For a lecture tonight on prayer, I cobbled together a selection of passages on different aspects of prayer (this was a last-minute idea, so I haven't yet managed to track down some of the references). Here it is: a miniature anthology, taken from some of my favourite writers on prayer.
Two rules for praying: ‘First: pray as you can, and don’t try to pray as you can’t. And second: the less you pray, the worse it goes.’
—John Chapman, Spiritual Letters, 25.
The essence of prayer
‘Hunger is the stuff of prayer.’
Concerning the influence of scientific method on monasticism: ‘The idea was that if you set up the right conditions, a kind of laboratory for prayer, and if you carried out the experiment according to instructions, you would get the desired result…. This concept has by now evolved into the simple pharmacology of contemplation: you take the right pill and you turn on. Hence the idea of discipline was corrupted into a kind of methodology, and … instead of really praying and meditating, people became obsessed with their “method” and observed themselves at prayer…. This transformation of a discipline in a broad, human measure and in a theological climate of love and grace into a methodology of will and concentration has been fatal to Catholic contemplation.’
—Thomas Merton, Contemplation in a World of Action, 120.
We encounter God ‘as those who are inept, inexperienced, unskilled, and immature…. The invocation “Our Father”, and all the Christian life and ethos implicit in this invocation, can never at any stage or in any form be anything but the work of beginners…. Spiritual life begins at the very point where spiritual skill ends.’
—Karl Barth, The Christian Life, 79.
Confidence in prayer
‘Sit in the presence of the Lord every moment of your life, as you think of him and remember him in your heart. Otherwise, when you only see him after a period of time, you will lack freedom of converse with him, out of shame; for great freedom of converse is born out of constant association with him.’
—Isaac the Syrian, On Ascetical Life.
‘Prayer is not overcoming God’s reluctance. It is laying hold of God’s willingness.’
—Julian of Norwich
Doing God’s will
‘Remember that the proper result of contemplative prayer is simplicity in the whole life; so that a contemplative is always doing the same thing all day and all night. He is praying, or having breakfast, or talking, or working, or amusing himself; but he is principally conscious that he is doing God’s Will; the different external activities seem to him a sort of varied outcome of one continuous internal intention (as if in a long walk: one goes up hill and down, in rain or sun or wind, but the act of walking remains the same all the time, the same movement of the legs, but sometimes easy, sometimes hard, sometimes pleasant, sometimes unpleasant).’
—John Chapman, Spiritual Letters, 38.
The whole person
‘A person is far more than the conscious mind; besides the brain and reasoning faculties there are the emotions and affections, the aesthetic sensitivity, together with the deep instinctive layers of the personality. All these have a function to perform in prayer, for the whole person is called to share in the total act of worship. Like a drop of ink that falls on blotting paper, the act of prayer should spread steadily outwards from the conscious and reasoning centre of the brain, until it embraces every part of ourselves.’
—Kallistos Ware, The Power of the Name, 20.
‘The one who stores up injuries and resentments and yet fancies that he prays might as well draw water from a well and pour it into a container that is full of holes.’
—Evagrius Ponticus, Chapters on Prayer, §22.
Prayer and virtue
‘As a queen entering a town is attended by all kinds of riches, so prayer, entering a soul, brings every virtue in its train.’
‘The Our Father contains all possible petitions; we cannot conceive of any prayer not already contained in it. It is to prayer what Christ is to humanity. It is impossible to say it once through, giving the fullest possible attention to each word, without a change, infinitesimal perhaps but real, taking place in the soul.’
—Simone Weil, Waiting for God, 151.
What is prayer?
Prayer the Church’s banquet, Angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heaven and earth;
Engine against the Almighty, sinner’s tower,
Reverséd thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted Manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well dressed,
The milkie way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the souls blood,
The land of spices, something understood.
—George Herbert, ‘Prayer’ (I)
Prayer is God
‘For beginners prayer is like a joyous flame bursting out of the heart; and for the perfect it is like a sweet-scented light acting within it. Or again, prayer is the Gospel of the Apostles, an action of faith, or rather it is direct faith, it is the foundation of hope, love brought to life, angel-like movement, power of the bodiless spirits, their work and their joy, the Gospel of God, informing of the heart, hope of salvation, sign of purification, symbol of sanctity, knowledge of God, manifesting of baptism, or purification in the bath of eternal life, betrothal with the Holy Spirit, the rejoicing of Jesus, gladness of the soul, mercy of God, sign of reconciliation, the seal of Christ, a ray of mental sun, the dawn of hearts, the affirmation of Christianity, token of reconciliation with God, grace of God, wisdom of God, or rather the beginning of self-wisdom, a manifestation of God, the doing of monks, the way of life of the silent, the cause of silence, the sign of angelic life. But why say so much? Prayer is God, making active all in all, for single is the action of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, all-doing through Jesus Christ.’
—Gregory of Sinai, in Philokalia: On Prayer of the Heart, 62.
‘When I write that my own situation [during my illness] in those months of pain and decision can be described as prayer, I do not only recall that during that time I sometimes read the Psalms and they became my psalms, or that, as I have also mentioned, I occasionally cried “Jesus” and that name was my prayer, but I mean that I also at times would shout “Fuck!” and that was no obscenity, but a most earnest prayerful utterance.’
—William Stringfellow, A Second Birthday, 108-9.
‘… that area where the experience of charismatics and of contemplatives so significantly converges: in that profound, though often fleeting or obscure, sense of entering in prayer into a “conversation” already in play, a reciprocal divine conversation.’
—Sarah Coakley, Church of England Doctrine Commission Report on ‘Charismatic Experience’
The prayer of silence
‘Sometimes out of prayer contemplation is born; this cuts prayer off from the lips…. For the movements of the tongue and of the heart during prayer act as the keys; what comes after these is the actual entry into the treasury: from this point onward mouth and tongue become still, as do the heart…. Requests too cease here, for the master of the house has come.’
—Isaac the Syrian, from Daily Readings with St Isaac of Syria, 42.
‘What you must seek in prayer is to establish in the heart a quiet but warm and constant feeling towards God, not expecting ecstasy or any extraordinary state. But when God does send such special feelings in prayer, you must be grateful for them and not imagine that they are due to yourself, nor regret their disappearance as if it were a great loss; but always descend from these heights to humility and quietness of feeling towards the Lord.’
—Theophan the Recluse, in The Art of Prayer: An Orthodox Anthology, 131.
The greatest profit
‘Ordinarily that which is of the greatest profit – namely, to be ever losing oneself and becoming as nothing – is considered the worst thing possible, and that which is of least worth, which is for the soul to find consolation and sweetness, is considered best.’
—St John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul, 2.18.
The effects of prayer
‘I should prefer a bare and dry prayer, to an explosion followed by a short intoxication; because the second seems to be self-made, and therefore less pure. But I don’t dogmatise. What matters is the result. The after effects of good prayer are more definite than the prayer itself; I mean a determination to follow God’s Will, and to care for nothing else.’
—John Chapman, Spiritual Letters, 61-62.
What the world needs
‘That is what the world needs above all else: not people who “say prayers” with greater or lesser regularity, but people who are prayers.’
—Kallistos Ware, The Power of the Name, 19.