Teach Us to Pray

My most distant memory of prayer in worship goes back to the “long prayer” in the Reformed Church in the Netherlands. Long it was, as the dominee covered our personal and communal sins; the needs of God’s kingdom and the Dutch kingdom as well as the rest of the world; the suffering of Sister Jacoba, who had pain in her left kidney; the cause of missions in Suriname; and an outline of the sermon. I am sure that the prayer was a pleasing odor to the Lord, but I am also grateful that in most churches today the prayers are divided into shorter units spread throughout the service.

A great contrast to these prayers are the ones I was privileged to lead in Jamaica. Having taught several times at the Jamaican Theological Seminary (the Lord always called during a Michigan January, and I always answered the call), I also preached in local churches. Although my prayers were probably not up to the customary volume and intensity, the encouragement of loud “Amens,” “Yes, Jesus!” and “Pray it again, brother,” usually led to a wonderful upsurge of emotional and spiritual intensity.

During the past year I have been attending morning prayers at Grace Episcopal Church. It is a wonderful service. The repetition of the ancient prayers has been a genuine blessing; phrases like, “O Lord, have mercy upon us, spare thou those who confess their faults, restore thou those who are penitent . . .” have become imprinted on my mind and soul. My only disappointment is the wordiness of the service. In twenty minutes we often cover seven Scripture passages and as many as eight different prayers and collects. There’s very little time to catch our breath or for times of meditation and silence.

I have also learned different types of contemplative prayer. Lectio divina (praying Scripture) involves the repeated reading of a Scripture passage, often focusing on a small unit, and then intensely meditating on and praying these words. One goes beyond the “meaning” and appropriates the Word in a personal, spiritual manner. Such prayers can be done privately or in small groups or can be incorporated in the prayers of public worship.

I have more questions about centering prayer, another form of contemplative prayer. It calls for restful surroundings, a comfortable sitting position, and preferably fifteen to twenty minutes of deep quiet. The idea is to choose a word, perhaps Jesus or mercy—just about any word with a sacred connotation is appropriate. But the word is used sparingly. Centering prayer is not about words or even thoughts. Instead, one abandons words and thoughts and images, all things sensory and rational, in order to enter a deeper spiritual, timeless, inner self.

Perhaps I’m mystically challenged. I have not been able to practice centering prayer very well. I am also uneasy about some of the principles of this contemplative prayer. It tries to find support in biblical texts that refer to union with Christ. That teaching is, of course, a rich biblical principle, and so is the text “you may participate in the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4). But I doubt very much if those teachings match centering prayer interpretations: “We are no longer conscious of the Son, our Lord Jesus; our relation with him is one of pure consciousness, or subjective identification. We have entered in some way into the inner consciousness of the Trinity, sharing the Son’s relation to his Father in the Holy Spirit” (M. Basil Pennington, Centered Living, p. 96). Such notions run counter to the biblical teaching about the separation between Creator and creature. So does the idea that we find the divine in our deepest being; that view seems very different from the doctrine of being created in God’s image. Also, centering prayer seems to segue readily into oriental mysticism, with borrowings from Swami Satchidanandaji and others in the Hindu tradition.

Still, other forms of contemplative prayer do encourage spiritual growth. Protestants have not been noted for diligence in contemplative prayer, but many Christians can testify to the rich spiritual experience and increasing depth in one’s devotional life that result from such prayer.

Finally, I am often encouraged by giants in faith and prayer. And sometimes the word of a fellow struggler keeps me from undue discouragement. The late Lewis Smedes, long-time professor at Fuller Theological Seminary, encouraged thousands of readers with his wonderfully pastoral books. But even this great man of God admits, “I have never been able to pray for longer than ten minutes at a time” (My God and I: A Spiritual Memoir). He’s probably encouraging us right now to hang in there and pray the best we can.

The Lenten season calls us in a special way to a time of prayer; our ongoing prayer must still be, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Let’s learn again in this season what it means to “pray without ceasing.”

Harry Boonstra (hboonstr@calvin.edu) is former theological editor of RW and emeritus theological librarian of Calvin College and Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan.


Reformed Worship 70 © December 2003, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.