To pray is to gather up and present to God the whole of the human condition. This is why prayer is often a such a daunting endeavour, especially if one wants to press beyond the superficial. To silence myself before God is to first of all become silent in the presence of my own heart and mind. This can be a very uncomfortable experience, for what rises to the surface in those quiet moments is often much less than holy. So I find that each day as I come before God to pray, I must first wrestle with myself: my mind wanders, distracted, my thoughts are faithless, my prayers often self-directed and selfish. To pray is to struggle with the knowledge that our feeble prayers are helplessly inadequate. So why bother trying?
I suspect this is just the way God intends it to be. I’m not suggesting God is trying to make prayer needlessly difficult for us! My point is that the very act of closing my eyes to pray means I must learn to rely upon God’s grace. My struggle with prayer teaches me to trust in His loving kindness, to become the sort of person who can pray regardless of what I am bringing with me into His presence.
One foundational aspect of prayer taught by the early Church Fathers is that what is most important when we come to pray is the state of the heart before God, rather than the techniques used. Prayer can be undertaken in any and every situation of life, and in all manner of ways. The Bible (especially the New Testament) does not present us with a check-list for correct prayer technique, except for this: that prayer is an exercise and an attitude of the heart. Jesus criticised the Pharisees for this very thing, saying that while it is true they “honoured God with their lips”, nevertheless their hearts were cold toward him. (Matt 15:8) This criticism is in fact drawn from a quotation of Isaiah 29:13, where Isaiah complains that although God’s people “follow the rules” - they do what is required of them - their reverence is merely “tradition learned by rote”. As we might say, they were going through the motions but their hearts just weren’t in it.
To avoid this, far and away the most important thing for us if we want to learn to pray well, is again, to become the kind of people who can pray. Another way of saying this is: “pray as you can, not as you can’t.” This is an issue of the heart.
Henri Nouwen in his L’Arche journal ‘The Road to Daybreak’ gives a helpful example of this principle by quoting a summarised version of ‘The Three Hermits’ story written by Leo Tolstoy in the 19th century:
Three Russian monks lived on a faraway island. Nobody ever went there, but one day their bishop decided to make a pastoral visit. When he arrived, he discovered that the monks didn’t even know the Lord’s Prayer. So he spent all his time and energy teaching them the “Our Father” and then left, satisfied with his pastoral work. But when his ship had left the island and was back in the open sea, he suddenly noticed the three hermits walking on the water – in fact, they were running after the ship! When they reached it, they cried, “Dear Father, we have forgotten the prayer you taught us.” The bishop overwhelmed by what he was seeing and hearing, said, “But, dear brothers, how then do you pray?” They answered, “Well, we just say, ‘Dear God, there are three of us and there are three of you, have mercy on us!'” The bishop, awestruck by their sanctity and simplicity, said, “Go back to your land and be at peace.”
In other words, there’s a difference between saying prayers and being prayerful. In Tolstoy’s story, it is the monks who live and pray from the heart, and the bishop eventually recognises this despite their ignorance of even the Lord’s Prayer (which is the foundational prayer of the Christian faith!) Coming back to our maxim: “pray as you can, not as you can’t”, Tolstoy’s story illustrates that God, who looks at the heart, honours even the most feeble attempts at prayer, and likewise that a prayer of great faith could be offered by even the most conflicted and distracted of people. So long as their heart is actually seeking to be with God (regardless of how they may feel in the moment), rather than merely fulfil a requirement.
Soren Kierkegaard once said that the function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays. Although I do think prayer influences God in ways that a human being will never comprehend, it is true that prayer also dramatically changes us. Even if our prayers begin as an exercise in frustration, over time they will focus and clarify, sharpen and deepen: “right down” (to quote Miller Williams’ poem ‘Compassion’) “where the spirit meets the bone.” Eventually we will find our prayers drawing on the deepest and most secret places of our hearts. Such places, Paul describes in Romans 8, are often far too deep for words. Where the Spirit meets the bone, only groaning will do.
Prayer is a struggle at first because it can also seem like a complete waste of time. According to the economy of human life in our culture, things that appear to have no immediate benefit are often considered useless. To pray is to become useless; to pray is to become aware of our total dependency on the grace of God. Thomas Merton, an American Trappist Monk and writer, once said, “The monk is not defined by his task, his usefulness. In a certain sense he is supposed to be ‘useless’ because his mission is not to do this or that job but to be a man of God.” I don’t think this applies only to Trappist Monks, but to all disciples. Our first call is to be men and women of God. As John tells us in John 1, the purpose of our salvation is that we might be given the “right to become children of God.” A child is not supposed to be defined by his or her usefulness in the family, but by the mere fact of their existence in the family. This is also how we are to approach God in prayer: I am because You Are. Thank you.
In prayer, our uselessness is transformed into thankfulness.
In our family we prioritise eating dinner together every day. We don’t do it because it has an immediately obvious benefit, it is not defined by its utility. We do it simply because it is good to be together. I think this should be our approach to prayer as well - so beautifully expressed in Psalm 27 - “One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.” The desire of the heart to be with God, to seek Him and to know Him, is both the beginning and the end of all prayer. Everything else in life will find its true place between those bookends.
So I encourage you to take some time right now to pray as you can, not as you can’t. Pray as you are today, pray out of who you are and what you feel right now. Bring it all to God. Don’t hold back. Bring your thoughts, pure and impure. Bring your distractions and sins, bring your loves and hates, your desire for revenge and your need to forgive. Bring your hunger and thirst for justice, bring your longing for love. Bring your complacency and distractedness. Bring it all before the throne of God, and pray:
Create in me a clean heart, Oh God,
And renew a right spirit within me.
Let the rest flow from there.
Pray as you (and only you) can, not as you can’t.
by Tim Horman