Tuesday 27 September 2011

Prayer: a little anthology

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
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.’
—John Climacus

Spiritual methods 
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.

Spiritual skill

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.

God’s willingness
‘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.

Prayer and forgiveness
‘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.’
—John Chrysostom

Infinitesimal changes
‘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.

Desperate prayer
‘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.

Charismatic prayer
‘… 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.

Special feelings
‘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.


Pamela said...

The Prayer of Silence from Isaac the Syrian.
And George Herbert.
Much to contemplate from this post.

Jason Goroncy said...

Especially given that he's written one of the best books on prayer - namely, The Soul of Prayer, I was disappointed, dear Ben, to see Forsyth omitted from your otherwise great list of quotes! What's the story??

Ben Myers said...

Jason, it's funny you should mention it, because I'm planning just this week to read a few Forsyth books (The Soul of Prayer, plus one on ministry and another on art).

In the mean time, why don't you give us a quote from Forsyth on prayer...?

Smangnus said...

Beautiful list! I'm happy to see abbot Chapman on the list: he's great on prayer. I'd have two additions:

1. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, when asked how he found time to pray in his busy schedule, once answered: "I am too busy to pray for less than two hours a day." (Source: Interview with Rowan Williams in the BBC-programme "Something understood")

2. By all means, do read Karl Rahner's little book "Encounters with Silence", which consists of ten prayers. There is one prayer in there ("God of my prayer") in which he prays to God about praying; there's some wisdom to be found there.

Stijn said...

Beautiful list! I'm happy to see abbot Chapman on the list: he's great on prayer. I'd have two additions:

1. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, when asked how he found time to pray in his busy schedule, once answered: "I am too busy to pray for less than two hours a day." (Source: Interview with Rowan Williams in the BBC-programme "Something understood")

2. By all means, do read Karl Rahner's little book "Encounters with Silence", which consists of ten prayers. There is one prayer in there ("God of my prayer") in which he prays to God about praying; there's some wisdom to be found there.

Jason Goroncy said...

Ben, I'm encouraged to hear of your upcoming reading plans. I'm also very happy to oblige on the question of some Forsyth on prayer. Here's two (I'm running a buy-one-get-one-free policy for this month only!):

'Never pin your faith in prayer ... to answers to prayer. I have no personal interest in answers to prayer. Faith is trust in a person, not in a prayer. I warn you against the little booklets filled with direct and palpable answers to prayer, because they make us think there is something wrong in prayer that does not bring answers of this kind'.

'We take refuge in what He believed when we are not sure about what we can. We trust His faith in men when experience shakes our own. We rest on His knowledge of the world, on His belief in divine power and human possibility, on His confidence in what He and His work did for men. We trust His experience and His judgment more than our own. When we cannot trust our wishes, hopes, or forecasts of human destiny, we can rest on His faith in it who secured it. If all the facts were against us, he is the fact that outwieghs them all. And we both recover and complete our faith by being compelled to trust His. It is the same principle that sustains our faith in prayer whatever the answer be, whether there be any answer in the experienced sense or not. It does faith more harm than good to dwell much on what are called answers to prayer. It not only ties faith too closely to experience, but it deepens the doubt that arises where answer cannot be traced. We need only to be sure that prayer is received, that it goes home, and is dealt with. Our tears are in His bottle. He has old prayers of ours by Him maturing still. That is what is of faith in respect of prayer. Not that it must be sensibly granted - that were sight, and not faith. Prayer least of all lives upon such results, such experience. If we saw all, experienced all, possessed all, where would room be left for the excercise of faith? Faith is there to protect us both from the verdict of experience and from the absence of it. It saves us both from our knowledge of the world and our want of that knowledge. It makes a man

That awful independent of to-morrow
Whose yesterdays look backward with a smile.

It even gives us little of Christ's experience, - these meagre gospels carry us but a little way there, - but it gives us Jesus Christ Himself, "the same yesterday, and to-day, and for ever"'.

johnthelutheran said...

Love these, especially the John Chapman and Karl Barth quotes. Thought you might also like this story about St Thérèse of Lisieux:

When a priest told her that her falling asleep during prayer was due to a want of fervour and fidelity and she should be desolate over it, she wrote “I am not desolate. I remember that little children are just as pleasing to their parents when they are asleep as when they are awake.”

(Source: Universalis.)

yewtree said...

I especially like the last quote from Kallistos Ware - people who are prayers - what a great concept.

One of my favourite books on prayer is Martin Laird’s Into the Silent Land.

I also wrote my own sermon on prayer. http://heartofflame.blogspot.com/2010/01/prayer.html

Sharon said...

No prayer is wasted. I'd rather a person prayed once a year or every decade than never; God doesn't care if a prayer is read or thought, if it comes from the BCP, the Psalter, or the emergency room. All prayer is heard and answered by God. I couldn't agree less with Ware.

The world needs all the prayer it can get. Any prayer will do.

01010101 said...

prayer: a mental act--perhaps with profound intention--which produces ...nothing, though at times.....seems to, with some clever application of post hoc fallacies (we done prayed--and it rained!) .

Don Needham said...

I think you may be under the inpression that prayer is a power.
Prayer is talking with God.
God is the power.

Guest said...

Er, I don't think the Ware quote is saying what you appear to have read into it.

Sharon Keene said...

Chapman is a writer. It's his job to convey his meaning, not mine to read his mind. I'm just a stray dog on the Internet.

As for prayer, it matters not if it's a kid at Christmas talking to God as the Great Vending Machine in the sky; it it's the atheist who can't stop thinking and writing about that in which he portends not to believe; if it's the dying soldier begging God, "Why me?"

All discourse and thought of the Almighty is heard and appreciated.

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