In my Confirmation classes about prayer I used to teach the students about A.C.T.S. with which I expect a lot of you are familiar. It stands for Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication (Asking!). My favourite acronym was A.R.T.I.S.T. which stands for Adoration, Repentance, Thanksgiving, Intercession, Supplication and Trust.
If we’re honest most of us hurtle towards the S of Supplication – Asking. And Jesus doesn’t dismiss this aspect of prayer – however it is a contentious part of prayer because the answer from God can be a little confusing. Take Saint Paul, for instance, who asked the Lord three times to remove his ‘thorn in the flesh’ to which God replied ‘my grace is sufficient for you, my power is made perfect in weakness!’
Now that’s a great lesson for people in Leadership – if they would pay attention to it. What is more strange, however, is that in the light of today’s Old Testament reading it seems that Abraham had far more success than Paul, having persuaded the Lord to reconsider five times before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Perhaps the disciples were just as puzzled about how prayer works – which probably led to the question , ‘Lord teach us to pray …’ whoever the disciple was – thank you!
Jesus first teaches them a model prayer the Lord’s prayer followed by a parable, and concludes using the three verbs: ‘Ask, Search and Knock’ which conveniently make the acronym A.S.K. – ask! – I love acronyms. However, as chewed over this last week – a phrase from the 1st John (2:3-6) leapt from the pages of Evening Prayer: he who says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.
So today, I would like us to consider not what to pray – but ‘How to Pray!’ Walking the same way in which Jesus walked is what my Muslim friends refer to as the Sunnah – the words and actions of the prophet. One such Sunnah from Islam is the use of the toothbrush stick called a Miswak. It was used by the Prophet of Islam who said it cleanses the mouth and pleases the Lord. All of our Muslim prisoners were able to have a Miswak.
So, if as John tells us in his Epistle, we ought to walk in the same way in which Jesus walked, what might we learn from the Sunnah of Jesus? Well, from today’s Gospel we learn that he prayed ‘in a certain place’ and for a certain time for it was after ‘he had finished’ one of his disciples asked him how to pray. So – prayer is about where we pray and for how long.
Spend a moment calling to mind where you were when you felt the closeness of God; when you suddenly ‘saw the light’ or the ‘penny dropped’ or you ‘felt him close’ or the virtues of Love, Joy and Peace suddenly were in abundance. What was it like where this happened? I suggest there were probably in one, two or three places.
Was it a place of Silence? when the chattering mind miraculously stopped; and the automatic persistent internal question of ‘Where Am I?’ faded. A condition when one or more of our 5 senses were fully engaged and we thought we heard His Still, Small Voice or felt His touch, or tasted His sweetness, or smelled His perfume or saw the beauty of His Presence.
Maybe it was a place of Stillness? when our busy body suddenly felt grounded; and our automatic sense of ‘Who Am I?’ subsided and our lifeboat stilled, the storm calmed and we just watched the world go by without getting involved and felt that beneath us were the Everlasting Arms of Love.
Maybe it was a place of Solitude? when our automatic need to connect with others was met by being Alone with the Alone; when our anxious feeling of ‘How am I doing? Who am I with? dissipated and we became aware of our gaze being met with the unconditional positive regard of the eyes of Love.
So, Silence, Stillness and/or Solitude are key to our being aware of God’s presence. However, they can seem counter-intuitive. My personal challenge is Solitude because I am always trying to connect with people and things. It’s a bit like ‘Our Father, who art …. Oh look there’s a butterfly!’
As Richard Rohr explains about the presence of God ...
We cannot attain the presence of God.
We're already totally in the presence of God.
What's absent is awareness.
God is maintaining us in existence
with every breath we take.
As we take another it means that God is choosing us
now and now and now.
We have nothing to attain or even learn.
We do however need to unlearn some things.
Awareness of Presence gives us a clue to the best place for us to pray. We know the Sunnah of Jesus was to pray on his own in a quiet desert place – we know that such a place holds Silence; Stillness and Solitude – so which one is right for us?
At the Festival of Prayer at Cuddesdon which explored ‘Personality and Prayer’ Gemma Symmonds set the tone with her keynote address. She explained how in her young vocation her personality was not suitable to the Religious Life because she always ‘rocked the boat’ However, early in her journey she came across this sage advice by Thomas Merton:
We must learn to see that our temperament is a gift of God, a talent with which we must trade until He comes. It does not matter how poor or how difficult a temperament we may be endowed with. If we make good use of what we have, if we make it serve our good desires, we can do better than another who merely serves his temperament instead of making it serve him.
A wise Spiritual Director explains how she ministered to someone who thought he was ‘doing his prayer wrong’ that prayer was all about Action and that Contemplation was difficult. He was someone who struggled with ‘Stillness’ and she explains:
A man in this space expressed such a concern to me. I asked him what he did during the time he set aside for prayer. He answered that, after he dressed in the morning and went down to the kitchen for a cup of coffee, he would bring it back to his room and sit in his comfortable chair for about an hour. His concern was that, while sitting there, he did nothing. I asked him what it was like after that hour was over. He described himself as awake and alive and ready to begin the day, to take on whatever it would offer. I encouraged him to trust that kind of energy. The outcome come of his time spent each morning was to be present in the moment, something I consider to he the essence of any kind of praying.
The clue to praying in a way that nurtures our awareness of Presence – is to do with the ‘energy’ or awakeness and aliveness we feel afterwards.
At the end of his teaching on Prayer, Jesus says:
how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him
A great contemplative saint and theologian, Irenaeus, once said:
The Glory of God is a Human Being fully alive
Prayer is about Place and Time – experiment with Silence, Solitude and Stillness and find which one nurtures your awareness of God. Why not make some time each day – to imitate Him and ‘walk in the same way in which he walked’ Maybe start with 5 minutes one week, then maybe 10 the next and so on until we aim for 20 minutes or more each day. I promise you – if you persist, the Holy Spirit will surge up in your life and maybe for just a moment you may feel fully alive with the life of Jesus will give you encouragement.
Let me end with a poem about being encouraged in prayer by Ann Lewin called Disclosure:
Prayer is like watching for the
Kingfisher. All you can do is
Be where he is likely to appear, and
Often, nothing much happens;
There is space, silence and
No visible sign, only the
Knowledge that he’s been there,
And may come again.
Seeing or not seeing cease to matter,
You have been prepared.
But sometimes, when you’ve almost
Stopped expecting it,
A flash of brightness