A primary purpose of prayer is not to change God so that God will do what we want, but to change ourselves so that we will do what God wants. Praying simply to get God to do what we want can have more in common with offering magical spells and incantations than with Christian prayer. Indeed, Christian prayer begins and ends with the attitude, “Not my will, but Your will be done.”
What is the relationship between meditation and prayer? How are they the same and how are they different? In Christian spirituality, meditation is an important part of healthy prayer just as attentive listening and loving presence are important parts of any healthy relationship between friends. Without reciprocal listening and mutual presence, a friendship is not whole. Likewise, without times of meditation, prayer is not whole. We intentionally open ourselves in unguarded vulnerability before God through meditation. We unpretentiously give our attention and our affection to God through meditation.
While meditation is a very important part of prayer, it is not the whole of prayer, just as listening and presence are not the whole of any friendship. For the Christian, prayer also includes such things as asking for help and expressing gratitude to God in response to the unfolding events of life. This can be unspoken, but it can be spoken also. Prayer can include conflict as one humbly struggles with God over differences in the pursuit of perfectly merging one’s will with the Will of Love. So prayer involves a rich and interactive friendship with God that ideally includes intentional listening, talking, openness, vulnerability, and presence. Thus the fabric of prayer is composed of many threads, and meditation introduces vital threads that strengthen and enhance the fabric of prayer.
I have gradually begun to see both prayer and worship as the most expansive practices in the Christian life. They are not narrow, separate, disintegrated categories. They are not limited activities that can be sectioned off into certain parts of a full and balanced life. Rather, they overlap and include every spiritual discipline and activity, while also overlapping and including all of life. Prayer is simply relating with God. It is communicating and communing with the Sacred. Worship is surrendering and depending upon God. It is our natural, heartfelt response to God’s grandeur and goodness towards us.
I find it hard to identify any meaningful distinctions between prayer and worship. I think that all real prayer is also worship, and all real worship is also prayer—because all prayer also involves surrendering and depending upon God, and all worship also involves relating with God. Both are also signs of our need for God. Both are expressions of our desire for God. Both are acts of focusing our attention and intention towards God. Both are attempts to encounter God. So any distinctions between the two are inevitably more artificial and abstract than they are real.
We are taught to live in continual prayer and continual worship (1 Thess 5:16-18; Rom 12:1). Which is to say we are encouraged to always relate with God, depend on God, and surrender to God in everything we do—this, indeed, is the Christian way of life. So we can pray and worship in stillness or in action, in solitude or in community, in silence or with sounds, with liturgies or with spontaneity, with ancient rituals or with modern innovations. We can pray and worship while listening, speaking, sharing, or singing; while sitting, kneeling, walking, or dancing; while giving, receiving, supporting, or serving. The possibilities are practically endless.
It is crucial to remember that how we pray and worship should always serve the ultimate purpose of why we pray and worship, since there are many possible modes and methods. While there can certainly be many reasons and many occasions, becoming closer with God is the most essential purpose of all prayer and worship. We foster intimacy with God through praying and worshiping with gratitude, authenticity, openness, and love. These are indeed some of the ingredients that will enhance authentic prayer and worship. But regardless of what we do or how we do it, fostering intimacy with God is always the goal of our prayers and our worship.
Our life becomes a prayer inasmuch as we live in constant connection to God. Our life likewise becomes worship inasmuch as we live in constant surrender and dependence upon God. The Christian life, then, is meant to be a life of prayer and a life of worship.
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.
In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Thomas Merton writes, ‘Solitude is to be preserved, not as a luxury but as a necessity: not for “perfection” so much as for simple “survival” in the life God has given you.’ The significance of his statement has been becoming more real to me, not only as it applies to solitude but to spiritual disciplines in general.
Intentionally practicing spiritual disciplines is a relatively new thing for me. And I’m not even very good at them! I didn’t consciously put any serious thought or effort into following regular spiritual routines until this year really. I didn’t start to seriously consider disciplines because I’m super-spiritual either; I was forced to find relief because I felt like I was falling apart. Oblivious to my own spiritual sickness, my inner world was crashing down. It wasn’t until I was a depressed and disoriented mess that I gave spiritual disciplines serious consideration.
There’s a lot I could write about my experiences and motivation to change, more than I’ll share right now. Though, two practices are worth mentioning because they have been really helpful to me: meditation and simplicity.
Regularly meditating has had many benefits. My mind can be my own worst enemy at times. Whether I want it to be or not, my mind tends to be really active, often over-active. Just when I need to focus, it’s distracted. Just when I need to relax, it’s blitzing. I also usually let my mind wander wherever it pleases, passively allowing my mind to control my will. Meditating has limited my mental mayhem and been a huge source of relief, clarity, and peace. Revving my mind down is not always easy, but I’m learning that meditating is a helpful way to calm down. It is also a wonderful way to intentionally listen and be present to God. I’ve noticed through meditating that I’ve gained a bit more mental control over the mayhem too. In other words, I’ve been learning to develop mental intentionality, to develop my will and not succumb to being a passive victim to my thoughts. And don’t get the wrong impression: my progress has been slight—but it has also been significant.
Practicing simplicity has also had its benefits. That statement may sound odd (What does it even mean to ‘practice simplicity’?) What I mean is regularly and intentionally simplifying life. I mean making a commitment to live simply. I haven’t become a monk or joined an Amish community, either. I’ve just been trying to simplify ordinary things and routines. Like what I will invest work into and what I will do to rest. Like being intentional about what I devote time to and who I spend time with. As I’ve done this, I’ve been amazed as I’ve realized how much time and energy I used to unwittingly spend doing totally random things that didn’t help me work or rest or be with people I care about.
In my experience, it’s easy for my life to get really full and chaotic and overwhelming. Saying that may make people who know me laugh, since outwardly I appear pretty boring. But meditating and practicing simplicity are helping me stay inwardly balanced. These disciplines are helping me focus on what matters to me. I think it’s safe to say that we each need to make a habit of turning down the volume, slowing down the pace, and focusing our attention, given how noisy, busy, and excessive our culture can be. These disciplines act as counterbalances to the noise, busyness, and excess. And similar to Merton’s suggestion, they should not be viewed as luxuries. They are necessary for survival.