Henri Nouwen wrote that “Prayer is the most concrete way to make our home in God.” While he certainly believed that the Christian life should be sustained by multiple spiritual habits and practices, he also believed that each and every one should be supported by prayer. He considered prayer to be at the very center of the Christian life. Thinking about Nouwen’s views on prayer has motivated me to ask and explore the question, What is prayer?
I think it can be helpful to first consider what prayer is not in order to understand what prayer is. Prayer is not escapism. It is not avoidance. It is not denial. It is not a defense. Prayer is actually an attempt to enter more deeply into life, to to face up to reality, to let go of one’s illusions, and lower one’s defenses. It is possible and even tempting at times to turn prayer into a way to escape, avoid, deny, and defend oneself from painful realities, within and without. Prayer then becomes a way of reinforcing cherished illusions and defenses when it is entirely motivated by fears and hurts and insecurities. This is indeed a common and unfortunate mistake that some unknowingly make in their spiritual lives. But whenever our prayers turn into exercises in denial, we actually cease to really pray and begin doing something else.
“Spirituality,” according to Meister Eckhart, “is not to be learned by flight from the world, or by running away from things, or by turning solitary and going apart from the world. Rather, we must learn an inner solitude wherever or with whomsoever we may be. We must learn to penetrate things and find God there.” This is the of attitude of authentic spirituality—a spirituality that strives to embrace life and truth, not escape it. And it is an attitude that is absolutely essential in the pursuit of learning how to pray. Prayer and spirituality inevitably become misguided and distorted without it.
So the question remains, What is prayer? I have come to see prayer as simply relating with God. The purpose of prayer is to communicate and commune with God with the goal of becoming closer with the Sacred, who pervades and penetrates all of life. There are many ways to relate to God, and there are many ways of communicating and communing with the Sacred. So prayer encompasses a lot. Since there are many ways to pray, it is important to remember that approaches to prayer or meditation are not ends in and of themselves. Methods of praying are only means that are supposed to help us as we seek the end of our prayers, which is greater intimacy with God. We should always remember why we pray whenever we may wonder how to pray or what to pray.
Prayer involves many of the same things that a good friendship involves. This is because we seek to strengthen our friendship with God when we pray. Just as any healthy and balanced friendship includes sharing, listening, authenticity, and vulnerability, so too healthy and balanced prayer includes all of these things. It also involves reciprocity and mutual-commitment. It involves faithfulness, devotion, and regularly spending time together. Any friendship suffers when friends ignore or neglect each other, when they cease to share and listen openly to one another, and when they spend very little quality time together. Our friendship with God likewise suffers when we pray without authenticity or reciprocity or regularity.
While seeking intimacy with God is the main purpose of prayer, it has other purposes as well. Personal growth and freedom is one other purpose. As Nouwen wrote elsewhere, prayer includes “being open and receptive to God’s influence.” It involves desiring to change and grow as a disciple of Christ. It is actually impossible to pray while also wanting to preserve status-quo and keep things just as they are, because God gently illuminates and exposes the things that we need to change when we pray with pure intentions. The act of prayer involves striving to become free and fully alive as we allow God to shape us into the people we are meant to be.
Another purpose of prayer is to gain perspective on life, since praying deeply involves contemplating and penetrating the core of ourselves, of others, and of God. Rowan Williams once captured the importance of prayerful contemplation when he said that “contemplation is very far from being just one kind of thing that Christians do: it is the key to prayer, liturgy, art and ethics, the key to the essence of a renewed humanity that is capable of seeing the world and other subjects in the world with freedom—freedom from self-oriented, acquisitive habits and the distorted understanding that comes from them. To put it boldly, contemplation is the only ultimate answer to the unreal and insane world that our financial systems and our advertising culture and our chaotic and unexamined emotions encourage us to inhabit. To learn contemplative practice is to learn what we need so as to live truthfully and honestly and lovingly. It is a deeply revolutionary matter.” Prayer, indeed, is a sacred process that broadens and deepens and purifies our perspectives on reality, thereby liberating us from illusory ways of living.
To pray, then, is to compassionately seek to understand our real needs, desires, and struggles, as well of those of others. So learning to be more loving and open towards others, and more accepting of both their joys and pains, is yet another important purpose of prayer. For through prayer, we practice being thankful for the wonderful ways that we are blessed by others and for the wonderful ways that others are blessed. We can also seek support and healing from God for the people in our lives as we strive to understand and identify with their struggles. And we can meditate upon our interconnectedness and shared value as children of God. Prayer is in fact a profound antidote to the terrible prejudices and demonizations that so often inspire senseless hatred and violence. For how can we judge and hate someone if we are profoundly aware that they too are a beloved child of God?
Prayer cultivates an awareness of God’s presence and the sacredness of all life. I have come to believe that the most pure experiences of prayer are not spoken or contained in the inadequate words we may use to express ourselves. Prayer, at its most profound level, is an attitude of the heart and mind, whether it be momentary or perpetual, through which we seek to know God and be known by God. And like many of the most precious and powerful things in life, prayer is ultimately ineffable. For prayer is an encounter with God.