By Harris Franklin Rall
"WHY do men pray?" William James was once asked. "Because they cannot help it," was his answer. The impulse to prayer has two sides, a "push" and a "pull." On the human side there is a "push," the drive of our needs and desires. At its lowest that may be a selfish wish, at its highest it is that dissatisfaction with what is, that aspiration toward life at its richest and fullest, which is the noblest side of man. But there is also a "pull" in prayer, a movement from above. The tides of the Spirit beat upon these shores of humanity. Prayer is not simply a search but a response. If there had been no kindling light, there would be no searching eye. If there were no Spirit of the Eternal, quickening the human soul, there would be none of that feeling of need, that sense of something Higher, out of which prayer comes. Not many men pray intelligently and effectively, but there are few if any who have not in some manner or at some time lifted their hearts in prayer.
I. WHAT IS PRAYER?
Religion is life in fellowship with the Eternal; prayer is fellowship with God coming to conscious expression. To pray is to turn our thought to God. We sometimes define prayer rather loosely. Prayer is supreme desire, we are told. "To labor is to pray," runs an ancient word. Both are true but only part of the truth. Labor may be prayer, but only as it is linked in thought and purpose to God. True prayer is supreme desire, but supreme desire may be wholly selfish and earthly, with no relation to God and no meaning as prayer.
Fellowship with God has many forms; it should be as broad as life. In prayer we enter consciously into the presence of God. Even so, prayer means many different things. Brother Lawrence was a simple lay brother who served in a monastery in France long years ago. In a little pamphlet, The Practice of the Presence of God, he tells his experience with prayer. He found the regular hours and forms of prayer difficult and not helpful, so he learned how to make his humble tasks in the kitchen the occasion for conscious fellowship with God. Prayer may take that form. To pause a moment on a summer morning, to rejoice in its light and life, in "the solemn hush of nature newly born" and then to lift the soul in thanksgiving or worship—that is prayer. To wait a moment for help as we turn to some difficult task or trying experience, in the midst of busy toil to offer up our work to God —that is prayer. To hush the soul in reverent awe as we look up into the stars, to lift it in joy as we see the glory of sunset color, to breathe a word of gratitude as we turn from our daily work to the love and peace of our homes—that is prayer.
1. Prayer has two sides, a double movement which corresponds to the "push" and "pull" of prayer. It means first bringing our life to God. To pray is to take our whole life, its joys and needs, its desires and failures, into the presence of the Infinite. Thanksgiving, confession, penitence, and petition all belong here. Yet even on this side, the center of prayer is not our life but God. The important matter is not this bringing of our life and its concerns to God; it is what happens to us when we bring them. We bring the good things of life in gratitude, and life becomes richer and more joyous when we see them as his gift. We bring our sins and failures, seeing our true self in the light of God, yet trusting in his infinite mercy; we leave with divided souls united, with hearts healed by forgiveness, with courage for a new start. We bring our bitterness and resentment, our jealousies and hurts—all those feelings and attitudes which give rise to maladjustment and unhappiness; we go, our spirits changed by his Spirit into the peace and good will of Christ.
2. Prayer is bringing God to our life. The greatest misunderstandings and failures in prayer have their source in our making ourselves and our desires the center of prayer' As Elizabeth Herman puts it in her Creative Prayer: "Is the central element in our communion with God an act of self-surrender, or is it a demand of self-love? Is the symbol of our prayer the open hand or the open heart? Are we using God as a means of self-realization, or are we offering ourselves as a means of glorifying him?" It is a curious paradox: prayer is the greatest means of self-realization, but we fail in this if prayer keeps self as the center. It is significant that the first half of the Lord's Prayer is all centered in God: "Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done." Only after this do man and his needs come in.
The need of this side of prayer is obvious. The world of things crowds upon us every moment of the day. "The primary object of worship," wrote the late Charles A. Bennett of Yale, "seems to me to be the recovery in the midst of secular routine of this sense of the nearness of the mysterious power and the getting into right relation with it. God is always there: in the press of daily living he is lost to view: worship is the deliberate lifting up of the heart to him again. Religion is a perpetual rediscovery of God."
Clearly, prayer so conceived is no easy matter of words idly spoken. As Paul Sabatier writes in his Saint Francis of Assisi: "To pray is to talk with God, to lift ourselves up to him, to converse with him, that he may come down to us. It is an act of meditation, of reflection, which presupposes the effort of all that is most personal in us. With Saint Francis, as with Jesus, prayer has this character of effort which makes of it the greatest moral act. For him, as for his Master, the end of prayer is communion with the heavenly Father, the accord of the divine with the human; or rather, it is man who puts forth his strength to do the work of God, not saying to him a mere passive, resigned, powerless, 'Thy will be done/ but courageously raising his head: 'Behold me, Lord, I delight to do thy will.'"
II. THE LAWS OP PRAYER
There are certain principles, or laws, underlying prayer which must be considered if prayer is to be effective. There is no magic in prayer; there is order in the world of spirit as truly as in the world of nature. If a battery is dead, you cannot expect power; if a connection is broken you will not get light. Even so you will not become a saint over night just because you prayed, "Lord, make me good." Prayer does not cut across the order of God, it fits into it. Our understanding of this order and our adjustment to its forces make possible that life-giving relation with God which is the concern of prayer. Here are five laws that we may consider.
1. The law of attention has two sides. (1) We must attend if we would know. The physical world exercises its power on us whether we will or no; the light that beats down, the sounds that assail our ears, the air that we breathe—these come to us whether we consider them or not. It is not so with the world of spiritual forces and values. These can reach us only as we attend to them. Beauty and love and truth are ours only as we turn thought and desire toward them. Only so can God enter into human life. "Behold, I stand at the door and knock." Our interest, our thought, our quickened imagination are doors for God's entrance. (2) We become like that to which we attend; and as we turn our thought persistently to the world of the Spirit we are transformed by it. No mere act of the will is enough. "When the will and imagination are at war," writes Baudouin, in his Suggestion and Autosuggestion, "the imagination invariably gains the day." The frontal attack on evil is not enough; the flank movement is needed. Direct your thought systematically to what is good, and you will conquer. Prayer is attention. "We all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are transformed into the same image" (2 Corinthians 3. 18).
2. The law of desire. Prayer is supreme desire consciously and constantly voiced. "Prayer represents the daily expression to oneself of the right thing to do," said Cecil Rhodes. And the law of desire is that we gradually become what we most deeply long for. What a man most wants is really his prayer, no matter what his lips may frame. In Emerson's words,
What we need, if the highest is to be realized, is to look each day at the goals for which we strive, to examine them in the light of the Eternal, and to affirm and reaffirm our supreme desire.
3. The law of trust and devotion is this, that courage and strength and peace come only to him who has found that to which he can give himself in confidence and surrender. "In returning and rest shall ye be saved," wrote the prophet, "in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength." As George Mac-Donald put it in Robert Falconer: "This is a healthy, a practical, a working faith. First, that a man's business is to do the will of God. Second, that God takes upon himself the care of that man. Third, and therefore, that a man ought never to be afraid of anything." The prayer which affirms this trust and devotion is the highest preparation for fruitful action.
4. The law of persistence. There is truth in the homely saying: "It's dogged as does it." There is an easily misunderstood parable of Jesus which tells of the unjust judge who granted the poor widow's plea not because she was right or he was good, but because she would not give up. God is not an unconcerned or unjust Ruler who can be driven to action by our persistence; it is for our own sake that the persistence is needed. In prayer it is no casual, idle request that brings results; it is an unswerving desire kept constantly to the fore. Patiently and persistently we must hold certain things before us. Again and again we must voice our trust in God and affirm the goals that we seek. There are goals of life that some of us can never reach, despite all seeking: a fortune of a million, the genius of a Shakespeare or an Einstein. But the greatest goods are open to us all—peace of soul, strength for the day's task, power to rule ourselves, love for men, faith in God. Only, we must pay the cost, and persistence is a part of that price.
III. THE PRACTICE OF PRAYER
In one sense prayer is as simple as breathing or eating. What is more natural than for the child to speak to its Father? Yet prayer is an art too, perhaps the greatest art that can engage man. It is one that demands all that we can offer of thought and will, of imagination and devotion; and a lifetime is not too long to learn how to pray. Perhaps the highest art of prayer is when man learns to "pray without ceasing," so to live with God that one may turn to him at any moment of the day, to "practice the presence of God." But for most men, if not all, there is need of some regular period specially given to devotion, and of guidance in the use of that time. Here are some suggestions gathered from those who have practiced this art and reflected upon it. They can be put in five words.
1. Relaxation. In prayer we enter into the presence of God; let us then leave behind all anxieties and cares. Relax physically and mentally. To have a quiet place and a definite, unhurried period of time will greatly help. One might join that group of French mystics whose simple rule was, "A quarter hour for God." The aim is quietness of mind, not emptiness; not inertness or passivity, but a turning away from other concerns that we may be open to the tides of the spirit.
2. Meditation. It is easy to hurry too quickly to the act of prayer. When we bring little, we take little; "to him that hath shall be given." Our prayers are often meaningless because our minds are empty. We need quickening of mind, kindling of spirit, stirring of imagination, widening of horizon. Meditation is not daydreaming. If you have fifteen minutes for devotion, spend at least ten in reading and reflection. You cannot meditate on nothing. Find the best that the great spirits can offer you. Use the Bible, hymns, prayers, poetry, biography—but do not merely read; let their thoughts stir you and start your spirit on its way. You will not go far till you will find yourself praying.
3. Realization. A single word can hardly express this. Some speak of it as recollection. It is akin to the practice of the presence of God. Dwell with the thought of the God who is "closer . . . than breathing, and nearer than hands and feet." Call before your mind his goodness in which you can utterly trust, his power which holds all things. Prayer is more than your search for him; his search for you comes first. There would be no praying if he had not first sought you and found you. The need which drives you to prayer is the mark of his presence. A writer, telling his experience in learning to pray, says that, until a time of stress came to him, though he had heard prayers and said prayers without number, he found he did not know how to pray. "I seemed to be talking into thin air. I was not aware of a listening God at all. The whole experience was nebulous and unreal. The first stage of progress was that of coming to feel that a higher Power was present, knew that I spoke, heard my words with sympathetic attention. It was a great deal, a very great deal, to attain as much as this." Inseparable from such realization will be adoration and worship, which is the very heart of prayer. "Religion is adoration," Baron Von Hugel used to say. "Prayer is the lifting up of the mind to God." To find the highest and bow before it is the supreme experience of religion, and worship is its purest expression.
4. Examination. We need to look at ourselves in prayer. "I have prayed in my day, like others," writes Robert Louis Stevenson in his Journal, "for wicked, foolish, or senseless alterations in the scheme of things. But these groping complaints are not prayer. It is in prayer that a man resumes his attitude toward God and the world; the thought of his heart comes out of him clean and simple; he takes, in Shakespeare's language, a new acquaintance of himself and makes of that a new point of departure in belief and conduct." We need to face honestly the facts of our life, to scrutinize our habits and our attitudes, to see what is there of impurity of thought, of sensitiveness and jealousy, of ill will or bitterness in relation to others; not that we may dwell on this morbidly, but that we may take forgiveness from God, find his purpose for us, and go forward to a new life.
5. Affirmation. Every prayer is an act of will in which we affirm once more that which we desire and devote ourselves anew to God. It is not enough that we once made the great decision, that once we determined to lead the Christian life and follow what was true and good. In the world of busy cares and selfish strife our ideals grow vague in outline and weak in power. We need each day to see anew the meaning of life, and what it is that we really want to be and do. And we need to make that specific; quiet of mind, deep trust instead of anxious care, patience and kindliness where we have been irritable, a deeper sense of God, more concern for our fellow men—we must set before ourselves definite ends like these for each day. Here too repetition may come in. A man won his victory over an unruly temper by training himself to repeat habitually: "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness, self-control."
These five steps of prayer are like
They are not meant to be mechanically followed? no one can prescribe an order of prayer like that They do represent tried ways by which to approach God. But it will take time and thought and patient practice to make them yield their full fruit, and each must learn to use them in his own way.
IV. WHAT SHALL WE ASK FOR?
I have left for the last the matter which so often is put first. Prayer is fellowship with God, not just asking things from God; and yet petition has a place in prayer. What, then, shall I ask for: my child's recovery, rain in time of drought, success in business? And what may I expect? The Christian position can be set forth in a few words. 1. Bring everything to God—health, business, loved ones, everything. There is nothing which concerns his children in which a father is not interested. 2. Leave everything with God. That is what faith in God means, that we can trust him absolutely in all things. There is nothing which we should so much desire as his will, no good that we should so much crave as God himself. Prayer is not insistence upon our own will but devotion to his; it is not confidence in our petition but in his goodness and wisdom. 3. Expect great things from God—not everything that we wish, certainly not everything that we ask for, but what we need most and what God can do for us under the given conditions. God is the God of order, an order which has its being in his own nature of truth and wisdom; he cannot turn this world from cosmos to chaos to suit our individual wish, and for our sake and the world's sake he will not. That is not what Jesus meant by his "Ask, and it shall be given unto you." What he meant was that God had vastly more to give us than we think or dare to ask. Pray, and expect great things from God.
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION
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