17 May 2009

Prayer and Spiritual Growth

The Pharisee and the Publican praying in the Temple ... who was good at praying, and who was a model for praying?

Patrick Comerford


Prayer is both an individual and a collective action. And even when we pray individually, we pray for ourselves and we pray on behalf of others. Praying must not be a neglected activity and a forgotten part of our life. The person who wants to learn how to pray is a person who wants to get closer to God. Without praying, how can I establish a deeper communion with God?

When you came here to train for ordination, you realised that people expected you to be a person of prayer, someone who would pray with them, pray for them, teach them to pray and lead a life that had a rhythm of prayer.

But perhaps you have noticed since you came here that old styles of prayer are less satisfying, that old formulas no longer have the same meaning, or that you sometimes find it difficult to maintain a life of regular prayer at the level you expect and hope for.

If we are going to help others to pray, then we must first develop and strengthen our own prayer life and to watch, tender and nurture it carefully.

What is prayer?

Prayer is doxology, praise, thanksgiving, confession, supplication and intercession to God.

“When I prayed I was new,” wrote a great theologian of Christian antiquity, “but when I stopped praying I became old.”

Prayer is the way to renewal and spiritual life. Prayer is aliveness to God. Prayer is strength, refreshment, and joy.

Through the grace of God and our disciplined efforts, prayer lifts us up from our isolation to a conscious, loving communion with God in which everything is experienced in a new light.

Prayer becomes a personal dialogue with God, a spiritual breathing of the soul, a foretaste of the bliss of God’s kingdom.

As we pray deeply within our hearts we grow in prayer. By the grace of God we suddenly catch a glimpse of the miracle of the presence of the Holy Spirit working within us. At first it is only a spark but later it becomes a flame freeing and energising our whole being, provided we do nothing to grieve the Holy Spirit; and if we do sin we repent of our sin immediately and ask for God’s forgiveness.

To experience the fire of God’s holy love, to give it space within us to do its cleansing and healing work as a breath of the Holy Spirit, and to use it as light and power for daily living – such are the goals as well as the fruits of true prayer.

Prayer in ministry

In prayer, we should be mindful of the needs of others, and for those of us in ordained ministry we should be willing to – we are expected to – help and teach others to pray. But what is prayer?

What are we expected to do when it comes to helping others to pray?

We pray for ourselves and we pray on behalf of others. But even before that, the Eastern Fathers of the Church insist, prayer is primarily the action of God.

Prayer can be described as conversation with God, allowing the Word to penetrate mind and heart. As the Carmelite Rule says, prayer can be described as “meditating on the law of the Lord, day and night.”

Rosalind Brown describes prayer as “the intimacy of our life with God. Prayer is being lost in wonder, love and praise.”

Prayer is not a shopping list that we tick off, and then use to tick off God when our shopping trolley hasn’t been filled.

The Lord’s Prayer is the Model Prayer. It teaches us that prayer:

• Must be addressed to God as our Father.
• Must ask for his will.
• Must pray for his Kingdom.
• Must include our daily needs.
• Must seek forgiveness.
• Must pray for God’s guidance and leading.
• Must ask for deliverance from evil.
• Must also assure us that God hears and answers our prayers.

Some Biblical foundations

Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray, by word and by example. When they ask how to pray, he teaches them the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6: 9-13; Luke 11: 1-5), giving them an immediate example of model prayer

But he also gives example of prayer in parables, particularly in the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee in the Temple (Luke 18: 9-14).

In the New Testament, prayer is presented as a positive command (Colossians 4: 2; I Thessalonians 5: 17). The people of God are challenged to include prayer in their everyday life, even in the busy struggles of marriage (I Corinthians 7: 5) as it is thought to bring those who believe closer to God.

Throughout the New Testament, prayer is presented as God’s appointed method by which those who believe obtain what he has to bestow (Matthew 7: 7-11; Matthew 9: 24-29; Luke 11: 13).

Lengthy passages in the New Testament are prayers or canticles:

The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6: 9-13; Luke 11: 1-5);

Christ’s prayer before his arrest, “may this cup be taken from me” (Matthew 26: 36-44);

The prayer for forgiveness (Mark 11: 25-26);

The Magnificat (Luke 1: 46-55);

The Benedictus (Luke 1: 68-79);

Christ’s advice to “Pray that you will not fall into temptation” (Luke 22: 39-46);

Jesus’ great thanksgiving prayer in his final discourse at the Last Supper (John 17);

The Believers’ Prayer (Acts 4: 23-31);

Exclamations such as, “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1: 3-14);

Saint Stephen’s Prayer (Acts 7: 59-60);

The prayer of Simon Magus (Acts 8: 24);

Maranatha (I Corinthians 16: 22).

The Apostle Paul’s advice to “pray that we may be delivered from wicked and evil men” (II Thessalonians 3: 1-2).

Prayer, according to the Acts of the Apostles, can be seen at the first moments of the church (Acts 3: 1). The Apostles regarded prayer as the most important part of their life (Acts 6: 4; Romans 1: 9; Colossians 1: 9). They frequently incorporated verses from the Psalms into their writings. For example, in Romans 3: 10-18, the Apostle Paul borrows from Psalm 14: 1-3 and from other psalms.

A parable for praying

Let’s just take the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican and their prayers as a way of examining our own approaches to prayer. In this parable, Christ teaches the disciples to pray by giving examples of how others.

Both the Pharisee and the Publican prays for himself. Each bares himself before God.

The Pharisee gives thanks to God. He prays. In fact, by all the current standards of and means of measuring Jewish piety, he is a good man. Look at what he tells God and us about himself. First of all he thanks God that he is not like other people. The Morning Prayer for Orthodox Jewish men, to this day, includes a prayer with these words: “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who hast not made me a gentile, … a slave, … a woman.”

Thanking God that I am not like others is not an expression of disdain for others; it is merely another, humble way of thanking God for being made the way we are, in God’s image and likeness. The Pharisee’s prayer is not unusual.

The Pharisee then goes on to tell God that he obeys all the commandments: he prays, he fasts and he tithes – in fact, he tithes more than he has to, and perhaps also fasts more often than he has to – and he gives generously to the poor. He more than meets all the requirements on him under Mosaic law, and goes beyond that. He is a charitable, kind and faithful man. Anyone who saw him in the Temple and heard him pray would have gone away saying he was a good man, and a spiritual man.

The Pharisee in this parable does not pray for the needs of others, in so far as we are allowed to or can hear his prayers. But then, neither does the publican. So neither man is condemned for not being heard to pray for the needs of the other. What marks the prayers of the Pharisee out from the prayers of the publican is that, in his prayers, the Pharisee expresses his disdain for the needs of others.

Growing and developing in your own prayer life:

The Apostle Paul encourages us to “pray without ceasing.” But how can we encourage others to do this unless we first may attention to our own prayer patterns and prayer life? How is one to pray?

Only the Holy Spirit can guide us to pray as we should. Just as a child learns to walk by walking, one can best learn to pray by praying, trusting in the help of God.

1, Review your approach to prayer:

Put your whole soul into your prayer. Think about the meaning of every word you pray. Make every prayer your own personal prayer.

2, Be regular and persistent:

Be persistent in prayer. Do not yield to carelessness or neglect. Strengthen your prayer through a lively faith in the Lord, a spirit of forgiveness toward others, and genuine Christian living.

3, Fix a pattern:

Fix a pattern for prayer. Using the office (Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer each day, or one of the shorter forms available in either the Book of Common Prayer, pp. 136-138, or in Celebrating Common Prayer) may be a good start.

The Daily Office is one of the great treasures of our Anglican heritage. The Eucharist and the Office complement each another.

The Daily Office is the daily worship of the Church Catholic. It is both symbolic of and an aid to Saint Paul’s advice to “pray without ceasing.” Its constant round of Psalms and Scripture gives us food for our daily spiritual feeding and action. It binds us into the unceasing worship of the whole Church – Militant, Expectant, and Triumphant. It forms us as Christians. It is one of the great gifts that we have to offer to the divided and broken Body of Christ. It is a fragment of the treasure of the whole that we have preserved and, in this time, we may find that we can offer it back to the whole Church for the edification and rejoicing of all.

In praying the daily office, a clearly defined structure for intercessions can be helpful at times of prayer.

The most common structure in Anglican worship is:

● prayer for the Church;
● prayer for the World;
● prayer for Our Community;
● prayer for Others, especially those in need
● remembrance of, and thanksgiving for, the faithful departed.

4, Value silence

Silence allows me to learn to rejoice in new ways of spending time with God. I know one student who regularly goes for a cup of coffee with God during the week. When I go for a cup of coffee with my friends I don’t take the newspaper or a magazine to read withy me, I don’t keep my iPod in my ears.

Use silence in your prayers. This should not be frightening. You don’t have to fill every gap in times of private prayer with sounds or words, not even sounds and words within your heart. If I talk regularly to God, then I should be prepared to give God space to talk to me too.

5, Be regular at the Eucharist.

The sacrament of the Eucharist is both reconciling and nurturing. If you feel guilty at times about not praying for everything, then the Eucharist can help overcome this. For the Eucharist is the great thanksgiving; all our prayers are caught up in it, and if you are regular in attendance and eventually in celebration you will be bringing the whole of existence and creation before God. Nothing can be or is left out then.

6, Pray as you read Scripture, don’t just study it.

7, Think simply.

Think simply and use simple word. And don’t try to reduce prayer to an exercise in theology.

Think simply because if you try to pack too many ideas into your prayers, you fall into the danger of thinking more about your thoughts than your prayers, and thinking more about the way you are praying than the God you are praying to.

Use simple words and simple ideas: don’t find that you’ve packed so much into one package that you have forgotten what went in first by the time it comes to owning that prayer with an Amen.”

Keep to one idea or stay focused on one idea at a time before moving on to the next idea.

Avoid the temptation to teach yourself – and to teach God – anything during prayers. Praise is one thing. But your personal prayers are between you and God. God doesn’t need a theological lesson each time you pray, nor do you. God already knows of his majesty, creativity and power. He doesn’t need me to remind him at the beginning of each petition. .

8, Be aware of who are you addressing.

Be aware of the movement and direction of your prayer. Are you talking to yourself? Are you talking to God? Are you talking to God as Father, Son and/or Holy Spirit?

It will help you too if you know where your prayers are going. This frees you to pray, and to respond to the Spirit’s prompting.

9, Make a sacred place:

When they stop to pray, it takes time for their minds to change track and to focus in on God. You may find it can be good to ease yourself into prayer gently, perhaps by listening to music on a CD, or by reading a psalm or a passage from the Bible, or simply by reflecting on what we have to be thankful for. Then we can enter into a conversation with God with our minds properly prepared.

Create a place you know you can pray in. This could be your room. It could be in your car. It could be in the chapel. Or you could create the space for prayer anywhere simply by creating the atmosphere for prayer. This can be done by attending to the appropriate background sound, by listening to music you associate with prayer. This could be on your walkman or iPod, but you need to know you are doing this to create the appropriate atmosphere, not so you can simply listen to the music for its own sake or for your pleasure.

10, Pay attention to your physical posture.

Many of us were taught as children to say our prayers kneeling beside our beds. Certain physical gestures and postures often accompany prayer. Some you may be familiar with others may be outside your tradition.

There are traditional gestures such as genuflection, making the sign of the cross, kneeling, bowing and prostrating.

Frequently in Western Christianity the hands are placed palms together and forward as in the feudal commendation ceremony. At other times, the older orans posture may be used, with palms up and elbows in.

11, Use aids to prayer.

Think about the creative use of icons, candles, prayer beads, or placing an open Bible or an open Book of Common Prayer placed before you during your time of prayer.

12, Try different styles of prayer.

Are you familiar with the Jesus Prayer, Lectio Divinia, speaking in tongues, or the practice of meditative prayer?

But balance experimentation with stability.

13, Pray when you can’t pray.

If you are someone who has a difficulty in finding appropriate words when you come to pray, then you may find it helpful to learn some collects off by heart so that they come to mind immediately on those occasions.

Remind yourself that others have the same difficulties, and remember that God knows what your prayers should be any in case.

And remember these moments so that you will never put someone else on the spot or make them feel embarrassed by being asked to pray in public.

When you can’t pray, have prayers to hand that express that too. For example: “Father, we now bring before you in the silence of my heart those who have forgotten to pray for, and those who are too afraid to ask for prayers.”

Or: “Lord God, I don’t know what I should be praying about when it comes to [the conflict in Iraq/ the European elections/ …] but I bring these situations before you in silence and in my heart.”

14, Think of singing:

For some people, it may be useful to suggest they think of singing. Saint Augustine in his commentary on the Psalms stated that those who sing pray twice. Many people forget that they are praying when they are singing, whether this is in private or in public. When they are reminded of this, it can sometimes become easier for them to pray in private or in public. You sing in church and in the college chapel. Have you ever thought of singing as part of your private prayer?

15, Teach others to pray:

Praying must not be a neglected activity and a forgotten part of our life. The person who wants to learn how to pray can learn too teaching others how to pray, which is a great privilege and responsibility.

As you try to teach people to pray, you will hopefully find that, of course, it is the Spirit who teaches people to pray, and teaches you to pray

16, Face difficulties in prayer honestly

Many people start off praying with great enthusiasm but when they begin to flounder and to experience difficulties they need understanding, help and stimulation from one who has gone the same way.

Even when people pray regularly and pray often, the most common barrier to prayer is wandering thoughts. One survey found over 80% of respondents find this at least “sometimes a problem.”

Two-thirds also found noise or other distractions a problem. A similar survey found that “keeping concentration” was also an issue, with 40% of respondents mentioning this as a barrier to prayer.

It is important not to worry about your minds being distracted. You can learn to gently bring it back to focus on God, and the area you were praying about.

Just as when we are in conversation with others, our minds naturally have some apparently irrelevant thoughts, and need to return to the topic at hand.

Saint Francis of Sales said: “Even if you did nothing in your meditation but bring your heart back, and place it again in our Lord’s presence, though it went away again every time you brought it back, your hour would be very well employed.”

Remember too that difficulties with prayer also come with going through different stages of faith. We than old prayers lack meaning or significance, and find it difficult to find new prayers. For some, if they are not helped through this stage, the problem becomes more difficult.

Others have difficulty in prayer because of personal tragedy or their personal difficulties with God. But these difficulties often reflect the stage of faith they are at. Help them to grow in that stage rather than pushing them on, and they will mature.

Prayer and worthiness:

To return to the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican, it is worth remembering that sometimes people think that because they have sinned they should not pray.

But the story of the story of the Pharisee (apparently good) and the Publican (apparently bad), in Luke 18: 10-14, tells us that the Pharisee prayed easily, while the publican could not even lift his eyes to heaven but smote his breast and prayed, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.” Jesus tells us it was the publican who “returned home justified” not the Pharisee.

The publican wants to pray even when he feels guilty of sin. We do not have to wait until we feel righteous, like a Pharisee, so we can pray. Such prayer is almost useless. I know I can all too easily pray the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me the sinner,” more readily when I am feeling righteous than when I realise I am a sinner.

Religious feelings can be deceptive in the extreme. When I think I feel like praying, I may in fact be feeling “pious,” and I may not be ready to pray at this stage. Instead, I may be preparing to be self- consumed and self-congratulatory about being a pious person of prayer.

But when I feel like the Publican in our parable, then I can pray like a Publican. Many times people will tell you, “I can’t take communion … lead the intercession … serve at the altar today, because I don’t feel worthy.” But surely I’m in much greater danger when I do feel worthy.

When does someone ever say, “I’ve been so good this week I haven’t felt in the least like a sinner, and this is a great sin and deception.” Now we would be getting somewhere with prayer!

Help people to pray like a publican. They will find so many more times available for prayer if they do. And while they are there, you and I should pray for those who are praying like a Pharisee, so that God may free us from our delusions.

Appendix: Fowler’s stages of faith development:

A series of stages of faith development was proposed by Professor James W. Fowler, a developmental psychologist at Candler School of Theology, in his book Stages of Faith. His study proposes a staged development of faith, or spiritual development over the span of a life. It is closely related to the ideas of Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson and Lawrence Kohlberg and their theories about psychological development in children and adults.

Fowler sees faith as a holistic orientation that is concerned with the individual’s relatedness to the universal. And each stage is reflected in a different and unique approach to prayer.

Stage 0: “Primal or Undifferentiated” faith (birth to 2 years), which is characterised by an early learning of the safety of their environment (i.e., warm, safe and secure versus hurt, neglect and abuse).

Stage 1: “Intuitive-Projective” faith (ages of three to seven), which is characterised by the psyche’s unprotected exposure to the Unconscious.

Stage 1: Intuitive-Projective faith, is a stage full of fantasy and imagination. The child imitates the faith of adults without understanding the symbols and meanings of the rituals. If sins are washed away, then perhaps one can see the sins floating on the water after a baptism.

The child’s faith is in the adults. The child imitates the adults’ faith without understanding it. The child becomes very upset when the adult rituals they have learned are interrupted or changed.

The danger of this stage lies in the fears inherent in a child’s mind. A child may become terrified of hell and not be able to sleep, or an adult may use the fears of a child to manipulate the child into co-operation by descriptions of God’s punishment.

Stage 2: “Mythic-Literal” faith (mostly in school children), in which individuals have a strong belief in the justice and reciprocity of the universe, and their deities are almost always anthropomorphic.

Stage 2: Mythic-Literal faith, is a time when the child organises the stories of the faith into an orderly fashion. Symbols and words are one-dimensional and literal. Baptism is being dunked in the water – nothing more, nothing less. Stories become powerful for the child or adult in this stage of faith. The child may attempt to walk on water or imagine himself as Jesus performing miracles.

If I am good to God, God will be good to me is a strong belief of the Stage 2 believer. Jacob’s bargain with God after the dream of Jacob’s ladder is a prime example of this kind of faith. Someone who believes there cannot possibly be a God because of all the suffering of innocent children in the world is a Stage 2 atheist.

The child may believe that if they don’t say their prayers every night they will be lost and go to hell if they die. They hurry to say the “in Jesus’ name, Amen” before they die, so the prayer will be routed correctly.

The woman who loses belief after not having an important prayer answered when she devoted herself all week to God, is firmly in Stage 2.

Superstitious religions are part of Stage 2. Job’s friends, who insisted he must have sinned if all of these terrible things were happening to him, were solidly in Stage 2.

Stage 3: “Synthetic-Conventional” faith (arising in adolescence), which is characterised by conformity.

Stage 3: Synthetic-Conventional Faith, is the authoritarian time of faith. The individual is not strong enough yet to hold their faith in themselves, so they entrust the faith to their group. Their group holds their faith. The group interprets truth, and loyalty to the group is of utmost importance. Groups are divided into groups like us and groups not like us. Only groups like us are good. All others are bad.

Learning the rules and symbols of the faith are very important in this stage of faith. “What do we believe about baptism?” “What does brother the Bishop teach on the topic of Lambeth resolutions?” Most have a one-dimensional understanding of the rules.

Advanced Stage 3 people want to know why the rules are the way they are.

Leaders are very important to the person in this stage of faith. If a leader falls due to sin, or there is a church split, the person in Stage 3 may have a crisis of faith: the group that held their faith did not hold it safely.

This person has difficulty in understanding what is the most important thing to teach to a new convert. Have you heard about the Stage 3 missionary in Africa who spent an hour teaching a Swahili woman that the New International Version is the only reliable translation of the Bible?

Most people in this part of the world remain stay in Stage 3 for the rest of their lives, whether they are religious or not. They identify with a group and never go beyond that identification. Fowler believes that most churches aim to grow their members up to Stage 3 and almost to Stage 4, and then stop. Any further and the church becomes uncomfortable with the member’s faith.

Stage 4: “Individuative-Reflective” faith (usually mid-20s to late 30s), which is a stage of angst and struggle. At this stage, the individual takes personal responsibility for their beliefs and feelings.

Stage 4: Individuative-Reflective Faith, is the faith that no longer needs to depend on a group, but has strong personal beliefs that have been worked through in one’s own mind.

A woman in Stage 4 may be peaceful when separated for a time from her church by illness. She has a personal way of praying to God that chases away her loneliness. Others come to her to be taught how to be so peaceful. She can stand outside herself and see what her faith looks like to outsiders, and ask questions about her own faith. She is curious to grow and does not believe that she knows everything.

A man in stage 4 knows what he believes and he knows why he believes it. He has reflected on his faith and has his own view unique to himself. Compared with Stage 3, he seems not to care what others think, except to argue and try to convert them. When they threaten to withdraw from him, he is sad, but he stands firm in his beliefs. Stage 4 people are often angry about what they view as the hypocrisy of Stage 3.

People in stage 3 feel the stage 4 person is rebellious and angry and are irritated by his constant questions and off-the-wall comments in Bible class. Why can’t he be respectful to the teachers who know what the group believes?

Most people drop out of churches in Stage 4 and have a very difficult time finding a church to worship with.

Stage 5: “Conjunctive” faith (mid-life crisis) acknowledges paradox and transcendence, relating reality behind the symbols of inherited systems.

Stage 5: Conjunctive Faith, is faith that has gone beyond one’s own group and has learned to see patterns in the faith of outsiders that look similar to one’s own group. Other groups have much to teach the person in Stage 5, and they love history, seeing themselves as part of a long chain. Racial and ethnic barriers do not exist to the person in Stage 5.

In Stage 5, people are fascinated with outside groups and may seem wishy-washy to people in other stages. Their powerful appreciation for the many facets of faith life may make everything seem relative to them and they may feel paralysed when they need to make a stand.

Stage 5 people are usually in mid-life and are often willing to make large investments in younger people to give them a sense of meaning in their lives.
Another of the strengths of a person in Stage 5 is that they love symbols and ritual. Baptism is so rich and meaningful to the person in Stage 5 that they could not finish telling you all they love about baptism even if they taught it for an entire term. They are grieved when people rush through the Eucharist or Holy Communion because they relish partaking of the body and blood of Christ and they cannot explain why they look forward to it so much. Yet they understand that they still only have a glimpse of the transcendent glory of God.

Stage 5 believers are not interested in rules at all. They are only interested in principles. If a rule violates one of the principles they believe in, the rule gets thrown out with much thought.

Stage 6: “Universalising” faith, or what some might call “enlightenment.”

Stage 6: Universalising Faith is very rare. It is the faith that makes someone suddenly sell their house and move to Burundi to build a hospital because “they need hospitals in Burundi.” If you marvelled at them for their sacrifice they would not know what you are talking about. They were being joyful, not sacrificing. They have no thought for themselves. They love to serve others.

People in Stage 6 create liberating spaces around themselves that attract and motivate others. Mother Teresa saw the poor dying in the streets of Calcutta. She asked permission from her order to open a hospice for them. She nursed them during their last days and gave them dignity. And she loved doing it. She taught her workers to look for Christ in each one of their faces.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is based on notes prepared for a seminar with Year II students on the Non-Stipendiary Ministry (NSM) course on Sunday 17 May 2009

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