#26  Prayer is More an Attitude and Action than Words

PRAYER IS A MATTER that I have long been interested in and concerned about, as, I suppose, most Christians have been. Part of my concern has been practical and some has been theological. Those in other faith traditions perhaps have been more concerned about meditation or other similar religious practices.

Most who grew up in Christian homes and went to Sunday School and church (as the worship services were usually called) every week often heard about the importance of having a daily “quiet time,” a time to read the Bible and pray. And most probably grew up feeling a sense of guilt that they didn’t do that more regularly, or for longer periods.

Somehow, many got the impression that prayer was an obligation as well as an indication of their spiritual condition. Those who prayed most were considered the best Christians, and those who prayed little were thought to be poor Christians.

And then there are the intellectual problems: how does prayer “work”? The problems are particularly with regards to petitionary and intercessory prayer. Do our prayers change God? Can we really get what we want from God if we ask him enough and/or in the right way? Do the desired results of prayer come because of how much we pray or of how well we pray—or a combination of both?

More pointedly: why would God do things to help others if we prayed for them but would refuse to help them if we didn’t? Would God purposely not help others just because we did not pray for them or pray for them “adequately”?

There are many difficult questions concerning prayer, especially prayer that is considered primarily the voicing of petitions to God. Those who are Christians find help in seeking answers to such questions by looking at what Jesus said about prayer and how he prayed.

Jesus and Prayer

The Gospels record an important request made to Jesus by his disciples: “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). In response Jesus gave them a prayer, now popularly called the Lord’s Prayer, which can be uttered in less than a minute. And while Jesus spoke in the following verses in Luke about perseverance in prayer, it is noteworthy that in Matthew’s Gospel, just before giving the “Lord’s Prayer,” Jesus said to his disciples, “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (6:7-8).

It is also interesting to note that while several times Jesus addressed his disciples as “you of little faith,” there is no reference to him calling them “you of little prayer.” There is one case in which the disciples asked Jesus why they were unable to cast out an evil spirit from a boy, and Jesus replied, “This kind can come out only through prayer” (Mark 9:29). But here also Jesus was surely talking far more about the quality, or even the presence, rather than the quantity of prayer.

While Jesus instructed his disciples on how to pray (or how not to pray), it is also worth noting that he doesn’t ever seem to command them to pray—other than asking them to “stay awake and pray” in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night of his arrest.

Certainly we know that Jesus prayed, and sometimes prayed for a long time. “In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed” (Mark 1:35). And there are several other places indicating that Jesus prayed, alone and long. Before choosing his twelve disciples, Luke tells us that Jesus “spent the night in prayer to God” (6:12). But had the lengthy times of prayer been something that Jesus did every day, or even every week, they likely would have not been mentioned by the Gospel writers.

In thinking more about this subject, perhaps we will recognize that Jesus’ attitude toward prayer was something different that many of us grew up hearing. Maybe prayer is something more than uttering words in the attempt to get certain things for ourselves or for others.

Prayer and Breathing

During a trip back to Japan in 2010, a Japanese friend gave me a little book that she had been reading. It was a book on prayer written by Ichiro Okumura, a Catholic priest. I read more than half of that delightful book before discovering that there is an English translation.[1]

I was struck by the words at the beginning of Okumura’s third chapter: “prayer is the soul’s breathing.” He attributed those words to Augustine, and they may be, although I have been unable to locate the source. I had not remembered reading those words before, but I have said, or thought, something quite similar from time to time. That is part of the reason I aver that prayer is more an attitude and action than words.

While we generally do not think about breathing, our physical life depends on it. And while we may not always be conscious of praying, a healthy spiritual life is dependent upon being in an attitude of prayer continuously.

In recent years in this country, and from ancient times in Asia, considerable attention has been given by some people as to how they breathe. Entering “conscious breathing” into an Internet search engine yields a multitude of results. (Those two words, with the quotation marks, yielded more than 221,000 results on Google just now.) So many people, it seems, place great importance on how they breathe. But most of the time, most of us breathe, of necessity, without giving much thought to it at all.

Perhaps that is the way it is, or can be, or maybe even should be, with prayer. There are times, and probably there should be more times, that we pray consciously, deliberately, intentionally. But even more important is praying “without ceasing.”

Christians have often puzzled over the meaning of the words “pray without ceasing” in the New Testament (1 Thess. 5:17). Okumura deals with that phrase, and suggests many ways those words can be understood and also many ways people have tried to put that injunction into practice literally. But if prayer is like breathing, perhaps it is not so hard to understand—or to do.

We humans don’t find it hard to breathe without ceasing. Of course, we can hold our breath for a short time, but apart from those brief moments, to cease breathing is to cease living. In a similar way, failure to pray without ceasing is detrimental to our spiritual life.

It is quite apparent that we cannot articulate prayers ceaselessly. But what if prayer is more an attitude than spoken words? What if prayer is primarily a recognition that we are continually in the presence of God, always dependent on God, and that God’s Spirit is always around us and in us?

Mark E. Thibodeaux is a Jesuit priest who wrote Armchair Mystic: Easing Into Contemplative Prayer.[2] In that book, he explains the four stages of prayer: talking at God, talking to God, listening to God, and being with God. True prayer is primarily what is experienced in Thibodeaux’s fourth stage. And that is what I mean by attitude: prayer is the attitude or sense of being with God and of God being with us. Thus, whether working or playing, whether conversing or reading, whether eating or relaxing, all we do is with an attitude of awareness of God’s presence with us.

This understanding is related to a brief statement I heard about prayer decades ago when I was still in seminary. On one occasion a minister I admired greatly declared, “Prayer reminds us that we are God’s, not gods.”[3]

Prayer on the Run

Back in the 1960s I was encouraged by a book of prayers written by Malcolm Boyd, an Episcopal priest. In the introduction of his book published under the title Are You Running with Me, Jesus? Boyd explained how for him prayer “used to stand as something separate from other parts of life.” “But,” he goes on to say, “I have come to learn that real prayer is not so much talking to God as just sharing his presence.”[4]

Following his introductory remarks, Boyd’s first prayer is the one from which the title of the book is taken. It is a prayer at the beginning of the day, and it ends, “I’ll follow along, okay? But lead, Lord. Now I’ve got to run. Are you running with me, Jesus?”

Praying on the run is related to the idea that what we do is prayer, not just what we say—and that is the conviction that lies behind the naming of this chapter. Going back to Boyd’s introduction, he writes about a “freedom ride” in the Deep South in 1961. As most will quickly recollect, freedom rides were activities designed to call into question the prejudicial treatment of African-Americans at that time, and Boyd was one of many Christian clergy who were directly involved in that type of challenge to institutional racism.

Boyd tells how another Episcopalian priest said, “It seems to me this is really a kind of prayer—a kind of corporate confession of sin.” Then Boyd remarks, “. . . my fellow priest well expressed my feelings about being on that bus. It was a prayer.”[5]

A little over a year after retiring after teaching for thirty-six years in Japan, I began teaching one course a semester at Rockhurst University, which is a Jesuit school that celebrated its centennial in 2010. I was quite surprised to find myself teaching at a Catholic university, and when I began I knew very little about the Jesuits.

Gradually, I gained not only greater knowledge of but also greater appreciation for the Jesuits, founded by Ignatius of Loyola in 1534. One of the books about the Jesuits I read to learn more about them is The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything by James Martin, a Jesuit priest.[6] In his first chapter, Martin explains that “Ignatian spirituality is about being a contemplative in action.” In spite of the serious doubts others had about his new order, Ignatius was adamant in his vision: “his men were to be contemplatives in action, leading others to find God in all things.”

Heroic Leadership is another book I have recently read with great interest. It was written by Chris Lowney, a man who left the Jesuits in order to become a businessman and ended up working for J. P. Morgan for seventeen years.[7] Lowney tells how the Jesuits departed from classic religious traditions in several ways. One of those he describes as “praying on the run rather than in a controlled environment.” Unlike the Benedictines, Jesuit prayer “was individual, on-the-go, and self-regulating.”

Benedict of Nursia in the sixth century founded the Catholic order that bears his name, and through the centuries one of their basis mottos has been “pray and work.” Both prayer and work were considered important, but they were considered two different activities. Through the years, some monks, and others, have emphasized that prayer is work. But there are others, perhaps mostly in the Jesuit tradition or with an Ignatian spirituality, who insist that work is prayer. It is that sort of idea that Boyd must have had when he referred to his freedom ride being a prayer.

Thomas Carlyle may have been one of the first to suggest that work is prayer. In 1841 he wrote in his journal that “to work is to pray,” using the Latin words reversing the Benedictine motto ora et labora (pray and work).[8] Certainly not all work is prayer; nevertheless, being able to work in such a way that it becomes prayer is surely a worthy goal for all of us to seek:

The Soul’s Sincere Desire

James Montgomery was a British editor and poet who wrote the lyrics for some 400 hymns. The first two verses of one of those hymns goes like this:

Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire, / Unuttered or expressed;
The motion of a hidden fire / That trembles in the breast.
Prayer is the burden of a sigh, / The falling of a tear,
The upward glancing of an eye, / When none but God is near.[9]

That hymn expresses part of what I mean by saying that prayer is an attitude more than it is words.

Certainly there is a time for prayer to be expressed; nothing I have written in this chapter should be taken to imply that verbalizing prayers is not good and important. But the point is that prayer is more than words, and even that words are not the most important part of praying. Thus, I like Montgomery’s emphasis on prayer being the “sincere desire” of a person’s inner being (soul).

When a person comes to have the desire for, or attitude of, wishing more than anything else to love and serve God, and to love and serve the people and the world that God has created, then we have prayer at its best. Or to borrow the (translated) words of Okumura, “To reach the point that all life becomes uninterrupted prayer is undoubtedly the apex of Christian prayer.”[10]

Through time constraints, responsibilities, surrounding circumstances and other exigencies, spending a lot of time verbalizing prayers may not be possible for many people. But to live life with a sense of God’s constant presence and with a constant attitude of trust in and love for God is something we should be able to achieve with a greater and greater degree. And to seek to serve God through all we do is also possible.

So, it is important for us to know well that prayer is more an attitude and action than words. Knowing that makes it possible to realize that we can, indeed, pray without ceasing.

[1] Augustine Ichiro Okumura, Awakening to Prayer (ICS Publications, 1994). Okumara was born into a Buddhist family in 1923 and became a Catholic Christian in 1948, the year after graduating from the University of Tokyo, the most prestigious university in Japan. (His “Christian name” is not used in the Japanese edition of his book.)

[2] (St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2001). The second chapter is about “the four stages of prayer.”

[3] The esteemed minister was Rev. John Claypool, who at the time was pastor of the Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky.

[4] (Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965). A fortieth anniversary edition of Boyd’s book was published by Cowley Publications in 2006.

[5] Pp. 3-4. A later section of the book is called “Prayers for Racial Freedom” (pp. 39-52), so clearly Boyd’s prayers are words as well as actions.

[6] (HarperOne, 2010). The following quotes are from pp. 7 and 15. Martin’s book was a New York Times bestseller.

[7] (Loyola Press, 2003). The subtitle is Best Practices from a 450-Year-Old Company that Changed the World. The following sentences are from pages 139-141.

[8] Carlyle (1795-1881) was a Scottish satirical writer who grew up in a strict Calvinist home but lost his Christian faith while in the university. He continued to hold many Christian values, though.

[9] Montgomery (1771-1854) wrote the lyrics for this hymn in 1818.

[10] Awakening to Prayer, p. 55. Okumura follows with the warning, in the next sentence, that “the difference between the ideal and illusion is often very subtle.”