find our understanding of prayer to be very limited, thought the evidence is very much to contrary in the history of the Church universal.

Richard Foster makes what is both a simple and yet profound observation when he speaks of the disciples request of Jesus that he teach them to pray (Luke 11:1). Foster notes, “Prayer is something we learn (pg 37).”

I have often heard that prayer is a conversation with God. I find this to be a great analogy. But my experience has been we have been very good at teaching one side of prayer, that of speaking.  If it is a conversation, then there are two parts: speaking and listening.  For most of though, our prayer is one sided in that there are really two main forms of prayer we have been taught:

The Lord’s Prayer: As a pattern for prayer (and from it various acrostic patterns)
Praise / Admit / Request / Thanks (and others)

Intercessory Prayer: Praying for others

For certain, these have been and will continue to be our primary forms of prayer for private and public prayer. But there is more to conversation than just one person speaking. Marjorie Thompson writes in her excellent book, “Soul Feast,” Listening is the first expression of communication in prayer (35).” She compares our learning to listen in our faith journey with the same way children learn communication by listening as they grow and develop.

Dr. Steve Harper, author of “Prayer & Devotional Life of United Methodists,” addresses the role of discernment in prayer. This discernment is a recognition that prayer begins with God, God has the first word. For us, we respond, “rather than assembling our requests, we quiet our spirits.” This has been one of the most significant pieces of understanding regarding prayer for my journey.

There is a story that I’ve tried to find the full documentation on but cannot. So while I can’t fully confirm its authenticity, it speaks very well to our situation when it comest to prayer. “When you pray”, asked Rather, “what do you say to God?” “I don’t say anything,” she replied. “I listen.” Rather tried another tack. “Well, okay… when God speaks to you, then, what does He say?” “He doesn’t say anything. He listens.” Rather looked bewildered. For an instant, he didn’t know what to say. “And if you don’t understand that,” Mother Teresa added, “I can’t explain it to you.” (closest documentation: Sermon Central Newsletter, Source: Just Like Jesus, Max Lucado, p. 71.)

That brings us to a couple of those prayer practices which we have not been taught but which are part of our Christian heritage and practice.

Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
This practice of prayer comes from the Orthodox stream of our Christian heritage.
The history of the Jesus Prayer goes back, as far as we know, to the early sixth century, with Diadochos, who taught that repetition of the prayer leads to inner stillness. Even earlier John Cassian recommended this type of prayer. In the fourth century Egypt, in Nitria, short "arrow" prayers were practiced.

Abba Macarius of Egypt said there is no need to waste time with words. It is enough to hold out your hands and say, "Lord, according to your desire and your wisdom, have mercy." If pressed in the struggle, say, "Lord, save me!" or say, "Lord." He knows what is best for us, and will have mercy upon us.  (Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary. 10/22/12.

Later, in the 19th century, The Way of the Pilgrim is published. In essence it is the journey of an unknown Christian who chronicles his practice of the Jesus Prayer. It is his desire to “Pray without ceasing, (1 Thess. 5:17) as the Apostle Paul challenged Christians to do. Last spring, I referenced the Jesus Prayer in reference to Luke’s Parable (Luke 18:9-14).

Today, I want to focus on the practice of Centering Prayer. Centering prayer as a practice comes to us actually, from the Bible Study I spoke on last week, the practice of Lectio Divina.

There has been some discussion and debate regarding the origin of centering prayer. This comes, as you can imagine, because of the inter-religious dialogues that monks from East and West have been in for a number of decades. And while it is certainly right to examine everything, we have in our practices at Methodists, the Wesleyan-quadrilateral, that we use to examine various practices and teachings.

Starting with Scripture as our authority, we then use reason, tradition and experience to do the work of testing. Considering Scripture alone, we find texts such as Psalm 46:10 – “Be still and know that I am God.” Or remembering that “we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit Himself prays for us…(Rom 8:26)”,  I will meditate on Your precepts, And contemplate Your ways. (Psa 119:15 NKJV)"  We own in our traditions practices of meditation and contemplation, not of self-denial and self-actualization but that draws us to a place where we can listen AND hear God.

When I practice Centering Prayer, I find it most helpful to keep in perspective that word of Dr. Harper, that it is first God who speaks. The late Father Basil Pennington, who was abbot at the Monastary of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, wrote, “All prayer is a response to God and begins with Him (pg 7).”  As Scripture is where we know God has spoken and continues to speak, I ground my Centering Prayer time in the Bible.

Centering prayer is, primarily, a two-part prayer: Scripture and Contemplation. From last week: Read and Rest. Or from Latin: Lectio and Contemplatio.

1. Begin in a place of silence. “…But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:6). Typically 20 minutes is a fine amount of time but the reality is, you may only find 10!

2. Focus on Scripture (Read). Psalm 145:5 gives us these great words: “I will meditate on the glorious splendor of Your majesty, And on Your wondrous works.” The focus of your reading is listening for that word that symbolizes God’s presence with you. With the rich descriptions of God, the Psalms are an ideal place for this practice.

3. Time to Listen (Contemplation). Your time here is about you and God. Hear again the words of the Psalmist and his practice of prayer: “I will meditate on the glorious splendor of Your majesty, And on Your wondrous works.” Let the Word of Scripture, the word that seemed to speak out to you in Lectio, be your guide as you rest in the realization that God is present with you and in you. If (or better yet, when), you engage thoughts in your mind, bring back your word.

4. End with Patient Attention. When your time is up, bring your time of prayer to a close by saying the Lord’s prayer or the Jesus Prayer or a simple prayer of thanks.

The significance of the Centering Prayer isn’t regarding what takes place immediately but how it brings significance to the entire day. Last week in our Lectio reading, we looked at Mark 4:35-41. The words for me were “a great calm.” I returned to that text for Centering Prayer this week and I heard from God, “Be Still!” And people wonder if God still speaks or not?!?! With the way my past couple of weeks have been, is it any wonder that God would speak those words?  

For some additional thoughts, history and reading on Centering Prayer check out this post by Bill Cork at Spectrum.

Works Cited


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